The Early Modern Travels of Manchu

In The Early Modern Travels of Manchu, Mårten Söderblom Saarela shows how—through observation, inference, and reference to ideas on language and writing—intellectuals in southern China, Russia, France, Chosołn Korea, and Tokugawa Japan deciphered the Manchu script and the uses to which it was put: recording sounds and arranging words.

The Early Modern Travels of Manchu
A Script and Its Study in East Asia and Europe

Mårten Söderblom Saarela

2020 | 288 pages | Cloth $69.95
Asian Studies
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Table of Contents

Conventions

Introduction. A Cultural History of the Manchu Script
Chapter 1. To Follow Fuxi or Kubilai Khan? Written Manchu Before 1644
Chapter 2. The Beijing Origins of Manchu-Language Pedagogy, 1668-1730
Chapter 3. Phonology and Manchu in Southern China and Japan, c. 1670-1716
Chapter 4. Manchu Words and AlphabeticalOrder in China and Japan, 1683-1820s
Chapter 5. Leibniz's Dream of a Manchu Encyclopedia and Kangxi's Mirror, 1673-1708
Chapter 6. The Manchu Script and Foreign Sounds from the Qing Court to Korea, 1720s-1770s
Chapter 7. The Invention of a Manchu Alphabet in Saint Petersburg, 1720s-1730s
Chapter 8. The Making of a Manchu Typeface in Paris, 1780s-1810s
Conclusion

Notes
Index
Acknowledgments


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Introduction
A Cultural History of the Manchu Script

The subject of this book is Manchu, a language first written down as part of the Qing state-building project in Northeast Asia in the early seventeenth century. After the Qing invasion of China in 1644, Manchu was a language of state in one of the early modern world's great powers for two and a half centuries. Its prominence and novelty made the language interesting to Chinese literati as well as foreign scholars.

Manchu was a living language, and its script was in active use in one of the world's major empires. Yet scholars in Europe and Japan, and occasionally even within China itself, were compelled to study the language without access to a native speaker. Through observation, inference, and reference to received ideas on language and writing, scholars in southern China, Russia, France, Chosołn Korea, and Tokugawa Japan deciphered the Manchu script, describing it in terms that made sense to them. Generations before the decipherment of the forgotten scripts of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East became one of the success stories of European nineteenth-century philology, scholars across Eurasia worked on the common problem of making sense of the new Manchu script and the uses to which it was put: recording sounds and arranging words.

The history of the Manchu script's study at both ends of Eurasia was not just contemporaneous; it was connected. The Jesuit missionaries in Beijing sent Chinese books on Manchu to Europe, where scholars struggled to make it into an alphabet conformable to Western-language pedagogy and printing technology. In southern China, meanwhile, an isolated phonologist with access to Jesuit books relied on expositions of the Roman alphabet to make sense of the Manchu script. When Chinese textbooks and dictionaries of Manchu eventually reached Japan, scholars there used their knowledge of Dutch to understand Manchu. In East Asia and Europe, Manchu was studied using partially shared resources. Yet local differences shaped the understanding and usage of the script in the alphabetical, letterpress world of Paris and Saint Petersburg and the predominantly xylographic Sinosphere of Beijing, Hansołng, and Edo.

The shared preoccupation with Manchu brought Europe and East Asia closer. In China, the encounter with Manchu inspired the invention of a specialized, phonographic usage of the Chinese writing system. European observers, duly impressed, declared that the Chinese characters had been made into an alphabet like their own. Korean scholars, conversely, adapted their hangul recording of spoken Chinese to the Manchu script, creating a commensurability between Chosołn and Qing linguistic technologies. Tokugawa scholars, finally, were able to read letters from Russia once they had acquired the Northeast Asian lingua franca of Manchu, which was the language of the Russian missives. Through these developments, Manchu emerges as intimately related to the globalization of the early modern period.

