Who were the Manchus?

Who were the Manchus?
Talks / Lecture

Map of Mulan (Beijing neiwaicheng quantu)
Recording date: 
31 March 2016

Dr David Brophy, Lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Sydney, discusses the distinctive historical traditions of the Manchus, and the place of Manchu culture and identity in the Qing dynasty.

Dr Brophy's research focuses on the social and political history of China's northwest, particularly Xinjiang and its connections with the Islamic and Russian/ Soviet worlds. His research interests further include the history of Qing and republican China, and early modern Eurasia.

Supported by the Australian Centre on China in the World.

Transcript

Transcript of Who were the Manchus?

Speakers: Nathan Woolley (N), Dr David Brophy (D)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 31/03/16

N:        Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name’s Nathan Woolley, I’m the curator of the exhibition Celestial Empire. As we begin this evening’s proceedings I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we’re now privileged to call home. Tonight with continue with the series of lectures we are presenting in partnership with the Australian Centre in China in the World at the ANU as part of the public programming for Celestial Empire.

Celestial Empire and its public programs have been made possible through the support of a large range of different partners. The results are very much a collaboration between government, commercial partners and individual donors. First we must thank the National Library of China for sharing many of their treasures with us. I’d also like to thank our commercial partners. These are Shell in Australia, the Seven Network, Wanda One, Optus Singtel, Huawei, Cathay Pacific and TFE Hotels. Our event partners are as mentioned the ANU’s Australian Centre on China in the World and Asia Society Australia. Our government partners include the Federal Government through the National Collecting Institutions Touring Outreach Program and the Australia China Council and the ACT Government through Visit Canberra.

In addition to thanking these supporters I’d also like to thank each of you for coming along this evening to hear Dr David Brophy speak to us about the Manchus. Now in preparing my comments to introduce David this evening I thought there were two ways that I could possibly do this so the first way I could introduce David ... it goes something like this, David is currently a lecturer in history at the University of Sydney. Originally from Adelaide, he got his doctorate in Inner Asian and Altaic Studies from Harvard University in 2011. Between being at Harvard and being at the University of Sydney, David was also briefly my colleague at the Australian Centre on China in the World as a postdoctoral fellow. His research to date has focused on the social and political history of China’s northwest and its connections with the Islamic world and the Soviet Russian sphere. His new book, Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia China Frontier, has recently appeared with Harvard University Press. In his current research, David has turned his attention to the expansion of the Qing Dynasty in the eighteenth century and the relatively unused archive of Manchu language materials. So that’s the first way I thought I might introduce David. But I thought I won’t do that because that’s long and there’s a lot of detail so ... and it doesn’t really do justice to his achievements.

So the second way I thought I’d introduce David would be better because it would be easier and more tangible. So the second way for me to introduce Dr David Brophy is just to read out a list of the languages that David uses in his research and I warn you it’s longer than the list of our supporters. So these languages are English, German, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Uyghur, Uzbek, Chagatai, Persian, Manchu, Mongolian and Turkish. Rumour also has it that David has studied Sogdian at some point but I haven’t had that confirmed. So I’d like to say if you have any queries about any of these languages or even about the content of his talk please do hold those questions to the end when David has kindly agreed to answer some of our questions. But tonight David will predominantly be answering one question that I'm sure many of you have had on your minds since January when the exhibition opened and that is who were the Manchus? Please join me in welcoming Dr David Brophy.

[Applause]

D:         Thanks Nathan for that introduction and thank you to the National Library for the invitation to speak tonight and also to the Centre on China in the World at ANU for their support of this series, a place where I’ve spent a couple of very happy years immediately post-graduation. And obviously thank you all for coming out as well and supporting this fantastic exhibition.

So ‘Who were the Manchus?’ is the simple title of my talk tonight. One response is to say that the Manchus were the rulers of China’s last dynasty, the Qing, and that explains why I’m talking about them in the context of his exhibition. Of course only a small minority of the Manchu population ever had much say in the ruling of China. The Manchus were from Manchuria, another fairly obvious response although this territory was ... only became known as Manchuria because of the Manchus. And that in and of itself was a fairly recent invention. Up until the 1630s or thereabouts if people inhabiting this territory called themselves anything it was the name Jurchen which I’ll come back to. This was a society that practised limited agriculture and animal husbandry but derived a lot of its wealth from fishing, from pearling in the rivers, from the ginseng trade and also the fur trade, fur, pearls and ginseng being a real source of wealth in this region.

