Manchu illiteracy

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Devin Fitzgerald, who works on Qing manuscripts at Harvard, posted an image on Twitter showing some of the difficulties that pre-conquest Qing archivists had with Chinese characters:

Devin notes:  "The corner has the first lines of the Bǎi jiā xìng 百家姓 ("Hundred Family Surnames").  Here are the first eight surnames, in two rows of four characters each:

Zhào Qián Sūn Lǐ 趙 錢 孫 李

Zhōu Wú Zhèng Wáng 周 吳 鄭 王

You can compare these printed forms with the chicken scratches on the manuscript.

In a message to some friends, I wrote:  "Like first-year students in America".

Brendan O'Kane replied:  "Yes — I retweeted it with the comment 'Chinese-as-a-second-language learner solidarity'."

By sheer coincidence, I had just been reading an article by Thomas Vien, "No Exit in China",  also published as "This Is China's Greatest Problem (A HINT: Its Not the South China Sea)", which begins with this vignette about illiterate Manchus:

In the 18th century after a passing breeze caused him to lose his place in a book, a Chinese scholar named Xu Jun wrote this short poem: "The clear breeze is illiterate, so why does it insist on rummaging through the pages of a book?" Though this couplet was seemingly harmless, the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty (1645-1911) executed Xu in 1730 for seditious thought. The Qing, invaders from the Manchurian steppe whose dynastic name meant "clear" or "pure," were acutely sensitive to the insinuation that they were illiterate barbarians despite adopting the trappings of Chinese civilization. Countless other poets shared Xu's fate during the dynasty's infamous literary inquisitions. While this paranoia appears excessive, it was a reflection of a very real problem for the Manchus….

The pre-conquest Manchus may have been illiterate in Chinese, but some of them were literate in their own script.  You can see a sample of it in the above photograph on the bottom right.  Now I feel illiterate, because, even though I realize that it is upside down, I can't quite make sense of it — something like "songkoi cimari f/wamji banj" — not the least because "songkoi" is usually a postposition.  Perhaps some Language Log readers will do better with it.


Pamela Kyle Crossley reads the Manchu as "songkoi cimari yamji baica".  On that basis, she was able to find this article in Japanese (pdf) that includes the above photograph. The phrase means "study the evening on the basis of the morning."

Other colleagues interpret the Manchu maxim as follows:


It says songkoi cimari yamji baica, meaning roughly "in accordance with the investigation tomorrow evening."


It should read songkoi cimari yamji baica. However the last word is badly written and it reads more like baije.

It means “according to (or “in light of”)… investigate tomorrow evening”,  What "according to" refers to should come before songkoi, which is a postposition.


The text is upside down with regard to most of the Chinese characters on the sheet, and it is Manchu. The letters are relatively easy to read but I cannot make much sense of it. The words seem to be in terms of <graphemes> /phonemes/:

<suvgqui> /songkoi/ trace-GEN / according to (normally used postpositionally)
<cimari> /cimari/ tomorrow / morning
<jamzi> /yamji/ evening
<bajiza> /baija/ ? – if this was Mongolian, it could mean: wait! etc.

Altogether, there are no specific Manchu letters or diacritics (tongki fuka) in the text, which means that it could have been written before the script reform of the early 17th century, or also by a Mongol using the regular Mongolian letters.


I have just one brief comment. I think that the last word is Baija, a Manchu personal name attested in the Usu clan from Warka ba, see A Dictionary of Manchu Names by Giovanni Stary, Harrassowitz, 2000: 27.

Regardless of precisely what the Manchu saying means, it seems entirely appropriate for someone who wants to become literate in Chinese or Manchu, or in any language for that matter.

[h.t. John Colarusso; thanks to Gertraude Roth Li, Leopold Eisenlohr, Nicola Di Cosmo, Juha Janhunen, Alexander Vovin, and Tatiana Pang]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 1:10 am

    I studied Mongolian in Beijing from Inner Mongolian students at Minzu University. These teachers had been through the Mongolian-stream education system and wrote beautifully in the Mongolian script — which I personally find very difficult to write well. On the other hand, most of them wrote Chinese characters very poorly, usually in a childish style that was even worse than my own scrawl. There were a few exceptions, but in my experience the ability to write Mongolian in an attractive hand and the ability to write Chinese in an attractive hand are generally mutually exclusive.

