The Manchus offer a cautionary example of the importance of language as a means of preserving a people's heritage. While around 4.2 million Manchus live in China today, it's estimated that only around 50 individuals still speak the language. The vast majority speak and write Chinese. With the near extinction of the Manchu language, a great deal of culture has been lost.
The Manchus have a proud history. In 1644 they overran the Ming dynasty, which had ruled China for nearly three hundred years. Manchu armies then gained control of present-day Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. The Manchus established a dynasty, called the Qing, which ruled much like a Chinese dynasty, with an extensive military and civilian bureaucracy. However, their empire included lands that no Chinese dynasty had ever controlled. By the eighteenth century, the Qing dynasty was the largest, richest, and most powerful empire in Asia and, possibly, the world.
From the beginning there were signs that the relatively small group of Manchus who were now rulers of China would be greatly changed by the experience of governing such a vast land. Originally, they looked to shamans-individuals who had a special relationship with the natural world-for religious guidance. Through trances, shamans communed with spirits who provided them with powers to heal the sick, rid an area of evil spirits, or see the future. Over time this practice largely gave way to Buddhism, Daoism, and the other religious traditions. Similarly, Manchu language gradually lost its place. At the beginning of the Qing dynasty, Manchu was used for all written documents at court. The writing system was modified from the Mongolian alphabet to fit the needs of the Manchu language. Many of the earliest scribes for the Manchu rulers were, in fact, Mongolians hired for their ability to write.
Over time it became court policy that all documents should be written in both Manchu and Chinese. Eventually fewer Manchu learned to write their own language. The emperor Qianlong, who ruled from 1736 to 1796, repeatedly ordered his courtiers to learn Manchu, suggesting that many were using Chinese exclusively. By the dynasty's end, in 1911, even the emperor could not read or write the Manchu language and probably did not speak it either.