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The Autonomous Region of Xinjiang is of course, widely known across the world for being the home of one of China’s most well known minority groups – the Uyghurs.  Xinjiang is after all, officially called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with the Uyghurs making up around 46% of the population while the Han Chinese make up around 39%, and ethnic Kazakhs make up 6%. 

Xibe’s vertical writing system,
whereby individual words are
written vertically with joined up

However, it’s the region’s 8th largest ethnic group – the Xibe – that I want to talk about today.  For unlike the Uyghurs or the Kazakhs, the Xibe are not Turkic, and nor are they related to the Han Chinese.  Yet their history and presence in Xinjiang is closely linked to that of China’s last Imperial Dynasty, and perhaps soon the Xibe will be the last surviving speakers of a once widespread Siberian language family. 

So who are the Xibe and what is their story?  Well, to the answer to that question, we have to travel back at least four centuries and to the other side of China, in a land called Manchuria.

A land called Manchuria

Centuries ago, what we now think of as North-eastern China wasn’t part of China at all, but a separate land sparsely by a partially nomadic people called the Jurchens. 
However, it was in the early 17th Century that the majority of Jurchens united under a single ruler, adopted a vertical writing system based on the Mongol script, and renamed themselves the Manchus.  Their homeland is thus referred to, even to this day, as Manchuria. 
It was soon after this that they invaded and conquered China during the collapse of the Ming dynasty, and set up their own dynasty, the Qing, which would rule the country from 1644 to 1912.  This was easily one of history’s most impressive conquests, given how few Manchus there were compared to Han Chinese, but was also aided by civil war within China.  

Thus, almost overnight, the Manchu culture and language went from being a tribal one beyond the frontiers of oriental civilization to being that of the ruling class of one of the world’s largest and most advanced Empires, much as the Norman language was the aristocratic language of Norman England.

However, by conquering China, the Manchus arguably ‘signed their own death warrant’ as a distinct nation capable of creating their own nation-state and their conquest of China is why there is no independent country called Manchuria today.  

You see, not only did China’s Manchu elite eventually become Sinicized and adopt Mandarin, but Manchuria itself, until then sparsely populated, became majority Han Chinese due to a mass migration of ethnic Han, eventually encouraged by the Manchu rulers themselves, during the 18th and 19th centuries.  

At first, in the early 18th century, the Manchus banned Han Chinese migration to Manchuria and built a ‘willow palisade’ to keep them out, however by 1800 they had been a change in policy, partly as a bulwark against potential Korean and Russian expansion into the area.  Thus, it can be argued that the Manchus ‘won China but lost Manchuria.’

Thus, in the three provinces that make up Manchuria today, only 7 million of the 104 million inhabitants were ethnic Manchus in the year 2000, 94 million being Han Chinese.  And of the 7 million, it’s estimated that the number of fluent speakers of Manchu could be around 10 individuals.

Back to Xinjiang

So, where do the Xibe of Xinjiang come into this?  The Xibe, both those of Xinjiang and those back in Manchuria, are a sub-division of the Manchus, with those living in Xinjiang perhaps being best described as an offshoot.   

It was the year 1764 when 18,000 Xibe were relocated to Xinjiang under Emperor Qianlong – perhaps because they had rebelled, or perhaps to help strengthen central control over Xinjian in a Manchu equivalent of the Ulster Plantations.

But what ever the actual motive was, that decision by Emperor Qianlong would later turn out to have saved a language from extinction.   For while a majority of ethnic Xibe still live in Manchuria, it’s the Xinjiang branch that has kept the language alive, all those back in Manchuria now speaking Mandarin.  

And it’s in Xinjiang that the Xibe people have their only official ethnic homeland in the whole of China – the Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County, which is itself within the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, which is in turn within the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – the QXAC is therefore a designated homeland for one ethnic group, instead another, inside yet another.  

I haven’t quite managed to find out how many Xibe there are living in Qapqal or what percentage of the overall population they constitute, but on the one hand, it appears that in 2015 there were 42,790 with 30,000 speaking the language in 2000.  This would make the Xibe around one quarter of the population of their own designated homeland of Qapqal, however it also seems that out of the 8 subdivisions of Qapqal, the Xibe ranged from 32.9% of the population to 73.2% , in the year 2000.  

Thus, it is quite difficult to make sense of these two contradicting sources, however, what is certain is that Qapqal has become more diverse in recent decades, with Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Han Chinese moving in, and that the Lingua Franca between all four groups is not Xibe, but Mandarin.   

Sure, Xibe may be the language of the playground if all kids are Xibe mother-tongue, but in a diverse playground, it will inevitably be Mandarin.   However, in 1998, there were eight primary schools in the county where Xibe lessons were compulsory, but where the general medium of instruction was Chinese, and the language is taught at degree level in a nearby University.

Xibe’s current situation is of course, infinitely better than that of Manchu back in Manchuria, and as a result, Manchu language revivalists, who now number in the thousands, often travel to Qapqal to see their sister language being spoken natively and the two languages are still mutually intelligible.  

Xibe and Manchu are members of the Tungusic Language Family, whose other languages include those spoken by ethnicities indigenous to the Russian Far East, and the Evenk people of northern Siberia.  Overall, these languages have around 75,000 native speakers, meaning that Xibe makes up some 40% of them, and could easily be the least endangered.

Perhaps one of the striking features of Xibe is it’s alphabet, derived from, but not identical to, that created by their ancestors the Manchus four hundred years ago.  In Xibe, sentences are written left to write, but individual words are written vertically with joined up letters – it was an alphabet similar to this that Mongolian used before the forced adoption of Cyrillic under Communist Rule, and that Mongols living in China still use to this day.

The Xibe are thus one of fifty-six officially registered ethnic groups within the People’s Republic of China.  Readers of this blog can expect me to write about other such ethnicities in the future.