It’s a society organised around powerful clans so the family who became the ruling dynasty of the Qing came from this Jianzhou region which because of its proximity to the Ming was in a strong position to monopolise trade with the Ming and therefore gain wealth and influence from that. Again because of this ... its frontier location there were also quite a lot of Chinese living in this territory, runaways from Ming territory, people we might call frontiersmen, frontierswomen as well. So in fact this was already quite a mixed society by the 17th century and that only increased as Manchu’s strength grew and they attracted allies from further west from among the Mongols.

We see from these statistics that by the time of the Manchu conquest the Manchu armies included many Chinese and Mongols along with Manchus and these were organised into military units known as banners. This gives us some rough estimate of the population or the size of the conquering army at the start of the Qing. We see that alongside the Manchus large numbers of Mongols and Chinese as well.

If we look at the second row here we see that up until the eighteenth century there was still actually quite a large population of Chinese in these banners, in this banner system so in some ways the key social distinction at least for the early part of the Qing but continuing through to the end was not so much between Manchu identity and everyone else but between banner status and civilian status and in fact a lot of people expressed their Manchu identity at the fall of the Qing by saying that they were simply people of the banner or people who belonged to the banners. That was code for Manchu. Now that size of Chinese and Mongolian banner population was actually reduced in the course of the eighteenth century as this system became a burden on the state and they tried to reduce the number of people in these banners. As a result of that the concept of banner identity and Manchu identity became more closely intertwined.

Now I imagine some of you at Geremie Barmé’s talk at the start of this exhibition. How many people were at that talk? A good number so I won’t say too much about the imperial capital of Beijing. You can see here that you have the imperial palace surrounded by the imperial city where the residents of the Qing emperors and the administration, they’re surrounded by this much larger territory which was in daytime at least a preserve of the Manchu, the Manchu banners organised according to the structure of the banners so you can see that the banners ... not only were these administrative ... military units but they doubled as administrative units once this Manchu population had arrived in China and was occupying the country.

Outside of the capital garrisons, banner garrisons were dotted around the country but with a definite focus on the north as you can see from this map. Very few such garrisons in the southern part of China reflecting the strategic priorities of the Qing, preserving the frontier with the north, fending off any threats from first the Mongol enemies and then from Russia. Also a concentration in Manchuria which throughout the Qing right up until the end of the Qing was maintained as a Manchu preserve, a place that they you know if going got rough in China itself they could withdraw to Manchuria at least so Chinese migration into Manchuria was actually banned for most of the Qing dynasty. So that was an important territory throughout the Qing. These garrisons sometimes built new cities outside the existing Chinese cities or sometimes they just occupied part of the city as was the case here in this, Jingzhou which is in central China in Hoobay, the Manchu garrison Xi’an as well was similarly located inside the city walls.

So to go back to this map for a second the chieftains of this Jianzhou region initially saw themselves as heirs to the Jin dynasty which was a dynasty founded in the twelfth century in north China by the Jurchen people, people that the Manchus regarded themselves as ethnically related to. So the Manchus actually called themselves at first the later Jin dynasty, tapping into Jin legitimacy first, not the Qing, that came later once the project expanded beyond the scope of a regional hegemony. The official history of the Jin was one of the very first texts to be translated out of Chinese into Manchu reflecting the significance that the Jin had for the early Manchus. Unfortunately though the term Jurchen by which people in this area identified, it had undergone something of a semantic shift in the centuries since the Jin dynasty.

By the late Ming it was basically a term with connotations of subservience, a sort of term meaning slave essentially and that wouldn’t do as a term to unite this new conquering army so in the 1630s the leader by the name of Huang Taiji, he declared that henceforth his people would be known as the Manchus. It was an act of imperial fiat to create the Manchus. Curiously we don’t actually know what this word means. There’s speculation that it might be connected to the name of a river in Manchuria, some people have suggested that it may have something to do with the bodhisattva Manjushri. And we know by this time there were contacts between Tibetan Buddhists and the Manchus you know the Manchus ultimately presented themselves as patrons of the Tibetan Buddhist clergy, we have some texts in the exhibition reflecting that.

