- Linguistic Compartmentalization and the Palace Memorial System in the Eighteenth Century*
The plurilingual Qing government, headed by a Manchu dynastic and military elite, operated in several written languages, and its representatives had to deal with an even greater linguistic diversity whenever they interacted with local populations across the empire. Language, especially the dynastic language of Manchu, was an issue of governance.1 This article will examine instances in which the choice of language rose to the level of discussion in two related genres of official documents that emerged in the eighteenth century: palace memorials and court letters. Toward the end of the article, to expand discussion to language use within the bureaucracy as a whole, I will bring these genres to bear on the issue as it appeared in lateral communications. I will argue that the coexistence of the two written languages of Manchu and Chinese [End Page 131] within the government, a fait accompli after 1644, posed a constant problem for official communications. Various attempts were made to solve this problem, with limited success.
Translation, institutionalized in the late seventeenth century, with time lost favor as the primary strategy for handling the concurrent official use of two languages. A system instead developed whereby top-level communications took the form of generally monolingual palace memorials and court letters. Instead of connecting writers and readers of Manchu and Chinese through translation, the court tried to compartmentalize the two languages within different parts of the bureaucracy that then communicated through their high officials using the new genres. This article is a study of this attempt at linguistic compartmentalization by means of the palace memorial system.
Looking at language choice in palace memorials allows me to make interventions in two ongoing debates surrounding the Manchu language in Qing China. The first intervention relates to the historical trajectory of Manchu usage in the Qing state and society.2 The sources that I will discuss suggest that the use of Chinese rather than Manchu in government documents often had little to do with a weakened ability to write Manchu among those who were expected to do so. Rather, the use of Chinese was an expedient that was motivated by the collaboration of institutions with different working languages.
The second intervention concerns Manchu's role as a security language or as a secret language, which has been greatly exaggerated if not misunderstood.3 Non-Manchus were never, as far as I am aware, prevented from learning Manchu, and the use of Manchu for a particular document only rarely sufficed to keep its contents secret. It is true that since a document's language affected its circulation, it was occasionally chosen expressly to exclude certain audiences. Yet we can make better sense of the use of Manchu if we shift our focus from these rather special cases to the larger linguistic order, in which the need to communicate effectively was more important than secrecy and security. [End Page 132]
This article will first explain how the early post-conquest Qing state maintained institutions with different linguistic regimes, making translation between Manchu and Chinese complicated and time consuming. As soon as it was no longer necessary for communication, officials and clerks tended to avoid it, even when official policy dictated otherwise.
Second, it discusses how the palace memorial system, a new kind of vertical communications, afforded a degree of linguistic compartmentalization and acted as an alternative to translation. Through this system, monolingual documents were directed to institutions using the same working language. Conversely, documents were kept out of certain institutions because of their language; this is where secrecy comes in.
Finally, it examines the limits of linguistic compartmentalization. My focus here will be on lateral communications, including vertical communications forwarded outside the palace memorial system. The article concludes with a call to investigate changing language use in the Qing bureaucracy in relation to the complicated logistics of plurilingual governance, as a fruitful alternative to the dominant tendency to understand administrative language choices through the prism of ethnic identity.
Manchu and Chinese Linguistic Regimes
The plurilingualism of the Qing Empire comprised far more than the use of Manchu and Chinese in administrative documents within...