The book shows that Manchu, which thus far has primarily been studied within the context of the expanding Qing empire's imperial and military institutions, is also a topic for cultural and intellectual history both inside and outside China. Rather than being of interest only to the Manchus themselves, the language was studied by the Chinese and by people outside the Qing domain who had little interaction with Manchu speakers, but who took an interest in the strange, new language of a rising world power. These individuals, spread across several countries, were in a similar situation in that Manchu for them meant written Manchu. Until they could properly read it, written Manchu was, in turn, limited to the Manchu script, which they set out to understand and manipulate in various ways. By focusing on their first encounters with Manchu, the book contends that the script—the medium rather than the message—has a rich cultural history. By looking at contemporaneous, comparable, and at times connected scholarly engagements with the Manchu script in East Asia and Europe, the book further argues that a global history of the humanities should look to forms of linguistic scholarship other than philology. Identifying nonphilological linguistic scholarship in China, finally, is a way to show that the preoccupation with the classical corpus was not as pervasive as often presented, and that the current humanities disciplines might have genealogies that do not lead through the exegetical and philological examination of the classical texts, but through studies of modern and non-Chinese languages.

This brief introduction will discuss the unfolding of the Manchu language in history, its study since the fall of the Qing, and the intervention that this book makes in Manchu and Chinese studies and the history of the humanities. A summary of the core chapters then follows.

Manchu in History

The more than two and a half centuries of Manchu Qing rule in China were one of several periods in which China was part of an Inner Asian empire that operated in more languages than classical, or literary, Chinese. Yet there is a persistent image of Chinese history as a succession of states or regimes ("dynasties") united by Confucian ideology and statecraft, expressed precisely in literary Chinese and in no other language. Unsurprisingly, this bird's-eye view snapshot of imperial China has a great deal of truth to it. Even the Manchu regime used classical Chinese texts to legitimize its rule to the educated Chinese elite, who in turn were tested on the Confucian texts in the examinations leading to civil office. The dominant ideology exalted written monolingualism for centuries. According to Zhongyong ([Doctrine of] the mean), one of the classical texts studied by virtually every elite Chinese male during the late imperial period, a single and unified written language was one of the hallmarks of a unified empire. Indeed, the standardization of writing was hailed as an achievement by the founder of the first integrated empire in antiquity, both in his own propaganda and in later and very well-known historiography. This idea of the Chinese empire as imposing a single language has remained in the scholarly imagination, even though the Manchus for centuries upheld a plurilingual empire in China and beyond. The first of the interventions that this book will make is to acknowledge Qing—and by extension Chinese—plurilingualism, through a focus on Manchu.

The Manchu language was named as such shortly after it was committed to writing in Jianzhou, just north of the Chinese border close to the Bohai gulf and not far from the Korean Peninsula. The Jurchen people living there spoke a language related to that of the Jin dynasty, which controlled north China in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Jurchen once possessed their own writing system, but it was forgotten in Jianzhou by the early seventeenth century. The aspiring state-builders there instead looked to the neighboring Mongols for inspiration, and adopted their ultimately Near Eastern script to write their own language. With some modifications, the new written language became the medium for day-to-day administration and the expression of the ruler's will in the state that from 1636 was called Daicing in Manchu or Da Qing in Chinese.

As Manchu power grew north of the Great Wall, the new state entered into conflict with the Chinese Ming empire and its ally, Chosołn Korea, then recently assisted by the Chinese in a destructive defensive war against Japan. The Manchus invaded Korea twice in the 1620s and 1630s. For geopolitical reasons, the Chosołn government supported some study of the Jurchen language for centuries. They then started to train interpreters in Manchu. The Korean efforts to study the new language of Jianzhou represent the first of the many encounters with the language that unfolded over the following centuries. The Koreans used both literary Chinese and their vernacular language and its phonographic hangul script to translate and gloss Manchu texts. Unfortunately, the books written by Korean scholars during this early period have been lost.

The Qing state invaded China in 1644 following the collapse of Ming power in parts of north China and in the capital at Beijing in the face of rebelling peasant armies. The Manchus moved a large part of their thoroughly militarized society, organized into eight banners (on the battlefield, but maintained in peacetime through the allocation of stipends and housing), into Beijing. The inner city of the former Ming capital became exclusively inhabited by bannermen, a category with many subdivisions, of which Manchus were only one. Yet the bannermen as a group were strongly tied to the Manchu imperial house that supported them, and also individuals belonging to the Chinese or Mongolian contingents of the banners knew, studied, and published on the Manchu language. Outside the capital, banner troops were placed in garrisons in strategic locations around China and elsewhere in the Qing empire, which expanded in all directions—including across the sea to Taiwan—during the first century and a half of its existence.