Scholars debate at this point whether or not there was really a sense of Manchu identity, Manchu ethnicity at this point or whether or not it was really just a political term to facilitate this political project of conquering China that may have by the end of the Qing evolved into something like an ethnic category. The seeming ethnic divisions of that banner system that I showed you can be slightly misleading because we know that there were actually Chinese who had migrated into this territory who ended up being classified as Manchus as well so the boundaries were actually quite fluid.

Now, in consolidating a new sense of Manchu identity the Manchu language was key. Manchu was not a written language. We can trace the link back from Manchu to Jurchen of the Jin dynasty period which had been a written language. Now Manchu belongs to a wider linguistic family including languages that probably very few people have heard of, Nanai, Evenki. Languages that weren’t written down until the 20th century. These are grouped into the Tungusic family of languages which according to a certain theory is ... it’s genetically related in the same way that English is related to Greek and Latin and further afield to you know Slavic, Armenia to the Mongolian languages and through the Turkic languages so Manchu would be a genetic relative of you know Turkish, Mongolian.

There are some who would like to add further branches to this linguistic panel, putting in possibly Korean and Japanese. This then forms the core of what’s known as the Altaic hypothesis, the idea that at some point there was this proto Altaic language that then evolved into these various forms. This was once a very popular theory for people who worked on this part of the world. I think it’s fair to say that it has fewer defenders now than it did 50 years ago. The jury is out I think on the Altaic hypothesis, we can say that. But of course languages can be closely intertwined without necessarily having a genetic connection. And the relationship here between Manchu and neighbouring Mongolian is particularly important.

So when the Manchus decided that they wanted to write their language they had a few choices available to them. There was Jurchen of the Jin dynasty which was ultimately an adaptation of Chinese characters down on the left. They would have been familiar of some extent with the Korean writing system which was invented in the fifteenth century, Hangul. And then there’s Mongolian down in the corner there. The fact that they chose Mongolian tells us something about the extent of Mongolian influence in Manchuria at this time. In fact we know that during the Ming, that that Jianzhou community out of which the Manchus emerged actually used Mongolian as part of their you know their skeleton bureaucracy that they had so Mongolian was playing the role of some kind of lingua franca across north Asia in this period. The first rulers of the Manchus styled themselves not so much as Chinese emperors but as Mongolian khans tapping into that Steppe tradition of rulership and despite the fact that they weren’t Mongols trying to some extent to claim the legacy of Genghis Khan to the extent that they could.

The Manchus themselves were not horse-riding nomads, they weren’t the classic nomadic Barbarians sweeping in from the Steppe but nevertheless Steppe culture, Steppe taste was a feature of court life in the Qing so that the Manchu hairstyle, the Q, shaved front, ponytail at the back, that was a sort of typical northern hairstyle. They shared the classic nomadic distaste for Chinese customs such as foot-binding and things like that which they never adopted. We have in the exhibition this map of the royal hunting grounds at Mulan which is one way in which the Qing emperors laid claim to this tradition of Steppe statecraft so we have sort of classic images of the emperor on the hunt which we could obviously directly compare to a long tradition of depictions of the emperor slaying the wild beast going back to Babylon if not even earlier.

Now creating a Manchu script was in and of itself another way of tapping into this narrative because Genghis Khan himself had been responsible for commissioning the creation of the Mongolian script. So within this political tradition, creating new script was in effect the sign of a launch of a new political project so we see this with the Manchus, created at the end of the sixteenth century, reformed through the early seventeenth century. We see this also with their chief rivals for power in Mongolia and Tibet, the Oirat Mongols known as the Dzungars. I don’t know if anyone’s heard of the Dzungar Mongols. These were the number one enemy for the first century of Qing and they did something very similar in the 1640s, creating a new script for their you know that particular dialect of western Mongolian.

