The last of the Manchus
Et tu, Manchu?
One hundred years on, only a few native speakers remain
Oct 8th 2011 | SANJIAZI | from the print edition
A CENTURY ago it was the “national language” of a vast empire. Today Manchu mixes with cigarette smoke blown through the wrinkled lips of 86-year-old Zhao Lanfeng in Sanjiazi, a village in China’s north-east. The words she croaks in her thatch-roofed, mud-brick farmhouse are precious. Ms Zhao (pictured) calls herself one of only two fluent native speakers of Manchu left in the village, one of the last redoubts of a language that is verging on extinction.
Even in 1911, when the hated Manchu rulers of China’s last imperial Qing dynasty were overthrown, the language was national only in name. Manchus formed only about 2% of the country’s population at the time. Most people spoke Chinese, the language of the majority Han people who were conquered in 1644 by the Manchus, a collection of ethnic groups from the country’s borderlands in what was once known as Manchuria. Even the last Manchu emperor, Puyi (who was six when he abdicated), was far from fluent, despite the court’s dogged efforts to keep the language alive.
Hundreds if not thousands of Manchu civilians, many of whom lived in separate communities walled off from their Han neighbours, were massacred during the revolution by vengeful Han troops. Many more changed their names, clothing and other giveaway features of their ancestry to escape persecution. But in some remote rural areas Manchu ways held out longer. In Sanjiazi, descendants of the Manchu troops who settled the village during the Qing period outnumbered Han residents. Ms Zhao grew up speaking Manchu.
Hers was the last generation to do so. In 1979 there were 50 fluent speakers left. The two remaining (the other is also 86) sometimes chat to each other in Manchu. But Ms Zhao says the last time this happened was about four months ago. A few others in Sanjiazi speak a bit of Manchu. But in all of China, there are only a handful of people like Ms Zhao.
Few Chinese have any interest in learning the dying language of their one-time oppressors. Wu Yuanfeng, a government archivist, says 2m out of 10m Qing documents in the country’s collection are written in Manchu. Yet he estimates there are only about 30 scholars in China who are truly expert in the language. Knowledge of the language is kept up mainly by people like him who belong to the Xibo people from China’s far north-west. The Xibo language is very close to Manchu, but Mr Wu says only about 20,000 speak it and their numbers are rapidly diminishing too.
About six years ago Sanjiazi set up the country’s first Manchu school. But Ms Zhao does not think this will make much difference. The Manchu teachers, she says, do not understand her Manchu. A big sign outside the village proclaims it as a “living fossil” of the language. Soon it might be a dead one.