A language lost

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2011, 12:00am


When Ji Jinlu, 66, was a boy, he was unable to speak Putonghua until he went to school at age nine. Today he has hardly anyone to talk to in his native tongue.

Ji is an ethnic Manchu - a descendant of a nomadic tribe from northeastern China that became the imperial rulers of the country for more than 250 years. He is one of fewer than 100 remaining Manchus with a working grasp of the language.

Like most remaining speakers, Ji's native tongue has become rather rusty over the years as most people in his village, including his children and grandchildren, are unable to speak it.

'Even if you speak Manchu with them they don't understand,' said Ji, a farmer born and bred in remote Sanjiazi village in Heilongjiang province, where farmers grow rice and keep dairy cattle. 'And they don't want to learn anyway.'

Although there are more than 10 million people in China who are classified as ethnic Manchus - most of whom live in Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin in the northeast - linguists say that Sanjiazi is the last Manchu-speaking community in China.

Even then, only three villagers - all over 80 years old - are fluent in their native language and another 15 - above 70 years old - are conversant to some degree in their mother tongue, says Professor Zhao Aping, director of the Manchu Language and Culture Research Centre at Heilongjiang University.

The traditional nomadic lifestyle Ji knew as a boy is gone forever. And the Manchu language, which is rich in hunting terms and the names of wild animals, has never seemed more irrelevant or obsolete in the lives of the villagers.

'My grandfather took me hunting and together we would catch foxes, eagles, rabbits. But I haven't hunted for more than 40 years and children these days don't even learn to ride horses anymore,' Ji said. 'People have forgotten the Manchu language. I suppose it will disappear in 10 or 20 years - I guess this can't be helped.'

Shi Junguang, 34, is one of the few villagers who senses the urgency of saving the language, and has spent the past few years building a sound archive of old villagers talking Manchu. He knows that once they go, so too will their heritage.

The former farmer faces an uphill battle. Hardly anyone in the village is interested in preserving their ancestors' language. Most young people, who are brought up speaking Putonghua, have left the village for the cities and others stay home to grow corn, soya beans and rice.

But Shi, who took pains to learn his grandmother's native tongue, became a Manchu teacher when the village school resumed teaching the language in 2006. It is the only primary school in China offering classes in Manchu, even though it is not part of the mandatory curriculum and students only take two classes a week.

'I can see the language just disappearing,' Shi said. 'If we do nothing to preserve it, our children will blame us one day. The language is the root of our identity.'

But even with Shi's enthusiasm and the classes he teaches at the school, linguists say it will not be easy to revive Manchu. Social and economic changes as well as years of persecution of the Manchu identity mean the language is not in a fit state to survive.

One of the Tungusic languages, a family of endangered tongues in Siberia and the former Manchuria, Manchu was the language of the Qing imperial court after its conquest of China in 1644.

A mutually intelligible dialect, Xibe, survives in somewhat better shape on the other side of the country in the Qapqal Xibe autonomous county in the northwest of Xinjiang. Xibe is spoken by descendants of members of an ethnic group allied to the Manchu army sent there by Emperor Qianlong in 1764.

But the Manchu language has been in gradual decline since the population migrated to other parts of the country with the Qing court and was assimilated into the mainstream Han culture through social contact and intermarriage, despite an official policy of maintaining a separate identity.

With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the Manchu identity, with its association with the ruling class and the special privileges it enjoyed, became an embarrassing liability. During the Cultural Revolution, Manchu speakers were labelled as spies for using their mysterious tongue, forbidden from speaking it and often jailed. Many ethnic Manchus adopted Chinese surnames, changed their officially recorded ethnicity to Han, abandoned their language and hid their ancestry from others, including their children.

Although there has been a recent resurgence of interest among ethnic Manchus, some of whom take weekend classes to learn the language, linguists say it is almost impossible to stem the downward trend.

'The death of Manchu is inevitable,' Zhao said. 'When these old people in their 70s and 80s pass away, so will the language.'

