Manchu loans in northeast Mandarin

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Wei Shao, who hails from Liaoning Province in northeast China (formerly called Manchuria), rattled off the following sentence in her local language and asked me if I understood it:

Wǒ dǎ cīliū huá'r de shíhou bǎ bōlénggài'r kǎ tūlu pí'r le.

I could only sort of understand the following parts:  Wǒ dǎ … huá'r de shíhou bǎ …'r kǎ (?) … pí'r le ("When I was … slipping [?], I scraped [?] … the skin of…").  But it was all so fragmentary — mainly just the rough grammatical structure and three or four disconnected content words  — that I really didn't know what was going on.  Wei said not to worry, since no one from outside the area where she lives could understand it either.

I then asked Wei if she could write the sentence in Chinese characters and she replied, while she was still in my office, that she couldn't do so.  Later that afternoon when she went back to her apartment, she looked up some of the expressions in dictionaries and sent me the following character transcription of her spoken utterance:

我打跐溜 (cīliur)滑儿的时候把波棱 (bóléng) 盖儿卡秃噜 (tūlu)皮儿了。

Although she was now able to write out the sentence in characters, she nonetheless felt that the parts of the sentence she didn't know how to write earlier were just attempts to transcribe the sounds with characters.

Three expressions contribute to the confusion caused by this sentence:   a) dǎ cīliū huá'r 打跐溜滑儿, b) bōlénggài'r 波棱盖儿, and c) tūlu pí'r 秃噜皮儿.

a) cīliu refers to the sound made when one slides on the ice and thus is onomatopoeic. So dǎ cīliū huá'r 打跐溜滑儿 is a depiction of one who slips with the sound cīliu.

b) bōléng 波棱 is supposedly a character transcription of the pronunciation of the word "knee" in Manchu language.

c) tūlu 秃噜 (also written as 突撸 / 突噜) apparently also comes from Manchu, but is more complicated than bōléng 波棱 ("knee").  Originally it was the transcription of a Manchu word that means "to break one's promise" or "to fail to keep an appointment".  Some people in Wei's hometown still use it this way. But after the word was borrowed from Manchu into northeast Mandarin, it acquired an extended meaning, viz., "like something suddenly falling or breaking off".  In the sentence under discussion, tūlu pí'r 秃噜皮儿 means "the skin falls off."

In summary, according to Wei, the meaning is, "When I slipped on the ice my knee was hurt and the skin was scraped off."  She says that she is fascinated by this sentence, not only because people from elsewhere can't really understand it, but also because it demonstrates the diverse origins and development of dialect words.

Now the adventure begins, since I had to go find out what the real Manchu words that lie behind the Chinese character transcriptions were.  I asked about a dozen Manchu specialists, and they mentioned the following words for "knee" and "break one's promise; fall off":

KNEE    tobgi(y)a, taki(y)a (animal's knee) 

TO BREAK A PROMISE    gombi, laidambi  aifumbi


TO FALL   tuhe(mbi)

The results were disheartening, because these Manchu words didn't sound like the Chinese transcriptions at all, except perhaps the last one a little bit. 

Brian Tawney, however, mentioned some words from Sibe (a Manchu language that survives in Xinjiang) that are closer to the Chinese terms cited:

buhu (cf. written Manchu buhi ["inner surface of the thigh", but it can also be used for "knee"], and the verb buhulu- ["to press with the knee"])

tuli- means "to run over a deadline", so perhaps that is the word I am looking for that means "to fail to keep an appointment"; the usual word for "to fall" is tuhe-

I suspect that topolectal forms of spoken Manchu would come even closer to the Chinese loans bōléng 波棱 ("knee") and tūlu 秃噜 ("break promise / appointment" > "fall").

Note that linguists consider Sibe to be a separate language, not a dialect of Manchu.  Cf. our recent discussions of the dialect / language problem for Sinitic here, here, and here.

While carrying out the research for this post, I happened upon the Manchu Studies Group website.  For anyone interested in Manchu language, culture, and history, this is a valuable resource.

A few years ago, I wrote about "Russian Loans in Northeast and Northwest Mandarin: The Power of Script to Influence Pronunciation".  And now we find another source of words in Northeast Mandarin, i.e., Manchu.  I suspect that this phenomenon — the absorption of substrate terms (and structures) — is true of Sinitic topolects throughout China and is one of the chief causes for the tremendous amount of variety that exists within the Sinitic group of languages.

[Thanks to David Branner, Stephen Durrant, Stephen Wadley, Mark Elliott, Nicola Di Cosmo, Gertraude Li, Peter Perdue, and Brian Tawney]


  1. postageincluded said,

    October 7, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

    This reminded me of a recipe in The Chinese Kitchen by Deh-Ta Siung. Called "Candied Fritter" in English, the author explains that its name in Chinese is "sa qi ma", or " Buddha riding a horse" but that this is in fact just a transliteration of the name in "Manchurian". I've always wondered if other Chinese words are hiding their Manchu origins in the same way, so I'll be interested to see what comes up (and hope to understand some of it)

    The fritter, by the way, is a cake made of deepfried strips of dough stuck together with honey, with no resemblance to a fat man on a horse.

