Despite a population of 10 million Manchu, it’s estimated that there are now less than 100 speakers of Manchu (满语), the language of the founders of the Qing Dynasty, who can converse for 10 minutes without throwing in some Hànyǔ as well. Many of them reside in Sanjiazi, a village near Heilongjiang’s Qiqihar, and most are already quite elderly and aren’t literate in the Manchu script.
So it’s good to hear that a somewhat younger speaker—a 50-year-old fluent in both oral and written Manchu—is teaching it in Wuchang City and in Harbin proper. Two recent profiles of Yilibu (伊里布) have appeared in the Chinese press, one about his role as a full-time and voluntary teacher (满语班), and the other expressing his worries about the very future of the language (职业忧虑) .
During the week he teaches full time at a middle school in Wuchang, but with 600 students, each of whom attends just one class weekly, he is not confident of a big impact. On Sundays, he volunteers to instruct a group of a dozen or so adults in Harbin.
He admits he may have to cut back on his teaching next year, as there are plans for him to begin training Manchu instructors, and he is keen to compile and publish two teacher’s manuals.
But most of all he worries about the dormant state of the language itself. “Over the last century,” he is quoted, “the development of the Manchu language has been ‘on hold’, and vocabulary in contemporary Chinese like computer, automobile and cybercafé can’t be expressed in Manchu.”