Sibe and the revival of Manchu

« previous post | next post »

A little over a week ago, someone out of the blue called to my attention a discussion on a major social media platform about Sibe language and its alleged three writing systems:  "Old Uyghur alphabet, Latin alphabet, and Japanese-style system".  Apparently, parts of the original post were removed by the moderators because they were thought to be politically or otherwise controversial. Colleagues who are knowledgeable about such matters advised me that the thread in question represents a potential computer security risk, so I am not referring to it directly.

In any event, Sibe — with a population of less than two hundred thousand — is back in the news, and has considerable significance in various dimensions out of all proportion to its numbers.  Consequently, especially since not too long ago we had a lively discussion about Sibe here on Language Log, I thought it might be worthwhile to review some of the basic facts about this enigmatic language.

References to Sibe / Sibo / Xibe / Xibo  on Language Log and in Wikpedia below.

Brief identifications:

References to Sibe /Xibe on Language Log

Wikipedia articles

"Sibe people"

The Sibe or Xibo (ᠰᡞᠪᡝ, Sibe.png, IPA: [ɕivə]; simplified Chinese: 锡伯; traditional Chinese: 錫伯; pinyin: Xībó), are an East Asian ethnic group living mostly in Xinjiang, Jilin and Shenyang in Liaoning. The Sibe form one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by China, and had a recorded population of 190,481 in the 2010 Chinese Census, comprising just over 0.014% of China's total population.

"Xibe language"

A Tungusic language closely related to Manchu.

Finally, Pamela Kyle Crossley puts the basic facts of the matter in perspective:

Xibo is Manchu, and is mutually intelligible with it. Much of the teaching traditions of Manchu in the United States and Europe trace to Xibo speakers like Guang Lu and his son Xibo Khonggur. A dialect becomes a language, I assume, at the moment that speaking it or reading it takes on a political charge, related to "identity."

Obviously any language, including Xibo, can be written any way. I don't understand what all the comments on the o.p. are driving at. Uyghur has been written in Arabic script, in Latin script, in Manchu script, and i presume in Cyrillic script in some situations. Some of the comments seem to confuse the modern Uyghurs with the medieval Uighur khaghanate. Continuities can be very complex, but there is certainly no simple equation to be made between the two.

As always, I point to the possibility that Sibe might be used as a fulcrum for the rebirth of Manchu.  If something similar could be done for Hebrew ("Revival of the Hebrew language"), why not for Manchu?  After all, the Manchus, who ruled over China for 268 years, created one of the greatest empires in the history of humankind, and were responsible for the creation of the territorial outlines of what is now the People's Republic of China.


Selected readings

  • Crossley, Pamela Kyle (1991). Orphan Warriors: Three Manchu Generations and the End of the Qing World. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691008779.
  • —— (1997). The Manchus. Wiley. ISBN 978-1-55786-560-1.
  • —— (2000). A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-92884-8.
  • —— (2010). The Wobbling Pivot: China since 1800. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-6079-7.
  • Perdue, Peter (2005; 2010), China Marches West:  The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press / Belknap Press. ISBN-13: 978-0674057432, ISBN-10: 0674057430


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    October 4, 2021 @ 7:15 am

    Victor — "Colleagues who are knowledgeable about such matters advised me that the thread in question represents a potential computer security risk, so I am not referring to it directly".

    I fully appreciate your desire to prevent Language Log readers from following a link to a potentially dangerous web page/site, but for those of us who feel confident that they can recognise potential IT threats when they encounter them, could you not post a partially redacted link from which the knowledgeable could re-construct the original if they so wished ?

  2. Andreas Johansson said,

    October 4, 2021 @ 7:56 am

    Acc'd WP, Xibe is normally written not in any of those scripts, but in the Manchu script.

