It was the language of China’s last imperial dynasty that ruled a vast kingdom for nearly three centuries. But 71-year-old Ji Jinlu is among only a handful of native Manchu speakers left.
Traders and farmers from what are now the borders of China and Korea, the Manchus took advantage of a crumbling Ming state and swept south in the 1600s to establish their own Qing Dynasty.
Manchu became the court language, its angular, alphabetic script used in millions of documents produced by one of the world’s pre-eminent powers.
Now after centuries of decline followed by decades of repression, septuagenarian Ji is the youngest of some nine mother-tongue speakers left in Sanjiazi village, one of only two places in China where they can be found.
“We mostly speak Chinese these days — otherwise young people don’t understand,” he said, in his sparsely furnished hut beside cornfields, before launching into a self-composed Manchu lullaby.
Manchu is classed as “critically endangered” by the United Nations’ cultural organization UNESCO, which says that half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken worldwide are threatened with extinction, a major loss of knowledge and diversity for humanity.
But plans to save Manchu are spreading as ethnic consciousness grows among the 10-million-strong minority.
Read more: The Japan Times