Interesting article in yesterday’s NYT on the Manchu language in China (hat tip: Kate Merkel-Hess). In the village of Sanjiazi, in Heilongjiang near the border with Inner Mongolia, 18 residents, all octogenarians, represent China’s last native speakers of Manchu.
With the passing of these villagers, Manchu will also die, experts say. All that will be left will be millions of documents and files — about 60 tons of Manchu-language documents are in the provincial archive in Harbin alone — along with inscriptions on monuments and important buildings in China, unintelligible to all but a handful of specialists.
“I think it is inevitable,” said Zhao Jinchun, an ethnic Manchu born in Sanjiazi who taught at the village primary school for more than two decades before becoming a government official in Qiqihar, a city about 30 miles to the south. “It is just a matter of time. The Manchu language will face the same fate as some other ethnic minority languages in China and be overwhelmed by the Chinese language and culture.”
Perhaps some in China will wonder, “So what? The Manchus became Chinese a long time ago.”
It’s a common myth and a necessary one because the PRC relies, in part, on the “Chineseness” of the Qing Dynasty to justify its claims to the territorial legacies of the Qing. But research by Mark Elliot, Evelyn Rawski, and Pamela Crossley, among others, has shown that the Manchus were not as completely assimilated as many Chinese textbooks would have one believe. A point noted in another NYT article published on Saturday:
Recent study of the Manchu archives has led to a revision of some widely held views of the Qing period. Chinese historians have long argued that the Manchus were almost immediately sinicized, losing their identity and governing as de-facto Chinese rulers in the long-established Confucian tradition.
But the view that the Manchus were quickly swamped by Chinese culture has been challenged in recent years as research in the archives has revealed the importance the Qing elite attached to preserving a distinct identity that drew on their military prowess, nomadic hunting traditions and different cultural tradition.
In fact, the use of the Manchu language in documents continued to the end of the dynasty and throughout the period of Manchu rule there were–literally–tons of documents that the Manchus did not translate into Chinese. The Chinese were, after all, one of many subject peoples in the great multi-ethnic Qing empire.
That said, not everyone got the memo. As Kate and the NYT noted, almost immediately upon the consolidation of their dynasty, the Qing court began fretting about Manchus losing their cultural identity by speaking Chinese and hanging out with the “soft” Han population. Manchu as a spoken language, even among the Manchu banners, was all but a thing of the past by the early 20th century. Though as Pamela Crossley has shown, in the 19th and early 20th century Manchu identity still remained strong.
The number of untranslated Manchu documents means that there is rich mine of sources available for the enterprising Qing historian who wishes to crack up on his or her Manchu language skills. Sadly, the number of people actively studying Manchu is still quite small, even in China:
“If 100 people spent 100 years translating this archive they would still be unable to finish,” said Zhao Aping, director of the Manchu Language and Culture Research Center at Heilongjiang University in Harbin.
The Chinese government has allocated money to Qing historical research in recent years but very few students are interested in mastering a language that has little use outside the archives. Fifteen students are enrolled at Heilongjiang University’s Manchu language program, about half the total studying the language in China.
Personally, one of the goals I set for myself upon entering graduate school was to learn Manchu. I don’t have any illusions that I could rival someone like Mark Elliot for his extensive knowledge of the language but it seemed to me that one couldn’t really study the Qing and not know a little bit of the language of the ruling elite. I carried a copy of the Gertrude Roth Li textbook around with me for years before the UC Davis library decided they wanted it back. I’m still working toward my goal, but it’s a slower process right now.
Needless to say, sadder than the dearth of Manchu in the academy is the death of yet another of the world’s languages.
“The spoken Manchu language is now a living fossil,” said Zhao Aping, an ethnic Manchu and an expert on Manchu language and history at Heilongjiang University in the provincial capital, Harbin. “Although we are expending a lot of energy on preserving the language and culture, it is very difficult. The environment is not right,” he added.
Despite the predictions that it is now only a matter of time before Manchu falls silent, in Sanjiazi, Ms. Meng [an older villager] clings to hope. “I don’t have much time,” she said. “I don’t even know if I have tomorrow, but I will use the time to teach my grandchildren. “It is our language; how can we let it die? We are Manchu people.”
I know I’m a historian and a bit of a romantic, as well as prone to tacky and sappy sentiments, but I do feel that when a language dies, we lose a window into a culture. Linguistic theorists may or may not disagree with me…certainly I have no background or training in this field. But throughout the world, not the least of all China with its enforced policy of Mandarin in schools and in the broadcast media, languages are passing away as the last native speakers grow old and leave us.