  2. cliff arroyo said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 2:44 am

    Is there any special reason that your previous post on Vietnamese code-switching has comments turned off?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 5:45 am

    @cliff arroyo

    No particular reason. I just neglected to click that box. Thanks for reminding me.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 9:01 pm

    From a colleague:

    Why does not knowing written Chinese count as illiteracy? Is knowing written Manchu not enough?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 15, 2016 @ 9:22 pm

    From Pamela Kyle Crossley:

    i had a further thought about it. as you can see, the article does not discuss the Manchu much, but instead is talking about writing on the back of the Ming gōngwénshū 公文書 ("official document") and whether the characters are any good and so on. i had thought that the manchu might be a chéngyǔ 成语 ("set phrase") of some kind and so gave it a kind of free-standing translation. i haven't been able to find any such chéngyǔ 成语 ("set phrase"), however, and now i wonder if it is just a fragment (not a well written one) like the Chinese on the paper. songkoi is usually a post-position, which suggests a a fragmentary phrase like "… accordingly, investigate this from morning to night tomorrow." the baica verb form to me suggests that this could be a specific instruction "… accordingly, investigate this from morning to night tomorrow." or it could be an aphorism, with songkoi cimara linked together and yamji baica linked together. otherwise it is a sentence fragment with a verb but no object. on the whole i am slightly inclined toward the free-standing phrase, with the translation i suggested, but there is also the possibility of an inane sentence fragment (which could be argued on the basis of the position of songkoi).

  6. joseph williams said,

    April 16, 2016 @ 9:25 am

    Thanks you very much for this interesting post!

    I don't think this Manchu is a set phrase or aphorism, but a fragment of a sentence like Pamela Kyle Crossley suggests. I think it is translated most straightforwardly the way the article in Japanese by Zhuang Sheng linked above and comment number two above translate it as, “according to (or “in light of”)… investigate tomorrow evening” where the … is whatever would precede the preposition songkoi. I agree with Crossley's that the meaning is not "study the evening on the basis of the morning" and I'm not really even sure what that might mean in English. I thought she had maybe taken it to mean something like the Chinese xué ér shí xí zhī 學而時習之 "to review what is studied in due time."

    I am left feeling unsatisfied with this line, because who would begin by writing the half end of a sentence. In an attempt to make sense of it, I wondered if it was perhaps partly written in Mongolian. This photograph is from the published Original Manchu Archives or mǎnwényuándàng 滿文原檔, which I learned contains many passages in Mongolian. Far from illiterate, the writers of this text would on occasion switch mid-sentence from Manchu to Mongolian in their writing. Below I have pasted a link to a PDF of Professor Kuribayashi's book of Japanese translations of the Mongolian sections of this text, on the first line of page 113 one can see an example of a sentence that begins in Manchu and then quickly switches to Mongolian after a few words. Incidentally, as a student in Tokyo I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with Professor Kuribayashi at a small conference on Manchu studies in Tokyo where I am a student. He is also involved in a project of making free online digital dictionaries of Manchu and Mongolian, and I will paste that link as well in case anyone here is interested and had not heard of that resource.

    I'm convinced though that there is no Mongolian in this piece of Manchu and even considering the ambiguity of this earlier style of Manchu writing there is no way to transcribe the line except for: songkoi cimari yamji baica. Looking at the file above the c in baica does look much more like a c than a j to me in the context of the writing style of this particular text.

    That said, I have questions about the revised translation by Crossley, "… accordingly, investigate this from morning to night tomorrow." "Cimari" can mean morning or tomorrow in Manchu but is it functioning here in her translation as both in the same sentence? I wonder if cimari yamji can be taken together as a set phrase, perhaps similar to the way zhòuyè 晝夜 works in Chinese to mean day and night? I have a similar question about the meaning of the reverse "yamji cimari" as it functions in a quotation from a memorial to the throne of the Kangxi Emperor which I found translated into English on a blog posting dated September 7th, 2015 of which I am pasting the link below. The author of the blog writes that he had reservations of his translation of these two words as tomorrow evening when an eminent early manjurist Erich Hauer had translated the same line as “die ganze Nacht” or all night.

