How Much Longer Will Spoken Manchu Last?

Manchu, one of the official languages of the Qing dynasty, seems to be going mute.

Meng [Shujing] is one of 18 residents of this isolated village in northeastern China, all older than 80, who, according to Chinese linguists and historians, are the last native speakers of Manchu.

Descendants of seminomadic tribesmen who conquered China in the 17th century, they are the last living link to a language that for more than two and a half centuries was the official voice of the Qing Dynasty, the final imperial house to rule from Beijing and one of the richest and most powerful empires the world has known.

With the passing of these villagers, Manchu will also die, experts say. All that will be left will be millions of documents and files in Chinese and foreign archives, along with inscriptions on monuments and important buildings in China, unintelligible to all but a handful of specialists.

“I think it is inevitable,” said Zhao Jinchun, an ethnic Manchu born in Sanjiazi who taught at the village primary school for more than two decades before becoming a government official in the city of Qiqihar, 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, to the south. “It is just a matter of time. The Manchu language will face the same fate as some other ethnic minority languages in China and be overwhelmed by the Chinese language and culture.”

(While most experts agree that Manchu is doomed, Xibo, a closely related language, is likely to survive a little longer. Xibo is spoken by about 30,000 descendants of members of an ethnic group allied to the Manchus who in the 18th century were sent to the newly conquered western region of Xinjiang. But it too is under relentless pressure from Chinese.)

The disappearance of Manchu will be part of a mass extinction that some experts forecast will lead to the loss of half of the world’s 6,800 languages by the end of the century. But few of these threatened languages have risen to prominence and then declined as rapidly as Manchu.

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