Manchurian: 10 Million Manchus, A Handful of Native Speakers

The language of the last imperial dynasty to rule China, a Tungusic tongue called Manchurian (满洲话), will soon be accessible only in dictionaries. Verna Yu reports for the South China Morning Post from Sanjiazi village, Heilongjiang, in A Language Lost:

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.

For those readers who can’t get beyond SCMP’s pay wall, a few factoids noted in the article:

  • A mutually intelligible dialect, Xibe (Sibo), survives in the Qapqal Xibe autonomous county in the northwest of Xinjiang, spoken by descendants of an ethnic group allied to the Manchu army sent there by Emperor Qianlong in 1764.
  • 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.
Other Tungusic tongues include those in the Northern Tungusic (Evenki), Southern (Nanai) and Southwestern (Jurchen) groups.

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