Manuscript glossary, Qing empire, nineteenth century. Photo by author.
Project (2015-)

Manchu and the Study of Language in China

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. A first version was discussed at a gathering sponsored by the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on April 11, 2017. I then dealt with the topic in two talks:
    • "Manchu, Mandarin, and the Politicization of Spoken Language in Early- to Mid-Qing China," presented at  Tel Aviv University, May 23, 2017.
    • "The Emperor is Listening: Spoken Language and Officialdom in Manchu China, 1644–1795," Universität Heidelberg, June 20, 2017.


The Manchu Language and Chinese Phonological Scholarship


Manchu Language Pedagogy and Lexicography


Manchu in the Early Modern World

Works in progress:

  • I have a book manuscript under review that treats 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've made several presentations related to the book manuscript. 
    • An overview of the project was presented as "A Cultural History of Manchu" at the conference "Sinophone Studies: New Directions," Cambridge, Mass., October 14, 2016.
    • Several presentations treated—or touched upon—the European idea that the Manchu script is an alphabet: 
      • "The European Invention of the Manchu Alphabet," presented at the MPIWG Department III Colloquium, December 1, 2015.
      • "A Cultural History of The Manchu Script: Lists, Grids, and Metal Type in China and Europe, 1680s–1780s," presented at Universität Zürich, September 29, 2016.
      • "When 'Abundance Is a Fault': The Manchu Script and the Search for Pedagogical Simplicity in China and Europe, 1670–1738," presented at the University of Utah, April 12, 2017.
      • "Gottlieb Bayer's (1694–1738) Alphabetic Decipherment of the Manchu Script," presented at "2017 Zhōngguó Yánjiū Yuàn Míng-Qīng Yánjiū Guójì Xuéshù Yántǎo Huì" 2017中央研究院明清研究國際學術研討會 (International conference on Ming-Qing history, Academia Sinica), Taipei, December 19, 2017.
  • "Leibniz's Hopes for a Manchu Encyclopedia and the Qing Imperial Mirror (han-i araha manju gisun-i buleku bithe) of 1708," presented at the "21st Biennial Conference of the European Association for Chinese Studies," Saint Petersburg, August 25, 2016.
  • Several presentations dealing with the making of a Manchu moveable type font in Paris in the late eighteenth century:
    • "L'écriture mandchoue en tant que syllabaire ou alphabet : une tentative de grammatologie comparée sino-européenne'' (The Manchu script as syllabary or alphabet: an attempt at a comparative sino-european grammatology), 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.
    • "Louis-Mathieu Langlès and the Manchu Moveable Type," presented at "New Directions in Manchu Studies," University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, May 6, 2016.
    • "A Controversy Over the Manchu Script," presented at the "14th International Conference on the History of the Language Sciences," Paris, August 30, 2017.
  • "Ordning i manchuiska ordböcker, från uppkomsten i sextonhundratalets Peking till den sällsamma vidareutvecklingen i det tidiga artonhundratalets Edo'' (The story of Manchu lexicographic arrangement from its creation in seventeenth-century Beijing to its curious dénouement in Edo in the 1820s), presented at the "Lund Circle of East Asian Linguistics," Lund University, December 6, 2017
  • "Xiong Shibo's Study of Manchu Phonology at the Turn of the Eighteenth Century," presented at "The Making of the Humanities VI," Oxford, September 29, 2017.


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). A first version was presented at the conference "Rethinking Time in Modern China: A Sinological Intervention," Tel Aviv University, May 15, 2017. It will appear under the title "A Guangxu Renaissance? Manchu Language Studies in the Late Qing and Their Republican Afterlife" in Time, Language, and Power in Late Imperial and Republican China, edited by Ori Sela, Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, and Joshua Fogel.
  • A paper on the integration and subsequent disappearance of the Manchu language from the Chinese discourse on language, script, and statecraft. Earlier versions were:
    • "The Rule of a Uniform Script," presented at the "American Comparative Literature Association Annual Meeting," Cambridge, Mass., March 18, 2016.
    • "Scripts, Statecraft, and the Place of Manchu in the Vision of a Chinese Empire," presented at the "Ostasienwissenschaftliches Mittagsforum," Ruhr-Universität Bochum, July 13, 2016.


  • "Kineserna som lärde sig manchuiska: soldater, ämbetsmän och de första läroböckerna i Qing-dynastins språk'' (The Chinese who learned Manchu: soldiers, officials, and the first textbooks in the language of the Qing dynasty), presented at Stockholm University, October 9, 2017.