Manchu, Once China’s Official Language, Could Lose Its Voice

HEILONGJIANG, Northeast China — Tao Qinglan can still speak her mother tongue, Manchu, but everything else has changed since she was born 72 years ago in Sanjiazi Village.

She now lives with her Manchu daughter and Han son-in-law in a modern brick house, and they speak Mandarin at home. None of the houses in the village have preserved the traditional Manchu feature of a kang stove-bed surrounding three sides of the room, and almost all their traditional clothes and books were wiped out during the Cultural Revolution.

“The clothes we wear, the house we live in, and the language we speak are now no different from those of the Han people,” Tao sighs.

At the Two Sessions political meetings earlier this year, policy advisors proposed multimedia and educational strategies to protect ethnic minority languages, which they say are disappearing at an alarming rate. Manchu is one of 15 languages with fewer than 1,000 speakers.

The Manchu people are China’s third-largest ethnic group, ruling over the entire country from 1644, when they established the Qing Dynasty, until 1911, when China became a republic. Their language, which has its own script, was the official language of government in China for nearly 300 years. But despite its high-status history compared to other ethnic minority languages, Manchu, too, is facing acute decline. Many young Manchu people see learning the language as an impractical and unprofitable hobby.

Many Manchus began to learn Chinese in the mid-1800s while their people were in power, because of the necessity of communicating with the country’s Han majority. Now, after decades of education administered in Chinese script and Mandarin speech since the government pushed language unification in the 1950s, only a small number of the country’s 10 million Manchus still speak and write their native language. In 2009, the United Nations declared Manchu a critically endangered language.

Most of the few remaining people who are fluent in Manchu are clustered in China’s northeast, and particularly Sanjiazi, 90 kilometers northeast of Qiqihar City in the Manchu heartland. Built in 1689, Sanjiazi has remained relatively secluded from the outside world. That explains why the village has preserved a more authentic variety of spoken Manchu while most Manchus scattered through the country have lost their mother tongue.

If I talk with my folks in Manchu when my wife is around, she thinks I’m trying to hide things from her.

Sanjiazi means “three families” in Mandarin, and most villagers are descended from three main families with the surnames Ji, Meng, and Tao. According to official statistics, 65 percent of Sanjiazi’s 1,100 villagers are Manchu. When Tao was little, she spoke with her parents and grandparents entirely in Manchu.

But things changed when Tao went to school in the 1950s. China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, many with their own languages, as well as dozens of distinct regional languages that are not associated with a single ethnic group. To ease communication across the country, the State Council, China’s cabinet, began to promote Mandarin in 1956, after establishing the Beijing dialect of Mandarin as the national standard for spoken Chinese the previous year.

“After I started school, I would speak Mandarin at home, and then gradually my parents spoke with me in Mandarin as well,” Tao tells Sixth Tone. She became embarrassed to speak Manchu in public, feeling that people looked down on her for it.

Manchu was still the dominant language in Sanjiazi until the 1970s, when many Han people, mainly from Shandong province in China’s east, migrated to the village. The Manchu villagers had to communicate with the Han settlers in Mandarin, and with high rates of intermarriage between the two groups, the Manchu language gradually declined.

Sanjiazi’s village head, 52-year-old Meng Yanjie, says he mostly speaks Mandarin since he married a Han woman in 1984. “If I talk with my folks in Manchu when my wife is around, she thinks I’m trying to hide things from her,” he says. “My son didn’t want to learn Manchu because his mom is Han and talks to him in Mandarin all the time.”

Manchu language experts predicted in 2007 that Manchu would die out within 10 years, but as yet the language can still be heard in the village. “But it goes without saying that it’s dying little by little,” says Meng’s father, 86-year-old Meng Xianxiao. Of his nine adult children, the three eldest can speak Manchu decently, while the younger ones only know a few words.

The elder Meng says he can count on one hand the number of villagers who can speak Manchu as fluently as he does, and he doesn’t even consider his own speech to be authentic. “Those who can really speak authentic Manchu have passed away already,” Meng Xianxiao says.

Meng believes Manchu has not received the same official attention as other ethnic minority languages. “Unless it is a language that the government particularly values and takes seriously — like Tibetan, for instance — it’s really difficult to protect and pass on,” he says.

The central government has made efforts to protect ethnic minority languages in recent years, with an emphasis on the far western regions. The State Council has plans to roll out bilingual education from preschool to high school by 2020 in Xinjiang, Tibet, and the Tibetan areas of southwestern Sichuan province.

But what can I do if they don’t want to learn?

In Sanjiazi, too, the local government has supported Manchu language preservation and education, but the attempts have been less systematic. In 2010, the local government selected 16 seniors with proven ability in the language to help transmit Manchu, and another three in 2012. Each language guardian is paid 2,400 yuan ($350) per year — about one-quarter of their annual income — to meet regularly with the others at the village’s language activity room, speak Manchu, and help interested villagers pick up the language.