Just to continue this theme of scripts for a second. So I said Genghis Khan derived his script from ... well he derived it from Turkic-speaking Uyghurs in his service so we can see a connection there. They themselves took it from the Sogdians, speakers of an Iranian language from what is now Uzbekistan, Tajikistan but had spread out along the silk road. They got it from Syriac ... now we’re moving into Semitic languages and that in itself was an adaptation of particular kind of Aramaic script back to Phoenician and of course that’s where our Greek and Latin alphabets ultimately descend from as well so we can actually plot a family tree of the world’s scripts with Manchu on one branch and our Latin alphabet on another branch all descending from the same place. Alright so variants of the Manchu language do have a history as an oral language in Manchuria but it was very much a creation of the Qing conquest as we can see from this and indeed it was referred to in Chinese often simply as the Qing language, Qingwen, that was the term.

The Manchus never imposed their language on the Chinese population but at least through to the nineteenth century it was required for officials and members of the banners in particular to write to the throne in Manchu and there were some civilians who’d risen through the examination system, got to the top of the examination system who were then assigned to academies where they would study Manchu for a few years so there were Chinese who became quite accomplished in Manchu during the Qing.

For a while it was assumed that a lot of this Manchu correspondence was ultimately translated into Chinese but we now know that that’s very much not the case. There are indeed some hints that Manchu was seen by the Qing as a ... in some ways a secret language that they could use to keep information out of the hands of the routine institutions of administration that they inherited from the Ming particularly in sensitive frontier regions. There was a strong emphasis on maintaining Manchu as the language of communication and that by the way partly explains why I’m here today. As Nathan said I mostly work on Xinjiang in the northwest so quite a long way from Manchuria but this was one region where the court insisted that officials write their reports in Manchu and so most of the documentation from that area and the Qing is in Manchu.

But even before the conquest, because of this mixed community that I’ve described on the borders of the Ming and Manchuria this was a multilingual society and produced a lot of materials in multiple languages, Chinese, Manchu and Mongolian. We have downstairs a very, very nice bilingual Chinese Manchu decree. These types of things are typical for the Qing and this naturally entailed a lot of dictionaries which range from quite simple Manchu Chinese lexicons such as this one which is in the exhibition through to this massive five-language dictionary, the late eighteenth century which was really more an expression ... more an ideological expression of universal rulership than any kind of lexicographic aid. As you can see you know the words are just very simple, one-word entries, not a lot of explanation, really. Very difficult to use as a dictionary, this thing.

By this time ... so this is late eighteenth century, the Qing had expanded to its greatest extent so completed its conquest of Tibet, Xinjiang and it wasn’t sufficient to rule anymore simply as an occupying force. Distinct legitimation narratives had to be constructed for the very complex mix of religious and ethnic constituencies all centred of course on the emperor who was supposed to transcend any ethnic or religious particularities. And that’s very distinctive of the Qianlong reign in particular which lasted from 1730s to the 1790s. The Qianlong emperor claimed to embody this universality himself by having mastered these five languages. That was his claim at least. He was certainly proficient in Manchu and Chinese and I’ve seen small notes that he’s written in Mongolian so he could handle Mongolian but I’m a little bit sceptical of Tibetan and Uyghur.

Now somewhat paradoxically as a result of this shift, Manchu culture and identity had to be codified and slotted into this new system, this five-way vision of the Qing empire. Now along with this ... the relatively laissez-faire approach to culture in the early Qing, was also starting to cause a concern at the court that the Manchus were assimilating to Chinese civilisation and this would be harmful for the vitality, the elan of the ruling elite. So it was also the Qianlong emperor who started to create a more official version of Manchu identity and he’s really responsible for a lot of the ideas that we have about what it meant to be a Manchu. He started to insist that Manchus display literacy in Manchu, he often corrected his officials or upbraided them on their poor use of Manchu. This was part of a process of creating this notion of a Manchu way which ... ‘cause the term way is probably familiar to you, Confucianism and Daoism each in their own way promote the following of simply the way unmarked. Here was the idea that ... for the Manchus there was a distinctive way for the Manchus to follow.

One sign of acculturation so marshal skills were emphasised very much as part of the Manchu way particularly archery and ideally horseback archery, that was the real sign of a true Manchu. Another worrying sign of acculturation but also as well a consequence of a deliberate policy of the court. By the eighteenth century the traditional clan structure of Manchu society was in the process of breaking down, Manchus were starting to take Chinese family names so in response a genealogical project was launched to collect these genealogies and publish them publicly to consolidate a notion of a Manchu community that people felt was actually fragmented. An official history of the eight banners was also written at this time too.

