Celestial musings

Celestial musings
Why does Manchu script look Middle Eastern... kind of?
16 May 2016

Scroll with Manchu text

Imperial Patent of Nobility for the Parents of Yulin  1799, National Library of China.

In the spirit of maternal self-sacrifice, a friend and I decided one day over the summer holidays to gift our children with the privilege of spending time with their fathers while we attended the Celestial Empire exhibition.

We were drawn into a completely different world. I took an Anne-of-Green-Gables-ish delight in ‘The Hall of Complete Tranquillity’ and ‘The Garden of Perfect Brightness’ before coming across samples of writings from the Qing court. The familiar Chinese script was there – but what was that alongside it? It was the language of the Manchus. It looked—well, sort of Middle Eastern—the text panel explained that Manchu language is not derived from Chinese but belongs to the Tungusic family of languages that was spread over eastern Siberia and Manchuria. I was intrigued, and particularly needed to know why, if in fact it was related somehow to Arabic as I thought it looked, is the writing vertical and not horizontal? These questions led to a journey of discovery involving many hours of foraging on the internet, grappling with names of peoples, cultures and languages I had never heard of, and some really fantastic books that were, to my delight, all in the National Library collection itself. Let me share some of my discoveries with you.

Language in the Qing dynasty was an important commodity. Three main languages were employed for official purposes—Chinese, Mongolian and Manchu, of which Manchu was the most important prior to 1800. Language, of course, was an important cultural marker because as Mark C. Elliot states in The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China, ‘it so effectively defines who is “in” and who is “out”’. The Manchu language itself came from the Jurchen—the name for the Manchus prior to the 17th century (officially November 1635, to be precise). Many of the Jurchen people seemed keen to define themselves as a different people and culture from the Mongols in the 1600s, and the spoken language was one of the key elements in their argument for ethnic divergence. The written language of the Jurchen also reflected this separation from the Mongols as they saw it. Jurchen originally wrote only in Mongolian, even after the Jurchen spoken language was in use,  but in 1599 a unique Jurchen writing system with its own alphabet was created which proved to be a ‘tool of national unification’ and further advanced the evolution of the Jurchen’s national identity, partly through the development of their own ‘national literature’. Interestingly, the new system also ‘made it much easier to borrow words, and hence concepts, from the Chinese’.

During the Qing dynasty, government documents were produced in both Chinese and Manchu, samples of which can be viewed in the exhibition. What a noble thought – two cultures drawn together under one Emperor, with both languages employed in perfect parallel to communicate official edicts and proclamations. Well, as you can imagine in the shadowy world of dynastic politics, not always. According to Pamela Kyle Crossley in The Manchus, 

until twenty years ago it was supposed by Qing specialists that…the reading of Chinese was sufficient. It is now known that this is not always the case…there are…instances of error, omission, and deliberate censorship in materials written in Manchu that were later translated into Chinese.

Many Chinese were unable to read Manchu and there is evidence that ‘emperors deliberately removed portions of the Chinese-language documents from general access while leaving the Manchu-language documents in the files’ and that ‘documentary collections had been altered for political or ideological reasons’ while in ‘palace memorials…certain types of information were reserved for officials who could read Manchu. Manchu was often used in military affairs as it was decipherable by only the few.

Early Qing emperors supported and encouraged the translations from Chinese to Manchu of various approved texts. However, there was ‘an independent, private world of Manchu literature’ that also provided translations of forbidden writings, including novels like The Golden Lotus.

But, back to my original question—what of the Manchu script itself? Why is its appearance so very different to Chinese?

If, like me, you’ve never heard of the Tungusic family of languages, and are completely ignorant on this entire topic in general, allow me to introduce a wonderful book entitled Manchu Grammar edited by Liliya M. Gorelova in the National Library collection. So, why does the Tungusic script look so different to Chinese? Here’s the short answer: ‘the syllabic Mongolian script was based upon the Uigur one which in its turn, derived from Sogdian and, originally, via Syriac, from Aramaic’. Again, for those of you who are like me and are not familiar with some of these places and peoples, the Sogdian states were in ancient Iran and the Uigurs, or Uyghurs, were from Eastern and Central Asia.

So there it is: Aramaic. But how did the script go from horizontal to vertical? Another wonderful book entitled The World’s Writing Systems edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright (on the shelf in the Main Reading Room in the 400s), which includes some fascinating samples of the languages scripts from all over the world, informed me that ‘the vertical variant of the Sogdian alphabet was applied to a Middle Mongolian dialect in Chinggis Khan’s court (early 13th century)’. How did this happen? Once again, Manchu Grammar came to the rescue with the answer:

Why did Turkic Uigurs when adapting the Semitic Syriac script, change its direction, writing their own language vertically, from top to bottom? According to earlier and recent specialists, this was done by rotating the script by ninety degrees counterclockwise in order to imitate the Chinese script which was very prestigious in Central Asia at that time.

Lastly, another small but interesting fact about Manchu script is that it is phonetic like English. Each letter corresponds to a specific sound unlike Chinese characters that represent a word or phrase.

The Manchu language is now an endangered species. Wikipedia states that ‘According to data from UNESCO, there are 10 native speakers of Manchu out of a total of nearly 10 million ethnic Manchus’. Those who are able to read Manchu script are greater in number, including Westerners who are obviously fascinated by these people and their history, but still only few. According to Crossley, ‘Qing is perhaps the last of the great empires for which vast stretches of central documents remain unreviewed, and for which major discoveries may yet be made’ so here’s hoping that this fascinating language is valued enough to live on.