Tiny population struggles to retain its unique ethnic identity
Xibe storyteller Da Bao, 63, finishes singing and the audience applauds his tale. Through the years, this audience has aged with him. Few among them are from the younger generation. Da Bao thinks this is because his storytelling is in the minority ethnic Xibe language, a tongue many Xibe youngsters do not speak anymore.
"Xibe script is still taught in the autonomous area, but Chinese language is more popular among Xibe people today," says Da Bao, who lives in Jinquan town, Qapqal county of Xinjiang Uyger Autonomous Region. Qapqal is the only autonomous county for Xibe people in China.
Besides the Illi Kazak area of this autonomous prefecture in China's northwest, the Xibe population of about 173,000 is widely scattered all the way to the northeast provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang.
Unlike the compact communities in Xinjiang - meaning "new territory" in Chinese - where age-old customs prevail, Xibe people living in northeastern China have absorbed the local Han and Manchu influences in terms of language, customs, living style and food.
Preserving traditional languages like Xibe, which has evolved over two centuries, amidst modernization is a constant challenge, acknowledges Tong Keli, an associate researcher at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences. Tong cites a few factors that hamper the blossoming of Xibe's unique language. "The population is small, and they can't speak to other ethic groups using their own language," he says.
Xibe people believe themselves descended from a nomadic tribe called Xianbei, who lived along the Greater Xing'an mountainous area, the area that is modern Manchuria, as well as eastern Mongolia. They moved southward around the fourth century to the Yellow River Valley area, bringing with them their Turkic language and Arabic script.
In 1593, they were one of nine states defeated in the Battle of Gure by Nurhaci, the founder of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) , and chieftain of a northeast Manchurian tribe.
The Xibe were absorbed under the Manchu's Eight Banners, administrative divisions under direct control of the emperor, established in the early 17th century. Constant migrations from Inner Mongolia's Holonbuyr Grassland since the 18th century have added to the Xibe population in Xinjiang.
By 1874, the majority served the Qing emperor as border guards on the Russian frontier. Eventually, descendants of this military garrison remained there, forming a community in the Qapqal region. By then, the Xibe language had evolved into a mixture of Chinese, Uygur, Russian and Kazak.
With the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Xibe Altaic Tungus-Manchu language was reformed. Some phonetic symbols were dropped and new letters were added to expand the vocabulary.
Today, the Xibe in Xinjiang have their own newspaper, the Qapqal News. The only newspaper in the world in Xibe language, the publication has been around for half a century.
Nevertheless, academics like Tong share the pessimism of older folks like Da Bao on the longevity of their unique language. "Up to the 1980s," says Tong, "the children were still learning Xibe in schools, so at least they have some contact and grasp of the language. But that's changed. Mandarin is now taught to the children very early, at kindergarten level."
Language aside, various aspects of the ethnic minority group have also been touched by change. For instance, although some polytheistic and shamanistic beliefs prevail, more Xibe have adopted Buddhist practices. How they make their day-to-day living has also changed. While they used to depend on fishing and hunting many centuries ago, the Xibe people now grow crops, and breed or trade animals for a living.