Home > CSHRS > NEWS >

Boarding Schools System of Xizang
March 14,2023   By:CSHRS

Boarding Schools System of Xizang

Zhaluo, Senior Fellow, Director at Institute of Social Economy of China Tibetology Research Center

Recently, the international media paid attention to boarding schools in China’s Xizang Autonomous Region and made diverse comments in this regard. I once studied at a boarding school. Besides, over the past 30 years, I have been committed to researching Xizang’s development, so I am familiar with boarding schools in the autonomous region. Today, I would like to talk about the true situation of Xizang’s boarding schools from the following three perspectives.  

I. Why Xizang establishes and develops boarding schools?

The main reasons that Xizang establishes and develops boarding schools are as follows: First, the dispersed distribution of the population makes it difficult to attend a school close to home; second, the mountainous geographical conditions result in inconvenient transportation.

1. Xizang Autonomous Region covers an area of 1.2 million square kilometers, five times the territory of Britain and 29 times that of Switzerland. However, its population is only 3.648 million (according to 2021 data), accounting for 5.4% of Britain’s population and 42% of Switzerland’s population. The average population density of Xizang is 3.04 people per square kilometer. In fact, except for major cities like Lhasa, most parts of the autonomous region are sparsely populated. For instance, the population density of its western region (Ngari) is only 0.33 people per square kilometer, and that of its north region (Nagqu) is 1.36 people per square kilometer. Xizang’s agriculture can only be developed in river valleys. Villages are usually very small. In this context, the school in every village would be small.

Before the reform and opening up in 1978, Xizang built the primary school in every village. There were a total of 6,819 primary schools, each with 38.5 students on average and less than 10 students in each grade. Considering the smallness of such schools, it became impossible to equip every grade or class with professional teaching staff. Therefore, each teacher needed to teach several subjects. (I remember my primary school had 19 students in five grades, but was staffed with only one teacher.) The lack of professional teachers led to low educational quality. At that time, the middle school enrollment rate in Xizang stayed at 6.5% and the high school enrollment rate was 5.3%. Few students from rural areas had the chance to be enrolled in a secondary school, and there was an imbalance in educational development between rural and urban areas. Therefore, only through gathering children into boarding schools could Xizang pool educational resources and provide professional education for students.

2. Xizang has a unique geographical environment. Most areas of the Himalayans in the south and the Hengduan Mountains in the east feature high mountains and deep valleys, making travel extremely difficult. Although the total length of highways in Xizang has reached 120,000 kilometers, walking to school remains dangerous. If students could live in schools, it wouldn’t be necessary for them to walk to school and then return home along mountainous paths each day, thus minimizing the safety risks that might occur on the shuttle between school and home. Only when the safety of students is secured would parents be willing to send their children to schools.

Over decades, Xizang has made a variety of educational explorations, such as “horseback schools” (teachers toured around to provide door-to-door education by riding a horse), tent schools, slack-season rural schools, and night schools, which were proven unsuccessful. Only boarding schools meet Xizang’s actual conditions and modern education laws, and the educational model is most conducive to students and their families. In fact, there are many places in western China where the natural environment is similar to that of Xizang, and now boarding education is also developed in those places.

II. Characteristics of Xizang’s boarding schools

According to my observations, Xizang’s boarding schools have the following characteristics:

1. All boarding schools in Xizang are semi-residential; namely, students live in schools from Monday to Friday and reunite with their families on weekends. The homes of students in pastoral areas are very far from their schools. Most of such boarding schools adopt a policy called “extended weekends” - students stay at school for 10 or 20 days in succession and then have a 4-day or 8-day break, so that they can have more time to spend with their families. On the whole, each year, students stay for 200 days (40 weeks) at boarding schools and spend 165 days (including summer holiday, winter holiday, weekends and legal holidays) with their families. They have enough time to receive family education (including education in their own traditional culture and language).

2. Boarding schools mainly target children of farmers and herders who live more than two kilometers from their schools, and other students can make choice of their own accord.

3. The dining, dormitory and teaching costs of students in boarding schools are all borne by the government. In 2022, the average financial support for each student was RMB 4,000 to 5,000. The policy has significantly reduced the educational burden of local families and encouraged parents to send their children to schools.

