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.

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