China's Manchu speakers struggle to save language
SANJIAZI, China — Seated cross- legged in her farmhouse on the kang, a brick sleeping platform warmed by a fire below, Meng Shujing lifted her chin and sang a lullaby in Manchu, softly but clearly.
After several verses, the 82-year-old widow stopped, her eyes shining.
"Baby, please fall asleep quickly," she said, translating a few lines of the song into Chinese. "Once you fall asleep, Mama can go to work. I need to set the fire, cook and feed the pigs."
After 5 children, 14 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren, Meng has the confidence that comes from long experience. "If you sing like this, a baby gets sleepy right away," she said.
She also knows that most experts believe the day is approaching when no child will doze off to the sound of these comforting words.
Meng is one of 18 residents of this isolated village in northeastern China, all older than 80, who, according to Chinese linguists and historians, are the last native speakers of Manchu.
Descendants of seminomadic tribesmen who conquered China in the 17th century, they are the last living link to a language that for more than two and a half centuries was the official voice of the Qing Dynasty, the final imperial house to rule from Beijing and one of the richest and most powerful empires the world has known.
With the passing of these villagers, Manchu will also die, experts say. All that will be left will be millions of documents and files in Chinese and foreign archives, 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 the city of Qiqihar, 50 kilometers, or 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."
(While most experts agree that Manchu is doomed, Xibo, a closely related language, is likely to survive a little longer. Xibo is spoken by about 30,000 descendants of members of an ethnic group allied to the Manchus who in the 18th century were sent to the newly conquered western region of Xinjiang. But it too is under relentless pressure from Chinese.)
The disappearance of Manchu will be part of 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 the century. But few of these threatened languages have risen to prominence and then declined as rapidly as Manchu.
Within decades of establishing their dynasty in 1644, the Qing rulers had brought all of what was then Chinese territory under control. They then embarked on a campaign of expansion that roughly doubled the size of their empire to include Xinjiang, Tibet, Mongolia and Taiwan. However, the dynasty's fall in 1911 meant that the Manchus were relegated to the ranks of the more than 50 other ethnic minorities in China, their numbers dwarfed by the dominant Han, who today account for 93 percent of the country's 1.3 billion people, according to official statistics.
Indistinguishable by appearance, the Manchus have melded into the general population. There are now about 10 million Chinese citizens who describe themselves as ethnic Manchus. Most live in what are now the northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, although there are also substantial numbers in Beijing and other northern cities.
For generations, the vast majority have spoken Chinese as their first language. Manchu survived only in small, isolated pockets like Sanjiazi, where, until a few decades ago, nearly all the residents were ethnic Manchus. Most are descended from the three main families that made up a military garrison established here in 1683 on the orders of the Qing emperor, Kangxi, to deter Russian territorial ambitions, according to Zhao.
The traditional Manchu-style wood- and-adobe farmhouses have largely been replaced by Chinese-style brick homes, the local residents say. The village now looks just like any other settlement in this region as a biting wind whips snow across the bare ground between the houses and the piles of dried cornstalks, stacked high to feed cattle and pigs through the winter.
Traditional shamanistic rites, along with ethnic dress and customs, have also been mostly abandoned, although some wedding and funeral ceremonies retain elements of Manchu rituals, Zhao said. But, villagers still observe one Manchu taboo that sets them apart from others in China's far northeast.
"We don't eat dog meat," Zhao said. "And we would never wear a hat made from dog fur." The prohibition, tradition has it, honors a dog credited with having saved the life of Nurhachi, the founder of the Manchu state, who lived from 1559 to 1626.
Even now, about three-quarters of Sanjiazi's 1,054 residents are ethnic Manchus but the use of Chinese has increased dramatically in recent decades as roads and modern communications have increasingly exposed them to the outside world. Only villagers of Meng's generation now prefer to speak Manchu.
"We are still speaking it, we are still using it," said Meng, a cheerful woman with thick gray hair pulled back in a neat bun. "If the other person can't speak Manchu then I'll speak Chinese."
But Meng disputes the findings of visiting linguists that there are 18 villagers left who can still speak fluently. By her standards, only five or six of her neighbors are word-perfect in Manchu.
Zhao, 53, on the other hand, estimates that about 50 people in the village have a working grasp of the language.
"My generation can still communicate in Manchu," he said, although he acknowledged that most villagers speak Chinese almost all the time at home.
Meng supports efforts to keep the language alive. Her 30-year-old grandson, Shi Junguang, has studied hard to improve his Manchu and teaches speaking and writing to the 76 pupils, 7 to 12 years old, at the village school.
This is the only primary school in China that offers classes in Manchu, according to officials from the local ethnic affairs office. These lessons, which Shi shares with one other teacher, take up only a small proportion of classroom time but they are popular with students, say the school's staff and other residents in the village.
"Because they are Manchus, they are interested in these classes," Shi said.
He is also teaching basic conversation to his 5-year-old son, Shi Yaobin, and encourages him to speak with his great-grandmother. "It would be a great blow for us if we lose our language," he said.
But most experts say that with so few people left to speak it, attempts to preserve Manchu are futile.
"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."
While scholars agree it is now only a matter of time before Manchu falls silent, in Sanjiazi, Meng 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."
By David Lague
Published: Friday, March 16, 2007