Category Archives: Manchu

“Et tu, Manchu?”

When Tibetans, Mongolians, and Uyghur look at the future, this is what they see:

A CENTURY ago it was the “national language” of a vast empire. Today Manchu mixes with cigarette smoke blown through the wrinkled lips of 86-year-old Zhao Lanfeng in Sanjiazi, a village in China’s north-east. The words she croaks in her thatch-roofed, mud-brick farmhouse are precious. Ms Zhao (pictured) calls herself one of only two fluent native speakers of Manchu left in the village, one of the last redoubts of a language that is verging on extinction.

In Sanjiazi, descendants of the Manchu troops who settled the village during the Qing period outnumbered Han residents. Ms Zhao grew up speaking Manchu.

Hers was the last generation to do so. In 1979 there were 50 fluent speakers left. The two remaining (the other is also 86) sometimes chat to each other in Manchu. But Ms Zhao says the last time this happened was about four months ago. A few others in Sanjiazi speak a bit of Manchu. But in all of China, there are only a handful of people like Ms Zhao.

Few Chinese have any interest in learning the dying language of their one-time oppressors. Wu Yuanfeng, a government archivist, says 2m out of 10m Qing documents in the country’s collection are written in Manchu. Yet he estimates there are only about 30 scholars in China who are truly expert in the language. Knowledge of the language is kept up mainly by people like him who belong to the Xibo people from China’s far north-west. The Xibo language is very close to Manchu, but Mr Wu says only about 20,000 speak it and their numbers are rapidly diminishing too.

About six years ago Sanjiazi set up the country’s first Manchu school. But Ms Zhao does not think this will make much difference. The Manchu teachers, she says, do not understand her Manchu. A big sign outside the village proclaims it as a “living fossil” of the language. Soon it might be a dead one.

I thought ethnic policy and cultural protections ensured the ongoing survival of Chinese minorities?!

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“A language lost”

South China Morning Post has an article about the disappearance of Manchu language and culture- Mongols, Tibetans, and Uighur take note:

Although there are more than 10 million people in China who are classified as ethnic Manchus – most of whom live in Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin in the northeast – linguists say that Sanjiazi is the last Manchu-speaking community in China.

Even then, only three villagers – all over 80 years old – are fluent in their native language and another 15 – above 70 years old – are conversant to some degree in their mother tongue, says Professor Zhao Aping , director of the Manchu Language and Culture Research Centre at Heilongjiang University.

The traditional nomadic lifestyle Ji knew as a boy is gone forever. And the Manchu language, which is rich in hunting terms and the names of wild animals, has never seemed more irrelevant or obsolete in the lives of the villagers.

“My grandfather took me hunting and together we would catch foxes, eagles, rabbits. But I haven’t hunted for more than 40 years and children these days don’t even learn to ride horses anymore,” Ji said. “People have forgotten the Manchu language. I suppose it will disappear in 10 or 20 years – I guess this can’t be helped.”

But even with Shi’s enthusiasm and the classes he teaches at the school, linguists say it will not be easy to revive Manchu. Social and economic changes as well as years of persecution of the Manchu identity mean the language is not in a fit state to survive.

But the Manchu language has been in gradual decline since the population migrated to other parts of the country with the Qing court and was assimilated into the mainstream Han culture through social contact and intermarriage, despite an official policy of maintaining a separate identity.

With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the Manchu identity, with its association with the ruling class and the special privileges it enjoyed, became an embarrassing liability. During the Cultural Revolution, Manchu speakers were labelled as spies for using their mysterious tongue, forbidden from speaking it and often jailed. Many ethnic Manchus adopted Chinese surnames, changed their officially recorded ethnicity to Han, abandoned their language and hid their ancestry from others, including their children.

To arrest the decline of the language, linguists are calling for government initiatives to promote the use of Manchu in education and society. They would like to see Manchu classes included in school curriculums in traditionally Manchu-speaking areas, to give residents social and economic incentives to use it.

“This is an endangered language and the task to preserve it is very urgent, yet there is no plan to save it,” said a Manchu expert who declined to be named, bemoaning the lack of a government strategy or funding to save Manchu from extinction.

Maybe there isn’t a plan to save it because the death of the language is the plan? In Zhongnanhai there’s only one language, one culture, and one ethnicity, and it definitely isn’t Manchu.

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