Tungusic Twilight: Languages of Reindeer-herding Evenki and China’s Last Dynasty Threatened with Extinction

The mid-term outlook for the five main Tungusic tongues of the People’s Republic — Manchu, Xibe, Evenki, Elunchun and Hezhen — is frankly bleak, at least insofar as classifying as “living languages.” Such is the impression one gets from China’s linguistic experts who spoke at the “Academic Conference: Tungusic Language & Culture Under Threat,” held on July 28, 2014, at Heilongjiang University.

This post summarizes a Chinese-language news report on the conference published by Chinese Social Sciences Today (抢救临危语言). I’ve also added comments of my own, and done my best to separate the two.

Granted, according to a 2010 census, there are reportedly more than ten million people — over 95 percent Manchu — who claim to belong to one of these five ethnicities, living mainly in Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Beijing, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang (Xibe speakers). But only a tiny fraction of them speak the language of their people fluently. For instance, according to fairly recent field research noted at the conference, there are less than 100 native speakers of Manchu in Heilongjiang villages. A study of Hezhen people who live in settlements with other members of their ethnicity found that even there, less than one percent classify as speakers of the language, and they too are over 60.

There is more hope for Elunchun (Oroqen), it appears. According to researcher Han Youfeng (韩有峰), himself an Elunchun, in areas where the Elunchun live together in a community with their own ethnicity, most residents can converse in the language. But as Elunchun intermarry with other ethnic groups, reside separately and have less daily contact with others of their ethnic group, a different dynamic kicks in: some twenty-year-olds can understand the language but not speak it, while some ten-year-olds can neither speak nor understand it.

The phenomenon of those between 20-50 years of age who cannot speak and can only understand some of their people’s language is widespread among the Aolugyua Evenki, a Siberian people whose 20th-century odyssey was fictionalized in Chi Zijian’s novel, Last Quarter of the Moon. In it, they eventually vote to move out of the Greater Khingan Mountains, where they have herded reindeer and hunted for centuries, to a “fixed settlement” near Genhe City in Inner Mongolia. The article notes that Genhe City primary schools recently established classes to teach the Aoluguya dialect of Evenki.

Personally, I was most impressed by the ideas expressed by Tang Ge (唐戈), a professor at Heilongjiang University, which hosts the Heilongjiang University Center for Tungusic Language and Culture Research. He emphasized that each language and dialect needs to be classified into one of three categories: 1) Those which are still, technically speaking, “not under threat” (Xibe and the Solon dialect of Evenki); 2) Those currently “under threat” (Elunchun and the Aoluguya dialect of Evenki); and 3) Those “under extreme threat” (Manchu and Hezhen). It follows that the strategy for documenting and/or reviving the three needs to be somewhat different.

The article concludes with what are clearly heart-felt, genuine proposals from five experts on how to deal with the threat to these Tungusic languages. They include compilation of dictionaries, textbooks, classroom teaching, funds for researching and documenting dying languages, training of both teachers and researchers, and so forth.

Aside from many hours of online reading re: the Evenki that I did while researching my translation of Last Quarter of the Moon aside, I can claim no knowledge of the issues whatsoever. But several things strike me about the report on this conference:

No mention of Tungusic speakers located outside the borders of the People’s Republic of China

  • For instance, about one-half of the world’s Evenki population lives in Russia on the other side of the Amur River (Heilongjiang), many of them in an autonomous region called Evenkiya. I couldn’t help wondering: How easy — or difficult — is it for Evenki on both sides of the border to meet? Is the language of Russia’s Evenki under threat too? What, if anything, is being done about it?

No mention of studies carried out by international experts in Tungusic culture and language

No discussion of strategies for dealing with the fact that Evenki, Elunchun and Hezhen have no “official” script, and what that means to those who intend to teach it

  • The first Evenki script was invented by the Russians in the 1930s, and an updated form of it is reportedly used in school textbooks there. I have seen mentions of some efforts to develop a script for Evenki in the PRC, but I don’t believe it has yet been popularized or used in textbooks. The reading that I have done about dictionaries in China indicates that until the central authorities give the stamp of approval to a given experimental script, it is very difficult to get the necessary funds to compile a dictionary. It is well known among experts that the best multilingual dictionaries for Evenki are not compiled in China; they are Russian.

No suggestion of widening the teaching of endangered languages to include Han students

  • My own reading over the years indicates that one of the key reasons younger members of ethnic groups in China reject the language of their parents is that it is perceived as “inferior.” There is a telling phrase among Mongolian speakers that I have seen cited in the press: 蒙古语无用论 (lit, Mongolian is good-for-nothing). As long as minority languages are taught solely to members of a minority, they will be seen as “not-for-us” by mainstream students, and thus disdained by all, not just the Han. In areas with a significant population of non-Han, some school-time spent encouraging the use of the indigenous language by all students — and not just “them”— might have a surprisingly positive impact on all the students. This would not necessarily mean a class, taught in the formal way, with the inevitable exams; teaching through singing and games, or emphasizing culture together with some use of the spoken language, might be a better approach, particularly for primary school students. As I understand it, during the DPP’s time in power in the early 2000s, Taiwanese schools reportedly required students to study a second “local Taiwanese language”, i.e., either Minnan yu (if they were native Mandarin speakers at home), or a non-Sinitic, indigenous language of one of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples. I don’t know how widespread this was, or how successful; but it sounded like an interesting experiment to me.

The goal: to revive the language as a living tool for communication, raise the esteem of its speakers, and cultivate a handful of young students — minority and Han — who might just go on to become the skilled linguists needed to research, document and teach these threatened languages.

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