Manchu film

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Xinhua claims "Yīnggē lǐng chuánqí 莺歌岭传奇" ("Legend of Yingge Ridge") to be the first film in the Manchu language. I could only find this trailer for it on Tudou (Manchu speaking appears to start around 2 minutes in).

The Tudou link doesn't work well, has too many intrusive ads, and requires Flash.  Use this YouTube version which is much, much better.  But what sort of resurrected Manchu is this?  It sounds oddly like Korean to me, and at least one Korean friend says that — more so than Mongol — it makes him feel as though he should be able to understand it, but of course he cannot.

There are, however, some fundamental problems with this film.

From Pamela Crossley:

What I heard was pretty standard Manchu, some taken from folk songs. This is totally inappropriate, of course. Yinggeling is a famous archeological site (at least one book that I’ve used in the past, for an article on Balhae published last year in the international journal of Korean studies, is entirely based on studies from it), mostly yielding artifacts from 3000 to 1000 years before present. If they should be speaking a Tungusic language at all, it should be, at the most modern, Balhae (and nobody knows more than a few words of that). But, it’s the thought that counts!

On the Yinggeling site, see Sarah Milledge Nelson, The Archaeology of Northeast China:  Beyond the Great Wall ( London and New York : Routledge, 1995), pp. 122 ff. and this note by Crossley from her “Bohai / Parhae Identity and the Coherence of Dan gur under the Kitan/Liao Empire [KCI 등재후보] in 고려대학교 한국사연구소, International Journal of Korean History 21(1), 2016.2, 11-45:

Bohai had a system of multiple capitals that was influential in later Northeastern political history, but from about 755 its primary capital was at Huhancheng. The Huhancheng site is Bohai zhen 渤海镇, part of Ning’an shi 宁安市,  Mudanjiang, in Heilongjiang province of China. In Tang records this settlement was in the administrative district of Longquan fu 龍泉府, and Xin Tang shu 新唐書 (北狄列傳) comments that it was an ancient territory of the Sushen 肅慎. See also Song, “The Capital Sites of the Bohai Kingdom.” Archeologically this is the Yinggeling 莺歌岭 site, under the administration of the Heilongjiang Provincial Museum; artifacts from the site appear to go back about at least 4000 years and show the area to have been extensively agricultural during that time. See Nelson, ed., The Archeology of Northeast China:122-125.

Randy Alexander:

It sounds clearer than any Manchu that I've heard spoken.  Maybe this is along the lines of what is done in Chinese movies, where everyone sounds like news reporters carefully enunciating all the lines.

Randy also said that he posted the links to a Manchu study WeChat group in Jilin and one of the members said the pronunciation has some blemishes, and basically they are speaking book language.

From Nicola Di Cosmo:

There is some stilted Manchu there, but everything else looks weird.  Where did they get those costumes from?

For a pretty good reconstruction of spoken 17th-century Manchu, check out the Korean historic movie “War of the Arrows”.  The Manchus actually speak Manchu, which sounds quite authentic. This is the full movie (with Vietnamese subtitles).  For a Manchu conversation go to 42:35.

If they can speak Manchu in movies, how hard would it be for them to speak Manchu in daily life?

[Thanks to Jeff Keller and Evelyn Rawski]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 9:45 am

    From Mark Elliott:

    It’s Manchu, alright. They deserve an A for effort, I’d say. When the girl calls out to “Abka” (her father? Could he be named “Heaven”?) “not to go” 你别去 though, what she says is genehekv, “you didn’t go.” She should have said ume gene. Didn’t check the rest, but you can make it out pretty clearly.

  2. Jongseong Park said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    In the Korean film War of the Arrows, the Manchu characters are played by Korean actors who have learnt the Manchu lines phonetically with the help of a Manchu language instructor (who is Korean) as the language coach.

  3. Pamela Crossley said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 3:36 pm

    yes, "war of the arrows" has manchu in it (for some reason i have a memory of another korean film that also had some manchu dialogue) and it is has pretty tight and credible historical context, in which the use of manchu makes sense.

    i can't tell from the trailer what the plot of the chinese movie is, apart from the fact that has to do with a modern love story among archeology students that parallels some ancient drama that they might or might not know about. given that, it seems impossible to me that there are any credible manchu connections, as the site is much older and the people are dressed as paleolithics, or malgae, balhae or very early jurchens. i think they are just using manchu as a place-holder for fur-wearing barbarian X language. anyway, if it is about any point in historical time, the romanticized barbarians should be farming and wearing hemp, since the archeology indicates strong early agricultural and some urban development.

    strangely there is a place in taiwan that is presently called 鶯歌 but was earlier called 鶯哥 in honor of some singing rocks that were able to cast spells on passers-by until 國姓爺 had his soldiers destroyed it with cannonfire. that's a good story and with a little resourcefulness you can work manchu into it if you want to.