  2. Rubrick said,

    October 7, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

    @postageincluded: The fritter, by the way, is a cake made of deepfried strips of dough stuck together with honey, with no resemblance to a fat man on a horse.

    It sounds as though it might easily induce such a resemblance in others, though.

  3. Sam said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 12:38 am

    I remember one of my old Chinese friends teaching me something very similar when I first started learning Chinese:


    Which was, apparently, a very standard northern-style sentence that everyone "should" know…thanks to some new year gala show or whatever

    Funnily enough the same friend taught me how to write the character "ber" from "ber lou" (额头) – the Norths equivalent of "forehead" — but I lost the paper he gave me and could not remember how to write it nor can I find any info about it online

  4. Julien said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 12:59 am

    哎妈呀! Accordingly there are lots of borrowings from Manchu into North-eastern dialects, even the (Chinese) Wikipedia page on Manchu gives a lot of them:

    Many of which seems to be attested to come from Manchu words.

  5. postageincluded said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 6:12 am

    As the Manchu ruled China for centuries, and bilingualism was promoted for much of that period I'd be surprised if loanwords were rare. What interest me, as a non-speaker, is the way Manchu polysyllables can be interpreted as fanciful Chinese phrases. Phono-semantic matching and folk etymology seem too restricted as descriptions for the sort of creative reinterpretation demonstrated in my cake example above (even if we allow Rubrick's humorous derivation).

  6. Julien said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 7:39 am


    The term "saqima" (sachima, Manchu sacima) to which you refer is indeed transliterated as 薩其馬 in Chinese (or 薩騎馬 as you mentioned it), but it is very evidently a borrowing from Manchu, so this is not really easy "interpreted as fanciful Chinese phrases", except by non fluent speakers and/or non linguists, like the cook whose book you read.
    The very sound of such an expression, and the very lack of meaning of the compound makes it clearly stand out as a phonetic transliteration, in the same fashion as many recently (or some not so recently) transliterated country names, to cite the most common example of phonetic transliteration into Chinese characters.

  7. JS said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 10:10 am

    波棱盖儿卡马路牙子上–秃噜皮了 is apparently a xiehouyu ["Banging one's knee on the curb — scraping off skin"], with the punchline also an idiom meaning 'to renege on a commitment' or something. If the latter came by its idiomatic meaning honestly, that would mean we wouldn't be looking for a Manchu word meaning 'to break a promise, etc.' after all. The origins of 秃噜 'scrape off' would still be in question, but the word may not be confined to the Northeast and is at least reminiscent of 脫落…

  8. JS said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 10:17 am

    People seem to write things like 脑嘣(儿) and 嘣(儿)喽(儿) for the 'forehead' words you refer to.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

    From Wei Shao, the Liaoning speaker who told me the original sentence that prompted this post:


    Thank you for posting that! I guess the sentence will not be so confusing any more. (hahaha) I am so happy you found out possible Manshu words (or Sibe words) that lie behind. I got the explanation of origins from my last great grandmother, who is Manshu and speaks a little certain kind of Manshu topolect. She and her generation are full of vivid expressions such as cīliū. But as the younger generation are educated to write and speak Mandarin, those topolect words are starting to fade away.

    About those who are using these words:

    For the three expressions in the sentence, I have done a brief survey asking my college friends from North China whether they are familiar with them. Of course non-northeasterners could not get the whole sentence, but people from different location get different part. Based on my limited experience, people from eastern part of Inner Mongolia are using bōléng the same way as we are in Liaoning; people from Shandong (Jinan), Hebei and northern part of Henan actually use tūlu, but some in slightly different way; I don't know about reactions of Shanxi people; my roommate from Shaanxi has no idea what it means, not even a clue. I think that shows hints about the influence of Manshu borrowings. I just wonder why certain words spread into certain direction while others not.

    About the comments:

    They are amazing. The Wikipedia page is a wonderful summary of Manshu borrowings (I believe there are far more of them). The discussion of saqima reminds me of seeing 沙琪玛 in a supermarket at Amoy, a good example of showing how language spreads through distribution of products.

  10. Keith said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

    Like Sam and Victor, I have been presented with similar sentences by northeasterners. (In my case, we're talking about Heilongjiang folks.) I don't know why they all seem to have settled on the same sentence (with minor variations).

    Thanks for the Wikipedia pointer. Lots of those are really familiar, though some with differences in tone.

  11. Jerome Chiu said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    We also refer to the knee cap as "bo1 lo4 goi3" 菠蘿蓋 in Hong Kong Cantonese.