The Manchu bureaucracy grew as Qing power in China was consolidated in the second half of the seventeenth century. The banner establishment had its own Manchuphone administration, and the central government in Beijing was largely bilingual, with routine documents prepared in both Manchu and Chinese. Manchu education under government aegis expanded in this period: first with the Manchu aristocracy and top-level Chinese officials, then with ordinary boys in the banners. Beijing, the center of Manchu life, was also the center of Manchu education. The Chinese scholars of Manchu who will appear in this book all spent at least some time in Beijing. The experience inspired them to study Manchu, even if they themselves were not always able to study the language while in the capital.

Several of the first Manchu-language studies titles to appear in print in China were written by Chinese individuals. Coming from families of civil officials with no tradition of studying any written languages other than literary Chinese, the first scholars of Manchu approached the new language with concepts developed to describe and teach Chinese, which was written with a radically different writing system. Whereas the Manchu script was related to the consonant alphabets of the Near and Middle East, Chinese was written using characters that, as a rule, each represented a monosyllabic morpheme. It was a challenge for Chinese scholars to describe the new language's script in a way that made sense to their peers, but a generation of scholars produced teaching aids, textbooks, and dictionaries that allowed Chinese literates to learn and use Manchu. Some of the earliest and simplest books that the Chinese students of Manchu had printed reached Japan, where a curious individual related the script they described to his own country's writing system.

Manchu was entirely new to both Chinese and Japanese learned, but one Chinese scholar, at least, benefited from access to publications about a script, the Roman alphabet, that was more similar to Manchu than Chinese characters were. The European script had been introduced to China by the Jesuit mission, present in Ming China from the late sixteenth century. The mission survived the tumultuous Qing conquest. As astronomers, the Jesuits were employed at the Manchu court to work on calendar reform. A new group of French Jesuits arrived in the 1680s and remained in contact with the learned establishment in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. The Jesuits were present as the Qing signed a treaty with Russia in 1689, which led to a regular Russian presence in Beijing as well. Like the Jesuits, Russians in Siberia and China transmitted knowledge of Manchu westward, allowing it to be studied in Saint Petersburg. Jesuits and tsarist envoys enjoyed the privilege of learning Manchu onsite in Beijing. Some Jesuits evidently thought about the Manchu language in the categories of Latin grammar, but the overall impression from reading what the missionaries had to say about Manchu is that they, being in the Manchu capital, internalized much of how the Manchus themselves viewed at least their script. Scholars in Europe, without access to Manchu teachers, tried the hardest to make sense of the language—accessible to them only in the form of written artifacts—in a way that made sense from the point of view of the European tradition of language study.

Even before the conquest of China, the Manchu language had been in contact with other languages, such as Mongolian and Chinese, and Manchu recordkeepers had adapted their script to better record foreign sounds. Chinese interest in Manchu after the conquest further testifies to the interaction of the two languages. With the Manchu leadership and many banner troops living in China, the Qing court soon grew wary that continued proficiency in Manchu was under threat in the long term. Toward the turn of the eighteenth century, early government-sponsored projects of translating important Chinese texts in classical studies and historiography were complemented by the editing of reference books serving to standardize and promulgate knowledge of written Manchu. The Qing court sponsored language studies books throughout the eighteenth century. Despite initial attempts to assert the independence of the Manchu language by making these books monolingual, the imperial government soon shifted to producing plurilingual books that allowed readers familiar with, for example, Chinese to access Manchu and to translate in and out of the language. The emergence of a government-sponsored tradition of Manchu-language study coincided in time with bannermen emerging as the authors of commercially published pedagogical and lexicographical literature. The perceived need to preserve the Manchu language in the face of Chinese demographic dominance and the continued relevance and vitality of a Chinese written tradition—even as an administrative language within the Manchu empire—made the Manchu language appear more of a Manchu prerogative and less as a linguistic tradition in which Chinese civilians should partake.

Rather than writing new Manchu-Chinese dictionaries in this changed situation, Chinese scholars took inspiration from Manchu in their study of the Chinese language. The Manchu script could record Chinese just as well as Manchu sounds, which inspired new developments in Chinese phonology and, in the nineteenth century especially, the teaching of Mandarin Chinese to speakers of other varieties of the language.

