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.

Harbin in Winter: What a Pleasant Misery


As a Shanghainese girl who only sees snow once a year, it’s always my dream to go to Northeast China to experience the real winter where the whole region is covered with thick and crystal snow.

So I took a trip to Harbin, the capital and the largest city in Heilongjiang Province in China. It is known for its bitterly cold winter and is often referred as the Ice City. Harbin is notable for its beautiful ice sculptures in winter and its Russian legacy. It is a perfect combination for me to feel the cold weather and the exotic architecture.

I realized how special this trip would be when I started to pack. Usually I just pack what I need for my trips, but this time I had to try on the clothes first to see if they are warm and comfortable.

Here was what I decided to wear before I landed in Harbin:

Head: down jacket’s hat + ear muffs

Upper body: thermal underwear with velvet + my thickest sweater + technically the thickest down jacket I could found in Shanghai + Mom’s handmade 2.5-meter wool scarf or cashmere scarf + padded gloves

Lower body: long johns with velvet + padded pants with velvet + two pairs of wool socks + snow boots

I thought I was well prepared! But right after I got out of the airport (like in two seconds), I felt that my nose hairs were frozen! No kidding! It has never occurred to me that would be the way how Harbin greeted me.


Harbin Taiping Airport – When a friend of mine saw the picture of the terminal, he asked me whether it’s a skating rink.

It’s cold; it’s really cold. I was well prepared how cold it would be but it’s still beyond my imagination. The average temperature in Shanghai in January is around 2 ℃ and it’s below 20 ℃ in Harbin. However, I’m not sure if I’m lucky or not, the temperature dropped from – 19 ℃ when I just arrived in Harbin to – 33 ℃ the day I left. Local taxi drivers told me that it was the coldest winter in the past 18 years.


Luckily I also packed another cotton coat and sweater vest just in case. I put them on the very next day in Harbin. I’ve been told millions of times that Harbin is dry cold. It doesn’t penetrate to your clothes like the way humid cities’ wintry days do, for instance, Shanghai. As long as you wrap yourself well, you won’t feel cold. But no matter how much I wore, the only part of my body, my face, which was not protected from the elements, was introduced to a sensation I’d never experienced before. Then I realized: my cheek was frozen. It’s like thousands of knives stabbing my face at the same time – hurt yet senseless. I tried to cover my cheek with a mask but it got frozen after 30 minutes. So was my scarf.

IMG_2802However, it was hot inside the room. I mean, way too hot. The temperature in the room I stayed was over 30 ℃. Harbin has ground heating and my room was on the first floor. It felt like sleeping on a hot summer day in Shanghai without keeping the air-conditioner on. I couldn’t fall asleep quickly because I was sweating. I asked the hotel staff if I could turn on the air-conditioner to cool it down but he said it was frozen. That’s not the worst part. The worst part was that I had to put on all the clothes for – 30 ℃ when I was actually in a 30 ℃ room. I grabbed two bags of snow from outside and put them on the ground so that it wouldn’t feel too dry inside. And the electric fan you see in the picture on the left was on all night long. It’s just a completely waste of money and electricity.

Beside the cold weather, taxi was a major concern for me before I flew over. I’ve heard a lot of bad things about the taxi drivers in Harbin. Things like the drivers often doctor their meters or take a detour which did happen to me once when I was there. They also want short trips where people get in, pay the minimum charge, get out, and another person gets in. If you are trying to go a longer distance, they will refuse to carry you or they will pick another passenger in the middle if he or she goes to the same direction.
IMG_2812I quit taxi after waiting for it for 20 minutes. I found taking a bus was more convenient and cheaper. But the down side of the bus was that I had to bear the water on the floor as everybody’s shoes were full of snow. That made my feet frozen. What made me feel colder was the frost on the bus windows which I only saw in the refrigerator. And because of that, I couldn’t see anything through the windows which was not fun at all.

However, local harbingers are not bothered by the cold weather or the unsatisfying traffic. On my first night in Harbin, I was wandering in the city and saw a group of mid-aged women dancing and singing at a square near Songhua River at 9.30pm. People were also playing table-tennis and badminton at Stalin Park on day time just like what I see in Shanghai. For me, the charm of travelling is not going to all the tourism sites, instead, is to explore local culture and experience local life. Yes, it’s freezing in Harbin but local Harbingers still find ways to enjoy their life.

DSC03401walking along the Songhua River at night 
DSC03395Songhua River at night 

DSC03624Stalin Park 

One of the highlights of the trip was walking on the Songhua River which was the first frozen body of water I’ve ever seen in my life. I took the horse carriage from Stalin Park to Sun Island but it’s much more fun walking on the river on the way back. At first I walked slow, really slow like an old lady, but after 10 minutes, I started to mend my pace. Then I slipped as I went beyond myself. But it wasn’t that hurt and nobody laughed at me as slippery is so common in Harbin in winter. In the middle of the river, I saw a group of local men fishing under the frozen river and they succeeded!

2937428_921511674_w1280pSonghua River on day time 

2937428_921511780_w1280pFishing on Songhua River 

Another highlight must be the food. I’m a foodie and I like to taste local food when I travel. I also find that one of the best ways to learn local life and culture is to go check out its food market. So I went to an outdoor food market in Harbin and it opened my eyes: here, the frozen tofu was frozen for real! Watermelon was sold inside and ice cream was put on the ground outside. Not a fan of ice cream or ice lolly myself, I somehow decided to buy an ice lolly to experience what it felt like here. It turned out to be soft and not that cold! Ah well, it’s – 33 ℃ that day! The outdoor temperature was much lower than the ice lolly.


╒╒╞¼ 2

╒╒╞¼ 4

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You have to try the Tanghulu when you are in Harbin. It’s a syrup-glazed fruit on a stick which is frozen solid in winter. I tried two flavors, grape and hawthorn and they were both awesome! Crispy, sweet, sour and of course freezing! It’s almost impossible for me to bite them outdoors. I had to bring them back to hotel to taste them.


How could I not eat dumplings when I was in Harbin? I eat a lot of dumplings when I’m in Shanghai but the ones I had in Harbin were amazing. The skin was thin enough to see the stuffing when it’s done. I had boiled dumplings, steamed dumplings and Harbin’s special fried dumplings. Some stuffing I tried seem normal for locals but was creative for me such as cucumber with prawns, pork with eggplant, etc. I will have to make it myself someday.




I’m not going to write about the famous ice and snow festival as you can read about it in almost all the travel journals about Harbin. I just don’t get the point why people want to spend 330 RMB ($52) on that since you can see ice and snow sculpture everywhere in the city!





2937428_921510460_w1280pThis trip surprised me a lot ever since I got out of the airport. Some are good, others are bad. Either way, it’s a wonderful experience that I’ll never forget. But if you ask me if I want to go to Harbin again in winter, the answer is no. It’s just too cold. Harbin is a place you have to go in winter in your life. Yet once is enough.