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  • The Early Modern Travels of Manchu: A Script and Its Study in East Asia and Europe by Mårten Söderblom Saarela
  • Loretta Kim
The Early Modern Travels of Manchu: A Script and Its Study in East Asia and Europe by Mårten Söderblom Saarela. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020. Pp. ix + 301. $69.95 cloth, $69.95 e-book.

Mårten Söderblom Saarela sets a new precedent for research about the languages of late imperial China and makes a vital contribution to the international genre of language histories with his biography of the Manchu script and its significance beyond the physical and political domains of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Whereas it is well established how Manchu was ostensibly invented to serve as a writing system of political importance for the Qing state, its development as a literary language remains to be fully explored, particularly beyond the imperial metropolis of Beijing and northeastern China. Söderblom Saarela makes the compelling case that Manchu was a world language of the early modern age. Although Manchu may not have been as influential as both a spoken and written language—Söderblom Saarela is clear that the script is the focus of his study, but he also provides significant details about Manchu as an oral language—his narrative celebrates the broad impact of Manchu in the vibrant circulation of knowledge throughout East Asia and in Europe. It goes firmly against the conventional position in previous scholarship that concentrates on the "demise" of Manchu as an actively used script. This book furthermore pioneers a new metric for evaluating the Manchu language. Rather than just testing its resilience among "heritage users," variously defined during the Qing and post-Qing periods, this study considers [End Page 181] the degree to which Manchu was influential among people who were expressly nonnative learners but were nevertheless instrumental in not only learning but also disseminating knowledge about the language.

A rich study of multiple themes oriented around the focal point of how Manchu was studied through other languages, Söderblom Saarela modestly describes his book as a collection of chapters he wrote "thinking that a reader might only read one or some of them" (p. 13). Each of the eight body chapters is framed by an introduction and a conclusion. The chapters are indeed fully coherent if read separately, because each has a strong and clear argument of its own. However, just like travelogues that capture inherently noteworthy moments, the narratives of the chapters inspire readers to go beyond any original intention to read just one section in order to learn more about the others. The introduction serves this purpose of stimulating interest by giving readers background knowledge about the Manchu language and Manchu Studies, which is useful for reading the rest of the book. Söderblom Saarela is also persuasive in choosing the Manchu script as the primary subject of this book. He assumes various perspectives to examine the Manchu script, amply demonstrating that "the medium rather than the message … has a rich cultural history" (p. 2).

The eight main chapters cover a temporal range from the seventeenth century to the 1820s, organized through themes relevant to area studies and language studies. This book does not follow a simple chronological order to prove sequential change over time. Rather, each chapter focuses on a given subperiod and has its own narrative. Chapter 1 introduces written Manchu before 1644. Subsequent chapters are organized according to time periods germane to the themes of language pedagogy, alphabets, sounds, and typeface. Söderblom Saarela traces different facets of Manchu in northeastern and southern China, Japan, Korea, Russia, and France. He illuminates how the Manchu language became enriched by its exposure to peoples who encountered it through their own linguistic lenses and shaped it to enhance their understanding of it. Situating Manchu in different places accentuates how it was shaped by divergent scholarly perspectives. Söderblom Saarela's chapters are structured and titled in a way that readers in different fields can easily locate the ones that are of interest and relevance to them: Specialists in Chinese studies (chaps. 1–4), Japanese studies (chap. 3), Korean studies (chap...