Thoughts on the Rise and Fall of the Manchu Language

Thoughts on the Rise and Fall of the Manchu Language

Mårten Söderblom Saarela, Princeton University

As a friend recently pointed out to me, Manchu translations of Chinese from the Qing period often seem to adhere to a method in which every character in the Chinese should be accounted for by one word in Manchu. (I use “word” here simply in the sense of a string of connected graphs framed by whitespace.) In the case of Chinese idiomatic phrases, this often leads to the Manchu translation being very difficult to understand if read without consulting the original Chinese. As I was browsing the works of Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat (1788–1832)—who occupied the first chair of Chinese in a European university, at the Collège de France, and incidentally also had the same birthday (September 5!) as the present writer—I stumbled across a similar remark, made with reference to the Manchu translations of the Confucian Four Books (Sishu 四書). Abel-Rémusat wrote:

The translation never leaves the original, and every Chinese sentence is invariably rendered by a Manchu sentence. This method, favorable for isolated interpretation of each separate character, is often detrimental to the clarity of the translation as a whole. Moreover, the commitment imposed by the translators upon themselves, to almost always render one Chinese word by one Manchu word, and the lack of esteem in which they held the structure of this latter language, by using a phraseology that is a servile calque of the Chinese, ensure that the translation is only of mediocre utility when it comes to difficult passages. Almost all the Chinese words that have a vague meaning, or that can be subject to multiple interpretations, are carefully expressed in Manchu using words that enjoy the very same advantage, or which cause the same nuisance.


La copie n’abandonne jamais l’original, et chaque phrase Chinoise est invariablement rendue par une phrase Mandchoue. Cette méthode, favorable à l’interprétation isolée de chaque caractère en particulier, est souvent préjudiciable à la clarté de la traduction en général. De plus, l’obligation que se sont imposée les traducteurs, de rendre presque toujours un mot Chinois par un mot Mandchou, et le peu d’égard qu’ils ont eu à la constitution de cette dernière langue, en employant une phraséologie servilement calquée sur celle du chinois, font que la version n’est que d’une utilité médiocre dans les endroits difficiles. Presque tous les mots Chinois d’un sens vague, ou qui sont susceptible de plusieurs acceptions, sont soigneusement exprimés en mandchou par des mots qui jouissent du même avantage, ou qui présentent le même inconvénient.[1]

In defense of Manchu, it should be noted that there is a certain circularity to Abel-Rémusat’s argument. Abel-Rémusat, who never went to China, learned Manchu (and Chinese) by himself, and in all likelihood relied on Qing dictionaries to elucidate obscure passages in the Manchu. Those dictionaries often seem to have been compiled following the same method of translation that Abel-Rémusat found so inconvenient.

However, other scholars have also noted that Manchu has many Chinese loan words and new coinages based on Chinese models.[2] By the early Republican period (1911—49), Beijing Manchus were reported as pronouncing Manchu as if it were Chinese, disregarding all the sounds of Manchu that did not exist in Chinese.[3] Given that the Manchu language was much less spoken at the end of the Qing period than it had been initially, it is tempting to see the lexical influence of Chinese on Manchu as a sign of a gradually weakened role of the Manchu in the Qing state, or even as a factor contributing to that weakening. Even the Qianlong emperor’s (r. 1736—96) attempts at purifying the Manchu lexicon appears as an ultimately impotent acknowledgment that the Manchu language was in peril. But for the sake of blogging, I want to reconsider for a moment the significance of lexical change.

A comparison of the situation in the Qing empire to that of early modern France is instructive. Historians of the French language tell us that between the 14th and the 18th centuries, as much as 80% of French vocabulary was replaced by Latin loans or calques. Furthermore, the agents of this restructuring of the French lexicon were largely administrators and men of the judiciary, who had a more pronounced public presence than writers and artists.[4] In other words, the very period which saw the development of the absolutist French state, and the flourishing of French literature during the grand siècle of the 1600s, paradoxically also witnessed the complete makeover of the French lexicon under the influence of the very pan-European Latinity from which France was emerging as a self-conscious, early modern country.

I’m tempted to infer from this that the same sort of process – which at first glance appeared as a sign of the weakening of Manchu in the Qing – was in France a moment in the development and strengthening of French as the language of administration in an increasingly centralized and bureaucratized state. The fact that the agents of change in France were statesmen and magistrates leads me to see even more similarities with the Qing, where much of Manchu literature—in print as well as in manuscript—seems to have been written and consumed by aspirants to government service, be it as low-level clerks or translators or county magistrates.

So how is it that what seems to be a similar process of linguistic change can be construed so differently in France and in the Qing? I’m not saying that France is China, or the other way around, and the sociolinguistic history of the two countries in the 19th and 20th centuries is undeniably very different. I am saying, however, that if we content ourselves with one-sidedly identifying signs of language attrition among the Manchus in high Qing China in order to explain the disappearance of Manchu as an everyday, spoken language in the late empire, then we might miss other aspects of Manchu language use in the Qing that are worthy of the historian’s consideration.

The fact Manchu was to such a large extent an administrative language is historically relevant beyond the fact that it reflected the decline of Manchu as a vernacular language. In the mid 18th century, Manchu was used in certain genres of administrative writing throughout a territory many times larger than that of the pre-conquest Manchu state. Through neologisms and loans, its vocabulary had grown to more easily serve as a vehicle of government. Its orthography and style, furthermore, had stabilized and reached a level of formality very different from what Chen Chieh-hsien called “the hesitant and vacillating style” of the earliest pre-conquest documents.[5]

Wasn’t Manchu then, by some measures, a richer language by the mid 18th century, than it had been in the early 17th? The history of Manchu language use in the Qing period deserves to be reexamined in new light, and as I hope to have suggested, a look at the history of the vernaculars in early modern Europe can be useful in this endeavor.



[1] Abel-Rémusat, Jean-Pierre, “Notice sur les quatre livres moraux attribues communément à Confucius,” Notices et extraits des manuscrits de la bibliothèque du roi 10 (1818): 279.

[2] Schmidt, P., “Chinesische Elemente im Mandschu. Mit Wörterverzeichnis,” Asia Major 7 (1932): 573–628 (p. 573).

[3] Shirokogoroff, S. M., “Reading and Transliteration of Manchu Lit.,” Rocznik Orjentalistyczny 10 (1934): 122-30.

[4] Trudeau, Daniel, Les Inventeurs du bon usage (1529—1647) (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1992), p. 58.

[5] Ch’en Chieh-hsien, “The Value of the ‘Early Manchu Archives’,” pages 58–77 in Proceedings of the Third East Asian Altaistic Conference, ed. by Ch’en Chieh-hsien and Sechin Jagchid (Taipei: The Third East Asian Altaistic Conference, 1969, p. 67.

1 Comment

  1. brotlein

    Just that French came to take the place of Latin in virtually every aspect of socio-political life, while Manchu gave way to Chinese despite the attempt to enrich the former.

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