Review of The Manchus, by Pamela Kyle Crossley

Eras Journal – Tighe, J: Review of “The Manchus”, Pamela Kyle Crossley

Pamela Kyle Crossley, The Manchus,

Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1997 (paperback edition 2002)

Isbn 1 55786 560 4

Manchus officially make up around ten million of the present day population of the People’s Republic of China. In the post-Mao era Manchu identity has clearly undergone a resurgence and the Manchu ethnicity of such important Chinese literary figures as Lao She is now celebrated. The most important component and shaping force in Manchu identity, however, was their central role in the last empire to rule China, the Qing Empire (which lasted from 1644 to 1911), and this forms the main theme of Pamela Kyle Crossley’s book The Manchus. Crossley argues that the distinctness of Manchu identity has been neglected in mainstream studies of Qing and Chinese early modern history. Most scholars have accepted uncritically what is ultimately a Chinese nationalist historiographic depiction of the Manchus. Crossley points to the central contradiction of this reading: Manchus have been lumped with the blame for China’s misfortunes in the 19th century because they are characterised as foreign rulers who had no interest in the welfare of the Chinese nation, but at the same time they have been dismissed as having no important identity of their own, having quickly become “sinified” – assimilated, or acculturated by a superior Chinese culture. The book offers a corrective with important implications for scholars of Chinese modern history.

The Manchus is dedicated to the late Joseph Fletcher Jr, one of the pioneers of a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual approach to Chinese and Inner Asian history, and it rehearses themes which have been preoccupations of Crossley and others from the late 1980s onwards, such as the poverty of assumptions about “sinification” and the importance of ethnicity and non-Chinese, in particular, Inner Asian cultural and political traditions in Qing history. Crossley argues persuasively for an inversion of the commonly received view of the Qing. Instead of the conventional understanding of the Qing as a dynasty within the Chinese imperial tradition (albeit staffed by foreigners) and a part of the history of the Chinese nation, the Qing should be understood as a multi-ethnic empire of which China proper – i.e. the classical eighteen provinces south of the Great Wall – was one part of, but which also included Inner Asian territories and peoples. This revised view of the Qing enables Crossley to make some fruitful comparisons about modernisation, reform and the growth of nationalism between the Qing and other roughly contemporaneous multi-ethnic Eurasian land empires such as the Romanov and Ottoman empires. Her account of the Manchus is also an excellent exploration of the diachronic trajectory of a collective identity and the effects of state policy on this identity.

Like the Yuan Empire of the Mongols, the Qing Empire distinguished between an imperial elite and a conquered population within China. Manchus were at the heart of this elite and the changing relationship between these two components of imperial order over two and a half centuries of Qing rule shaped Manchu identity profoundly. Manchus drew their pre-Qing ethnic and cultural origins from the Tungusic peoples of Manchuria, most immediately the Jurchens. Crossley explores the ethnographic features of these peoples in the book’s second chapter. However the fact that the ethonym “Manchu,” was officially decreed in 1635 offers a telling indication of the inseparability of the ethnic factors from the state institutionalisation of Manchu identity during the Qing Empire. This is clearly Crossley’s main focus.

Crossley argues that Manchu identity moved from its expression in terms of political or functional status in the 17th century to its eventual expression as a fully ethnic and even racial identity by the end of the Qing. She traces the different transformations of this identity beginning with the uniting of various Chinese immigrants from Ming Dynasty China, Koreans, Jurchens and other Manchurian peoples in the late 1500s under the Jurchen leader Nurgaci, the founder of the immediate precursor to the Qing, the Later Jin Empire, a regional regime based in Manchuria. In 1635 Nurgaci’s son and the first Qing emperor, Hung Taiji, officially designated these early followers as “Manchu.” Central to the absorption of this ethnically diverse population was its division into a series of “banners” – hereditary socio-military units of command – possibly as early as the 1590s. The resulting Eight Banner system (each banner represented by a flag of its own colour) became the organisational structure for the conquest elite of the Qing Empire. With the establishment of the Qing state after 1644 banners became institutionalised and Manchus as bannermen were to be maintained in garrisons throughout the Empire at the expense of the imperial state to function as an “all-purpose elite,” skilled as both soldiers and as administrators. This ideal of bannermen functionaries was never successfully realised, Crossley argues, because of the expense. Bannermen were routinely forced to sell off land and to seek alternative sources of income to maintain themselves.

Territorial pressure from the Romanov Empire during the reign of the third Qing emperor, the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722) led the Court to define the boundaries of a territorial “Manchuria” and to claim it as its native place. It also commissioned an expedition to locate the origin point of the royal Asin Gioro lineage. The expedition discovered this in the wintery landscape of the Changbaishan mountain range which then became the putative “ancestral region” of the Manchus. Under the long reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736-1795) the ethnic and historical attributes of Manchu identity became increasingly elaborated. The emperor demanded the formalisation of Manchu heritage and the compilation of a new history of the Manchus which claimed all the historical peoples and cultures of Manchuria as ancestors and “corrected” traditional Chinese unflattering depictions of these peoples. Bannermen were also put under intense pressure to maintain their Manchu language skills and their “Manchu” traditions of horsemanship and archery. The problem of bannermen livelihood continued to fester and the older ideal of Manchus as political functionaries faded as civil affairs of the Empire increasingly passed into the hands of a Chinese bureaucratic class. Moreover, as Crossley writes, “by the 1820s the banners within China were barely considered part of the military complement of the empire.” They had become a social problem. By the middle of the 19th century the Qing court began to cut economic assistance to banner communities throughout the Empire and, in the face of poverty, bannermen became increasingly desperate. Manchu identity also had finally become expressed in racial terms. This was particularly evident in the Taiping rebellion which swept through and devastated areas of southern and eastern China in the period from 1850 to 1865. Taiping religious ideology cast the Manchus as satanic creatures to be driven out of China. The Taipings were eventually defeated however, in the last years of the Empire, Manchus were the subject of opportunistic racial vilification at the hands of Chinese nationalists intent on mobilising support for the overthrow of the Imperial government. In the last chapter of the book Crossley briefly examines the post-imperial fate of Manchus under various Chinese national governments. Manchus now make up one of the officially recognised “minority nationalities” of the Peoples Republic of China.

The Manchus appears as part of Blackwell’s Peoples of Asia series and, as the explanation of the purpose of the series has it, the text “is addressed to a wide, multi-disciplinary readership, as well as the general reader.” Footnotes and annotations have been kept to a minimum and the work is succinct and written in a style which will appeal to the non-specialist. In spite or because of this The Manchus comes across as a lively and thoughtful distillation of contemporary research on Manchu and Qing history by one of the main pioneers in this field. Crossley uses a range of first hand accounts to provide glimpses of her subject in different periods; from the reports of the late 16th century Korean diplomat Sin Chung-il to the diary of the 12 year old English boy George Stauton who accompanied and translated for the Macartney Expedition to the Qianlong emperor’s court in 1793 and 1794, as well as sources in Manchu and Chinese. Crossley’s narrative follows closely and sometimes becomes submerged within the narrative of Qing political history. However, given the complexity of the issues involved in tracing Manchu identity it is perhaps understandable that the end result is a looser interpretation of her brief which leans in the direction of Qing history.

Justin Tighe

History of Ideas, Trinity College Foundation Studies Program, University of Melbourne