Now another element ... oh this is a picture of the genealogy of the Manchu clans ... one other element of Manchu culture that was fixed in written form at this time was the shamonistic tradition. We have in the exhibition a text that belongs to this tradition. These texts were not just descriptive, they didn’t just describe the rituals, they were prescriptive, giving descriptions of the dress, the rituals and also the words that should be chanted in order for these rituals to be carried out properly.

Quite fortuitously this particular text contains the one word from Manchu that has actually entered the English language. I’ve half given it away already but does anyone know what that word is?

Shaman, yeah, yes. Shaman’s actually a Manchu word. I believe I’m correct tin saying it’s the only Manchu word in English but happy to be corrected on that. So the idea of the shaman and shamanism as you know as a full-blown religion came to Europe in the eighteenth century via Russia. There was a Dutch explorer actually who produced what is regarded as the first you know visual depiction of a shaman. He hadn’t actually been to Manchuria, he was working in Russia at the time conducting research but had access to materials that were coming in from you know Russia’s penetration of the far east so it was you know people ... Russian explorers, Cossacks entering these territories that discovered this tradition, found out it was called shaman and then it eventually made its way back to Europe.

The preservation of these shamanic rituals was important to the Qing as part of the Manchu way. Although Qianlong had another objective in mind as well in producing these text he was keen to render these rituals more respectable in Chinese terms. Similar in form that is to say to the more delicate slow-moving Confucian rituals that were also performed at court too so scholars think that already by this time we’ve moved quite a long way from some kind of you know original authentic Manchurian tradition of shamanic rituals although we still see you know still see elements. We see the drums there on the right, obviously something that we still associate with shamanism.

By the end of the Qing dynasty the banner system had lost its effectiveness as a fighting force and indeed had come to be seen as a drain on the empire’s resource so there’d been a series of measures through the nineteenth century to actually encourage Manchus to leave the banners and take up a productive occupation. Banner status entitled you to a stipend from the state. It was what in Chinese terms we would call an iron rice bowl. And that’s great if you’re in the process of conquering China, useful people to have around but once you consolidate and you know this becomes a significant output for the state.

The result of that was that although the Manchus continued to be perceived as a privileged elite in actual fact most ordinary Manchus by the end of the ninetheenth century were really quite poor and so a lot of descriptions of old Beijing at the turn of the century of the early twentieth century contained these sort of vignettes of Manchu bannermen fallen on very hard times. You know there was the famous Chinese novelist, Lao She, whose work includes a number of descriptions of Manchu society at this point in time. Of course the Manchus were still opposed to reforms that would strip away these privileges within the banner system so to a certain extent they were still you know identified as a conservative force in Qing politics but they certainly weren’t the comfortably well off ruling elite that they were sometimes depicted as.

Anti-Manchu sentiment was something that waxed and waned through the Qing. We have from the period of the Qing conquest some very graphic texts describing the horrors that the Manchus inflicted on the Chinese population but then that sort of explicit anti-Manchu sentiment seems to abate for a period. Maybe that’s just because the Manchus were good at censorship and people were too scared to write anything against the Manchus but it is curious that it’s not really until the mid-nineteenth century that it comes back into Chinese intellectual life. The Taiping rebels played a very important role in this process. It was the Taipings who really took the Manchus and the banner system and popularised the idea of Manchu identity not as a question of banner status versus civilian but as an ethnic identity, that the Manchus were a foreign race, a race of foreign devils who were plaguing China. One historian has even gone so far as to suggest that if not for this Taiping propaganda we could wonder whether or not there would really be a notion of Manchu ethnicity by the end of the nineteenth century.

Now the late Qing reform process particularly beginning in 1898 with the so-called 100 days of reform, which was largely rolled back very quickly but then after that in the following decade the so-called new policies which were effective to some extent, these reforms were sensitive to this critique of institutionalised Manchu difference and they gradually broke down elements of the inheritance of the conquest, the banner system, intermarriage between Chinese and Manchus was permitted for the first time. It had been prohibited throughout the empire up until very late. The system of diarchy. Diarchy refers to a system whereby in key administrative positions Chinese and Manchus were appointed alongside each other so there were two heads of a department. If you had a Chinese you had to have a Manchu alongside them. And Chinese understandably resented this as an indication that you know having served the Qing for 200 years they still don’t trust us, you still have to have a Manchu sitting next to us. You won’t let us get on with our job.