  12. Gpa said,

    October 12, 2013 @ 11:08 am

    A lot of Chinese words have Manchu borrowings. Many people when speaking Cantonese still doesn't know that the word for "dirty" 邋遢. pronounced more or less, "laat taat" or even "邋邋遢遢", pronounced "laat-laat taat-taat" is really a borrowing from Manchu word "lata.", meaning either dirty or other related meanings. 邋遢 is sometimes used in Mandarin with similar meaning or additional meanings. But how many people will know that this Mandarin usage is actually borrowed from Cantonese via Manchu?

    I once read a book of reverse Chinese and Manchu borrowings into each other's respective languages and what they mean and where it's from. But now I forgot the book title from where I read this.

  13. Gpa said,

    October 12, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    沙琪玛 was "sacima", in Manchu pronunciation, when romanized the c is a ch sound in Manchu. So that's why sometimes "Manchu" is either Mancu or the original Manjuu or is it Manjju? Forgot which witch is (a sand)wich.

    Sacima spread into Mandarin and is now mostly written as 沙琪玛 / 沙琪瑪 but sometimes it becomes 沙奇玛, due to pronunciations of 琪 & 奇 being the same in some dialects.

    In theory, I always thought of 沙騎馬, with 騎馬, horseriding, being associated with the Mongols and the Manchus.

  14. postageincluded said,

    October 12, 2013 @ 11:46 pm

    Thankyou for your remarks on my puzzling fritter.

    So perhaps the name "saqima" combines both your idea of Manchus on horseback and Rubrick's idea of the Buddha being fat as a result of eating too many sweet snacks. As Julian pointed out this is a fortuitous meaning dictated by the transcription characters; but this prompts the question as to whether the appropriateness of the transcription make it easier for "saqima" to be accepted as a loanword? There are, I would guess, many other ways in Chinese to describe a fritter!

    It's also curious that both you and Deh-Ta Siung know that this is a Manchu dish – if the transcription did not include "riding on a horse" would the dish have become completely assimilated and its origin forgotten?

  15. Julien said,

    October 14, 2013 @ 2:50 am

    I wrote a comment but it seems there was a problem and it was not posted… :(

    To anyone Chinese, it is fairly obvious "saqima/shaqima" is the transliteration of a non-Chinese word, phonetically it is clearly foreign and no one should interpret it as a meaningful transliteration when it is just phonetical. Maybe your cook who is not fluent enough in Chinese to get this feeling could think it actually has the meaning the characters seem to indicate. In Chinese many words are just transliterations, another good example are the country names. You can find meaning in the old ones translated by the Jesuits back then, but if you try to find a meaning in words like "Wuzibiekesitan" "Ji'erjisisitan", you are definitely completely off.

  16. Julien said,

    October 14, 2013 @ 2:59 am


    I get the feeling that there are two different paths for borrowings of Manchu words into Chinese, one being in Beijing and the other in Dongbei, centered on the ancestral homeland of the Manchus, in modern Liaoning.
    As my relatives are folks from Heilongjiang, their Manchu-borrowed vocabulary doesn't seem to differ from the Liaoning one, the only difference is how they don't have that strong accent when they pronounce words, which Liaoning people seem to have… ;)
    In Harbin speech, all the words Pr. Mair mentioned, and a big part of this list, if not the whole list from Wikipedia, is everyday vocabulary. In addition to these, there are also a lot of borrowings from Russian, like the "bulaji" Victor mentioned in his earlier post, 列巴 (from Russian хлеб hleb, "bread"), 位的罗 which means "water barrel" (from a Russian word I didn't identify as I don't speak Russian), and a couple others I can't think of right now (but I can ask if you are interested and this is not too off topic).

  17. Terry Crossman said,

    November 13, 2013 @ 10:38 am

    I have been having so much fun reading all these posts and comments on this blog and discovering folks I know on it too (David Moser, Brendan O'Kane, Bruce Humes, Francis Miller). I have lived in Beijing for 18 years and love the recent posts on Beijing Hua, but I particularly love the Northeastern Mandarin pieces as my girlfriend from Liaoning has been teaching me Dongbei Hua and is currently studying Manchurian herself on Sundays at Ren Da. Bo lun ga'r was one of the first words I managed to remember!! While hiking down the backside of Wu Nv Shan in SE Liaoning. near Hunlun, I stumbled across many carved rocks that some scholar had faithfully carved to preserve Dongbei Hua in perpetuity and took photos of 8 of them. I wish I had taken more as there were at least 100 of these rocks with the Dongbei expression and the MSM equivalent after them. There was also a sign explaining how Hunlun was a melting pot and told the story of this scholar. I will try to dig up Pf. Mair's e-mail address and send the photos I have, as some of the expressions are wonderful and may be worthy of posting here.

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