However, for non-Qing subjects, the government-sponsored Manchu-language studies books—technically sophisticated, authoritative, and produced in great numbers—became important resources. In Korea, the Manchu emperors' dictionaries were used to compile new plurilingual works for use in the training of government interpreters. The imperial dictionaries were also used in Japan, when the authorities there charged a group of scholars already trained in Dutch and vernacular Chinese to use them to translate Russian letters written in Manchu. Europeans were also impressed by the Qing court's books. Rumors of an imperial Manchu dictionary reached Europe through Jesuit mediation already before the book was finished in Beijing, inspiring hopes that such a work could serve a bridging function and impart much coveted Chinese knowledge to a European readership. The wish to have a Manchu dictionary translated into a European language for that purpose was voiced already in the first years of the eighteenth century. Toward the century's end, a Manchu-French dictionary based on Qing originals was indeed published in Europe, but only after its editors had figured out how to make European printing technology successfully reproduce Manchu text.

Manchu continued to be part of everyday reality for many bannermen and officials in China in the nineteenth century, but the court withdrew from sponsoring large-scale historical or linguistic editorial projects. Toward the very end of the Qing period, Manchu reemerged in the linguistic thought of some language reformers who sought to harness the Manchu script's phonographic properties to better record and better promote Mandarin Chinese. Yet when the Qing dynasty fell in 1911-12, it was no longer expedient to appeal to the Manchu script for such purposes.

Manchu Studies

As a written language, and even as a spoken language, Manchu had from the very beginning of its recorded history been tied to the political power of the Qing imperial house and its institutions. The official history of the Qing that was published as a "draft" (gao) under Republican auspices in 1927 did not stress the plurilingual character of Qing official life or its capital's print culture, which made Manchu seem irrelevant. This view was carried over to mainstream historiography in the West as well, where Qing history emerged only slowly as a distinct field. Even so, Manchu did not disappear when the dynasty fell. Manchu had long been supplanted by a form of northern vernacular Chinese as the language for everyday communication in the banner communities in China proper, but at least in Beijing, elements of the banner existence remained as the city's local culture. Scholars with bannerman backgrounds took an interest in Manchu. They collected books and compiled bibliographies, which helped me tremendously when I did research in the Beijing libraries. Foreign scholars joined in collecting and describing the heritage of Manchu sources. With Japanese and German scholars living for years in Republican Beijing and adding their penciled notes and ex libris to books that eventually ended up in the city's libraries, the early twentieth century almost presents a mirror image of the early modern studies of Manchu, with the difference that everybody now seemed gathered in the same place and in some cases knew each other personally. The Japanese invasion and then the Communist revolution put an end to this cosmopolitan Indian summer of Qing intellectual life.

Manchu studies continued around the world after World War II, with Japanese and European scholars repatriated. In China and in Taiwan, researchers, including from scholarly bannerman families or of Sibe ethnicity, began to work through the enormous archival holdings of official documents in Manchu . These documents were gradually used by historians in China and abroad. Although Manchu studies overlapped with Qing history, which also took shape as the imperial period receded further into the past, the overlap was only partial. Most important for the intellectual context that produced this book was the situation in the United States, where Qing history after the Communist revolution tended to focus on the empire's antagonistic interactions with the ascendant Western powers. The Manchus, although always present, were not a topic in their own right in this brand of scholarship.

A common characteristic of postwar Manchu studies was that the Manchus were, understandably, primarily considered in relation to Inner Asia whence they came, which often meant a focus on their early history. In the United States, where I received my doctoral training, a new trend was visible from at least the 1990s, as historians integrated the Manchus into Qing history proper. Qing history in the United States had turned from the meeting with Western imperialism toward the social and cultural realities of China, conceptualized quite independently of the foreign penetration of the coasts. When one no longer looked at the Qing from the point of view of its Chinese successor states, which had formed in relationship or even opposition to the West, a picture emerged in which the Manchus were a lot more prominent than had previously been the case. New scholarship no longer showed the Qing as a Chinese dynasty with soon-forgotten Inner Asian roots, but as a multiethnic empire that warranted comparison with the contemporary empires of the Romanovs, Mughals, or Ottomans as much as with earlier Chinese states. In China as well, the culture of the Manchu court captured even popular imagination, and scholars turned their attention to the history of Qing institutions and its vast, non-Chinese frontier regions that are still difficult today for the Chinese government to rule. Decades of research have firmly established that the Manchus remained Manchus after the invasion of China, and that the empire that they ruled cannot be properly understood without taking them into account.