That was finally abolished in the very, very last years of the Qing dynasty. Yet at the same time there were significant countervailing tendencies as well. There was a conservative centralisation taking place at court consolidating power in the hands of the dowager and the Manchu princes who surrounded her. One of the demands of reformers at the end of the Qing was that the Qing ... Qing needed to have a demand of foreign governments as well, that the Qing needed to have more a modern government system, it needed to have a cabinet, it needed to have ministers. Eventually they you know the Qing court conceded and it created something approaching a cabinet but it was stacked with Manchus. It became known as the princes’ cabinet and this was something that infuriated reformers, Chinese reformers such as Sun Yat-sen, who had to a large extent inherited that Taiping line that the Manchus were foreign aggressors, that China could not ... it could not modernise, could not enter the modern world without first overthrowing the Manchu occupiers.

So as a result much of the rebellious energy of the 1911, 1912 revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty was directed against the Manchus themselves. Across the country there were pogroms against local banner communities, violence in places like Xi’an was particularly bad. This is something that’s still not really openly discussed in China today, the anti-Manchu violence of this period but it was significant.

Now a certain degree of acculturation was a reality by this time. Although it did vary in degree across the empire but the fact that the Manchus were being blamed for China’s dire state in the early twentieth century meant that a strong stigma attached to Manchu identity in the years that that followed. So people lay low, a lot of people obscured their family history as we enter the republican period. Manchu ... having Manchu origins was for some people a kind of guilty secret that they harboured and maybe passed on to their children you know in their twilight years.

This was of course further complicated in the 1930s when Japan occupied Manchuria and installed the last Qing emperor Puyi as the president of this republic of Manchukuo. Now the fact is Manchukuo was not in any way a state that privileged the Manchu population as you know you might think from the title of this state but nonetheless the Japanese did use the idea of a distinctive Manchu culture and history as part of the justification for the creation of Manchukuo. So we can see then that there’s sort of a double stigmatisation taking place for people ... for Manchus you know who might be left in Chinese territory.

The upshot was that officially at least a sense of Manchu identity all but vanished by the 1940s. In fact when ethnographers went out to the northeast to conduct population surveys at the end of the Second World War they hardly registered any Manchus, they couldn’t find anyone, you know? Who identified as Manchu.

This is ... one consequence of that was when the Communist Party came to power and started implementing their system of ethnic autonomy. This is what gives us the Tibetan autonomous region, the Uyghur. The Manchus got nothing, there was no one putting up their hand claiming you know we Manchus, we need an autonomous territory. It was actually some time later that a string of small autonomous counties were created for the Manchus but for you know for most of the early PRC period the Manchu question just didn’t exist, it wasn’t on people’s minds at all.

Now again to some extent this does reflect acculturation. There has been throughout the twentieth century a trend towards language loss among Manchu speakers. Every now and then ... it usually seems to be the New York Times for some reason, it’ll carry an article talking about the decline of the Manchus and the disappearance and usually featuring the last Manchu speaker of some village in Manchuria. You might have seen some of these pieces, usually presenting quite a pitiful scene.

There is an exception to this general picture, though. It comes from a place quite a long way away from Manchuria, in fact on the border of what is now Kazakhstan. Now if I went back to that map of garrisons we’d find there a garrison in the Ili Valley which is now part of Xianjiang. These were speakers of Manchu who were mobilised to go and defend the frontier with Russia in the eighteenth century taken from actually quite a remote part of Manchuria all the way out to the western frontier and actually have been ... ended up being classified not as Manchus but as a Xibo ethnic minority. That’s a complicated question but take it from me what they speak is Manchu and they ... so they belong to this community of Manchu bannermen. These people found themselves living in a territory where they weren’t surrounded by Chinese, very few Chinese in Xianjiang at all for most of the Qing but instead Kazakhs, Mongols, Uyghurs whose languages they picked up but they managed to preserve their own very well as well.

So if you want to see Manchu as a living language, what that might look like, it’s actually here that you need to go. I thought we might turn briefly to a clip, just to give you a sense of what this looks like. You can close your eyes and imagine that if China had evolved into a constitutional monarchy and we still had the Manchu ruling family in charge. This is a news broadcast in Manchu.

