Boy monks keep ethnic culture alive

Editor: Deng Shasha, Xinhua News, Nov 16, 2009

KUNMING, China -- A 6:30 a.m., Yan Guanghan has finished chanting his daily sutras for an hour. It's time for the 10-year-old to go to school.

Yan and 16 other monks his age attend a primary school five minutes walk from the temple. After school, they have a mission --keeping alive the culture of Dai ethnic group in south China's Yunnan Province.

Yunnan's Dai Autonomous Prefecture of Xishuangbanna has 4,000 monks who are also students at primary and middle schools. In addition to the standard curriculum, they have to study Buddhism, Dai culture and language.

In addition to the morning sutras, Yan and his fellow boy monks must chant for another hour after school. Then they spend two hours revising or doing homework. At weekends, they study Dai language and Buddhist scriptures.

"The monks are under much greater stress than others their age. They have to study almost twice as hard," says Yan Le, deputy director of the Ethnic and Religion Bureau of Dai Autonomous Prefecture of Xishuangbanna.

"Without modern education, they children would not have a bright future. But if we give up traditional education, our culture will die."

Traditionally, all boys are required to become monks and live in monasteries from the age of 10. These days they have the right to refuse.

"He agreed to become a monk, so we sent him there," says Yan's mother, Mi Mehuan. "Dai girls like knowledgeable boys. Those who know little about Buddhism, our culture or language will have a hard time finding girlfriends."

Yan is contented with the dual education system. "We are not homesick or under pressure. We have very regular living and studying habits."

The child monks can resume their secular lives after four years in the temple, but Yan wants to remain a monk for longer.

"We can go home once or twice a week, but cannot stay home for the night," said Yan who washes his own clothes and does his own cleaning.

He enjoys reading the Buttra Leaf Scripture. "Master says it has all the great things of our culture. I like the book although I don't understand much of it."

"Buttra Leaf Scriputre is more than a Buddhist classic," says Yan's master, Du Wenjiao. "It is known as the encyclopedia of the Dai ethnic group, covering a whole spectrum of Dai culture such as history, medicine and literature."

"My brother is studying in the Buddhism College of Xishuangbanna and my family is very proud of him. I want to be like him," says another boy monk, Tie Lingda.

A total of 1.26 million Dai people live in Yunnan. Their culture is deeply interwined with Buddhism.

"To understand Dai culture, one has to study in the temples," Du says. "Every year, boys come to our temple to study. As long as the young people keep learning it, they can pass on Dai culture from generation to generation."