Barbarian emperors

Numbering fewer than a quarter of a million, the Manchus conquered the Chinese empire, establishing the Qing dynasty m 1644. Today, they am a national minority of about three million - one of the several 'more advanced' nationalities (the Han being the 'most advanced') as opposed to the 'retarded' nationalities such as the Tibetan, Yi and Dai peoples. They can be found throughout China, but live mostly in Beijing, in the northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang and Hebei, and in Inner Mongolia.

The Manchus' identity as a race or nationality has tended to elude both Manchus and non-Manchus alike. In a sense, they invented themselves: People of Jurchen, Mongolian, Han Chinese and Korean descent who lived in the northeast and had developed a distinctive society first identified themselves using the collective term 'Manchu' only in 1635. The fact that they were barbarians who had been kept beyond the empire's north-east border, and were so weak numerically compared with the Han Chinese, must have made the fall of the Ming all the more humiliating to the Hans.

Manchu warriors

Divide and rule

The Chinese empire was conquered by about 120,000 Manchus. They had the strengths of discipline, unity, military readiness and brilliant strategy, but the decline of the Ming dynasty was just as important to their success. The Ming's glory had diminished to near collapse in the space of a few decades, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century the dynasty faced threats from barbarians on all sides, political in-fighting, rebellion throughout the country, and low levels of morale and loyalty in the military.

In 1644, the Manchus took advantage of the rebellion and chaos in the Chinese empire and moved south. Forming an alliance with a Ming loyalist general, they entered Beijing in June and almost immediately took power for themselves. A combination of military campaigns and diplomacy enabled them to wipe out the remains of Ming resistance, and they soon won the all-important support of the Yangzi valley gentry. By 1673 they had completed their conquest of China, though they continued to expand well into the next century, bringing Xinjiang and Taiwan into the motherland.

Despite a number of problems at the beginning of the Qing dynasty - their small number, the fact that the first emperor was mentally unstable, and remaining pockets of Ming resistance, especially in the south - the Manchus managed not only to take power but to hold onto it for 250 years.


Manchu society was basically tribal. Warring tribes had been largely united by Nurgaci, a brilliant military leader and grandfather of the first Qing emperor. The unified Manchus were organized into the Eight Banners (baqi), a 'banner' being a social/military organization transcending the old tribal groupings.

Strictly speaking, a bannerman was one who served the Qing emperor, but the term is often used synonymously for Manchu. Most Manchu men aged between 15 and 60 served in the army. The bannerman had, on the surface, a slave-master style relationship with his ruler (as opposed to the Confucian son/father model of the Hans). In reality, however, the Manchu rulers were careful to keep their bannermen happy.

While Manchus had a higher status than their Han subjects, there was also a rigid class system among bannermen. They prided themselves on their horsemanship and archery, which were indeed the foundations of their culture and the reason for their military strength. Later, during the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736-95), it was felt that traditional values and skills were dying, and attempts were made to revive the importance of horsemanship and archery. Learning the Manchu language was encouraged as well.

Separate identity

While eagerly learning from Han literati culture, the Manchus also were careful to keep a separate identity. They were a society within a society. In every government department there were Manchus in a superior position working alongside Han officials. They set up their own civil service examination system, which meant that they did not have to compete in the extremely competitive Han examinations. There were Manchu garrisons, largely supported by the state (a source of considerable resentment among the Han), in cities throughout China.

Manchu women were perhaps less oppressed than their Han counterparts. Female children were not despised, and did not have their feet bound - one of the things that perpetuated Han contempt for the 'barbarian' Manchus. The Manchus, like the Hans, prized chaste widowhood, although the suicide of loyal widows was strongly disapproved of. Marriage between Manchus and Hans was forbidden, and the Han were obliged to adopt Manchu dress and wear the pigtail as a sign of their subjugation.

On the other hand, the Manchus cleverly consolidated their power by preserving the status quo of land ownership in China proper, and perhaps more importantly, by winning over the scholar/official class.

Winning over the intellectuals

Towards the end of the Ming dynasty, from the late sixteenth century on, intellectuals had become increasingly disaffected with the Ming and had tacitly withdrawn their support. Many scholars had spent most of their lives preparing to hold an official post, only to end up with nothing. When the Ming first fell the literati were inclined to take the customary loyal-to-the-dynasty stance. But the new dynasty needed men of talent, and shrewdly made a show of respecting scholars. They were won over.

Apart from giving members of the scholar/official class posts in government, the Manchus also initiated a number of important research projects. The Kangxi emperor led the way by commissioning encyclopaedic works on the features and achievements of the empire - this, perhaps, was the Manchus' way of conquering China spiritually as well as militarily. One of the most important of these projects was the so-called Kangxi Dictionary, a massive undertaking which some people believe the emperor organized as a way of distracting scholars from their Ming loyalism.

In fact Han culture did well under the Manchus, as the emperors came to appreciate Han Chinese learning. Some of the greatest novels were written during the Qing, there were accomplished poets among the Manchu nobility, and Peking opera flourished due to the Manchus' great love of the theatre.

After gaining control of the Chinese empire the Manchus quickly absorbed much of Han high culture. But they always retained a sense of being the Manchu rulers of the subjugated Han; to say that they themselves were absorbed or sinicized is an exaggeration. Nevertheless, the Manchus were clearly conscious of that possibility, and front time to time there were attempts to revive traditional Manchu values.

Han resentment

The economic situation went into a serious decline in the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries; rebel movements sprang up, which were suppressed by the government. This aroused Han nationalist feelings. Resentment towards the Manchus grew, and they came to be blamed for almost everything. Secret societies were set up, dedicated to getting rid of the foreign rulers and restoring a Han Chinese dynasty. The situation worsened with the advent of the fiercely nationalistic Taiping Rebellion (1851-64). The feeling among the Han Chinese was that the interests of the European imperialists and the Manchus were the same, and this further incited resentment.

After the revolution of 1911 the Manchus were still blamed for society's problems, and it was strongly in their interests to pass themselves off as Han if they could. Periodic persecution of Manchus has continued throughout the twentieth century. The famous writer and dramatist Lao She, who was murdered during the Cultural Revolution, was a Manchu, and it is possible that the attack was racially motivated.

Identity crisis

Psychologically, the Han never really came to terms with the fall of the Ming. It is still the case that the glories of the Qing dynasty tend to be attributed to the Manchus being 'sinicized'. Their greatness is usually played down and their supposed cruelty, barbarism and decadence emphasized. The brief existence this century of Manchuguo, a Japanese puppet state in north-east China which could be seen as the Manchus' last desperate bid for identity, further contributed to their negative image. Today, Manchus may, if they choose, register as a national minority. But unlike most other ethnic minorities in China, the Manchus no longer inhabit a traditional homeland and have all but lost their language and traditions. While elderly Manchus might still be aware of their clan designations, the young have largely been cut off from their heritage.

In recent years, however, there have been signs that young Manchus do still have a sense of their identity. In 1987 the Chinese government opened a language school in Beijing to train people to read old Manchu official documents. Although they expected that they would have to recruit students, there were nearly twice as many applicants as places available.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006, reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 135, Page 30, December 1990