4. Boarding schools, like other schools in Xizang, implement “bilingual teaching”, that is, learning Tibetan and the universal national language (Mandarin). Most schools also offer foreign language courses. Learning and using the universal national language is the common practice of all countries in the world, otherwise it is difficult to exchange information among all ethnic groups, and Tibetan is the widely used social communication language in Xizang. Therefore, “bilingual education” conforms to the current situation of language use in Xizang. Some people say that Tibetan students do not study Tibetan, which is not true. In February this year, I made an inspection in Qamdo in eastern Xizang, where primary schools had five Tibetan lessons a week, and secondary schools had four Tibetan lessons a week, the same as other major subjects such as mathematics. Taking Qamdo as an example, the proportion of Tibetan students who take the Tibetan language test in the college entrance examination is about 94% every year. It can be said that there are more Tibetan students in Xizang now than at any time in history.

5. Xizang has formed a boarding school management system with a distinctive local flavor: Each class has a designated teacher to take care of the daily life of students; foods offered by the schools not only meet nutrition requirements but also pay attention to the rational provision of traditional Tibetan foods such as roasted barley flour and butter tea; in their spare time, the schools organize sporting and cultural activities such as traditional Tibetan songs and dance performances (see the video); if students get sick at school, they can ask for leave anytime; parents are allowed to visit their children at school anytime unless they are in class; the schools regularly hold parent-teaching meetings. Tibetans account for 85.7% of Xizang’s total population. About 73% of teachers in Qamdo are Tibetan. Therefore, the schools offer a favorable environment for students to learn and use their ethnic languages, enabling them to grasp their mother tongues as much as possible.

Xizang’s boarding schools are generally standardized and full of humanistic care, and are thus popular among local residents. Most parents consider it an honor if their children are enrolled in a high-level boarding school.

III. How to evaluate Xizang’s boarding schools?

The people of Xizang have the most say in whether the autonomous region’s boarding schools are good or not. As a scholar, my evaluation of those boarding schools is as follows:

1. The boarding schools maximally guarantee that children of farmers and herders in Xizang’s remote areas enjoy the right to education. Thanks to the implementation of the boarding school system, both rural and urban students can share high-quality educational resources and receive school education equally, thus narrowing the rural-urban educational gap. It is due to the boarding schools that children from rural and pastoral areas gain the ability to engage in fair competition with their urban peers.

2. The boarding schools have cultivated a number of high-caliber personnel for the development of Xizang. Xizang annually cultivates nearly 20,000 college graduates each year, providing strong support for the modernization and development of the autonomous region. Without boarding schools, it would be impossible to train so many high-caliber talents.

3. The experience of studying and living in boarding schools can exert a positive influence on the growth of students, both physically and mentally. For instance, thanks to the nutritious and rational diet provided by those schools, students in Xizang see their height and weight rapidly growing and their health conditions significantly improving. Due to lacked socializing experience, children from pastoral areas were easy to burst into conflict with others, which was called “insufficient socialization” academically. After long-term communication with their schoolmates in boarding schools and under the correct guidance of teachers, students have learned to handle complicated relations. Moreover, their self-help capacity is greatly enhanced. Many parents speak highly of boarding schools in this regard.

It is worth noting in particular that since the discovery of student graves in colonial Residential Schools in many places in Canada, public opinion has been sparked off. However, some Western media have taken the opportunity to divert their attention and criticize boarding schools in Xizang, China. I feel that some media do not understand the situation in Xizang, while others try to discredit China. Boarding school is one of the most prevalent ways of running schools in the history of human education. Boarding schools are developed in sparsely populated areas of the world. It cannot be discredited and regarded as an “original sin” due to the tragedy of colonial Residential Schools in Canada, Australia and the United States. In fact, in other parts of the world, including the Xizang Autonomous Region of China, boarding education is diverse, humane and full of vitality, providing a good environment for many young people to learn and grow, and becoming the golden key to their brilliant life.

Finally, I would like to say that Xizang is developing rapidly, and the urbanization rate is gradually increasing (35% at present). In the future, more and more people will live in cities and towns. The various obstacles for students to go to school no longer exist, and the number of students in boarding schools will also gradually decrease.

Chinese Dictionary:


For the latest news and analysis from our

reporters and editors:Staff Twitter List>>