  4. Jichang Lulu said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 5:02 pm

    According to Chinese news reports, the film was produced in Ning'an by/with the local government. Someone called Gao Xinguang 高新光 is credited as a consultant for the film. He's described elsewhere as a specialist in Manchu, so he might have been involved in producing the Manchu script and coaching the actors. I can't judge the Manchu myself, but based on the comments by specialists here they seem to have done a decent job, assuming the goal was standard Manchu. Coming up with an entire script with extended passages in Manchu seems no small feat. Indeed, if the action was at some point mid-Qing, the pronunciation and grammar produced by modern Manchu scholars would be less anachronistic than something modelled on modern forms, like Xibe or the speech of the remaining Manchu native speakers elsewhere in Heilongjiang (primarily in a village called Sanjiazi in Qiqihar – where if I remember correctly a tonal or accentual system has developed).

    But as Pamela Crossley says, Manchu is anachronistic here. The story I linked to says the film is about the Sushen 肃慎, a people living in Manchuria a few centuries BCE, or possibly a name used for different peoples at different times, or a generic name for tribes from a certain region. There are claims that the Sushen were Tungusic, and therefore could have spoken a language related (but not necessarily ancestral) to Manchu. So even assuming the Sushen did speak a Tungusic language, Manchu is off by perhaps two thousand years. If they wanted to make a film in Manchu, perhaps they could have come up with a locally relevant plot in the 16 or 17th century (which wouldn't have been difficult considering the centrality of what's now Ning'an in Manchu history).

    Anyway, Sushen speaking Manchu isn't that different from Julius Caesar speaking Italian or Confucius speaking Mandarin, and in a certain sense Manchu is the best approximation it was feasible to write a script in. At any rate I think it would be interesting to have a film in Manchu even if it was about Julius Caesar meeting Elvis on the Moon.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 7:00 pm

    From Juha Janhunen:

    I did not manage to listen to the Manchu film, but I was some months ago contacted by the National Geographic in connection with a film they are making – in South Africa – about the fall of Kaifeng (1234). They wanted the Jurchen to speak Jurchen, and they asked me to translate the required passages. I delegated the job to my student Eero Talvitie, who is good at Jin period Jurchen, and he did the translations. However, the Chinese actors refused to speak anything but Chinese, so the film will be in Chinese only – at least this is what they told Eero.

  6. Jongseong Park said,

    January 1, 2017 @ 3:34 am

    There are a couple of other Korean films and series featuring dialogue in Manchu, though probably none to the extent of War of the Arrows. The 2005 time-travel film Heaven's Soldiers apparently features 16th-century pre-Qing Jurchen invaders speaking Manchu, and in the 2013 TV series Cruel Palace: War of Flowers, a historical drama set in King Injo's court in Joseon, the Qing characters speak Manchu. I've only seen War of the Arrows, not the rest.

  7. Eidolon said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 7:48 pm

    The more pressing question is why go through the trouble of using *coached* Manchu, when it is obviously anachronistic? It is indeed like bringing in Italian speakers to substitute for common Latin in a movie about the Roman Empire, which would seem absurd. I suppose it makes a bit more sense in a faux time travel movie – faux, I assume, because the time travel plot device was banned by the Chinese government, since you have to create a contrast between the modern day students' language & the language of the time. But since it is currently impossible to reconstruct the language of the time, they might as well be speaking gibberish, and it is certainly historically inaccurate to pretend that Qing era Manchu was what was spoken back then.

    In my opinion, either there is a political motivation behind making Manchu the language, which is possible given that there is a history conflict between the Chinese and Korean governments over the heritage of Balhae, or the producers simply chose a poor subject matter and had to make a compromise because of it. It is not uncommon for Jurchens, Khitans, etc. to be portrayed as speaking Standard Mandarin in Chinese dramas, just as Romans are portrayed as speaking English in HBO dramas, so much of this is added effort & production costs for little gain, since it isn't even remotely accurate.

  8. Berkeley Student said,

    January 12, 2017 @ 4:12 pm

    You guys are my heroes. All my favorite researchers and scholars talking all at once ;_;

  9. Chesterton Fu said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 6:25 pm

    >Manchu, Korean etc pronounciation

    There isn't exactly one way to conceive of how Northeastern Asian languages are pronounced. Just like Japanese dialects, Korean ones run the gambit. One can only wonder how far apart the different forms of Jurchen were from each other, as the geography of Jurchen territories was much more expansive and landscape diverse with far less centralized political order. Tsuguru of Aomori will sound alien to Kyushu-ben speakers. Likewise the most insular speeches in the mountain villages of North Korea compared with southern provinces.

    The North Korean state TV Youtube channel Uriminzokkiri is a great place to explore the linguistic landscape of North Korea.

    Also there are many video clips on the web of perfectly perserved neighboring languages of Manchu being spoken like Daur, Khorchin Mongolian, Oroqen, Evenki along with Even, Hezhen/Nanai, Udege, Ulchi, Nivkh as well as Northeastern Mandarin varieties that kept features before the Chuang Guangdong and Qapqal Xibe spoken by the elderly. One can get a more intuitive sense/feel how Jurchen would be spoken before the modern era.

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