On Thursday, October 9th, I took my computer to a shop to get it fixed (my fan wasn’t on right, causing the CPU to heat up, in turn causing the C drive to crash, apparently). I had brought my copy of Gertraude Roth Li’s wonderful book Manchu: a Textbook for Reading Documents along so I could study while I was waiting, and since it looked like it would take a while, I took a cab over to the local Manchu Association to ask the Manchu language teacher there about his opinion on the meanings of some of the phrases and sentences in the first reading lesson of the book. Little did I know that this would lead into a trip to Sanjiazi, a place that still has living Manchu native language speakers.
Usually there are only two people in the Manchu Association office. One is a man, Mr Guan, who is working on a Manchu-Chinese dictionary, and the other is a woman, Mrs Wu, who is quite an expert in history. Mr Guan can speak, read, and write Manchu, and teaches it to the occasional student that comes into the office. His knowledge of Manchu is academic, i.e. he wasn’t brought up speaking it, and he learned it not to converse with Manchu speakers, per se, but rather to research the Manchu language.
Occasionally people come by the office for various reasons. On that day there was a woman there talking to Mrs Wu. I didn’t pay much attention to her and just started asking Mr Guan some questions. Later, it seemed that the woman was asking questions about me (which is quite normal, me being an oddball white guy hanging around a place that is one of the least likely places for foreigners to be). In the periphery of my attention, I could sense that the questions were being answered (again quite normal): yes, I’m studying Manchu, I run an English school, etc. Suddenly the woman addressed me and asked if I would be there for a little while. I said I guess so, why? She wanted to call her son to come over so I could give him advice on how to study English. Not so normal, but it happens sometimes. Being the polite guy I am, how could I refuse?
So her son comes over and I give him advice. Then it’s time for lunch and the woman wants to invite everybody out. The people in the office encourage me to go along, and I say OK. After all I did just give that woman’s son a free English lesson, and my one-on-one English lessons are normally pretty expensive, so I didn’t refuse too strongly (which in China equals accepting an offer).
During the lunch I found out who she is. She has a farmhouse just outside of Jilin City, in a little village called 阿什 (ashi). She is of Manchu ethnicity and claims to be a shaman, as both of her parents are (?were) shamans. On her business card she has two titles. One is Village Leader of a place called 朱雀山风景区 (zhūquè shān fēngjǐng qū, Rose Finch Mountain Scenic Area). I can’t find such a village on the map — the closest I can come is a 朱雀山国家森林公园 (zhūquè shān guójiā sēnlín gōngyuán, Rose Finch Mountain National Forest Park). I guess it’s too small to be on the map.
The other title is President of the Hong Kong Manchu nationality [sic] Culture Association, which she says has 600 members and thus is the largest group of its kind in China. Her website is: www.manzuhk.cn. If you can read Chinese (traditional characters), look around her website, because that will give you a good idea of what she’s about. There is nothing about Manchu culture on her site; only pictures of her with various VIPs, and descriptions of her achievements, like how many countries she has been to, how many bank presidents she knows, how many people she has “healed”, etc. The discussion during lunch was all that kind of stuff, which I mostly ignored, only paying attention to when glasses were raised so I could duly vaccinate myself against the cacophonous horn-blowing.
What pricked my ears was when she said she wanted to go to Sanjiazi. As we all know, Sanjiazi (三家子, sānjiāzi, Three Families) is the only place known to have living Manchu native language speakers, so throwing propriety aside, and in the interest of furthering research in Manchu studies, I said “I wanna go too!”. The woman, Mrs Guan (no relation to the Jilin Manchu Association Manchu language teacher, Mr Guan — that’s just a fairly common sinicized Manchu surname), had no objections about that.
We were to go four days later, on Monday. That’s not much time to prepare anything, but I assume that once I’ve been there, I could go again.
Stay tuned for the next installment, in which we try to go there.
P.S. This post was entirely written under Linux! Go to hell, Microsoft! 😉