Sanjiazi, or "Ilan Boo" (Three Families) in Manchu, is a small village in Fuyu County of Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. With some of its elderly villagers being the last Manchu-speaking people in China today, it is seen as a "living fossil" for the study of the Manchu language.
As the official language of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Manchu is of great significance to China's culture and history. More than 2 million pieces of records, now in the national archives, have been left behind by the Qing Dynasty founded by the Manchus.
In the last days of the Qing Dynasty, Manchu was no longer the official language. The Manchu-speaking territory had shrunk to Northeast China. In North China, even the imperial aristocrats had nearly abandoned the learning of Manchu. The teaching of Manchu was finally abolished after the 1911 Revolution, which brought an end to the Qing Dynasty.
Although the current population of Manchu in China is nearly 10 million, fewer than 100 people can speak Manchu, according to scholars. At present, less than 50 people are engaged in translating the Manchu written language into Chinese. Among them, scarcely 20 are proficient in written Manchu. Scholars fear that if Manchu vanishes one day, much historical evidence from the Qing Dynasty can never be deciphered.
Some of the elderly and middle-aged Manchus in Sanjiazi Village are the only Manchu-speaking people alive in this country now.
This village was established by some Manchus more than 300 years ago. It is said that the early inhabitants were moved from the Changbai Mountains area of neighboring Jilin Province. They were called up to fight against the Russian invaders in 1683.
In 1689, the Qing government signed the Treaty of Nerchinsk with Russia, demarcating the northern extent of the Manchurian boundary at the Argun River.
Troops under the "Eight Banners" the military organization of the Qing Dynasty were then stationed in three strategic posts in Heilongjiang Province including Qiqihar.
The soldiers and their families were allowed to live anywhere within 50 kilometers of the posts. The Ji, Tao and Meng families chose to resettle in a place 47 kilometers north of Qiqihar, which was then called "Ilan Boo" or "Three Families."
Soon, these three families were joined by others surnamed Guan, Wu, Fu, Zhao and Bai. All the Manchu men became soldiers when they turned 18 as per the Banners System of the Qing Dynasty and the Manchus in Sanjiazi were navy troopers.
The village first came under the spotlight in modern times when Jin Qizong, a noted Manchuology researcher, published his academic report on Manchu history based on his research in Sanjiazi in the early 1980s.
This report encouraged other scholars and experts from home and abroad to head to the village, seen as a "living fossil" of Manchu language. Sanjiazi has emerged as the ideal place to study the Tungusic languages of the Altaic family.
Even so, the use of Manchu in this village is declining fast.
According to Jin's report, in the 1960s, almost all 80 households could speak Manchu. Jin put them into three groups: Villagers over 50 who could speak Manchu well but whose Chinese was poor; young and middle-aged people from 20 to 50 who could speak both languages fluently and mainly spoke Manchu at home and people under 20 who were better at Chinese than at Manchu. About a third of teenagers spoke Manchu at home, while young children could only understand it but not speak it.
Wang Ruiguang, a journalist in Qiqihar, did interviews in this village in 1986 and found that elderly people over 50 could speak fluent Manchu, people about 40 years old were familiar with both languages, while younger people could not speak Manchu fluently but were good at Chinese.
This shows that Manchu was still the main tool for communication in Sanjiazi in the mid-1980s.
What accounted for this proficiency in Manchu? First, Sanjiazi was primarily peopled by Manchus and they married among themselves. Second, the village is located in a remote corner and until the 1960s there were only Manchus in the village. This meant that for many centuries, they were able to preserve their language and traditions.
But this situation began to change in the late 1980s. Many among the older generation died and more youngsters began to choose partners from other groups.
A 2002 survey found that only three villagers, or 0.29 per cent of the registered residents, could speak Manchu very fluently and only 15 villagers could understand Manchu well and speak fairly well.
The majority of those with a good command of the Manchu language were between 50 and 70 years old, with the oldest, 86.
Follow-up surveys showed that conversational ability among the elderly in Manchu was slipping rapidly. Today, none of them can tell folk tales or legends in Manchu. Their conversations are limited to the simple vocabulary used in daily life.
In a recent interview, a village head Lu Hongqiang from Sanjiazi told reporters that 643 of the village's 1,072 residents were Manchus. About 100 understood the language to varying degrees, he said.
Among the seniors, Meng Shujing, 81, has been teaching her grandchildren Manchu and her grandson Shi Junguang now teaches in the village school.
Village head Lu said with much regret: "I cannot speak any Manchu. Not a single sentence. My parents know a little Manchu but they speak Mandarin all the time. This language has been abandoned."
Researchers worry that oral Manchu will disappear in five to 10 years.
Professor Zhao Aping of the Manchu Language and Culture Research Centre, University of Heilongjiang said: "It will be impossible to save the Manchu language when the Manchu-speaking people in Sanjiazi pass away. The language may well disappear." And when that happens, Manchu culture and traditions will also die out fast.
When researcher Jin Qizong visited the village decades ago, he saw a few Manchu women wearing their hair in a traditional Manchu-style bun. One cannot see this today. Though there are still some old houses scattered in the village, Sanjiazi looks like any other village in China today with rows of tile-roofed houses along the main roads.
No traditional Manchu rituals are held in Sanjiazi any more. The only people who know the Shaman dance, a religious dance performed to exorcise evil spirits through the power of the gods, are Meng Shujing and her brother Meng Xianxiao, 74.
Meng Shujing told reporters that the dance has been given up long ago. All the costumes for the dance were burnt during the "culture revolution" (1966-76) for being feudal and superstitious.
It was in the 1990s, that people began realizing the importance of the Manchu language and culture. Zhao Jinchun, then a teacher at the village primary school, opened a Manchu language class. But the classes had to end when he was promoted to work in the county government.
Fortunately, the situation attracted much attention from the local government. A Manchu language primary school has now been opened in Sanjiazi with Shi Junguang and Zhao Yingying as teachers.
Investments and donations continue to flow into this school though Fuyu County is still an impoverished one.
With more assistance, it is hoped that "Ilan Boo" will make more further contributions to the study of the Manchu language.
(China Daily May 6, 2006)