As soon as my kids got out of school for the Spring Festival (mid-February), I stuffed them in the car and headed up to Harbin to see the Ice Festival. We passed a village on Route 202 called 拉林 (lālín), and it crossed my mind that with a little phonetic change, maybe it used to be Lolo, the village mentioned in the opening sentence of The Book of the Nisan Shaman. On the way back I stopped there to get some snacks and found that it was a Manchu village and there was Manchu writing on signs everywhere.
But if you look closely at the Manchu on the pictures, some of it is very hard to read, and some of it seems to make no sense at all. I’ll leave the error-analysis as an exercise for the reader, but suffice it to say that it varies quite a lot in quality; some words are clear and sensible, and some look like someone was just trying to imitate the way Manchu looks in general, without quite knowing what they are doing, like westerners often do with Chinese.
When I was in the little shop buying tasty sausages and local beer, a man came in and started asking me questions (—this is quite normal; since I’m not of Asian extraction, curious villagers often muster their courage and warmly ask me all sorts of questions, ranging from my nationality to my opinions about international politics). I told him why I stopped here, and he offered to show me around.
I asked him if anyone could read the Manchu words on the signs.
Me: 满族字儿…在牌子上…你说谁也不认识嘛？ (The Manchu letters…on the signs…you say that nobody can read them?)
I phrased it that way because I had asked him previously, but that time I hadn’t had my recorder on.
Him: 当地谁也不认识。 (As far as the locals go, nobody can read them.)
Me: 那，写的是干哈的？(Then, why did they write them there?)
Him: 糊弄人儿的。反正要求，政府要求你满族这牌匾得带满文呢！(To trick people. Anyway, it’s a requirement; the government requires that if you are Manchu, you have to put Manchu script on your signs.)
Me: 啊，是政府要求。 (Oh, it’s a government requirement.)
Him: 啊，是政府要求。 (Yeah, it’s a government requirement.)
Me: 啊，这儿也，这儿还有呢。 (Ah, here, here are some more.)
Him: 啊，都有呢。这个中的标准就不知道了。 (Yeah, they all have them. Nobody knows what’s correct.)