According to a study by the Inner Mongolia University, 85 per cent of Sanjiazi's population were Manchu speaking in 1961. But in later studies by the Heilongjiang Manchu research centre, the figure had fallen to 50 per cent in 1986 and 18 per cent in 2002, just 186 people. Another study in 2009 found that fewer than 100 people in the region - mostly Sanjiazi residents with some living in other villages in Heilongjiang - still had some ability in Manchu.

Sanjiazi - literally 'three families' - was a close-knit community descended from three Manchu families that made up a military garrison sent there in 1674 during Emperor Kangxi's reign to defend the border against the Russians. The village was virtually cut off from mainstream Han culture until the 1950s when a road was built connecting it to the nearest town.

As Han Chinese settled in the village in subsequent decades, the linguistic environment changed dramatically, making it a necessity for the Manchu-speaking villagers to communicate in Putonghua.

Linguists say the obligatory use of Putonghua at school, the lack of Manchu lessons in the formal school curriculum and an absence of qualified teachers have also contributed to the demise of the language.

Shi and a colleague, probably the country's only primary-school Manchu teachers, are non-native speakers and rely on old textbooks that emphasise vocabulary and the language's Mongolian-derived script, rather than conversational skills.

Perhaps a greater factor in the demise of Manchu is that the villagers themselves are voluntarily giving up their own language, mainly due to the restricted social use and the perception of its low value as a tool for economic and social advancement, linguists say.

'A language needs a proper environment to thrive,' Zhao said. 'With rapid modernisation and economic development, people want to find jobs in the outside world, and the Manchu-speaking community has become out of touch with mainstream society.'

Putonghua has long been the default language in Sanjiazi. Even elderly native Manchu villagers greet each other in Putonghua, switching to Manchu only occasionally. Local people even call Manchu fan hua, the foreign language.

'Manchu is in fact already a dead language because people don't converse in it anymore,' said Professor Guo Mengxiu, who is the deputy director at the Manchu research centre in Heilongjiang.

To arrest the decline of the language, linguists are calling for government initiatives to promote the use of Manchu in education and society. They would like to see Manchu classes included in school curriculums in traditionally Manchu-speaking areas, to give residents social and economic incentives to use it.

'This is an endangered language and the task to preserve it is very urgent, yet there is no plan to save it,' said a Manchu expert who declined to be named, bemoaning the lack of a government strategy or funding to save Manchu from extinction.

Examples abound overseas of successful government programmes to resuscitate endangered languages. In Wales, government grants are given to voluntary or private-sector organisations that support activities leading to the increased use of Welsh. Charles, the Prince of Wales, has studied the language. The use of Ireland's ancient Celtic language and the minority Basque and Catalan tongues in Spain are also supported by government initiatives, including radio and television stations in regional dialects.

Experts say Manchu is among more than 3,000 endangered languages in the world that are likely to die out by the end of the century. Manchu is classified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation as 'critically endangered'.

Amid the lack of official initiatives to formally protect it, the task of the preservation of the Manchu language has been left to a handful of ethnic Manchus and scholars who are keen to preserve their roots.

Li Dan, 33, and Liu Feixiong, 27, both ethnic Manchus passionate about discovering the culture and identity of their ancestors, have been running free Sunday classes in a Beijing hutong since 2007. The classes are taught by volunteers who, like themselves, have only learned the language over a few years from the available books and dictionaries and from other non-native speakers.

'I was just curious: how did my ancestors speak?' said 25-year-old Sirdan, an auditor and amateur Manchu teacher who started learning the language four years ago.

Linguists applaud their resolve, but said their efforts would sadly not be able save the Manchu language.

'The efforts of enthusiasts will help a little bit, but not in the real sense of passing on the heritage,' Guo said, noting that native speakers had long abandoned the language. 'If the people themselves are willingly giving it up, others' efforts to save the language will be in vain.'


The number of ethnic Manchus in China

- Notable Manchus include writer Lao She (real name Shu Qingchun)