    Finally, it is mentioned on the linked Japanese article of this blog posting that everything on the image in discussion was written with a special pen for writing Manchu instead of a brush which were used to write Chinese characters traditionally. I had always assumed that Manchu and Chinese were written with the same kind of brush all along, what would a "Manchu pen" or "ジュシェン語を書く専用のペン" of this period look like?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    April 16, 2016 @ 7:21 pm

    From Pamela Kyle Crossley:

    I also had a further further thought, that I think did not get posted. That is: I think cimari yamji is zhāoxī 朝夕 ("day and night; morning and evening"), and that that is the extent of the chengyu here. So, it all seems a meaningless sentence fragment. songkoi linking to whatever came before (nothing), then cimari yamji, then baica –therefore investigate this from morning till evening. to me the meaninglessness of this suggests there is one learner of Chinese (writing not very well) on one side of the table, and a learner of Manchu (writing not very well) on the other. "

    Anyway, thanks for a pleasant excursion through Manchu. I am still very unclear whether cimari yamji became a fixed chengyu in Manchu after all, or whether songkoi cimari yamji baica (investigate the evening in light of the morning) is a chengyu itself –the internet produces no evidence. maybe for a moment a Chinese learning Manchu was playing around with zhāoxī 朝夕 ("day and night; morning and evening") cimari yamji and that was the end of it. a very interesting mystery.

  8. Wei-chieh Tsai said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 9:50 pm

    The last word of the Manchu sentence seems to be baica (to investigate, 查). Just my two sents.

  9. Klapper said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 10:54 pm

    The Jurchens earlier developed their own script in the 12th century based on the outward appearance of Chinese characters. It was used from the Jin dynasty to the Ming dynasty until some time in the early 16th century when it mysteriously totally vanished for unknown reasons and Jurchens became totally illiterate. The Jurchens under Nurhaci around eight decades later then adopted the Mongol script which became the Manchu script.

    This appears to be the only case in history of a previously literate people becoming illiterate and forced to adopt a new script.

    Jurchens were a totally illiterate people for the span of around 8 decades during the late Ming. They lost the entire corpus of literature inherited from the Jin dynasty where Classical Chinese texts were translated into Jurchen and had to reboot and restart entirely over again with translations in the new Mongolian script.

    So yes, they could be characterized as an illiterate people if referencing the correct time period but they were neither steppe people nor nomads. They were forest dwelling farmers.

    The Jurchen script was much more aesthetically pleasing than what it was succeeded by.

  10. Hasuran said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 2:07 am

    I agree with Pamela Kyle Crossley's suggestion, the Manchu words are songkoi cimari yamji baica. According to traditional tongki fuka akū hergen (old Manchu), the last syllable of the last word is a very typical "ca" rather than "je". The dot on "a" might be a stain.

    And I don't think songkoi cimari yamji baica is a set phrase. I believe the fragment is from 滿文原檔 published by National Palace Museum, therefore, it's more likely a record of orders or events. According to the usage of of songkoi, there should be some other words in front on the former page (it looks like an end of a paragraph), which means "in accordance with blah blah". And for cimari yamji, the meaning is literally "tomorrow evening". I understand cimari has another meaning of "(early) morning", but if you check traditional literature, you'll find it always goes "yamji cimari" as 朝夕, rather than cimari yamji, and I believe it is a way to avoid ambiguity. For example, "Be ioi ioi aha be morin elgeme unggifi, tereci yamji cimari emu bade bi" in Liao Zhai Zhi Yi 聊斋志异 (白命奴牵马去,遂共晨夕); and "yamji cimari dahame šusiha jafara, tufun gidara oho de, bececi inu joo kai" in Chapter 28, ilan gurun i bithe 三国演义 (早晚执鞭随镫,死亦甘心).

    In sum, I suggest that songkoi cimari yamji baica means "in accordance with something (written in the front page), investigate tomorrow evening".

  11. Guillaume said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 6:42 am

    Maybe the whole thing isn't so mysterious.

    Cananggi yamji and sikse yamji both exist (Ciyoo liyan ju, p. 170 & 171; Manju monggo gisun i ališara tookan bithe, see and it seems that they mean "(the day before) yesterday evening". So why wouldn't cimari yamji mean "tomorrow evening"?

    And apparently songkoi can be used alone, as in the Manju gisun i oyonggo jorin i bithe (清文指要): dulba ahasi inu songkoi jabufi…
    Or in the Classic of the Odes (Kangxi translation): duin da songkoi facuhuvn be sujambi (Qianlong translation: duin da emu songko ni. facuhvn de dalikv ombini).

