This is a shortened version of a research note I wrote in 2015-2016. For all its faults, I thought it might be of better use out here than sitting on my hard drive.
The decline in Manchu language skills among bannermen, as well as the “institutionalization”  of Manchu translation examinations in 1722, set up the scene for the development of Manchu learning during the 18th c. Either because they responded to the Court’s discourse on the importance of the Manchu language as a token of Manchu identity, or because they wanted to benefit from the employement opportunities Manchu language skills could now offer , learning Manchu became an integral part of life in Manchu garrisons. This development can be seen in the publication of various textbooks for learners, some of them undergoing several editions, as well as in the presence in modern-day Manchu collections of several students’ schoolbooks.
These two kinds of learning material often went hand in hand, with dialogues from textbooks like the Cing wen ki meng or the Tanggū meyen being assigned to students for copying and learning . There is also evidence in the preserved schoolbooks of the existence of many dialogues that cannot be traced back to the two previously mentioned textbooks. This reseach note aims at drawing attention to three seemingly unrelated manuscripts, kept by three different institutions, which nevertheless contain slightly different versions of the same dialogues.
Among its numerous Manchu manuscripts, the Harvard-Yenching Library possesses a short volume entitled Muwa gisun, ‘Plain Talk’, the contents of which consist of several discourses on rather mundane matters. The first dialogues, as well as corrections made throughout the book, indicate that it was the school book of an eleven year-old boy named Leping.
In previous literature this manuscript has been described as “unique” , a qualification that is certainly hard to deny since personal details about its owner make the first dialogues unique indeed. It is nonetheless worth noting that many pieces, especially in the later part of the book, can be found in two other manuscripts: one held by Nagasaki University (no. 404) and the other by the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Hs. or. 8448).
Each one of these three manuscripts has its own distinct character. While H  is a monolingual book, dialogues in B and N offer a bilingual Manchu-Chinese text. The Nagasaki copy stands out because of its much “cleaner” aspect. Mistakes, corrections, dates and grammatical paratextual markings in red ink can be found in the other two manuscripts, the Nagasaki text has none of these. It is thus possible that the N was not an exercise book but maybe a textbook or a teacher book.
As far as their content is concerned, none of the manuscripts is identical. Some dialogues can be found in all three manuscripts, while others appear in only one of them. Muwa gisun is by far the longest one, containing 81 sections . The Nagasaki text is divided in 50  and the Berlin manuscript has only 23. In some cases, a few dialogues follow one another in the same order whatever the manuscript but the overall order of the texts differs notably.
Common to all three manuscripts are pieces centered around typical Manchu activities, as well as scenes, often seemingly comical in nature, bearing no obvious relationship to Manchu life. We present below two of these, found in all three manuscripts.
Hs. or. 8448
dukai jakade ya niyalma jamarahabi. muse booi kabari adaki booi kesike be saiha. ceni booi takūršara haha jui. kesike be tooda seme jamarahabi. tere haha jui ai sambi. suwe sain gisun i hoššome gisurefi. terebe unggici uthai wajiha:
– Who’s been quarrelling at the door ?
– Our Pekingese dog bit the neighbours’ cat. Their young servant has been quarrelling, saying we should pay for the cat.
– What does this boy know? You, appease him with nice words and send him away, that will be the end of it!
Hs or. 8448
donjiha bade. ere aniya geli coohai ahūra baicame tuwara mejige bi sembi. suwe uksin saca loho sirdan be tucibufi tuwa. sebdenehengge bici. nilara faksi i buseli de benefi nilabu. jebele dashūwan ledu ibeli jergi jaka aika efujehengge bici. niyeceteme dasta:
The word is that this year, there will be another inspection of weapons. After you have taken out the armors, helmets, swords and arrows, check them. If they are rusty, send them to the polisher’s shop and have them polished. If bow cases, quivers, ladu-quivers, back parts of helmets and the like are broken, repair them!
As can be seen from the second example, there is a thin line between scenes we may want to deem humorous and scenes about martial Manchu skills. It is doubtful whether the second piece, featuring rather unprepared soldiers with possibly rusty or broken weapons, would have fared well against the court insistence on constant military training for the Manchus.
Scenes like this one throw some light upon the fact that Manchu life in the garrisons might well have fallen short from imperial expectations. There is of course the risk that these short pieces, written with the learner in mind, should not be taken at face value. Caution is thus needed when using them to reconstruct a picture of everyday Manchu life.
It is nonetheless remarkable that few of the scenes depicted in the manuscripts match the court’s expectations about Manchu behaviour. Whether low military achievements and frequent quarrels were the whole story of life in the Manchu cities may be open to debate, but the fact that this was the kind of material offered to (at least some) students of Manchu throws an interesting light on how rank and file Manchus may have developed their own discourse about Manchu life.
As teaching Manchu became an evermore relevant activity in increasingly Chinese speaking garrisons, it was only natural that teaching materials should have been created in great numbers. One teaching device that become widespread is the use of dialogues or short pieces about everyday life for copying and/or memorization, a fact that is attested by the large number of school books written by students that include such texts.
A second level of harmonization is reached by the content of the texts themselves. Readers of school books cannot help but notice the stereotyped content of many pieces. Since no official curriculum, that we know of, was ever designed for Banner schools, this level of standardization is somewhat surprising.
While some printed textbooks can be identified as common “suppliers of dialogues”, the existence of manuscripts such as the ones studied here emphasizes the fact that many of the texts offered to the students of Manchu circulated in a much less obvious (to us, at least) way. This may take away something from the originality first ascribed to Leping’s experience – we cannot be sure anymore that it actually was his Pekingese dog that bit the neighbours’ cat – but, on the other hand, this sharing of texts underlines the fact that learners of Manchu were engaging in a common cultural experience. That this experience made use of material somewhat at odds with the imperial discourse on Manchu identity only makes these texts more interesting .
 Elliott, The Manchu Way, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001, p. 301.
 Both can be seen in Jakdan’s Manchu preface to his translation of stories from the Liaozhai zhiyi (published in 1848), “The Manchu language is our people’s native tongue (…) Because my family was poor, when I was a young man, I studied Manchu for a little while, thinking only of getting some kind of government job.”, translated by Chiu and Elliott, “The Manchu Preface to Jakdan’s Selected Stories Translated from Liaozhai zhiyi”, The China Heritage Quarterly, 2009.
 See for instance Mss. or. 8400 (dated XF19) and 8399 (dated DG18) kept at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin for students’ manuscript copies of dialogues from, respectively, the Cing wen ki meng and the Tanggū meyen.
 Treasures of the Yenching: Seventy-fifth anniversary of the Harvard-Yenching Library, Exhibition Catalogue, Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 86.
 Hereafter B stands for the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin manuscript, H for the Harvard-Yenching Library manuscript and N for the Nagasaki manuscript.
 Transcription and translation of the whole text are available at http://www.manchustudiesgroup.org/translations/muwa-gisun-section-two.
 Though its contents are not related to the printed dialogue book bearing the same name, N bears the title Tanggū meyen. Does it mean that half of the work is missing?
 For similar considerations, see Trachsel, Substance Abuse Among Bannermen and Banner Self-perception: An Analysis of Qing Language Primers, Saksaha 15, 2018.