Tao and Meng senior are two of the current language guardians. Nine have died since the program began. Tao feels a heavy sense of responsibility to help younger villagers learn the language, especially given that she receives a government stipend. “But what can I do if they don’t want to learn?” she asks.

Sanjiazi has transformed over the past few decades, shifting from dairy farming to rice growing. Targeted investment since 2005 because of its status as the homeland of the Manchu language has made it relatively prosperous compared to its neighbors, such as a nearby village that is mostly home to the Daur ethnic group. Sanjiazi villagers now have internet access and modern appliances — but their priority is still farming.

Even the language guardians, who are all over 60, still meet mostly in the off-season, when the land is less demanding. “It’s true that ethnic integrity should be prized, but our primary job is to farm and work to support our families,” says Tao.

For most younger people from Sanjiazi, life offers two options: farm in the village, or work in the city. Learning Manchu is at best a hobby, at worst a distraction.

However, 40-year-old Shi Junguang is an exception. When he was in fifth grade, his school began to give occasional Manchu lessons, and it was only then that he realized Manchus had their own script, written in fluid cursive forms from top to bottom, and left to right.

“It’s silky and graceful,” Shi says. “When writing in Manchu, it’s like painting a beautiful picture.” He immediately felt an affinity with the language and vowed to be part of passing it on, though other villagers discouraged him, saying it was a waste of his potential as the only high school graduate who remained in the village.

But Shi persisted, farming during the day and learning Manchu from his grandmother in the evenings. Shi’s family is one of few in Sanjiazi where four generations still live under the same roof, and he took the opportunity to record his conversations with his grandmother so he could practice. He also treated other elders to dinner so he could chat with them.

“Language is the key to a nation,” he would tell skeptical villagers. “If I don’t do something, it’ll be gone before we know it.”

In response to the central government’s call to promote ethnic minority cultures, Sanjiazi Manchu Elementary School — the only school in the village — established the country’s first official Manchu course in 2006. Naturally, Shi became the teacher. All pupils have two Manchu language classes each week from first to sixth grade.

But after 10 years of classes, Shi says few of his students can actually speak decent Manchu. “They don’t have a language environment that enables them to practice at home,” Shi says. Some parents are supportive, but others feel their children should focus on core subjects like Chinese, math, and even English.

In Meng Xiaoxian’s eyes, the primary school lessons are in vain, as the students will have to attend middle school outside the village, where Manchu courses are not offered. “They’ll forget it all in time,” Meng says.

Language is the key to a nation. If I don’t do something, it’ll be gone before we know it.

The local government believes they have done all they can. “The future of the Manchu language must rely on the Manchu people themselves,” says Bai Ping, the deputy director of the Fuyu County bureau of ethnic and religious affairs, who is not Manchu himself. “Whether or not Manchu is passed down depends on their self-discipline. As outsiders, we can’t be too strict with them.”

Shi, too, says that Sanjiazi alone can’t save the language, given that there are more than 10 million Manchus in China. “The language can only be preserved when all the Manchus in the country work and study together,” he says.

Lü Ping, a Manchu professor at Changchun Normal University in the northeast province of Jilin, has been researching Manchu for over a decade. She says that with more than 100 academic experts and Manchu majors — most of whom are ethnically Manchu — throughout the country, the language is unlikely to die out completely, which is fortunate, given that millions of historical records from the Qing Dynasty still await translation.

Lü feels it is unrealistic to expect all Manchus to reach a level of fluency in the language. “It is against national policy to revive Manchu [as a first language], as we’re not living in the Qing Dynasty anymore,” Lü says. But she believes consistent Manchu instruction from primary school to university is a viable strategy for ensuring that more people will be equipped to help carry the mantle.

Shi is optimistic about the language’s longevity, as long as students are willing. “The living Manchu elders are like sparks of fire,” he says. “If we have sufficient grass, it will burst into flames.”

This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Keep Your Chinese name

Dear Fei,

Congratulations on your new position in that multinational company that you have been longed for. Regarding your question on if you should give yourself an English name, I don’t think it’s necessary.

First of all, how hard is it to remember or pronounce Fei? It’s simple and catchy. It’s much more unique and original than David, John, Jack or whatever names Chinese seem to give themselves in an effort to fit in or be trendy.

I know you are concerned that the employee might ignore you if they have a problem remembering your name. But in my experience, employers wouldn’t ignore you based on your name but rather the weight of your resume. The qualifications you had, experience and references count more. It is more about who you are and what you can do than how you are named.

Though you will be working in a multinational company, most of your colleagues will still be Chinese. Almost all my Chinese friends have a western name except for those that have really easy ones to remember like Ling. It usually ends up like Chinese colleagues are calling each other in English names and it’s difficult to relate your English name with your real Chinese name.