  12. Pamela said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 8:14 am

    This really is interesting! Guillaume asks, "So why wouldn't cimari yamji mean "tomorrow evening"?" it could. i still think cimari yamji is 朝夕. there are ways in manchu to indicate when a particular thing is suppopsed to happen, and so yamji or baica could be modified if this was meant to be a specific one-time instruction for "tomorrow." although i do like the imperative "baica" in relation to Guillaume's suggestion. i think it means 則朝夕察. but not because there is no possibility of another meaning. i appreciate the comments on songkoi, which again raises the question of some kind of chengyu here.

  13. Hasuran said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 9:09 am

    The examples of songkoi Guillaume mentioned are not that convincing to me. In the fisrt sentence, songkoi is not truly used alone. The whole sentence is "gūnihakū sini beye jihede, dulba ahasi inu songkoi yabufi unggihakū", so here songkoi is an ellipsis of clause, such like "mini gisun i songkoi". It still can be easily understood by omitting the words before songkoi, which doesn't mean songloi is used alone.

    In the second sentence, to me, songkoi here more likely means "songko" (trace) rather than "in accordance with". In early Manchu, the word songkoi also meant trace (Shunzhi & Kangxi reign). One example is in ilan gurun i bithe 三国演义, published in Shunzhi reign, Chapter 41, "emu udu moringga be gaifi, amasi fe songkoi genere de tuwaci, emu jiyanggiyūn gala de gida jafahabi, loho be alamihabi", and original Chinese context is written as "引数骑再回旧路正走之间,见一将手提铁枪背着一口剑". Fe songkoi here obviously means "the old trace".

    Therefore, I don't agree that songkoi (in accordance with) can be used alone, at least not by these two examples.

  14. Hasuran said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 9:54 am

    And again, for Professor Crossley's opinion on cimari yamji, I don't think it is 朝夕.

    As I mentioned in my first post, if it meant 朝夕 here, it would be written as yamji cimari rather than cimari yamji, you can find dozens of examples in books written in Qing dynasty. Ambiguity like "朝夕 or tomorrow evening" would be avoided in Manchu in most cases (the hardest ambiguity that bothers me is partial negation involves the word gemu in Manchu).

    Actually I don't think the question is as complicated. It is a fragment on 满文原档, so we can check the original context, and see what is written on the former page. To me, it is very obvious that it says ejen told someone to investigate tomorrow morning, in light of something.

  15. Guillaume said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 2:57 am

    "(…) so here songkoi is an ellipsis of clause, such like "mini gisun i songkoi". It still can be easily understood by omitting the words before songkoi, which doesn't mean songloi is used alone."

    Well, I don't really see where we disagree. When I wrote "is used alone" it was to emphasize that songkoi is not always used truly as a postposition, i. e. that it is not always preceded by its complement. This does not of course rule out ellipsis. The example I quoted seems to me quite comparable to the one discussed in this post in that songkoi has no (written) complement but refers to something said/written before.

    As for "fe songkoi", since at some point it became a set phrase meaning "as before", I would be wary of translating it as "old trace", especially using the Three Kingdoms, the Manchu translation of which has a complex textual history. But I readily admit I have not probed this question much further.

  16. Guillaume said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 3:13 am

    Just to clarify my last comment, I meant that using a/the Chinese text of the Three Kingdoms to explain a Manchu phrase seems dangerous to me since the Manchu translation somehow adapted the text and may even have used Chinese editions not extant anymore (source:

  17. Hasuran said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 4:53 am


    Thank you for your comments! I think this is a very interesting discussion.

    First, I have to say sorry that I misunderstood your comment about "used alone". I think for the case of this fragment, there might be a complement written on the previous page, since it looks like an end of a paragraph recorded in 满文原档. But anyway, i think we have consensus on this point that songkoi means "in accordance with" here.

    And also, I would like to talk more about the word songkoi and its usage. I hope my following ramble doesn't bother you. :-)

    FYI, you may find trace as one of songkoi's meanings in the dictionary Daicing Gurun i Yooni Bithe 大清全书. I think this explains the difference between songkoi and songko used in Kangxi translation and Qianlong transition.

