Mustering the Strength to Save Manchu

by Jasmine Lau:

Scanning the Manchu script of a centuries-old document from the Qing dynasty, Aixinjueluo Hengbin painstakingly thumbed through a Manchu-Chinese dictionary, translating words and phrases he did not know. “Actually, that’s most of the words,” he admitted.

A descendant of the seventh Qing emperor of China, Aixinjueluo has always been fascinated by his tribe and their language. Originally semi-nomadic “barbarians” from the northeast, the Manchurians established the Qing dynasty in 1644 and ruled China for 268 years. Although Aixinjueluo is certainly not the last Manchurian in China—ethnic Manchurians constitute the country’s second largest minority group—he may be one of the last to understand the Manchu tongue.

Aixinjueluo Hengbin, descendant of the Manchu emperors in China, reads historical texts with the help of a Manchu-Chinese dictionary (Courtesy Arianna Cheung, Lai King Hung).

Aixinjueluo started learning Manchu at the Manchu Language School in Beijing when he was 60 years old. He was lucky: the school shut down soon after he graduated. Of 40 students in his class, only seven had stayed to the end.

Aixinjueluo’s experience reflects a nationwide neglect of the Manchu language. Fewer than 100 individuals speak Manchu fluently, and almost all are over 70 years old, making Manchu one of the world’s most endangered languages. The geographical dispersion of Manchus makes it hard for the language to be used as a living, functional tongue. “Manchurians everywhere make distinct Manchu culture nowhere,” Aixinjueluo lamented.

Officials show little interest in Manchu preservation. “The Chinese government has no stake in reviving Manchu other than as a museum piece of its past,” remarked Stephen Wadley, a linguist at Portland State University. Mark Elliott, overseer of Harvard University’s Manchu Studies department, stated, “If the Qing government could not promote Manchu when half the court was of Manchu ethnicity, then the Chinese government [today] probably cannot and would not be able to revive Manchu.”

But, with the help of the Internet, Manchu is not going down without a fight. An online forum known as Manchu Sky boasts close to 4,000 members, helping unite ethnic Manchurians despite geographical dispersion. Created in 2005, the website aims to promote Manchu language education by enabling its members to share sound clips, videos, music, recent research findings, and information about language classes. Kina, one of the earliest members and the website’s current manager, described the bloggers as “motivated by deeply personal and emotional ties to learn the language and connect with their heritage.” She herself regularly logs onto Manchu Sky to post Manchu songs and update readers on what she has learned in her Manchu class, with an enthusiasm other members have described as “inspirational.”

Perhaps Manchu Sky represents a shift in the means of language preservation—from governments and formal groups to online forums and individual bloggers. Manchu is still at risk of becoming just a novelty, but the Internet holds the promise that the texts of Aixinjueluo’s ancestors could one day translate into a living language again.

Jasmine Lau is a freshman in Calhoun College.