[Video]

D:         Those of you who speak Chinese would recognise quite a lot of Chinese terminology.

[Video]

D:         I was talking to Nathan before and he was saying that it sort of sounds like I should be able to understand that but I can’t. I think it may have something to do with the fact that the Mandarin dialect is a north-eastern dialect so in fact the phonology of Mandarin and Manchu you know probably are quite close if we were to examine that so maybe there’s a reason why we sort of think it sounds ... sort of sounds like Chinese, yeah. Just a speculative thought.

Now actually as it turns out though anyone who believed that Manchu culture and identity was on a continuous trajectory of decline has actually been proven wrong in the last decade or so so recently these articles in the paper about the end of the Manchus have often included mention of a tentative re-emergence of Manchu among young Manchus who are rediscovering their ethnic identity and this has become something quite popular in China recently, to so to speak come out as a Manchu. As the stigma fades away and on the other hand as people see certain advantages possibly as identifying as an ethnic minority you can find people reconnecting with their Manchu roots through you know evening courses, things like that. I think it’s too early to speak of a linguistic revival at this point but it’ll be interesting to watch where this goes in the years to come.

The size of the registered Manchu population is actually growing very fast, that’s very clear. There’s now more than 10 million Manchus which means that they’ve just recently overtaken the Uyghurs as the third largest ethnic minority in China. Now to think that at the Chinese revolution, 1949, they were really not on the map at all to now to be the third largest ethnic minority and very close to becoming the second largest. We can confidently say that they will become the second largest very, very soon.

The other place that Manchu is experiencing a revival is in academic. There’s actually a long tradition of foreigners learning Manchu. If you were at Geremie Barmé’s talk he discussed this. Manchu was the language in which the Jesuit missionaries conversed with the Qing emperors. Manchu was often seen as an entry point into the much more difficult, intricate, classical Chinese tradition and conversely in the early Qing, western scientific medical texts were also translated into Manchu. It continued to be seen as important into the fall of the Qing. Now after roughly a century of neglect it’s again become an expectation that students of Qing history will learn Manchu alongside classical Chinese so that internally some new research on the Manchus, greater interest in the Manchus so we can speak in general I think of a scholarly rediscovery of the Manchus taking place at the moment.

Now I think that’s about all I have time for today. If I’d given this talk a year ago I would have ended it here I think on this positive note about the possibility of a Manchu revival but I would instead like to end on a slightly different note. I feel it would be remiss of me to deliver a talk here on Qing culture and the Manchu language without saying something about the impending decline of Asian language study at our premier national institution. The Qing emperors actually forbid foreigners from learning Chinese and eventually they forbid foreigners from learning Manchu as well, fearing that knowledge of these languages would grant these foreigners too much insight into the actual workings of the empire. So we can say I think that Qianlong and Jiaqing emperors are ... not to mention Xie Jinping would approve of the decision to slash the school of culture, history and languages at the College of Asia Pacific.

There can really be no mistaking the significance of this decision. The value of language study itself though has been called into question and with that the value of original research into the history and culture of two-thirds of humanity, of Asia. So this plan is not only an outrage in industrial terms but it’s a big leap backwards in terms of the significance that we accord Asia you know in our vision of the humanities. We can imagine for example of a leading university in China that had a global reputation for the study of Shakespeare decided that it would cut its English department down to a few foreign students teaching business English on contracts. It would be hard I think to avoid the conclusion that this represented to some extent a ... an inward turn in intellectual life in China and so I think it’s not to be wondered at if foreigners draw similar conclusions about what’s going on here in ANU.

So I’d just like to end with that, by expressing my solidarity with the colleagues who are going through this process and also asking you to remember as you enjoy this exhibition and the very beautiful artefacts that it contains, that this represents an intellectual tradition a millennia old that we are right now in the process of cutting ourselves off from. So if you share my view that there should be a place for Asia in the humanities then I’d like to ask you to put those thoughts in writing and convey them to the Vice Chancellor of Australian National University, Dr Brian Schmidt. So I’ll end on that note and thank you all for your attention. Thank you.

[End of recording]

Download transcript 115.64 KB

Recent audio All recent audio