Tag Archive | writing systems

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.

Georgian Yodeling and the Cave Temples of Dunhuang

Last Tuesday, my advisor e-mailed the members of our Georgian chorus from Montreal to tell us that a Georgian yodeling workshop was taking place that evening in Los Angeles at the Machine Project. It was very short notice, but my friend Isabelle and I decided to go. At 8:00pm, we found ourselves in a mostly empty storefront with white walls and a wooden floor. Around the edges of the room, there was some sound equipment, a cooler of beer, and a collection of potted cacti. The workshop leader, Linnea, greeted us.

Once about sixty people had shown up, we all stood in a big circle, and Linnea taught us yodeling patterns for an orira, a type of Georgian song made up entirely of nonsense syllables. She also taught us the melody (meure) part. Isabelle had done some yodeling before for one of our choir’s songs (a different orira), but I’d never tried it before. The patterns all consisted of the interval of a fifth, plus the minor third below, with the top note sung in head voice and the two lower ones in chest voice.

After we’d learned all the patterns and done some antiphonal singing, in parts, the second half of the evening commenced: collaborating on a group improvisation with loop machines. This was not really my thing, so I dropped out after a while and went to talk to people out on the sidewalk. Somebody told me there was a theater in the basement of the Machine Project, so Isabelle and I went downstairs to check it out, and indeed there was a theater, with a little raised stage, movie theater-style seating, and an old upright piano. Before we left, we told Linnea about our Georgian chorus.

Last Thursday, I took the day off to go see an exhibit at the Getty Center entitled Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road. My father used to travel to Gansu Province, where the caves are, for work, so I’d heard of them before, but I’ve never been to China, nor had I ever read much about the caves. I got to the museum bright and early and got one of the first batch of timed tickets for the replica caves. Yes, they actually built and painted replicas of three of the cave temples, one from the 5th century, one from the 6th century, and one from the 8th century, and you could walk into them to see the statues of Buddhas and the detailed wall paintings and the intricately decorated pyramidal ceilings. The only drawback was that we were only permitted to spend about five minutes in each cave.


Dim photo from inside one of the replica caves

Next I went into the virtual immersive tour of Cave 45, for which we had to don 3D glasses. That was interesting because it was narrated, so our attention was drawn to various details of the sculptures and paintings. Then I went into the gallery exhibition, which featured manuscripts, sketches, banners, and European-drawn maps of western China. Many of the artifacts came from the Library Cave and are owned by the British Museum or the Bibliothèque nationale de France. My favorite pieces were four manuscripts (all from the 9th or 10th century, I believe) meant to showcase the religious diversity of the materials found in the Library Cave. There was a Chinese Christian text, a Hebrew text, a spell book in Turkic runiform (the oldest extant text in this script), and a manuscript written in Brahmi with Sogdian transliteration (I’d never even heard of Sogdian script!). There was also a beautiful Chinese manuscript in gold ink on indigo paper. I could pore over these kinds of objects forever. I also liked the depictions of musical instruments in one of the cave paintings, including what looked like a sheng!

From there, I went to the current illuminated manuscripts exhibit, Things Unseen: Vision, Belief, and Experience in Illuminated Manuscripts. I love looking at these too! The margins of all these psalters and books of hours are filled with intricate leaf and flower patterns, with plenty of gold. I like the ancient paper and staring at the texts in Latin, English, French, German, and even Ge’ez!

Before leaving the museum, I got another timed ticket for the replica caves and went through them again, this time lingering as long as I could.