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. [Read more...]
Following a conference on the dire straits of Tungusic languages in China — virtually all of which are under threat — four very informative articles have just appeared on the Institute of Ethnic Literature site. Since they are in Chinese, I hope to summarize the best parts later, but for now, I site some basic statistics here, and follow with a brief description of the articles and list their URLs.
Tungusic languages in China: Hezhen, Evenki, Elunchun (Oroqen), Manchu and Xibe
Distribution: Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang
Populations (2010 census): 10.6 million total, of which 10,387,958 Manchu; 190,481 Xibe; 30,875 Evenki; 8,679 Elunchun; and 5,354 Hezhen
Used as mother tongue: 30,000 persons
- Proposals for measures such as bilingual education and establishment of a “linguistic and cultural eco-protection zone” for threatened Tungusic tongues.
- Interview with Dr. Chao Ke, China’s leading expert on Tungusic languages and Evenki linguistics. He recently published three books on comparative Tungusic etymology, with multi-language glossaries.
- History of field research in San Jia Village since the 1960s, famous for its population of native — but aging — Manchu speakers.
- Details of discussion at the conference by experts in various Tungusic languages, including up-to-date assessments of the state of each of the major languages, and proposals on how to address the threat of extinction.
In Antidote to Illusion, Larry Rohter reviews David Eimer’s newly published The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China:
“We say China is a country vast in territory, rich in resources and large in population,” Mao Zedong said in a 1956 speech buried deep in the fifth volume of his selected works but cited by Mr. Eimer as a likely explanation for Chinese expansionism. “As a matter of fact, it is the Han nationality whose population is large and the minority nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich.”
Turkey is the “Country of Honor” at the upcoming Beijing Int’l Book Fair (Aug 27-31), and with the help of the BIBF’s Mr. Xiao Guanglu and Ms. Tütengül Küçüker at Istanbul’s Kalem Agency, I now have a full (draft) schedule of related events.
Details such as time, venue and specific participants may change!
At the Turkish Pavilion (Hall W2)
- Frequent “mini-concerts” of Turkish music during entire book fair
- All-day Exhibitions: “Ottoman Empire through Chinese Eyes” (photos); “Cultural destinations in Turkey” (3D photos); “Domes” (holograms); and illustrations by Turkish artists; and Anatolian folk toys
- 3,000 books on display. Based on my own research, only a few dozen will be in Chinese, mind you. If translators met their deadlines, they could include a handful of contemporary novels newly rendered in Chinese such as The Lost Word by Oya Boydar, who spent several years in exile in Germany, and touches here on the sensitive topic of the Kurdish struggle for a separate homeland; Istanbul Was a Fairy Tale, by Mario Levi, descendant of a family of Sephardic Jews; two novels by Hande Altaylı (Maraz, and Aska Şeytan Karışır); Reha Çamuroğlu (Bir Anlık Gecikme); Çiler Ilhan (Sürgün); Emrah Polat (Köpek Adamlar); Ahmet Ümit (Istanbul Hatırası); Ece Vahapoğlu (Öteki); and — hopefully — what is widely regarded as the most outstanding Turkish novel of the 20th century, The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Tanpınar. For a fuller list of Turkish novels already or soon to be out in Chinese, including works by Elif Şafak, Orhan Pamuk, Canan Tan and Ayşe Kulin, see Translation Crunch.
Workshops: Traditional Turkish Arts (E1 BO2, all day)
- Calligraphy, Marbling and Illumination
Turkey’s Translation & Publication Grant Program [Read more...]
Inner Mongolia has just passed a law aimed at protecting the culture of the Elunchun (鄂伦春), also known as the Oroqen, according to an item republished at Chinawriter.com.cn (鄂伦春传统文化).
Like the Evenki portrayed in Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, the Oroqen speak a Tungusic tongue, and their population has markedly declined since the PRC was founded in 1949. Similar to the Evenki in Heilongjiang, and other Siberian peoples in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, China’s Oroqen were accused of superstitious beliefs and forced to abandon their Shamanistic rituals. For details, see The Last Oroqen Shaman of Northeast China.
A few factoids from the article at Chinawriter.com.cn:
- 1996: Authorities ban Oroqen from hunting within their “Oroqen Autonomous Banner” territory.
- 2010: Oroqen population estimated at 8,659 persons.
- 2014: “Regulations regarding protection of traditional folk culture of the Oroqen people of the Oroqen Autonomous Banner,” passed and set for implementation beginning October. It calls for a “traditional folk culture” fund, and the establishment of an “Oroqen Ecology Protection Zone” (鄂伦春生态保护区).
