BEIJING - On an early-spring afternoon,
cherry blossoms cut swirls of color along the
tree-lined avenue, to the west of Beijing's Drum
Tower. Just off the road and down a warren of
courtyards, two dozen young professionals sit
gathered in a room, brows furrowed in
concentration, pens scratching away in notebooks.
They carefully copy out words in a strange, almost
magical, rune-like script. A teacher who stands up
front coaches them in pronouncing these words. The
sounds are gentler than the sharp
and fall of tonal Mandarin, and there is something
dusty and unused in their timbre.
language is in fact Manchu, and the majority of
those gathered on this balmy Saturday afternoon
are of Manchu ethnicity. They are the descendants
of the semi-nomadic tribesmen who ruled over the
Chinese empire for two and a half centuries, but
who are today on the brink of losing their
language and, with it, their unique identity.
The Manchu dynasty was known as the Qing
(1644-1911) and was the last imperial house to
rule from Beijing. Under the Qing the size of the
Chinese empire almost doubled, growing to match
roughly the contours of contemporary China.
The Qing instituted policies aimed at
maintaining the Manchus as a distinct people.
Thus, for example, they ordered their subjects to
braid their hair into a queue, or pigtail, as was
the Manchu custom. However, their efforts at
maintaining a clear-cut Manchu identity ended in
failure as intermarriage and other forms of
contact led to a gradual assimilation of the
Manchu with the majority Han population.
By the 19th century, spoken Manchu was
already fading away, rarely used even in the
imperial court. But written Manchu continued to be
used for keeping records and communications
between the emperor and officials until the
collapse of the dynasty.
establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1912, the
once-elite Manchus became just one of the more
than 50 ethnic minorities in China. Their numbers
were overwhelmed by the dominant Han, who today
make up some 93% of the country's 1.3 billion
people, according to official statistics.
There are now about 10 million Chinese
citizens who are classified as ethnic Manchus,
most of whom live in the northeastern provinces of
Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang as well as in
Beijing. They are, however, indistinguishable by
appearance from the Han, and with the Manchu
language on the verge of falling silent, it is
possible that even their consciousness as a
distinct people will disappear before long.
What's startling about the linguistic
trajectory of Manchu is the rapidity with which it
first rose to prominence and then declined to the
verge of extinction. Although it's difficult to
ascertain exact figures, there are probably fewer
than 100 native speakers of Manchu left in China,
almost all of whom are over 70 years old. The
numbers of those who can write as well as speak it
are even fewer.
But the Manchu language is
not going down without a fight, aided by a new
weapon in its arsenal: the Internet.
Shuo, 23, an ethnic Manchurian who has spent the
past few years learning Manchu, explains that
although he was interested in the language of his
ancestors growing up, he had no natural peer group
with whom to share his interest. His parents,
despite both being Manchus themselves, did not
speak the language, nor was he taught it in
It was only during his university
years in Harbin, the capital of Liaoning province,
that Wang discovered a website that taught the
language and was able to connect with others who
shared his passion.
The website, called
Manchusky.com, today boasts some 3,000 users, and
to extend its influence from the virtual to the
real world has also begun to hold free
Saturday-afternoon Manchu classes in Beijing.
Wang, who spends his weekdays working as a
construction designer for the Chinese capital's
rash of new skyscrapers, teaches these classes on
"I read an encyclopedia once
and under the section on Manchurians, it said that
the Manchus used to have their own language," Wang
says, his slight frame quivering with anger at the
memory. "That really made me mad."
afternoon Wang Shuo is taking a break, and a new
teacher, also 23, Li Fei Xong, takes over the
class. Among the two dozen-odd students, only two
are Han Chinese, who attend out of intellectual
curiosity. The rest are Manchus for whom the
classes are a way of connecting to their
The new teacher Li
began his exploration of the Manchu language on
the Internet as well. He has been learning for two
years, but it hasn't been easy to persevere, he
confesses, because there is no "natural
environment" for the language.
lacking any practical use, even those running the
free classes are aware that their efforts may well
be in vain. "I can't predict the future, but all
we are aiming for is to try to ensure that our
language does not go extinct with our generation,"
Adds Gao Heng, 27, a lawyer
who has recently signed up for the weekend
classes: "I am doing this so I can teach my
children the language. My parents had already
forgotten and couldn't reach me, but I want to -
in fact I must- be able to teach my children."
However, despite the guarded optimism of
those at the class, with so few people left who
actually speak Manchu, most experts in China agree
that it's only a matter of time before the
language dies out totally.
There is a lone
hope for Manchu, however, and it lies in another,
closely related language called Xibo, still spoken
by upwards of 30,000 people in the Ili region of
China's Xinjiang autonomous region. The Xibos are
descendants of an ethnic group that were allied to
the Manchus and sent by them to what was then the
newly conquered region of Xinjiang in the 18th
As a language, Xibo is virtually
identical to classical Manchu except for a few
variations in pronunciation and writing. Xibo
people, however, consider themselves and their
language to be distinct from the Manchus.
Moreover, even Xibo is in retreat under relentless
pressure from Chinese. Already schools in the area
have cut down the number of years the local
language is taught at the primary level from five
to three years.
Wang Shuo is planning to
spend the next six months in Xinjiang among the
Xibos to experience what it's like to live in a
culture where a Manchu-related language is still
spoken in a natural environment. Wang has no
financial support and will use up the money he has
saved from his year working in Beijing to fund the
"I know I am being more idealistic
than practical," he says, "but it's better to try
than to give up too early."
If Manchu does
disappear, it will only be one among a mass
extinction that some experts forecast will lead to
the loss of half of the world's 6,800 languages by
the end of this century. All that will then be
left of the language of what was arguably once the
world's most powerful dynasty will be millions of
dust-collecting documents in Chinese archives -
or, as the latest twist in the tale suggests,
digital copies on the Internet.
Pallavi Aiyar is the China
correspondent for The Hindu.