    And I have to further explain here that I put Chinese text with Manchu translation just for better understanding. Even review the phrase from purely Manchu language itself, I doubt if "fe songkoi" could be interpreted as "as before". At least it doesn't work out for me. Fe refers to old, rather than before. To say "as before", the correct word is da, such as da (i) songkoi and (da) an i. Or we may also say "songko de songkoi", and if we want to use fe here, we have to put it as "fe kooli songkoi". Can kooli be omitted here? I don't think so.

    Furthermore, we can also study the meaning of "fe songkoi" from the Manchu context. The previous episode describes that Zhao Yun (赵云) was looking for Mi Furen (糜夫人) and A Dou (阿斗) before he met Zhang Fei, who questioned him if he had betrayed their Master Liu Bei. Zhao Yun cleared the air with Zhang Fei, grabbed a troop and went back to continue looking for Mi Furen and A Dou. So the sentence wrote as "emu udu moringga be gaifi, amasi fe songkoi genere…" The Chinese text in bilingual version here was written as "引数骑再回旧路". And I think the Manchu translation was even more accurate, since it didn't literally translate as "fe jugvn" (maybe because they used one of Jiajing editions 嘉靖本 as original edition), but used "fe songkoi" (the old trace), which emphasized Zhao Yun followed the "old trace" that he had just walked through to looking for his Masters. So it doesn't make any sense, if we interpret this phrase to be "as before".

    In short, it's really interesting to compare early Manchu language and Manchu after Qianlong reign, and we should really cautious on this point. Early Manchu language has a lot of mysteries in details.

  18. Guillaume said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 6:21 am

    Thanks for your detailed analysis of the Ilan gurun i bithe's sentence.
    I guess this whole discussion emphasizes the need for better lexicographical tools in the field of Manchu studies.

    Just to comment further on fe songkoi, it does (at least sometimes) mean "as before" in the sense of "as was done before", "as is customary". See for instance, Di Cosmo, A Set of Documents, CAJ 41/2, 1997, p. 171, where Doc. I, p. 2a has …jaka be we [sic] songkoi hvda arafi. The plate (p. 182) makes it clear that fe is written.

    Is this a late development or was this meaning already available at the time the Ilan gurun i bithe was written? I don't know.

  19. Pamela said,

    April 24, 2016 @ 2:22 pm

    Half the posts I make here don't actually get posted, but here goes: This is a great discussion and I like the diversion into Sanguo yanyi. Those uses of songkoi all make sense, but I am puzzled by this comment in an earlier note:
    "As I mentioned in my first post, if it meant 朝夕 here, it would be written as yamji cimari rather than cimari yamji, you can find dozens of examples in books written in Qing dynasty."
    Yes, yamji cimari is very common and easy to find. Why would one expect 朝夕 to translated as yamji cimari? That is in the inverse. yamji cimari, commonly found, is 夕朝, all through the night. Cimari yamji, uncommonly found, can be I 朝夕, all through the day. I am saying that 朝夕 would appear in Manchu as cimari yamji, which it would –I am not saying that it is the only solution for the phrase here. Moreover, one would expect 朝夕 to be followed by a [imperative] verb –which it is here. I'm only puzzled as to why 朝夕 is excluded because one would expect it to be reversed in Manchu. That doesn't make sense to me. I think this is a stylistic contraction of cimari erde ci yamji de –contracted because of its correspondence to 朝夕. I'm saying, it seems to me more likely that this means 朝夕 than that it means "tomorrow night."

  20. Victor Mair said,

    April 25, 2016 @ 6:20 pm

    From Steve Wadley:

    It is not inverted (i.e. mirror-image) it is simply upside down. My best guess is that it says: …songkoi cimari yamji baica "…so, check [it] tomorrow night." but I could be wrong. songkoi is a postposition meaning "in accordance with…," so if that is what it is, the sentence is starting in the middle of a thought. The yamji actually looks like jamji but that isn't a word and cimari yamji seems to make more sense. I'm thinking what looks like a "j" is actually a "y" (they are close in form). The last word also actually looks like baije but that isn't a word either so I'm thinking the dot on the right isn't part of the word and what looks like a "j" is actually a sloppy "c." To me it looks like doodling and that would be my idea of a sentence that might be doodled. But like I say, without context I may be way off.

  21. Pamela said,

    April 26, 2016 @ 5:13 pm

    no i don't mean inverted with respect to image. i referrring to comment that 朝夕would be yamji cimari (a common phrase). that seems inverted. i can't understand that comment –that's where im referring to inverted.

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