Studying Manchu

Over the summer, an e-mail went around to the linguistics grad students and undergrads advertising a course entitled Qing History Through Manchu Sources. It was essentially a Manchu language course, being taught by a visiting scholar in the history department. The phrases “re-creating the pedagogical experience of a Qing Manchu class” and “the final examination will be modeled on the Qing translation examinations” were very enticing. I tried to persuade some of my colleagues to give in to temptation with me. And, long story short, I’m taking the course. The only other linguist in the class is my friend Isabelle.


Beginning of the bilingual 三字孝經 (Sanzi Xiaojing) (Three Character Classic of Filial Piety)

Manchu is a Tungusic (perhaps Altaic) language written in a beautiful vertical alphabet derived from the Mongol script (it was mainly because of the writing system that I wanted to take the class). It was (one of) the languages of the Manchu Qing Dynasty and over time lost ground to Chinese. Manchu is now extremely endangered (I remember reading this New York Times article about some of the last speakers of Manchu, and it’s nine years old), though the related language Xibe, spoken in western China, has many more speakers.

In the class, we began by learning the Manchu script. Since then, we’ve been translating short texts from primary sources, including dialogues about Manchu life (studying the classics, etc.) and a story about a bird that’s exactly the same as Aesop’s The Crow and the Pitcher. I’ve got the writing system pretty much down, but the grammar is still rather hazy. Class is fun, though, because it’s quite laid back. The instructor makes cracks about the Manchus and occasional asides in Mandarin, only half of which I understand. (As it turns out, just about everybody who’s interested in studying Manchu is either Chinese or speaks Chinese, and my Chinese is probably the worst in the class.)

Somewhat relatedly, I finally finished reading 紅樓夢 (Dream of Red Mansions), more than a month after I saw the opera in San Francisco! There were significant differences between the opera and the book. Now I can finally get to all the other books I’ve been waiting to read! First up is Monstress, which I bought when I visited Tr!ckster in Berkeley.

3 thoughts on “Studying Manchu

  1. Wow, that script is very pretty. I’d like to learn some, too! I haven’t learned any new scripts in a few years. Next on my list are Cyrillic and Arabic, but this one could cut its way to the top… :p

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