FUSHUN, China--Professor Cao Meng is lobbying for the creation of a university to save the official language of a dynasty that ruled China for nearly three centuries, up until 100 years ago, from extinction.
“We are racing against the clock if we are to research Manchu and pass it on to the next generation,” said Cao, who studies Manchu history and culture at Shenyang Normal University in Liaoning province.
“We want to nurture young talent to keep the valuable ethnic culture from disappearing, by exploring the possibility of working with Japanese research institutes.”
Of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, Manchus are the third largest after the Zhuang and Hui peoples. Some 10.38 million live in the country, with about half in northeastern Liaoning province, according to 2010 census figures.
However, many Manchus have assimilated with the majority Han people, and few speak Manchu, the official language of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). UNESCO designated the language as endangered in 2009.
Cao, 54, proposed to the Liaoning provincial government in 2010 that a university be established to train researchers who can read Manchu documents and to shed light on Manchu history.
Last October, a budget of 15,000 yuan (240,000 yen, or $2,400) was earmarked for research on the proposed university.
Cao will invite 120 people involved with Manchu from around China, such as researchers, entrepreneurs and government officials, and call for cooperation with the university at a meeting on Sept. 21.
Since 2003, Cao has visited Manchu villages, mainly in northeastern China, to gather written materials and interview elderly residents who spoke Manchu. Those who grew up with the language were up there in years.
He said researchers proficient in Manchu are essential because official documents and private materials during the first part of the Qing dynasty were written only in Manchu.
According to Cao, there are only 10 or so researchers in China who can read ancient Manchu documents. While some institutions in Beijing and elsewhere research Manchu culture, few universities offer advanced courses in their language.
Manchus were ostracized after the Qing dynasty fell following the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. Unlike other ethnic minorities, they were not given an autonomous region or prefecture when the Communists gained control in 1949.
It was not until the 1980s that small Manchu autonomous counties were established and ethnic schools opened.
Cao said many documents written in Manchu have been lost without being deciphered.
Fushun, in Liaoning province, was the capital of the Later Jin dynasty, which changed its name to the Qing dynasty.
Five truckloads of documents, including family histories, are kept in a mountain cave in the city, but the area is tightly guarded for military and other reasons.
“Usually, we are not even allowed to read them,” Cao said.
The Xinbin Manchu Autonomous County in Fushun, considered the birthplace of Manchu, is home to 320,000 people.
However, the county has only one elementary school for Manchus. While Manchus account for 94 percent of 1,300 pupils, none uses ethnic family names, such as Aishin Gioro, according to the principal.
The school has been teaching Manchu since 1988. Today, pupils in all grades study the language once a week using the school’s original materials.
However, an adjacent junior high school does not offer a Manchu class. The principal said the lack of continuity limits the effectiveness of elementary school language education.
Li Rongfa, who learned the basics of Manchu for one month in a rural city in Heilongjiang province where Manchu is used, taught the language at the request of the school.
“Manchu is essential for learning the history and culture of Manchus,” he said. “It is necessary to establish a framework to preserve culture by creating a systematic education system and securing jobs for those who studied the language.”
He said at least three years of training is necessary to acquire literacy required for a researcher on Manchu.
Li, a Manchu, grew up with the language of the Han people. When he first encountered Manchu, he could not understand it at all.
He developed his vocabulary using Manchu-Chinese dictionaries, as well as Manchu-Japanese dictionaries compiled by Japanese before World War II.
In the 1990s, Li served as an adviser for turning the ancient city of Hetu Ala in the Xinbin Manchu Autonomous County into a tourist spot. He selected exhibits and trained guides.
Hetu Ala was the stronghold of Nurhaci, considered the founder of the Qing dynasty, during the Later Jin dynasty.
According to Li and other experts, Manchu uses characters improved from Mongolian, another language that belongs to the Altaic family. Its grammar has similarities with Japanese.
The Xibe people, a branch of Manchus who live in a closed environment in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in western China, still speak Manchu.
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