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Originally posted Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Formerly an official state language during the Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty, the Manchu language is now on the verge of extinction. There are more than 10 million ethnic Manchus in China, yet fewer than 20 native speakers remain.
Introducing…In Search of Manchuria
For those who have followed my blog, it should come with no surprise that I have been working on this little project, which took me to northern China earlier this year. And now that it is officially finished, I wanted to offer a little background as I introduce it.
More than a decade ago, I found out that I’m partially Manchu, the ethnic group from the northeast steppes of modern-day China/Korea/Russia that swept into Beijing in 1644, pushed out the Han-ruling Ming dynasty, and established the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty.
Since then, I’ve had a fascination with all things Manchu. In high school, I explored my interests more academically and focused my research on the sinicization of Manchus. And then during this last year of college, I was finally lucky enough to go and conduct fieldwork in Manchuria.
I began writing my grant proposal while I was still in southern France, reaching out to some of the same experts whose publications I’d read four years earlier and scouring the Internet for potential links to sources. This research continued after I received the grant in January, and then at the end of March, I finally hopped on a plane to go to Manchuria.
This project was the first time I had conducted interviews in Chinese, and while I am fluent, there were nevertheless misunderstanding as rural and metropolitan vocabulary can be quite different. And the elders were often very candid about the possibility of dying soon, and often would say that really it was their time to go, that helping transmit Manchu to younger generations was their only purpose now. Talk about awkward moments there. Unsurprisingly, the elders were generally quite open, while getting anyone with a title or degree to speak presented quite a few obstacles. I should also note that while I picked up some words and phrases along the way, I did not know Manchu beforehand.
My plan was to make a feature documentary, but as I continued my trip, I realized just how impossible that would be given several factors: the age of the native speakers, their lack of artifacts to show, limitations on where and what I could film in China, the topic being a language, the multiple languages involved, logistics of reaching rural areas, etc. So instead, I created a short documentary, “The Words of the Emperor,” to introduce Manchu to those who have little knowledge of it, and also edited together a few songs and stories central to Manchu culture.
Watch The Words of the Emperor
Take a look for yourself and listen to what may be the last video recordings of Manchu as spoken by native speakers (click on the photo below; additional links in the YouTube description).
This is a reblog from the original A Nomad on the Loose blog. I’m migrating favorite old posts to this new website.
In the years since I first uploaded this series of videos to YouTube and Vimeo, I’ve been outreached by dozens of academics looking to also get in touch with these elders and speak to them. It was with the gravest hearts that one of them recently informed me that some of the elders in this video are no longer with us. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet them and to encapsulate this beautiful language before it may eventually disappear, save for some videos like these.
Are you fascinated by the languages of ethnic minorities like I am? Tell me your stories!
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