The European Parliament has seen its number of languages largely increased since its creation and is currently working with 24 official languages, including the newly added Croatian. According to Extra and Gorter (2008), ‘the constellation of languages in Europe actually functions as a descending hierarchy’ by taking into account three types of language: official state languages, regional minority languages and immigrant minority languages.
At the top of the hierarchy, English is a lingua franca for transnational communication across Europe. At the bottom of the ladder, one can find the immigrant minority languages. It is however the middle of the hierarchy that sees active language movements, particularly language revitalisations like Welsh in Wales and Catalan in Spain. Comparable to these success stories in the European context, China is witnessing a new booming grassroots revitalisation movement of the Manchu language, its most endangered language in the past six years.
The Manchu language once had a prosperous ‘golden era’ as the official language of the Qing dynasty for more than 200 years although it started disappearing at the end of the dynasty. In 1995, the Manchu language had been listed by UNESCO as the most endangered language in China. It is reported that less than 100 out of the 10 million Manchu people speak Manchu in Mandarin-dominant modern China, although the Manchu community is the second largest minority group nowadays. UNESCO even reported that less than ten mother-tongue speakers in their 80s were still ”alive”.
Such announcements have since then aroused overwhelming attention from social media abroad and at home. In such a historical and endangered context, numerous grassroots movements highly rose across the county. They are dedicated to saving this extinct language, and more importantly, to reconstructing the Manchu community through the revitalisation of their unique language.
Although the Manchus are the second largest minority ethnic community in China, they do not have centralised provincial autonomous regions. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that grassroots teaching activities arise from the mass and not from a top-to-down government implementation.
The conscious efforts are aimed to delivering vitality to the Manchu language by increasing the number of speakers, advocating more Manchus to learn and speak common Manchu language for the sake of the community. The general framework is that each grassroots school teaches the Manchu language along with organising various cultural events. In many ways, the movement is constantly developing and expanding.
The movement has been active for more than eight years. However, it was considered in 2005 that its results became visible, when, according to interviews with Liu and Sure, who are two leaders in leading grassroots schools respectively in Northern China and central Beijing, an online forum called Manchu’s Sky was established.
In terms of organisation, more than 15 grassroots schools have been founded with main leaders and regular volunteering teachers. All courses are open to the public, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and age. It has spread across China from the largest Manchu community in North-Eastern province of Liaoning to the southern province of Guangdong.
Their visibility reached social media on Internet, including Youtube (which is blocked in China). Posters, banners and stickers for course information and revitalisation slogans like “Manchus speak Manchu language” are widely displayed in public places and on the Internet. Numerous cultural events have been generated in support of the movement including two very influential activities: celebrating traditional Manchu ethnic Banjin festival, and making a pilgrimage to worship Changbai Mountain, composing and singing Manchu songs based on Shubu— old performance art of Manchus, and practicing archery.
The revitalisation movement also encourages the community to be proud of being one of the Manchus, and ultimately psychologically re-constructs the Manchu identity for the re-imagining (Anderson, 1991) of the ethnic community in modern society.
The revitalisation movement has aroused much interest and called for self-sponsored supports from Manchu people, particularly the establishments of many grassroots schools and online forums. Nevertheless, such grassroots movements, without a unified powerful executive community, have also been confronted by a number of challenges in revitalisation. In the first place, the revitalisation movement has not agreed on a standard Manchu language to be taught and learned, particularly on the colloquial form. Also, there are no general criteria for creating new Manchu words to be adapted to modern social contexts. These on-going challenges involving fierce debates are interesting topics which call for further academic research. It could also provide certain new comparative insights to the language revitalisation researches undertaken in Europe.
Xiaohua JIN, student intern at TermCoord, Master student in the“Multi-learn programme” at the University of Luxembourg. Her current research interest lies in minority languages, with a focus on language practice, policy and ideology in multilingual and multicultural contexts, including social media discourse.