A Dream of Tartary

Some correspondence from the bulging Echoes of Manchu mailbag:

Michael Rank, a journalist and translator and Chinese graduate based in London, writes:

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting book entitled A Dream of Tartary by Henry McAleavy (1963), in almost new condition, in an Oxfam shop in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.

It’s subtitled The Origins and Misfortunes of Henry P’u Yi, and is a lively if not terribly scholarly account of the fall of the Qing dynasty and the sad fate of its last emperor. It’s mainly based on Chinese and Japanese sources, I don’t think the author knew Manchu though he does devote a few paragraphs to the language. He says:

“Already by the eighteenth century [Manchu] was in full decline as a spoken language and had been supplanted by Chinese at the Manchu Court in Peking. Today it is said to survive chiefly among a community in Turkestan [the Xibe锡伯族] who are descended from a settlement of Manchu bannermen. In spite of its rapid and obvious decay, the Manchu authorities tried to use it as a means of preserving their racial identity. In 1828 a bannerman holding a post in Manchuria was dismissed with ignominy for the solecism of addressing a memorial to the throne in Chinese. But down to 1912, a corps of translators was maintained for the purpose of making a Manchu version of all statutes and important documents. As the language is very much easier than Chinese, foreigners too were induced to cultivate it. In 1844, an American diplomat went so far as to propose that all correspondence with China should be carried on in Manchu. A decade earlier, George Borrow had gone to St Petersburg to bring out a Manchu translation of the New Testament…” (pp 81-82)

Several interesting points (who was the American diplomat, and how good was his Manchu?) but I was particularly struck by the author’s claim that Manchu “is very much easier than Chinese”. Presumably he bases this on the writing system (alphabetic rather than characters) and lack of tones. But the Manchu script looks pretty damn difficult to me (I have just bought Roth Li’s book…), not to speak of the grammar and lack of textbooks (even today), so to claim that Manchu is inherently easier than Chinese seems rather naive…

The book has a very attractive cover (as opposed to dust jacket) based on some Manchu text.


I don’t think I dare venture an opinion on the relative ease, or difficulty, of Chinese and Manchu, but I have read that it was proposed, at some point, that Western diplomats learn Manchu instead of Chinese. Can anyone shed further light on these matters?

3 thoughts on “A Dream of Tartary”

  1. mini gurunde [Majar, inggili gisuni araci Hungary] niyalmasa majar gisuni leolendumbi, damu 1844 aniyatala dasani gisun oci latin ohobi. tere erinde tulergiguruni elcinse latin gisuni gisurere ojoro ohobi.
    manju gurunde dasani gisun manju ohobe dahame elcinse manju gisun taciha.

    i think “aniyatala” and “ohobe dahame” are not a pure manchu idioma, how can i write it correctly?

  2. I like your blog!

    The American Diplomat was probably Caleb Cushing, who negotiated the treaty of Wang Hiya. He was said to have advocated the use of Manchu as the primary language of diplomatic communication with China.

    As for Bucin’s questions: the suffix -tala/-tele is not fully productive in Manchu, and I think it is normally a verbal suffix anyway. It would be better to say “1844 aniya de isitala”.

    If you want to say, “The official language of China was Manchu, so emissaries from other countries learned the Manchu language,” you might say “Dulimbai gurun i gisun manju gisun bime, gūwa gurun ci jihe elcin manju gisun be taciha”. (The Manchus didn’t call China “Manju gurun”, because they had a delicate ethnic balance to maintain with the more numerous Han.)

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