China is a country of diverse terrain, climate and especially people. There are a staggering 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, the biggest one being the Han Chinese, making up over 90 per cent of the overall population, with over 900 million Han Chinese living all over China. The remaining 55 ethnic minority make up just over 8 per cent of the rest of the population. The smallest group is the Hezhen, living in the northeast and numbering less than 2000 people. The second largest minority group after the Zhuang are the Manchu, numbering at about 10 million people.
The Manchu minority is based mainly in the Northeast of China, roughly half the population is based in Liaoning Province with the rest divided between the Heilongjiang and Jilin Provinces. Over the course of time, despite great efforts made by Manchu leaders and Emperors, the Manchu bloodline has been watered down by intermarriage with the Han Chinese, but the Manchu have still maintained a strong impact in the north of China, starting with the founding of the Qing Dynasty in 1616 AD. The Manchus have become so involved in Chinese culture and even language, much like Yiddish has woven its way into New York slang, many Han Chinese use Manchu words in everyday life. “Ma Ma Hu Hu”, meaning ‘mediocre’ or “moceng”, meaning ‘slow’ are examples of this. The Manchu language is multisyllabic and lyrical, some linguists believe it to be part of the Altaic language group, which includes Mongolian, Korean and Turkish. Manchu can be very confusing for Mandarin speakers, as for example the word “ama”, meaning ‘father’ kind of sounds like the word for ‘mother’ in Madarin. However, this is not such a big problem anymore, as research suggests that fewer than 100 people (some estimate only 20!) still speak Manchu as a native language, and of those people only about 50 are currently actively engaged in translating documents from the Qing Dynasty. The Manchus also have their own character based writing system, but scarcely 20 are proficient enough to actually read Manchu. This creates a worry for scholars as they worry that important, and up to now not translated, documents from the Qing Dynasty will be lost forever.
In 1644, the Manchus, a relatively unknown people inhabiting China’s largely uncivilized and rough northeastern frontier, overthrew the Ming Dynasty, Asia’s mightiest rulers, and established the Qing Dynasty, which lasted until 1912. Taking advantage of the political instability and popular rebellions convulsing the Ming Dynasty the highly militarized forces of the Manchu swept across China and occupied the Ming capital Beijing. They stayed there until the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 with the last Emperor abdicating in early 1912. The new rulers enforced the ‘queue order’, forcing the Han Chinese population to adopt their hairstyle and even clothing. All Han Chinese males had to shave off the hair at the front part of the head and braid the rest into a pigtail at the back. Traditional Chinese clothing, or Hanfu, was replaced with Qipao and Tangzhuang, which are usually regarded as typical traditional Chinese clothes nowadays, but is actually derived from the Manchus. Despite these harsh intrusions into Chinese life, Manchu traditions adapted more and more to the Chinese way of life; one historian notes that the Manchus political and military successes were purchased at the expense of losing their ethnicity. Long before the Qing Dynasty collapsed had the Manchus stopped being Manchus and adopted the Chinese way of life. However, from 2 million Manchus registered in the 1980 census to over 10 million today: people are eager to embrace their culture and heritage. Beijing has several schools that teach the Manchu language and people who are ethnic Manchus are becoming more and more willing to claim their identity and embrace their roots. Being from aristocratic descent is becoming increasingly accepted and many have started reverting to their original last names. After the abdication of the last emperor, Pu Yi, his clan changed their name to Jin. The Yehenalas, related to Cixi, the empress dowager, who was the de facto ruler until the late 19th Century, became Ye or Na.
These efforts however, seem to be a case of ‘too little, too late’ and the Manchu language and culture has essentially been completely absorbed and morphed into the Chinese way of life. The disappearance of the Manchu language will be part of a mass extinction of what some experts forecast as the loss of half of the world’s 6800 languages by the end of the century. However, few of these threatened languages have risen to prominence and then declined as quickly as the Manchu language.
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