A rebirth for Manchu?

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Manchu was the language of the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, which ruled from 1644-1912, and had two of its emperors (Kangxi, Qianlong) each rule for 60 years or more.

Today, out of nearly ten million ethnic Manchus, fewer than one hundred can still speak the language fluently, and it is generally regarded as being on the brink of extinction.

From time to time, we have mentioned Manchu on Language Log, e.g., "Manchu loans in northeast Mandarin" (10/7/13).

We have also noted a related tongue, Sibe (a Manchu language that survives in Xinjiang, the westernmost region of China).  Note that linguists generally consider Sibe to be a separate language, not a dialect of Manchu.

In a recent post, we looked carefully at "Spoken Sanskrit" (1/9/16), and this led to lively discussions of language revivals, with Hebrew being cited as a successful example.  This leads to a consideration of the possibility that the existence of Sibe in a remote part of Xinjiang, where their ancestors were sent as a military garrison by the Qing government in 1764, might serve as a basis from which to bring Manchu back to life.

"Manchu, Former Empire’s Language, Hangs On at China’s Edge" (1/11/16)

It is noteworthy that the Sibe in Xinjiang often serve as multilingual translators.

When I listen to Sibe being sung, it's almost exactly what I imagined Manchu would sound like when I have had occasion to read texts in that language:

"In Song, a Remnant of China’s Former Imperial Language" (1/14/16)

I am of the opinion that if enough Manchus have the resolve to resurrect their mother tongue, with Sibe serving as a model on which to base their efforts, it can be done.  What is needed are individuals with leadership qualities who are committed to the task.

[h/t Ben Zimmer, Roslyn Blyn, and Stefan Krasowski]


  1. Thorin said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 9:54 pm

    This reminds me of something I would love your opinion on Victor (although I completely understand if you'd rather not derail the subject of the original post by providing your opinion). I recently came across Jung Chang's "Empress Dowager Cixi", which appears to have polarized its reviewers. Would you consider it a reliable source of information on her life and on Manchu culture in China during her reign?

  2. AlexB said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 6:55 am

    In Korean historical dramas/movies I have come across Manchu characters (or at least people who look very Manchu to me), and who are subtitled in Korean. I've always assumed that these were speaking Manchu. Is this actually the case, and if so, how do the actors learn their lines?

  3. julie lee said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 1:26 am

    I just went to Youtube and watched a Xibe song and dance performance and also heard songs in Xibe and in Manchu. The video continued into Kirghiz songs. All very enjoyable.

  4. Jongseong Park said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

    @AlexB, this is indeed the case in a few recent Korean historical films and TV series. Manchu was prominently featured in the film War of the Arrows (2011)—towards the end of the film, most of the dialogue was in Manchu. This led to a surge of interest in the language among Koreans. The TV series Cruel Palace: War of Flowers (2013) also featured Manchu. The earliest instance of Manchu appearing in a Korean production that I know of is the film Heaven’s Soldiers (2005).

    The actors portraying the Manchus are usually (probably exclusively) Korean, and they learn the lines phonetically, given that none of them actually speak the language. For War of the Arrows, a professor and an instructor from Korea University translated the lines spoken by Manchu characters in the script into Manchu and trained the actors to pronounce them correctly. I'm curious how their efforts would be judged by those who are more knowledgeable about the correct sounds of Manchu. I know that Mongol lines delivered by Korean actors in historical dramas are said to be quite atrocious.

  5. Jongseong Park said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 1:07 pm

    The actors portraying the Manchus are usually (probably exclusively) Korean

    Actually, I've just found out that in War of the Arrows one of the Manchu characters was portrayed by Ryohei Otani from Japan.

  6. Eidolon said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 2:30 pm

    Even without Sibe serving as a model, the language can be revived, as there are still living speakers and the fact that it was written with an alphabet makes it possible to reconstruct the sounds. But incentive is lacking on a wider scale, as there are few practical benefits to speaking Manchu today. There will always be a few people who learn languages for the sake of continuing a cultural tradition, but the masses, in my experience, care primarily about what is expedient.

  7. AlexB said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 9:00 am

    @Jongseong Park Thank you for clearing that up. I was mainly thinking of War of the Arrows, but I had forgotten the title.
    I have wondered about the quality of the Manchu as well. If the quality of English in Kpop is anything to go by, it could be quite dodgy.

  8. Jongseong Park said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 10:25 am

    A fairer comparison would be with the delivery of the lines spoken in English, Japanese, or Chinese by Korean actors in Korean production, though the comparison isn't perfect because in many such cases the actors do have at least a rudimentary command of the language they speak on film. I can only really judge the English (though sometimes the Korean accent can be obvious in Japanese or Chinese lines), and a couple of egregious instances come to mind.

    One is Joint Security Area (2000), where the character of the Swiss Army major with a Korean father and a Swiss mother inexplicably speaks English with a Korean accent and flawless Korean with no trace of an accent. She is played by the actress Lee Young-ae, who obviously doesn't look like she has a European parent.

    Another is Take Off (2009), which had a Korean-born American adoptee who returns to Korea to represent his country of birth in ski jumping. The character, played by a Korean actor Ha Jung-woo, again speaks the kind of flawless Korean that I have never seen in a Korean-born adoptee raised outside of Korea, while his accent in English isn't convincing (though Korean audiences seemed to think it wasn't bad).

    It is perhaps understandable that Korean studios will entrust these roles to bankable Korean stars rather than actors whose backgrounds would be more suitable (e.g. Korean-European or Korean-American), but apart from these casting choices the unrealistic expectation built into the script that people raised outside of Korea their whole lives would speak perfect Korean just because they are of Korean descent make you roll your eyes.

    Anyway, the representation of Manchu on screen would represent a very different case from that of more widely spoken languages, of course. There are few left in the world who would even be able to tell if the Korean actors in War of the Arrows did a convincing job. If you're curious, you should be able to find some short video clips online with this search.

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