The Language of the Qing Dynasty is Being Preserved in China’s Northwestern Frontier

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2:00 AM HKT, Tue September 26, 2017 2 mins read

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ying Ding and Alan McLean

China is frequently perceived as a homogeneous nation in the global arena, or the population of China is associated with the Han people. As a matter of fact, together with the Han majority, there are fifty-six state-recognized ethnic groups throughout the territory of China. The total number of ethnic minorities accounts for approximately 8.5 percent of the population of China — about 105 million people.

The Sibe (锡伯族; Xibozu) are one of China’s officially recognized ethnic minorities, with a populace of nearly 200,000. The Sibe are considered a Tungusic-speaking people, and in essence, the present-day Sibe language is nearly identical to Manchurian, which uses the adapted Mongolian script for writing. While it’s not news that the Manchu language has come to the brink of extinction, in China’s far-west frontier of Xinjiang, the official language of the Qing Dynasty has been inherited and preserved by the small Sibe group.

There are approximately 40,000 Sibe people in Xinjiang. In 1763 and 1764, following a decree by the Qianlong Emperor, several thousand Sibe soldiers were sent to garrisons, together with their families and retinues, to the newly conquered former Dzungar Khanate (modern day North Xinjiang). This event, known as the Sibe Westward March, started from Shenyang in northeastern China and ended in the Ili Valley, taking two years of travel by foot. Chabchal is the sole Sibe Autonomous County, and one of the most densely populated Sibe regions. Chabchal is also the only place in the world today where the imperial language of the Qing Dynasty is widely used in people’s daily lives.

The name of the Duin biya Juwan jakūn festival in traditional written script by Sibe professor Kicengge (left) and in a more cursive style by Manchu calligrapher Hasutai (right)

For the Sibe people, Duin biya Juwan jakūn is an exclusive ethno-cultural activity to commemorate their ancestors’ outset of the Sibe Westward March from northeastern China to the frontier of the Qing dynasty. In the Sibe language, “Duin biya Juwan jakūn” means the “eighteenth of April”, as the troops embarked on their journey on the eighteenth of the fourth month of the lunar calendar.

In many aspects — language, religion, and cultural norms — the Sibe are typecast to be the same as the Manchu. In reality, the Sibe have received an official status as a distinct national minority, and the Sibe language was recognized by the Ethnic Classification Project of the 1950s. Duin biya Juwan jakūn venerates the rich foundation for the uniqueness of Sibe culture in contrast to that of the Manchu, with a reflection in folklore, poems and narrative songs.

Here are a few samples of the Sibe language, with translations:

“Hi, everyone, how are you? Greetings from me.”

Chinese: 各位朋友你们好吗?我在这里给大家问个好,祝大家安好
Romanized Sibe: Geren gucuse, baitakv na? Hosh (i)lahe na? Bi evad gerenofid emudan elhe sian fiansikie.

“One, two, three”

Chinese: 一,二,三
Romanized Sibe: Emken, Ju, Ilan

“Eighteenth of April Festival”

Chinese: 四月十八
Romanized Sibe: Duin biya Juwan jakūn

“My name is Ying”

Chinese: 我的名字是影
Romanized Sibe: Min gev(ev) Ying sem.

Cover image: Map of the Ili Valley circa 1809 (Wikipedia)

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