From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 163-164:
He can remember his family genealogy, he says, for five generations back, and they were pure Manchu, and spent all their lives on the Heilongjiang.
And what was the river to them, I wonder.
‘It wasn’t exactly holy. But we still call it our Mother River. My ancestors were all soldiers on these shores. We belonged to the White Banner.’ He is glowing now. The eight Manchu banners had supplied the military elite of their dynasty. ‘My son is a soldier too. And tall, like you.’ He calls up a photo on his phone of a strong young man, swimming somewhere in the Yellow Sea.
Liang breaks in: ‘Does he speak Manchu too? Mr Toobelong likes languages.’
‘No. Only a few old people ever spoke Manchu here, and they’ve died. Except me. People aren’t afraid to say they’re Manchu any more, but they only know Chinese. Even my older brother – he’s dead now – never spoke Manchu. For some reason I was the only one. I think as a boy I was always listening . . .’
Only when I ask him if he’s proud of his heritage does a moment’s confusion surface. Perhaps in obedience to the Party line, or in deference to Liang smiling beside him, he says: ‘No, not proud, we’re all the same now.’ He makes a levelling motion with his hand. ‘We are all Chinese.’ After a silence he adds: ‘All the same, I’m sorry my son doesn’t speak . . .’
It was in the distant Amur outposts that the language had held out longest. There are still speakers of a related tongue two thousand miles to the west, where Manchu soldiers had once guarded the frontier against czarist Russia. But the number who know true Manchu nationwide is unknown, veering between twenty and a mere three, with a few academics studying early Qing documents. The language itself belongs to the obscure Tungusic branch of the Altaic family, shared by Turkic peoples, Hungarians, Finns and Mongolians. Even the last Manchu emperor, it is said, spoke it only haltingly.
Yun too, when he starts to speak, looks stolidly puzzled. It is as if the words occupy a basement in his memory, and have to be pulled up one by one. But slowly they start to loosen and flow, and finally become a whispering stream, full of short vowels and blurred gutturals. Occasionally the gong-like tone of a Mandarin loan-word sounds, but even in Yun’s voice, in which every word blends into the next, Manchu emerges softly staccato, seeming closer to Japanese.
Yun looks happy now, in his far ancestral tongue. I wonder what he is saying. It sounds somehow important. This, after all, was the language of a dynasty that had ruled the fifth-largest empire ever known, extending deep into Inner Asia and far north of the Heilongjiang. I imagine a vocabulary adapted to verbose edicts or shouted battle orders. But when Yun ends, and I ask him, he says he knows too little of history or politics to voice them. Sealed in a language that nobody else understands, he has been talking about his domestic troubles.