Manchu

Manchu

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An endangered alphabet is usually the sign of a fallen kingdom. Manchu is perhaps the only example of an imperial script that fell from grace – indeed, fell almost into extinction – even while its empire continued to flourish.
The striking vertical Manchu alphabet was proposed in 1599 when the Manchu leader Nurhaci ordered his secretary, Erdeni Baksi, and his prime minister, Gagai, to adapt the traditional Mongol script – already identified with the epic military conquests of Genghis Khan – for use with the Manchu language.
Gagai protested that the conversion would be extremely difficult, but he was soon put to death for an unrelated offence, and the task was completed by Erdeni. It was a natural transition. Nurhaci already employed scribes who were literate in Mongolian and kept records in Mongolian, and Manchu leadership modelled itself in a number of respects on its Mongolian predecessors: language and literary forms, horse-raising and hunting on horseback (necessary for the development of a swift and efficient cavalry, as important to the conquest of China as it had been to the Mongol conquests), the use of slave and serf labour and some elements of military organization and civil administration.
By 1636, the Manchus proclaimed the last great dynasty, the Qing, which ruled China proper from 1644 until 1911. During the first decades of the Qing dynasty, Manchus were required to learn Chinese, and Chinese were encouraged to learn Manchu. For a variety of reasons, though, it was not a happy marriage, and a slow, reverse linguistic conquest took place. By mid-century, Chinese was overtaking Manchu: the emperor ordered the teaching of Chinese to be abandoned, and instead established schools to teach Manchu. By the early eighteenth century, many high officials could not read Manchu, and by the end of the century, even the palace household staff could not speak Manchu with the emperor. Officially, Manchu was the language of government and scholarship – in the Beijing First Historical Archives the catalogue of Manchu documents takes up 107 volumes listing over 1,500,000 documents in Manchu – but in everyday terms, Chinese became dominant.
At the start of the twentieth century, a French observer wrote:
This language is still in theory the National Language of the Chinese Empire, but in reality it is disappearing day by day in the the face of the rapid invasion of the language of the Chinese. Manchu is no longer used at court, except in a minor way. In the streets of Peking … one almost never hears people speaking this language.

The anti-Manchu nationalist revolution of 1911 ended the dynasty and Manchu identity, linguistic and cultural, became a negative. By the 1950s, it was observed that only five people in Beijing knew Manchu well, and they were the curators of the Manchu archives. At the end of the twentieth century, the Manchu fall from grace was so complete that only a handful of elderly people in Heilongjiang still spoke Manchu natively, along with a variant of Manchu, Sibe, which is spoken in Xinjiang.

As elsewhere in China, there seems to be a paradoxical official attitude toward Manchu: interest in Manchu culture seems to be on the increase – the 1980s and 1990s saw a resurgence in Manchu as a subject for study, with translations, dictionaries and professional journals appearing – but as a mother tongue and its mother script, Manchu continues to decline.

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