Manchu Language in China

Manchu and the Study of Language in China


Manuscript glossary, Qing empire, nineteenth century. Photo by author.

My project focuses on the Manchu language, particularly its script's influence on language studies in Qing China, covering the period 1607–1911. The Manchu language and its script was nothing like Chinese, but it was used in the Qing empire as the language of the ruling house and parts of the hereditary military elite until the early twentieth century. The project considers how Manchu was developed as a written language by the early Qing rulers and subsequently taught, used, and theorized by individuals both in and outside the empire. Permeating these matters, visible through administrative, pedagogical, and scholarly texts, is the relationship between Manchu and Chinese. I am especially interested in what heritage Manchu language studies left in China as the language declined as a tool of spoken communication. The generally assumed but poorly understood decline of Manchu coincided with the emergence of a normative (and, later, standard) form of Chinese out of an earlier imperial multilingualism.

What effects did the centuries-long experience of promulgating, regulating, and understanding the Manchu language have on the later standardization of Chinese by scholars and government representatives? I suspect that answering that question will shed new light on the history of language planning, education, and humanist scholarship in China during the transition from empire to republic.

My sources are language manuals, dictionaries and thesauri, and phonological treatises mainly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as government documents and imperial pronouncements concerning language use.

I presented a first overview of the project in my dissertation, "Manchu and the Study of Language in China (1607–1911)," defended at Princeton University in 2015. I am currently working to complement and eventually supersede it through a series of publications:

Manchu and Mandarin Chinese

Works in progress:

  • A paper on the politicization of spoken language (Manchu and Mandarin) in eighteenth-century China. One version was discussed at a gathering sponsored by the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on April 11, 2017.


  • "Mandarin over Manchu: Court-Sponsored Qing Lexicography and Its Subversion in Korea and Japan," forthcoming in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 77.1 (June 2017). Earlier versions were presented at the 14th International Conference on the History of Science in East Asia, Paris, July 6–10, 2015 and at the Bernhard Karlgren Seminar Series, University of Gothenburg, October 15, 2015.

The Manchu Language and Chinese Phonological Scholarship


Manchu Language Pedagogy and Lexicography


Manchu in the Early Modern World

Works in progress:

  • I'm currently writing several papers on the appearance of written Manchu in world history and the efforts made in China, Korea and Japan, and Europe to understand this new language. I will eventually publish them in one form or another. These are the papers, drafts of which I've presented on a few occasions: 
    • On the integration and subsequent disappearance of the Manchu language from the Chinese discourse on language, script, and statecraft. I first explored this topic in a presentation at the American Comparative Literature Association Annual Meeting, Cambridge, Mass., March 17–20, 2016 and subsequently at the Ostasienwissenschaftliches Mittagsforum, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, July 13, 2016.
    • On the European idea that the Manchu script is an alphabet. One version was presented at the MPIWG Department III Colloquium, December 1, 2015. The topic was also touched upon in talks given at Universität Zürich, September 29, 2016 and the University of Utah, April 12, 2017.
    • On Qing court-sponsored Manchu thesauri of the eighteenth century and their relationship to the global development of dictionaries and encyclopedias as genres. One version was presented at the 21st Biennial Conference of the European Association for Chinese Studies, Saint Petersburg, August 25, 2016.
    • On the making of a Manchu moveable type font in Paris in the late eighteenth century. One version was presented as part of the seminar "Histoire culturelle de la Chine (XVIe siècle–XIXe siècle) : livres, éditeurs et publics" at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, December 17, 2015, and another at the conference "New Directions in Manchu Studies," University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, May 6, 2016.


Works in progress:

  • A paper on Manchu's transformation from the language of the Qing dynasty to a language of philologists in China (1875–1941), to be presented at the conference "Rethinking Time in Modern China: A Sinological Intervention," to be held at Tel Aviv University on May 14-16, 2017.