Some believed the CCP had abandoned its idea of stealing from Tibetans even their country’s name. This was not true.
by Lopsang Gurung
In 2021, Bitter Winter was among the first media outlets that denounced the Chinese campaign to change the name of “Tibet” into “Xizang.” This was the ultimate “Sinicization”: stealing from the oppressed Tibetans even the name of their country. Some called our article alarmist. After all, the English edition of the CCP-owned People’s Daily continued to use “Tibet” more often than “Xizang.”
However, as noticed also by some Western observers, including those at the valuable China Media Project, the CCP has not abandoned its idea to eliminate the word “Tibet” once and for all. It is not in the CCP’s style to start a campaign and then abandon it.
The international CCP propaganda mouthpiece Global Times has continued to consistently use “Xizang.” Whether it is true that the English People’s Daily and China Daily still use “Tibet,” more alarming is the increasing turn to “Xizang” in official governmental documents in English.
For instance, in the official press release about the meeting of August 8, 2022, between Chinese Foreign Ministry Wang Yi and his Mongolian counterpart Batmunkh Battsetseg, we read that Mongolia “opposes interference in China’s internal affairs related to Taiwan, Xizang, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, among others.”
As Bitter Winter has previously explained, the CCP’s claim that China is returning to the most ancient use, as “Xizang” is allegedly older than “Tibet,” is simply not true. “Tibet” in its Turkish form “Tüpüt” is attested in Turkish language since the 8th century CE, and in the following centuries variants of “Tubbat” were used in Arabic and Persian.
Italian traveler Marco Polo, who visited the area in the 13th century, in Book 2, Chapter 45, of “The Travels of Marco Polo” (originally titled in Italian “Il Milione”) used “Tebet.” In the same century, Papal legate to the Mongol court, Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, used the spelling “Thabet.” As opposite to this, “Xizang” was first used by the Qing in the 18th century. The name “Tibet” predates “Xizang” by some 1,000 years.
Some Tibetans and free Tibet supporters claim that “Xizang” means “Western storage,” which is colonialist and offensive, making Tibet a place of storage or a repository of precious goods to be exploited by China. Supporters of the CCP counter that “Zang” (藏) in “Xizang” (西藏) may also be a storage place in the sense of a “treasure vault” and has been used for Buddhist canons, also called “treasures.” The meaning of “the Western Buddhist treasure [land]” would not be offensive.
In fact, I believe that both positions are wrong. When the Qing created “Xizang” they added the geographic “Xi” (West) to the Tibetan “Gtsang,” which they transcribed as “Zang.” “Gtsang” was the name of one of the historical regions constituting Tibet (which was larger than present-day Tibet Autonomous Region), its central-western part.
Not for the first nor for the last time in history, the Qing took the name of a part of a country and used it for the country as a whole, calling Tibet “Xizang,” i.e., “Western” (Xi) Gtsang (Ch. Zang), where “Western” did not indicate that there was an “Eastern Gtsang” somewhere but that the region as a whole lied in the West of the Chinese Empire.
Readers would have noticed that this is similar to the linguistic colonial operation that led to call East Turkestan, or whatever other name was used by the non-Han inhabitants of the region, “Xinjiang” (New Borderland), a denomination first used by the Qing just as they used “Xizang” for Tibet.
Will the use of “Xizang” prevail? The answer is not in the hands of the CCP. It is in the hands of Western media, governments, and scholars. They should firmly resist the CCP’s attempts to change the name of Tibet, and denounce the whole “Xizang” project as an imperialist and colonialist operation. If no serious media or scholar would use “Xizang” internationally, the CCP’s campaign will fail. On the other hand, if international academic and diplomatic documents and media would humor the CCP and switch to “Xizang,” the Tibetans would lose another large part of their identity and culture. Westerners should realize that, yes, it is a question of words, but tampering with words may have dramatic consequences.