Yan Wenyun in the classroom for her Manchu language course in Harbin, Heilongjiang province. (Photo: China Daily)
Yan Wenyun hopes students will help preserve ethnic language and traditions
Over the past four years, Yan Wenyun has taught the Manchu language for free to more than 400 students in her public classes in Harbin, the capital of northeastern China's Heilongjiang province, or via the internet.
Students affectionately call her Usiha - her name in the Manchu language - and some do not even know her real Chinese name.
"I like my name in the Manchu language, which means 'star'," said the 48-year-old who runs an inn in the city. "Starlight is dim but it lasts a long time."
However, Yan is not a member of the Manchu ethnic group and knew little about the language before she saw an advertisement for a Manchu language course in a local newspaper in September 2013.
"It was quite a short introduction published by Zhao Yanchuan, who later became my teacher," she said.
At that time, she was an English teacher at a social educational institution and became interested in the language, which she had only seen on some plaques at the Palace Museum before.
In the advertisement, Zhao wrote that it was a free course and anyone interested in learning the ethnic language could call him. She dialed the number he gave below and signed up for the course.
"Then, I searched the internet for some information about the language and chose the name Usiha myself," she said.
During the break in the first class, Zhao wrote the name she had chosen on the blackboard and read it in standard pronunciation - "that was when I found myself completely obsessed with the language", she said.
More than half her classmates quit the class, but Yan persevered.
"The Manchu language is quite different from our mother tongue and we felt it was difficult to learn at the beginning," she said.
"Zhao told us that there were no shortcuts to acquiring any new knowledge, and continuous practice was the only way to help us master the language."
She followed her teacher's advice and finished the four-month course, which included learning the Manchu alphabet and grammar lessons.
"I also bought lots of books about the Manchu language and studied on my own whenever I had some spare time," Yan said. "It has become a habit that has lasted till today."
Then, she became Zhao's teaching assistant and began answering some questions from learners nationwide via social media platforms. In 2015, Yan took over Zhao's position and became lecturer of the public class.
To have sufficient free time for the class, she resigned from her job and started an inn with the help of her husband.
"At that time, we didn't even have a designated classroom," she said.
Conditions became better in March 2016, when Zhongxing Community Center in Xiangfang district provided them with an office as a classroom on weekends. It became the only amateur Manchu language class in the city and two months later, they founded the Harbin Manchu Culture Communication Center, which is aimed at inheriting and protecting the fading language and culture.
The sixth national population census in 2010 found there were more than 10 million Manchu people in China, making them the second biggest of the country's 55 ethnic minority groups.
However, after centuries of contact with Han Chinese, Manchu culture seems to be fading from memory and only a handful of people can still speak the Manchu language.
"For some students who have rudimentary knowledge of the Manchu language, it seems quite a dull one and the writing is also too abstruse, but it is really attractive in my eyes," Yan said. "I can also feel a strong sense of achievement in mastering such a difficult language."
About 15 people, ranging in age from 7 to 75, attend each two-hour class on Saturdays and Sundays.
Yan also runs three online classes on WeChat, the largest of which has attracted more than 200 learners nationwide.
Yan teaches her students about the language, history and culture of the Manchu people, including paper cutting, making Chinese knots, and ethnic customs.
"My students include different people with various jobs," she said. "Some of them choose this course only because of interest and some want to learn something new.
"There are also some students who show a sense of mission in preventing the ethnic culture from extinction. I hope they can spread the Manchu language and culture like my teacher and me after learning it."
Hong Yingzhu, who works at a hotel in Harbin, spoke a Manchu word for the first time when she attended the class in April 2017.
"I'm a Manchu person, but none of my family members can speak the Manchu language," the 47-year-old said. "When I got to know that Yan - my classmate from university - was teaching the Manchu language, I felt quite surprised and joined in without hesitation.
"Sometimes, Yan leads us to participate in some traditional Manchu folk activities. I felt quite proud of being a Manchu person when all my classmates were attracted by the colorful culture."