Manchu Beyond the Manchus

This book intervenes at a moment where the historical relevance of the Manchus, their culture, and language is universally acknowledged by historians of China and East Asia, where the Qing empire was the major political power until the nineteenth century. Yet the research on the Manchus, the imperial institutions, and the new territories that they acquired for the states ruled from Beijing gives rise to new questions when considered together with other advances in Qing history over the past few decades. Generations of historians have demonstrated high rates of literacy and widespread experience with formal education in Qing China, a complex print culture, the intellectual impact of the Jesuit mission, and the prominence of Asia in European learned discourse in the period. As research on the history of scholarship and intellectual life in China has for several decades broken down categories such as Confucianism or tradition, replacing them with others, such as philology, which more easily lend themselves to study alongside similar developments elsewhere in the world, historians have shown the important role played by China in the globalizing world of early modernity. The widespread recognition that knowledge, practices, and texts were transmitted within East Asia or between China and Europe shows that language is an important category for understanding this world of which China was a part.

The Importance of Language in a Plurilingual Early Modernity

The importance of language is obvious for many aspects of the cultural history of early modern East Asia. Language mattered for the reception of Chinese vernacular narrative in Korea and Japan, for the work of the Jesuit mission in China or for the reception of things Chinese in Europe, or indeed for the Manchus, who we now know cultivated their ancestral language down to the end of the Qing period and beyond. But what about the role of language in the relationship between the Manchus and the Chinese, or between the Qing empire and everybody else? An academic field of world philology now exists to capitalize on the great attention that scholars in China and elsewhere paid to language and the significance with which language-oriented scholarship was invested in this period. Yet while plurilingualism is clearly evident in Europe and South Asia, for example, Chinese philology has been studied as an essentially monolingual endeavor. This book reacts against this view of early modern Chinese linguistic learning by highlighting the plurilingualism of China. The book shows that the Manchu language was not just important to the Manchus—we knew that already—but to many Chinese intellectuals, to the Jesuits in Beijing, of course, and to scholars in Japan, Korea, and Europe. Manchus will feature in these pages, but when they do, it is most often as bilingual scholars equally at home in a Chinese linguistic and conceptual world. My emphasis is not on the Manchus, but on all the others, first and foremost Chinese, who encountered and studied Manchu.

Manchu and the History of the Humanities

Showing that Chinese scholars subjected written Manchu to careful study does more than correct the misapprehension that linguistic scholarship in late imperial China was monolingual. The fact that Manchu had a very short history as a written language, and had an Inner Asian background that was poorly known in both East Asia and Europe, meant that research on Manchu was something quite different from research on the Chinese sources most commonly considered under the rubric of philology. Chinese linguistic study concentrated on classical texts and their associated language and writing system, which means that such studies were to a large degree ultimately exegetical.

By contrast, wanting to understand the foreign writing system of Manchu, and then teach and use it, is not an exegetical exercise but one that seeks maximal conceptual economy, brevity, and simplicity to solve problems of the day without any reference to antiquity. Tailored to certain concrete and often pedagogical tasks, Manchu linguistic research was technical in the sense that the applied sciences are technical. The Chinese students of Manchu were not primarily engaged in interpreting ancient texts, but compiled dictionaries that enable easy word retrieval, or drew grids that allow for the quick location of the graphic representation of a certain Manchu word. They did not seek to know revealed truth or ancient wisdom, but make the best use of the "paper tools" at their disposal for handling Manchu. When compared to scholarly activities elsewhere in the early modern world, the work of scholars of Manchu in China looks more similar to the ingenious efforts of European scholars to manage information overload, rather than the European scrutiny of the Bible. Indeed, since Europe and East Asia shared the technology of the easily reproducible codex-style book, the solutions that scholars in different places developed in response to the challenge of the new language of Manchu were at times remarkably similar, as in the case of syllable or letter grids and graphologically arranged dictionaries. By the same token, these scholarly activities also appear so familiar to us today, since we are still preoccupied by foreign-language study, simplicity, visualization, and information management.

