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    Greater China
     Apr 26, 2007
Lament for a dying language
By Pallavi Aiyar

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

rise and fall of tonal Mandarin, and there is something dusty and unused in their timbre.

The 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.

After the 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.

Wang 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 school.

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 the weekends.

"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."

One 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 historical identity.

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.

With Manchu 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," concludes Li.

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 century.

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 trip.

"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.

(Copyright 2007 Pallavi Aiyar.)

Han follow suit in cultural renaissance (Aug 26, '06)


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