Students study at Solonju's manchurian class. Photo: Guo Yingguang/GT
While a majority of Chinese people burn the midnight oil, trying to learn English or Japanese to benefit their careers, a small group of dedicated language learners are trying their best to revive and preserve the language of their ethnic group.
The students sit together, heads bent to the materials they downloaded from websites, or copying conscientiously what their teacher writes on the white board. They communicate freely, and all acting as teachers or students.
The language sounds strange, completely alien to a Chinese speaker. Yet these students are speaking Manchurians.
Once China's ruling dynasty, the Qing, from 1644 to 1911, their language is all forgotten and subsumed by the nation they conquered.
But Solonju, a free Manchurian language class might just be turning the tide, proving that Manchurian is not dying, but capable of growing with full vitality.
"Solonju means upstream in Manchurian, which represents our strong will to make this learning class a long term thing," said Hu Song'a, a teacher at the school. "China wants to be a great power in the world, so English got much more attention and so did other foreign languages. I was wondering whether should I learn Manchurian because my colleges around me all learn foreign languages like German and Japanese," he said.
Established in 2006, near Gulou, Solonju has been operating for five years, and has 2,000 students around the world.
Dekjin, a girl from China's 80s generation, is a former student turned teacher. She first became interested in Manchu culture when she started researching traditional dancing.
"I started to learn Manchurian in 2007 after I had a discussion with my friend about ethnic group dancing," she said.
"People usually think that dancers dancing with handkerchiefs in the TV dramas is the so-called Manchurian dancing, so I did a lot of research into the real thing. I found many materials, among which, I found Solonju [school] and decided to give it a try," De kjin added.
Growing up in a Manchurian family, Dekjin and her family didn't speak Manchurian and nobody seemed to pay any attention to the differences between ethnic Manchu and China's majority Han population.
China now has 10 million ethnic Manchus, but few of them can speak and recognize their own language. It is not as old as some may think, having only been commissioned in 1599 by then Manchu leader Nurhaci (1559-1626). It is a combination of the classical Mongolian alphabet, and Jurchen, an earlier Manchu language. Later when Manchus ruled China as the Qing court, the language absorbed many words from the Han language and thus promoted the development of Manchurian.
But the more Manchurian combined with Han language, the less its characteristics were preserved. When the 1911 Revolution ended the reign of the Manchu rulers, the language was left in the dusty corner of history. There was previously a place that taught Manchurian called the Manchurian Academy in Beijing in the 1980s, but it closed in 2003 due to lack of funds.
"At first, we didn't think too much when we learned Manchurian," Dekjin said, "as a Manchu, I want to know more about our own ethnic group, so we started with our language and to find our the cultural roots is our goal."
"This Manchurian learning class is more like a cultural salon where everyone can learn and teach," Dekjin said, "each course contains eight classes, each class, one day a week, from alphabet to grammar and then to daily dialogue, eight weeks later, students can read Manchurian and communicate with people in it."
Besides having lessons, teachers there will also hold some Manchu related lectures, such as Manchurian calligraphy, Manchurian's daily life and their etiquette using Manchurian-related films, usually ones set during the Qing Dynasty.
"At first, few people knew about this learning class, there were only two students in the first few days, but later after we promoted this class on websites, via Douban, microblogs, more and more people came," Dekjin said, "But we lacked Manchurian teaching materials, so it was a little bit hard to learn, but we can refer to the materials like Manchurian grammar books from the Qing Dynasty and the translated Four Classics novels, and there are some books for teaching Manchurian now," she added.
Moises, an 80s generation Han Chinese took the Manchurian class two months ago. The class surprised him. "I used to think the teachers doing classes in places like a cultural salon wouldn't be that good, but I was wrong, because they can communicate with each other in fluent Manchurian. Besides learning I also made a lot of friends and I will insist on learning it myself in the future," he said.
As an ethnic language, Manchurian is not used frequently and widely, so people may feel the language is useless. According to Dekjin, to solve this problem, we need to have a Manchurian magazine for people to read and write for. "There is only one magazine on Manchurian culture but it is written in standard Chinese and there are no Manchurian films in China. We'll try our best and hope that other people can pay attention to this language, especially directors who want to shoot TV dramas about the Qing Dynasty."
Silingioro Hefan, Vice President of the Dalian Manchu Association, now in his 70s, has worked tirelessly to promote Manchu culture. In 1989, he revived the traditional Manchu Banjin festival, which celebrates the date in 1635 when the Manchus formally took on that name. It's celebrated on the 13th day of the 10th lunar month. He is very impressed with the school's efforts.
"I think they have the passion and love for their own ethnic language and a good heart to commit themselves to public welfare since all the classes are free and they all use their spare time to do this job," he said. "I'll provide some help to support them since I know a lot of people who specialize in Manchurian," he said.
Anyone who can understand Chinese is welcome to attend classes. Contact 8403-4803 for more information.