Looking at Manchu pedagogical and lexicographical texts reveals a form of linguistic scholarship that is much more similar in its intent to humanistic scholarship today than is classical exegesis. The wide range of cultural phenomena and forms of expression studied within the humanities as currently pursued in universities contrasts with the more limited subject matter —canonical and classical texts primarily—of philology. New humanities disciplines that were clearly not part of philology, no matter how one construes that term, emerged in the West in the nineteenth century. A number of them even have roots going back at least a century earlier. By contrast, even as greater variety is becoming recognized in late imperial Chinese scholarship, including in astronomy and mathematics, it remains construed primarily as philology (philology in "crisis," but philology no less). An unintended consequence is that modern and contemporary humanistic research appears radically divorced from late imperial Chinese scholarship and indebted, rather, to European intellectual trends than to its own past; to be sure, this is a state of affairs for which recent research on Chinese philology is not responsible so much as the older idea of the early Republic as a radical cultural break. The broadening of the category of Chinese philology to include subjects and problematics that two generations ago were rarely discussed alongside "Confucianism" has done much to break down this latter category, but the usefulness of philology as a descriptive term has diminished as a result.

Rather than including Manchu studies under the umbrella of late imperial Chinese philology, I use its existence to question whether philology was really what Qing scholars were necessarily engaged in. I take the fact that late imperial Chinese-language study had a non-Chinese element to imply, rather, that it cannot be understood as a primarily historical and exegetical field of philology. And recognizing that Qing scholarship was more than philology in turn helps to integrate it into what has recently been named the history of the humanities, conceptualized as a global endeavor. Seeing individuals in the Chinese inland South, Japan, and Saint Petersburg struggle, just decades apart, to break the Manchu syllabary down into its elements and align them in an easy-to-grasp table is to see the global humanities taking shape. How often do we get to see eighteenth-century scholars of such different backgrounds work on the same problem—one that was new to everybody—at the same time?

In other parts of the story of Manchu studies, scholars' work was more directly entangled. I already mentioned the examples of Jesuit literature on the Roman alphabet helping Chinese scholars orient themselves with regards to Manchu, and the influence of Dutch lexicography on the making of a Manchu dictionary in Japan. To add one more: the Kangxi emperor urged his scholar officials to study Korean phonological literature as they were preparing a Manchu-inspired Chinese rhyme book. The spelling technique developed for that book was later taken up in a Manchu dictionary that was well received precisely in Korea, where it inspired a revised Korean phonological notation. Phonological studies were transnational and multiscriptal in East Asia.

The engagement with the same material in different parts of the world, then, shows the connectedness of the early modern study of Manchu. Yet it also shows that different circumstances mattered. The novelty and challenge of Manchu were perceived from Hannover to Edo, but the difficulties that Manchu students faced and the solutions that they proposed differed according to the linguistic and scholarly traditions in which they were working. Printing Manchu characters never posed a serious challenge in the xylographic print culture of China, but it required both ingenuity and financial investments in Europe, where printing was done by letterpress. Arranging words in a Manchu dictionary was in China conceptualized as breaking them down into graphic components—brushstrokes—on the basis of which syllabic characters were grouped, in the manner of popular Chinese dictionaries. In Japan, by contrast, the same Manchu dictionaries were understood as essentially sound-based and similar to Chinese rhyme books or dictionaries arranged according to the Japanese syllabary. How the materials at hand were conceptualized conditioned their use. The effects of differences in language, script, and the tools used to research them are yet another testament to the importance of linguistic circumstances for the history of the humanities and of scholarly practices. By bringing that up, I want to underscore a final point that this book makes. Inventories of words and sounds, or dictionary making and phonological analysis, are not just sources for linguists, but should, like language itself, be studied by historians as well.

Synopsis

This book covers the period from the commitment of the Manchu language to writing in Manchuria in the first years of the seventeenth century to the period of Manchu dictionary-making in Japan in the 1810s and 1820s. Excluding this introduction and the conclusion, the book has eight chapters, and each examines encounters of Manchu with other linguistic traditions.

These eight chapters each treat a theme or an event. There is a tendency toward chronological arrangement in their order. Each chapter has an argument, and although some of them are better read in the order that they are presented here, that is not true for all. I have written the chapters thinking that a reader might only read one or some of them.

Chapter 1, "To Follow Fuxi or Kubilai Khan? Written Manchu Before 1644," tells how the early Manchu leadership created a new written language with a distinct script for purposes of state-building by following long-standing Inner Asian precedent. The Manchus borrowed their script from the Mongols, but after the conquest of China, Qing writers conceptualized Manchu primarily in relation to Chinese. Despite a very limited knowledge of what actually happened when government scribes decided to write down their Jurchen dialect outside the Great Wall, the later Qing writers were correct in their view that written Manchu had emerged not sui generis, but as a conscious political choice in a context of plurilingualism.

