Sibe: a living Manchu language

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While it is generally acknowledged that Manchu language is nearly extinct, with only a handful of elderly speakers in the original territory of Manchuria, a very close cousin survives in the far northwest of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of the PRC.  This language is called Sibe (MSM transcription Xíbó 锡伯), and it is spoken by about 30,000 individuals among a population of about 200,000 whose ancestors were sent by the Manchu emperor to garrison the region in 1763-1764.  They never returned to their original homeland in the northeast of the empire, but have stayed continuously in the Ili Valley area of Eastern Central Asia (ECA), especially Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County / Chapchal Sibe Autonomous County.  Although the origin of the name "Siberia" is contestedPamela Crossley suggests that the Russians who were moving toward the Pacific named that vast region after the Sibe, who were well known to them.

From my many trips to the XUAR in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, I often heard about the Sibe and even encountered several of them.  The most conspicuous thing about them in contemporary society, at least so far as I was aware, was that they were renowned for their translation skills in multiple languages.  Considering their identity as the descendants of a garrison post lost in time and more than 2,000 miles from their homeland speaking a language that was and still is completely unrelated to any of the other languages (Sinitic, Uyghur, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Mongolian, Russian) of the more populous groups among whom they lived, it's understandable that they would develop skills enabling them to traverse the linguistic boundaries surrounding them.

I was prompted to think of the Sibe now because of the publication of a brief but informative article about them by Ying Ding and Alan McLean, one of whom is herself Sibe and the other who has studied the language: "The Language of the Qing Dynasty is Being Preserved in China’s Northwestern Frontier", Radii (9/25/17).

One of the most important ethno-cultural activities of the Sibe is called "Duin biya Juwan jakūn", which means "the eighteenth of the fourth month of the lunar calendar" and refers to the date on which the Sibe troops embarked on their long journey to the far west of the Manchu empire.  Here's the name of the Duin biya Juwan jakūn festival in traditional written script by Sibe professor Kicengge (left) and in a more cursive style by Manchu calligrapher Hasutai (right).

And here are four snippets of Sibe speech:

Romanized Sibe: Geren gucuse, baitakv na? Hosh (i)lahe na? Bi evad gerenofid emudan elhe sian fiansikie.

English:  “Hi, everyone, how are you? Greetings from me.”

Chinese: Gèwèi péngyǒu nǐmen hǎo ma? Wǒ zài zhèlǐ gěi dàjiā wèn ge hǎo, zhù dàjiā ānhǎo 各位朋友你们好吗?我在这里给大家问个好,祝大家安好

Romanized Sibe: Emken, Ju, Ilan

English:  “One, two, three”

Mandarin: Yī, èr, sān 一,二,三

Romanized Sibe: Duin biya Juwan jakūn

English:  “Festival of the eighteenth of the fourth lunar month”

Mandarin: Sì yuè shíbā 四月十八

Romanized Sibe: Min gev(ev) Ying sem.

English:  “My name is Ying”

Mandarin: Wǒ de míngzì shì Yǐng 我的名字是影

So, is Sibe a fossilized relic of the language of a people who left their distant homeland more than two and a half centuries ago?  And / Or is it the foundation for the rebirth of Manchu among the more than ten million people to whom that ethnicity is ascribed?

[h.t. Jichang Lulu]


  1. FM said,

    September 30, 2017 @ 1:43 pm

    Crossley's claim doesn't make sense to me. The word "Siberia" (Сибирь) was first applied to the Siberian Khanate, and seems to be derived from a Tatar endonym, as far as I can tell. What have the Sibe got to do with it?

  2. leoboiko said,

    September 30, 2017 @ 1:58 pm

    That script is very beautiful.

  3. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 30, 2017 @ 2:07 pm

    Crossley's claim doesn't make sense to me.

    Not to me either. The name Siberia was in use long before the Sibe went west, and well before the Russians reached Manchuria.

  4. Tom Allsen said,

    September 30, 2017 @ 2:32 pm

    The term Sibir is attested in the Secret History of the Mongols, 13th century. Its origin and early use has been studied by P.B. Golden, O. Pritsak and others.

  5. Ian said,

    September 30, 2017 @ 7:29 pm

    Interesting that you posted this, as I was just two days ago trying to figure out how they ended up so far away from the Tungusic homeland.

    Do you know if the traditional script is still in use in Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County, like Mongolian's is in Inner Mongolia? On a recent trip to Inner Mongolia I was thrilled with all the signs using Written Mongol, and wonder about similar scripts' prevalence in other parts of the country.