When I was studying at college, our teachers required all of us to use English names as it’s a language school and all the courses are taught in English. We were calling classmates English names for four years and I have a problem remembering their Chinese names. I ran into one of my college mates on the street the other day and I called her Cecilia without thinking but she said she no longer called herself that name. I was embarrassed as I couldn’t remember her real Chinese.

But she doesn’t forget mine. I didn’t have an English name and I insisted my teacher call me Yiying. Only by that can I feel that people are calling me instead of a stranger with a strange foreign name. She accepted with pressure. See, an English name is no need. My name is my identity and I am very proud of it.

Don’t worry that your foreign colleagues won’t remember or pronounce your name. It wouldn’t take long for most people to learn how to pronounce your Chinese name properly. In English speaking countries, many people have long and difficult names, let alone people from some other countries like India, Middle East or Africa. People are usually willing to try to pronounce your name correctly. Worrying about people having difficulty trying to pronounce your name shouldn’t be a reason to change your name.

The best example to follow is Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he first came to the US, he was told to change his name to Arnold Strong. But he stuck with Schwarzenegger and look at him now.

Be true to your name is like believing in yourself. If you mingle well enough and just give everything a go every once in a while, you’ll fit in just fine. Eventually, most reasonable people will know you as you and take you for whom you are.

In the end of the day, you would realize that foreigners actually prefer Chinese names. Since they work in China, they must have some common sense about Chinese names and culture. What’s more, a lot of foreigners give themselves Chinese names to fit in China. Why should we use English names in our country?

Therefore, I strongly suggest you keep your Chinese name. I wish you the very best luck in your new job.

Yours sincerely,

Cure the Disease of English Worship

Have you ever noticed that Chinese people would love to talk to a foreigner in English even though his English is broken or that foreigner can speak fluent Chinese or he’s not from an English speaking country? I just found out there is a term for that which is called English worship syndrome.

Chinese education institution is keen on promoting English learning blindly. This foreign language fever has somehow had a bad effect on Chinese culture and mother tongue education.

This syndrome is deep down to the bone. In the big city like Shanghai, most parents have signed up weekend English classes for their kids. When the finance allows, they even hire native English speaker to tutor their kids. They don’t care if this teacher is qualified to teach English as long as English is his mother tongue. Usually a foreign tutor charges 200 Yuan an hour but a Chinese tutor can be found with only 50 Yuan.

In Shanghai, it’s hard to miss the numerous English training schools on the street. The fees are very high but the market is still growing. Why do we want to spend so much money on learning English? Is it because we truly love this language? I doubt.

Ever since we start to study English at primary school or even in kindergarten, we are always facing the tests. College students can’t get a bachelor degree if he fails to pass CET 4 (College English Test Grade 4) and English major students can’t graduate without TEM 4 (Test for English Major Grade 4) certificate. Not only does the certificate ensure the college degree, it’s also a must for some positions at workplace.

The crazy English learning certainly has reduced our time and energy in learning Chinese. I seldom hear parents take kids to Chinese classes during the weekend. They take it for granted that we don’t need to further study Chinese as it’s our mother tongue.

Both of my 12-year-old students told me that their teachers didn’t require them to practice characters when they were learning Chinese at primary school. As long as they can recognize the character, job is done. It leads to two problems: for one, a lot of kids now can’t write as many as character than we do; for another, their handwriting is terrible.

What’s worse, they say hi and bye instead of nihao and zaijian. Some of my friends like to pop up a few English words in daily conversation just to boast how good their English is. I also realized that I have exchanged so many emails in English with my Chinese fellows.

I felt ashamed when I was talking with an expat whose Chinese seems better than mine. Another foreign friend once told me a story behind a Chinese character which I had no clue. He said, “of course you don’t know that. It’s your mother tongue!” Well, I don’t think that’s the excuse.

Learning mother language is a responsibility. Protecting our language is our obligation. In France, protecting French and rejecting English is an important national policy. In Japan, they focus on cultivating foreign language elites instead of making everyone learn English. Though they speak English with funny accent, it doesn’t slow its pace of being a developed country.

Here comes another reason why we love to learn English. The government and education system make us believe that China would be stronger if every Chinese speaks English. The essence of worshiping English is worshiping foreign things. As science and technology is more advance in the west, we assume that the English language is more worth of being learnt. It’s more like denying ourselves rather than embracing a foreign culture and language.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn English as it is indispensible to mater a foreign language especially English in foreign affairs. However, the education bureau has exaggerated the function of foreign language. The CET gate has been open and it seems difficult to close it in a short time.

But I think it’s time to cure this disease. We could start with talking with foreigners in Chinese if they can speak Chinese and please don’t speak English with our Chinese colleagues. We should be proud of our language and give it enough dignity.