Chapter 2, "The Beijing Origins of Manchu-Language Pedagogy, 1668-1730," tells how Chinese scholars after the conquest encountered Manchu as something entirely new and largely devoid of historical context. They made the very simple Manchu teaching aid, the syllabary of the "twelve heads," into a textbook that a reader literate in Chinese could use to learn to decipher the Manchu script without the help of a teacher. The pioneering scholars of Manchu-language pedagogy were not Manchus, but Chinese, and they described the script in terms that made sense to Chinese literates.

Chapter 3, "Phonology and Manchu in Southern China and Japan, c. 1670-1716," is grounded in the fact that not all second-language learners of Manchu ever had the opportunity to study the language with native speakers. Some scholars set out to study the Manchu script in isolation, in one case in the mountainous inland of southern China and, in another, across the sea in Japan. Working on the basis of a shared tradition of phonological studies, the two scholars considered in this chapter transformed the simple Manchu syllabary into an analytical grid that was made for the eye rather than the ear.

Chapter 4, "Manchu Words and Alphabetical Order in China and Japan, 1683-1820s," focuses on the late seventeenth-century invention of the Manchu dictionary and its arrangement. The genre flourished in China and eventually made its way to Japan a century later. In Edo, scholars reworked the Manchu dictionaries to produce several manuscripts with different arrangements serving different purposes. Having been exposed to Dutch books, the Japanese scholars knew what the alphabetical order used in European dictionaries could do: allow a reader to find a word without an inkling of its meaning. With this in mind, the Edo group set out to improve Manchu lexicographical arrangement.

Chapter 5, "Leibniz's Dream of a Manchu Encyclopedia and Kangxi's Mirror, 1673-1708," focuses on one European scholar's hope that Manchu could serve a mediating role in a babelized world where Europe and China were polar opposites. The Qing emperor, he thought, would surely be interested in collecting, with Jesuit assistance, the knowledge of China into a reference work, which could then be sent to Europe. Like Leibniz, Kangxi was acutely aware that Manchu existed in a plurilingual environment, but the dictionary that he commissioned sought to establish Manchu's independence, not its role as a bridge between China and Europe.

Chapter 6, "The Manchu Script and Foreign Sounds from the Qing Court to Korea, 1720s-1770s," focuses on the Manchu script as a phonographic technology. The most common usage of the script was certainly to write the Manchu language, but from the very beginning, it was also used to write down words from other languages. After its introduction to China, the capacity of Manchu to record sound with much greater detail than the Chinese script was inspirational to lexicographers, who experimented with using Chinese characters in the same way. When Qing court-sponsored Manchu-Chinese reference works reached Korea, scholars there realized that the Manchu script gave them access to the pronunciation of Chinese. European observers, seeing what the Manchu script had done to Chinese, unambiguously declared that Chinese characters had been made into an alphabet.

Chapter 7, "The Invention of a Manchu Alphabet in Saint Petersburg, 1720s-1730s," tells how a scholar in Russia transformed the Manchu syllabary into a European-style alphabet: a collection of consonants, vowels, and diphthongs that fit on a single printed page. The chapter tracks European interest in the Manchu script, from the first mentions in Jesuit publications in the 1650s, when Manchu was described as something halfway between an alphabetical script and Chinese characters, through to the definite analysis of Manchu according to the European category of letters in 1730s Saint Petersburg.

Chapter 8, "The Making of a Manchu Typeface in Paris, 1780s-1810s," continues the story of the Manchu script in Europe up to Paris at the end of the eighteenth century. When the Jesuits in Beijing sent a manuscript of a Manchu-French dictionary to Paris, scholars in the French capital were faced with the problem of how to print a book containing both Manchu and a European language. European books were printed using the letterpress, which was a realization, in metal, of the alphabetic conceptualization of the script. In order for Manchu to be printed alongside the Roman alphabet, the alphabetic conceptualization of Manchu had to be transformed into printing technology.

The conclusion to the book situates the Manchu language and script within the larger context of the Qing empire from which modern China emerged. The scholarly interest in Manchu treated in preceding chapters would never have arisen were it not for the political importance of the language in the Qing empire, where it was embedded in important linguistic communities. The conclusion touches on the place of Manchu within the greater universe of Qing political culture. The Manchu language and script left a lasting influence, and an interest in it lingered long after it had stopped being commonly used in the Chinese Northeast and Beijing.