Successor to the Manchu Language: The negotiating Sibe in contemporary China

Author: Ying Ding (Universität Duisburg-Essen)
Speaker: Ying Ding
Topic: Language, community, ethnicity
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


The Sibe are a small speech community and have two major clusters in China: 34,399 in China’s western frontier – Xinjiang and approximately 140,000 in northeast China. But only the ones who were sent to Xinjiang in 1764 as a garrison of the Manchu army from their provenance in northeast China have maintained their language to this day. While many argue that Sibe is no more than a dialect of the Manchu language (cf. Zikmundová, 2013), it has received official status as a language in its own right since a 1947 reform led by Sibe elites introduced changes to written Manchu.

This paper investigates the shifts of people’s attitudes towards the relationship between Sibe and Manchu from the perspective of the Sibe community. It is part of a larger ongoing project exploring the language building and marketability associated with the adaptation of the Sibe language (e.g. Kloss, 1967; Harris, 1980; Duchêne and Heller, 2012), while taking into consideration of the findings from the data obtained from ethnographic interviews with 75 respondents and a questionnaire survey with a sample size of 236 cases. The guiding questions are 1) how has the role of the Sibe language been negotiated in the process of social adaptation? 2) With which institutional and individual agents are the shifts of attitudes intertwined? To answer these questions, a combination of qualitative and quantitative analyses were conducted, with the former aiming to reveal institutional impacts and individual awareness, and the latter evaluating proportion and influential variables.

The contemporary Sibe language is a diglossic language, with two inconsistent sets of written and spoken standards. According to the data collected from 108 native Sibe speakers, it shows that without the training of literary Sibe, the degree of intelligibility to them is low. Under the tremendous influence of Sinification, together with the attrition of the Sibe per se, there are a vast number of Chinese loanwords in spoken Sibe. However, in textbooks or in the press, writers tend to use traditional Manchu terminologies, which represent Sibe as a “successor” to the Manchu language, rather than acknowledging it as a Manchurian dialect, or denying its affinity to Manchu. The ongoing analysis of the newly-emerged phenomenon indicates that people’s implicit attitudes towards the Sibe language and their explicit knowledge of it are influenced by variables including ethnic belongingness, profession, education and milieu.

Keywords: Sibe, Manchu, China, Shifting attitudes, Ideologies