Wall Mystery Solved!

I went to Wulajie again earlier this week.  A fellow school headmaster had arranged a trip there for his school so the students could learn about Manchu culture and spend part of the afternoon drawing.  His school is an art school, and he said he chose Wulajie partly because he was inspired by my interest in Manchu language and culture, and also that it makes sense for kids to know more about Manchu culture since this area (Northeast China) used to be their country.

He filled up two tour busses and hired two tour guides, one for each bus.  The tour guides talked about the usual things — Manchu people don’t eat dog meat, their chimneys run under their beds to provide a heated surface to sleep on, they are great archers, etc.  Not much linguistic stuff outside of the fact that there is only a handful of mother-tongue speakers left.

Our first stop was the same government outpost that I mentioned in an earlier post, where I saw a strange word in Manchu script on an outside wall.  The word is strange because it spells “kisi”, which is not in any Manchu dictionary that’s available to me.  So what is this word?

When I saw the word the first time, the caretaker (who doubles as an antiques seller), said he didn’t know what it said, and that it was there for a long time.  This time (it’s amazing how people change their stories for no apparent reason) I guess the excitement of having two tour busses full of people come to see his lonely little place (and interupting his Mahjong game!) was overwhelming enough that it gave him one of those “oh, yeah, now that you mention it” moments, and he said that the mayor of the village wrote it there a few years ago; it says “fortune” (in Chinese: 福, fú).  No way, I told him.  I looked it up and it wasn’t in any dictionary I looked in.  He said that was what the mayor said it meant.

Let’s refresh our memory a little.  The word on the side of the building is this:

Which I mentioned looks pretty much like it reads “kisi”, which in Manchu script looks like:

One commenter said it might be a transcription of a Chinese word, like “qishi”, but the middle part is definitely “s”.

In Manchu, “s” looks like , and the “sh” sound  would be .  Sometimes in initial position, the stroke to the left is connected, making a letter that looks like the first one on the building, but that would put two consonant sounds in a row, and Manchu words never start with two consonants.

Looking up the word 福 in the Anaku Manchu-Chinese (and sometimes Japanese) dictionary, we do in fact find a similar word in the output: “kesi”, which is given as 福分 (fúfen), which means the same thing as 福.

So there you have it.  He spelled it wrong.

For comparison, here is the right way to spell it (kesi), followed by the wrong way (kisi):

This is certainly one of the (if not the) largest pieces of Manchu script in existence.  It’s only one word.  Four letters.  And he spelled it wrong.

Instead of going into a big tirade about how this isn’t the only language I’ve seen prominently spelled wrong in China, I’ll leave you with some disappointing pictures.  The place is in terrible disrepair.  I’ll have to mention one bright note though.  I heard a rumor that the government is going to put some money into Wulajie and clean the historical places up for tourism.  They should; it’s a 600 year old town and was an important Qing outpost.  Click on the pictures for larger images.

3 thoughts on “Wall Mystery Solved!”

  1. Don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Owen Lattimore visited Wulajie (a.k.a. Wulakai) in 1930, and wrote an interesting report: Wulakai Tales From Manchuria. He reported that “the Manchu language has died out, although a few older men remember it as a ‘dead’ language learned at school” [for government work purposes].

  2. One of the first places I learnt of in China…was Manchurian Plain..I read about it in 1950 when i was 12 years old. It was an icon for me even then. But i didn’t learn more about it until recently when I travelled to Jilin city to marry my present wife…..now Amber. Quite accidental how we met..was not on the plan. There is a Japanese influence through Jilin province i believe..Mukden the main city, of Japanese creation. Damn cold place though. Not for me to visit until May-August..maybe September. Maybe she is not true chinese but of an older generation of Manchus..her father came from Shandong(?), I believe, north west of Jili city. It was where Confuscious came from I think. What a shame more is not know of this culture. We are going back to Jilin for a visit soon..so maybe we venture north and do some investigations.

  3. Sorry for commenting on your old post. I only discovered your blog only yesterday, but I am enjoying all the posts you have here.

    Indeed I find the writing style of this “kesi” to be quite misleading. I wonder if this is a fancy funky style which only became popular lately of has the Manchu style of writing deviated so much from their original principles.

    Although the Manchu script is in all right an independent written language for 400 years, it is hard to imagine that its writing style would deviate from its parent Mongolian so much. I noticed that the treatment of the mid-position “j” in Manchu and Mongolian hand writing to be very different. Manchu would write the j as an extension of the upper backbone while in Mongolian it would be written as a new start extending down to the lower backbone. The languages are different, but the basic alphabets should share the same principles.

    I just have these pricks when I see a Manchu written in such unique style as the one we find on this wall. It just don’t look as elegant as the formal style we see on signboards in the palace of print fonts we see in imperial edicts.

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