  6. Levantine said,

    September 30, 2017 @ 7:54 pm

    It's fascinating to think that the script, like the old Mongol alphabet, is derived from Syriac by way of Sogdian. Chaghatai Turkish used to use its own version, though written horizontally:

  7. J K said,

    September 30, 2017 @ 8:28 pm

    Here is an interesting case of another garrison that did assimilate linguistically, although they were moved to Hunan in the early Ming dynasty:

  8. Pamela Crossley said,

    October 1, 2017 @ 8:04 am

    crossley didn't "claim" that the name Sibe comes from Siberia or vice versa; she followed standing scholarship to say that they share an origin. if that is impossible, you will have to inform a whole generation of speculation on it.

    in response to Jichang's question, i don't the answer (it is sort of like asking whether italian is the secret to reviving latin) but it does remind me that Sibe has always been important in the international tradition of teaching Manchu, since Joseph Fletcher and Taiwan scholars like Li Hsueh-chih were taught Kwang Lu, who was a Sibe and wrote a compact history of the transfer Xinjiang (he was the father of Sibe Kjonggur), It used to be part of the pedagogy to listen to Kwang's Lu's recordings and point out his ts where "c" was written. But the exercise was based on the understanding that Sibe was a descendant of Manchu as a spoken language, or at least a dalect of it, and the QIng documents were in most cases examples of a prorgressively standardized and disciplined administrative medium –that is, assuming a kind of parallel between Arabic languages today and modern standard Arabic. Sibe cannot be the foundation of the rebirth of Qing standard Manchu, but it is a living Manchu dialect and that is a perfectly valid way of seeing its relation to the Qing documents (which had roughly this relation to spoken Manchu in the eighteenth century).

  9. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2017 @ 10:00 pm

    From Alexander Vovin:

    Just a couple of comments.

    30,000 is a population estimate. The most conservative estimate of a number of speakers probably should be around 20,000 or even 10,000. Veronika Zikmundová from Prague who actively works on Sibe is the best person to talk about it.

    If I remember correctly, the original homeland of Sibe was around Golmin šanggiyan alin, i.e. Changbaishan. The etymology of ethnonyms is a notoriously slippery ground. Šibir is indeed mentioned as one of the Forest Peoples (whose subjugation was the goal of the first independent Ǯoči's campaign) in MNT 239. Possbly it is wandering ethnonym, and also may underlie Siberian khanate. But, in any case the location of Forest Peoples seems to be a little bit far from Changbaishan. May be a connection between Xianbei < *Särpi (as recently suggested in Chinese literature) or to my taste more likely with Shiwei < *Šiwi is more realistic, but ultimately it is all guessing, and the etymologies of both Sibir' and Sibe are obscure

  10. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2017 @ 10:02 pm

    From Juha Janhunen:

    Sibe and Siberia are totally different etymons. The Xianbei-Shiwei-Sibe lineage is fairly plausible, but a connection with Mongolic *sibaxu/n 'bird' has also been mentioned, as some of these peoples used hunting birds (probably a folk etymology

  11. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2017 @ 10:03 pm

    From Peter Golden:

    I put together the material on Sibīr for the Enclopaedia of Islam (2nd ed.) IX: 531-533, some of which is now slightly dated. It also appeared in Turkish as ”Sibir” Türk Dunyası İncelemeleri Dergisi XI/1 (Yaz 2011): 181-184. There are also the various conjectures connecting it with the Turkic tribe, Sabirs (Säbir/Sabïr?) etc. mentioned in Byzantine, Islamic and Armenian sources (if the Sevordik’ are indeed them). The data has been presented by Gyula Németh, A honfoglaló magyarság kialakulása 2nd ed. (Budapest, 1991): 149-150 and J. Harmatta, “Az onogur vándorlás” Magyar Nyelv 87/3 (1992): 257-258. The Xianbei > Sabir > Siberia theory has also been discussed by O. Pritsak, “From the Säbirs to the Hungarians” In: Hungaro-Turcica. Studies in Honor of Julius Németh, ed. Gy. Káldy-Nagy (Budapest, 1976): 17-30 (an article filled with conjectures) and touched on in my “Etimologija etnonima Sabir” In: Čuvašskij gumanitarnyj vestnik, No. 10 (2025): 15-24, in which the possibility of such a connection is offered only with caution. Yes, the etymology of Sibir’ is, indeed, “obscure.”

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