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The Emperor is Listening: Spoken language and Officialdom in Manchu China, 1644–1795

Jun 20, 2017 06:00 pm to 07:30 pm

Speaker: Mårten Söderblom Saarela (Princeton University)

Centuries of Chinese administrative monolingualism came to an abrupt end when the Manchus invaded the Ming empire in 1644. From that moment on, official documents were written in two languages. Speech had always been varied, and now became even more so. Suddenly, Manchu was added to the mix of  Chinese dialects and the lingua franca of Mandarin. The new Qing empire faced a language question in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Manchu-Chinese encounter caused administrative difficulties that were only gradually resolved. Manchu had to be translated into Chinese, but what kind of Chinese? Officials had to be able to communicate at court, but in what language? Faced with such questions, speech rose to the attention of emperors and their most ambitious servants, elite bannermen and Chinese examination graduates. Imperial China has traditionally been seen as a civilization of the written word. This talk will suggest that spoken language too has a political history.


Mårten Söderblom Saarela received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 2015. A historian of late imperial China interested in the cultural and intellectual history of language, he is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany. Most of his time is currently spent researching the history of the Manchu language in China and its influence on the language sciences there during the Qing period (1644–1911). In addition, he's working on a few other projects of varying on scope on linguistic matters in China and beyond.


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