  3. Pamela said,

    October 4, 2021 @ 8:44 am

    I think Xibo has already been the fulcrum for "revival" of Manchu, if only because of the role of Xibo speakers in the establishment of teaching traditions (sometimes incorporating Xibo pronunciations). But if by "revival" you mean some kind of development in which Manchu goes from an archival language to one spoken as a school language, used as a media language, by a large group of people over a large area, I'm not sure I would see Xibo in this role, because today it is identified as a dialect particular to the Xibo, who have a particular history before and after their transfer to Xinjiang. I don't think self-identified "Manchus" in Heilongjiang, for instance, would show a lot of enthusiasm for signing up for Xibo clalsses (even though they might do, or probably do, spend a bit of time listening to Xibo conversations and songs on the internet), and they may know that a large number of "Manchu" conversation pieces on the internet are conducted by Xibo speakers). As an analogy, if French were wiped out, Quebecois or Haîtien would probably not be accepted by the French as the bases for revival, even though they are mutually intelligible. Finally I would say that Manchu has already had a revival, to the extent it is likely to. The elders of places like Sanjiazi have been debriefed and recorded, younger self-identified "Manchus" have shown an interest in becoming conversational, documentary Manchu is now a normal part of the training of Qing specialists in China, Taiwan, Japan, Europe and North America, and the Internet is full of pockets of enthusiasm for Manchu (transliterated mostly), where a few years ago it used as a kind of lingua franca in some war gaming circles and on Twitter. In fact because of its imperial history of standardization, reference support and pedagogical material (as well as its lovely logical structure), Manchu would do better today as an international standard than as the standard of some particular group. Where English is clunky, counter-intuitive, and inexplicable, Qing period standardized Manchu is clear, and regular (by imperial decree).

  4. Bathrobe said,

    October 4, 2021 @ 10:14 am

    I think that any idea of reviving Manchu, through Sibe or not, is a pipe dream.

    The stance of the Chinese state is clear. China does not want more minority ethnic languages, it wants less.

    What it is doing in Inner Mongolia is symptomatic of the wider national policy.

    1. The all-important language and literature classes will now be in putonghua. The Mongolian script is hard to learn. It's only through careful teaching in Mongolian primary schools that current levels of literacy have been attained. Students formerly learnt to read and write it in language and literature classes (equivalent to "English" as a subject in English-speaking countries). When these switch to Chinese, how will children learn the Mongolian script?

    2. All higher-degree dissertations, even relating to Mongolian language or culture, must be submitted together with a Chinese translation. The dissertation will be graded on the basis of the Chinese. This change came in 2019 and has been gradually implemented since. It appears that most people now submit Chinese-language dissertations as they don't dare submit Mongolian, even though they theoretically still have the right to do so.

    With this kind of policy being forcibly implemented in Mongolian-speaking areas, I don't see how the Chinese state will tolerate the resurgence of another minority ethnic language like Sibe / Manchu. In fact, I was told several years ago by a knowledgeable friend that China's not keen on people trying to revive Manchu.

    I don't know the policy for other ethnic languages. China has apparently been very active in attempting to shut down classes in the Uyghur language IN OTHER COUNTRIES. Someone else might be able to comment on Tibetan, but my impression is that China is definitely not encouraging people (even foreigners) to learn it.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    October 4, 2021 @ 5:37 pm

    If something similar could be done for Hebrew ("Revival of the Hebrew language"), why not for Manchu?

    Because Hebrew has nothing less than a religion and a unique political situation behind it, while Manchu doesn't?

  6. Jerry Packard said,

    October 4, 2021 @ 7:52 pm


    I like your rising intonation on 'doesn't?'

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 5, 2021 @ 3:21 pm

    The US-government-funded (and PRC-jammed) Radio Free Asia currently attempts to broadcast into the PRC in four languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan and Uyghur. I suppose subject to funding constraints they could always be lobbied to add more languages, although I'm not sure that Sibe would be the most obvious next choice to expand their range of offerings.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    October 6, 2021 @ 1:11 pm

    See also New Zealand Māori party launches petition to change country’s name to Aotearoa, in which the second para. reads :

    “It’s well past time that Te Reo Māori was restored to its rightful place as the first and official language of this country,” Te Pāti Māori leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said in a statement launching the petition.

RSS feed for comments on this post