Manchu Language Lives Mostly in Archives |
The decline of the Manchu language has become a serious obstacle for historians studying the Qing Dynasty archives. Only a fraction of the extensive Manchu-language records held in Beijing and other regional centers have been translated and there are fewer than 40 translators working in these archives.
Even before they conquered China in 1644, the Manchus began keeping archives in their written language, which is based on the Mongolian alphabet. This avid record-keeping continued as they administered their vastly increased empire.
Scholars estimate that about 20 percent of the 10 million files in the massive Qing archive in Beijing are written in Manchu. In the provincial archive in Harbin alone, there are about 60 tons of Manchu-language documents covering a 300-year period.
“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.
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.
Language was an important element of this identity.
At the beginning, there were strict rules that records about the military, foreign affairs, the ruling family, internal court business and other sensitive topics be written only in the rulers’ language. But by the 1840’s, the written language was in “dramatic” decline, said Wu Yuanfeng, director of the Manchu language section of China’s First Historical Archives, inside Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Important documents continued to be published in Manchu until the dynasty was overthrown but the official use of the language then came to an abrupt halt.
The archives contain documents that bear on contemporary issues. The borders of the modern Chinese state were basically set under the Qing and there are voluminous files in the archives relating to Beijing’s current claims over some of this territory.
These include documents relating to the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, a peace agreement that set the early Qing border with Russia, later revised in Moscow’s favor, according to archivists.
By DAVID LAGUE
Published: March 17, 2007
【Manchu Cultural Media ：http://blog.westca.com/blog_lianbo/index.html】
【Youtube Manchu ：http://www.youtube.com/user/manchuria87】
【Flickr Manchu ：http://www.flickr.com/photos/manchu_world】
【Google Manchu ：http://picasaweb.google.com/lianbo66 】
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