China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644–1912), founded by ethnic Manchu invaders, was also one of its greatest. Known for its enlightened and capable early rulers, the Qing fostered a cultural and economic golden age and expanded China’s territory threefold into the remote reaches of Central Asia and the Himalayas.
The Manchus, one of modern China’s dozens of ethnic groups, have their origins in the nomadic tribes of the vast, forested hills and plains beyond the Great Wall. Located in what today are China’s industrial northeastern provinces, their homeland—Manchuria—is the site of cultural exchange, imperial growth, and evolving identities.
Locked up in the history of Manchuria and the Manchus is a hidden picture of a deeper current coursing through China’s 5,000 years of civilization. The Manchurian experience reflects the nature of Chinese identity itself, molded constantly by interacting yin-yang dualities: conflict and harmony, fragmentation and unity, regional character and universal metrics.
For centuries the Chinese have referred to themselves as the “Han people,” so named for the glorious Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). But as the story of the Manchus reveals, the lines between Han and foreign were often vague and even undefinable.
Descended from the Jurchen people, a nomadic folk whose society was organized into tribal clans, the Manchus lived on the periphery of Chinese civilization. In the 17th century, when the Manchus began their campaign to conquer China, their own development as a people would be predicated on how they chose to handle the greater society they sought to rule. The result was a blending of Manchu and Chinese, in which both influenced the other.
The entire Manchu population was organized into military units called the “Eight Banners.” As the conquest of China played out, this institution simultaneously perpetuated the Manchu identity while nevertheless facilitating its integration into the overall concept of “China.”
In this “paradox” as introduced by Pamela Kyle Crossley’s work “The Manchus,” the unification of the Banners became the foundation for a unified culture shared not just by Manchus, but among the large numbers of Han Chinese and Mongols who supported them in their conquest. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, Crossley writes, the Han bannermen had become fully Manchu, as the meaning of “Manchu” itself had changed.
The Qing’s most successful emperors, Kangxi and Qianlong, attempted to demonstrate through policy that it was completely possible for the Manchus to be Chinese, in the general sense, while not denying their heritage or forfeiting their status as a ruling class.
Kangxi, who reigned between 1661 and 1722, encouraged his officials and the Manchu nobility to study the Chinese language, history, and customs. Some of Kangxi’s contributions to the Qing legacy include the commission of a complete dictionary of Chinese characters and the building of a temple dedicated to Yue Fei, the 12th-century Song Dynasty general and Chinese national hero who fought tooth and nail against the Manchus’ Jurchen ancestors.
In the words of China historian Robert B. Oxnam, author of “Ruling From Horseback,” the Manchus had wished to “rule from horseback,” but Kangxi had “found it easier to dismount from the horse of conquest and to sit upon the Chinese throne.”
The politics of managing an empire that now incorporated Mongols, Turks, and Tibetans as well as hundreds of millions of Han Chinese meant that universalism was the name of the game for Kangxi’s grandson, the emperor Qianlong. Reigning from 1735 to 1799 during an era of strength and security, he branded himself as a supreme monarch whose enlightened rule and cultural endeavors united the many ethnicities of the sprawling Qing lands.
At the same time, Qianlong worried that the Manchus were losing grasp of their origins. In contrast to Kangxi, Qianlong no longer stressed the importance of Manchus to inundate themselves in Han Chinese literary and bureaucratic traditions. He insisted rather that the Manchus study their ancestral language and maintain the pursuit of excellence in archery and horseback riding that had defined their Jurchen forefathers.
Defending his policy in writing, Qianlong pointed out that the legendary kings traditionally venerated by the Han had their own customs that would be considered backward or even barbaric to later society. According to Crossley, while Qianlong himself continued Kangxi’s legacy as an enlightened, universal ruler, he expected other Manchus to apply themselves to the cultivation of their ancestral heritage.
Qianlong’s plans included compulsory schooling for the nobility in Manchu language and culture. However, removed by well over a century from the generation that had conquered China, many bannermen considered the measures archaic and heavy-handed intrusions into their lifestyles.
Who Are the Chinese?
By the time of Qianlong’s death in 1799, attempts to preserve the Manchu culture as it existed prior to the Qing Dynasty had failed. Against all official measures, the Manchus continued to integrate with the Han to the point where the Manchu language was used only for matters of prestige—the language of everyday life and business was Mandarin Chinese.
But even as they adapted themselves to the greater Chinese culture, the Manchus nonetheless maintained their own identity and universalized their approach, making them in essence no different from the many elites that had established previous “Chinese” dynasties.
Though Manchuria was historically off-limits to Han immigrants, the Qing court, its power waning in the face of foreign encroachment, reversed this policy in the late 1800s. Over the next several decades, tens of millions of Han Chinese moved beyond the Great Wall and to what they now called “dongshansheng,” or the “Three Northeastern Provinces” constituting the old Manchu homeland.
The success of the Qing Dynasty in creating and cementing a lasting Chinese empire across ethnic and regional boundaries came at a price for its founders: The Manchu bannermen, busy fighting border wars and governing the Han, were either concentrated in the imperial capital of Beijing or dispersed across all corners of the empire—far away from their native Manchuria, as historian Shao Dan notes in her book “Remote Homeland, Recovered Borderland.”
Yet, according to Dan, whose work explores the challenges faced by Manchus and the Manchurian ethnic group in modern China, the Manchus have preserved their culture and history, inherited from the Qing empire, in the form of ethnic communities that still exist across China and Taiwan.
In recent decades, after generations of political turmoil, many Chinese have chosen to reclaim their Manchu identities, boosting the group’s numbers to over 10 million.
Even as the Manchus were subsumed into the greater Chinese civilization-state, they brought their own contributions. A well-known contemporary Chinese style of dress, the qipao or cheongsam, is a direct evolution of Manchu gowns. A deeper imprint the Manchus and previous northern ethnicities effected upon China was in language—Mandarin, the official language of China that boasts over 800 million native speakers, owes much of its phonology and vocabulary to the influence of such “barbarian” tongues.
Now, Manchuria is home to over 100 million people. Over 90 percent have their ancestral roots in China’s cradle of civilization, the Yellow River Valley. But as the Manchu example so effectively demonstrates, “China” does not belong to one region or race, but is rather a dynamic civilization that incorporates a rich tapestry of parallel histories, cultures, and languages.