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Manchu

Manchu, one of the Tungusic languages, is very historically prestigious; many important documents from Chinese history were written in this language after China was taken over by the Manchus (the Qing Dynasty). How­ever, even by the end of the 18th century it had declined a lot in spoken use; Manchus were vastly outnumbered by Chinese speakers, whose cultural and literary weight was so enormous that the Manchu minority found themselves assimilating linguistically to the Han Chinese majority even as they had the authority to enforce other aspects of their culture. Manchu was dealt something close to a death knell as a living, spoken language when the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in the 1911 Chinese revolution. There were widespread massacres of Manchu speakers across northern China, with many of the survivors deciding to “blend in” with the majority and pretend to be Han Chinese. Persecution of Manchu writers and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution also didn’t help.

As a living language now, Manchu is very marginal, with two main groups of speakers:

  1. a very small group (20 people) in Heilongjiang Province who are widely acknowledged as speaking Manchu
  2. a much larger group (~30,000) who speak Xibe; three centuries ago the ancestor of Xibe would have been unambiguously considered Manchu, but Xibe speakers’ ancestors were relocated to near the border with Kazakhstan 2½ centuries ago and many modern Chinese will not consider them Manchu speakers because of the long time since they lived in Manchuria

The Chinese government has put great effort into “reviving” Manchu, mainly because it’s important for there to be historians who can understand the language. The problem is that they’ve taken the historical documents written in Manchu as the basis for “revived Manchu”, and decided that spoken revived Manchu will be based on the premise that there’s a 1:1 correspondence between Manchu letters and phonemes. The result of this is that spoken “revived” Manchu is not intelligible with the speech of actual native Manchu speakers. To get around this, the Chinese government declared revived Manchu to be “Standard Manchu”, and the natively spoken forms to be “local dialects”, which puts the actual speakers under pressure to assimilate and cease speaking the authentic, organic descendants of Manchu (essentially language death!). Another problem is that, because nearly all learners of Standard Manchu are native Mandarin speakers, the grammar of Standard Manchu ends up being heavily based on Mandarin grammar.