I note that there are four events at the 2014 Shanghai Book Fair’s International Literature Week around the theme of “translation.” The schedule is in Chinese (上海国际文学周), and I’m not sure if simultaneous interpretation will be provided — though you’d hope so since many participants are not Chinese:
Aug 12 (14:00-18:00) “Literature and Translation: Inside another Language”
- Participants: V.S. Naipaul (in China for launch of A Bend in the River in Chinese), a Hungarian author and a French linguistics expert
Aug 14 (14:00-16:30) “Translation Reception by Readers and Payback”
- Participants: American poet Robert Hass, plus a female American poet and a Chinese poet, 王家新
Aug 18 (14:00-16:00) “Looking in the Mirror: Shanghai Young Translator Salon”
- Participants: 曹元勇, 黄昱宁, 冯涛, 于是 and others
Aug 18 (16:30-18:00) “Minor Languages vs. Major Languages”
- Participants: Translator of French literature 周克希, and a literary translator from France
The first-ever all China Kazakh Literary Competition has been announced. Entries are now welcome for Kazakh-language anthologies, novels, short stories, poetry and literary criticism, as well as translations between Mandarin and Kazakh, published in China during 2010-2013.
Winners will be handsomely rewarded: 1 grand prize winner, 120,000 yuan (US$19,500); and 30,000 yuan (US$4,875) each for 4 winners in original fiction/poetry, 2 winners in the translation category, and 2 “promising new” writers under 40.
The competition is jointly sponsored by China Institute of Minority Writers and Aksay Kazakh Autonomous County in Gansu Province, with the collaboration of National Literature Magazine (民族文学).
To the best of my knowledge, this means that China now boasts three high-profile sets of awards for writing in non-Han languages: the Junma Ethnic Literary Awards, which accepts entries in all languages of China excepting hànwén, and the Duorina Mongolian Literary Prize. Nationalities Literature Magazine also recognizes excellent writing in several languages each year (2013 Awards), but only pieces published in the magazine are eligible.
We can reasonably expect new individual competitions to be launched in 2014-15 for writing in Tibetan, Uyghur and Korean, because National Literature Magazine also issues editions in these languages. The magazine, owned by the state-run China Writers Publishing Group, appears to be a driving force in popularizing mother-tongue writing — “code” for writing in languages other than pǔtōnghuà. The magazine also frequently hosts workshops which bring together magazine editors with writers and translators of a specific language. See June Training Sessions for details.
Click on 征集启事 for info on how to participate. Two interesting things about the application process: 1) Applications can be submitted by “experts,” not just publishers or the local China Writers Association; and 2) The application form does not inquire about the writer’s ethnic background. This seems to be a trend, signifying that the language of expression — rather than ethnicity as noted on one’s official I.D. — is what counts.
In Back Quarters at Number 7, Ye Guangqin recreates what it was like growing up Manchu in a traditional Beijing hutong during the early years of the New China. Once part of a prince’s stately residence, the Big Courtyard now belongs to the masses and serves as a venue for collective activities such as neighborhood meetings, or rehearsals for the Rice-Planting Dance performed on National Day.
Traditionally, at the very rear of a Qing Dynasty prince’s mansion one finds a two-floor structure that functioned to “enshroud and anchor the entire quadrangular compound.” These “back quarters” — “Number 7” in the cold military parlance of post-liberation Beijing in this tale — housed females. They were private and not easily accessible to men, even those of noble lineage, residing within the compound.
Herself a member of a Manchu family related to the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi, Ye Guangqin peppers this semi-autobiographical story with references to Manchu culture: the mysterious Zhen Gege, whose title “gege” means princess in Manchu (格格); jangkulembi (撞客), a sudden and inauspicious encounter with a spirit that can engender illness or bad fortune; and of course, the traditional art of story-telling among the Manchu that expressed itself during the Qing Dynasty both orally and through literature (Manchu Novelists).
Ironically, the fascination of two children with Grandpa Zhao’s tall tales ends in tragedy when the Cultural Revolution arrives, and Red Guards target class enemies — including remnants of the Qing ruling class.
The full text of the extract below has been published in Spring 2014 Pathlight, a quarterly featuring Chinese literature in translation. The original short story is entitled 后罩楼 and was written by Ye Guangqin (叶广芩).
* * * * *
Back Quarters at Number 7
(Original by Ye Guangqin, translated by Bruce Humes)
Grandpa Zhao was a Manchu Bannerman in one of just three elite Banners – there were eight total – personally commanded by the Emperor.
He said one of his ancestors had served in the Emperor’s personal guard at the Hall of Mental Cultivation in the Forbidden City. This relative had seen His Imperial Majesty as He wrote by a window, and watched Him strolling along palace verandas, so he must have been one of His bodyguards. How else could he have witnessed these details in the life of the True Dragon Emperor? [Read more...]