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Voices from China’s Past: Zhang Binglin on Manchu Assimilation

One of the more persistent myths of Qing dynasty (1644-1912) history is the hoary old story of the Manchu conquerors realizing their inherent inferiority and meekly taking on the culture of their subjects. The essence of the argument is that the success of the Qing in conquering and ruling such a large empire was due to the Manchu invaders’ wholesale assimilation of Han political institutions and cultural values, an explanation of Manchu success that unsurprisingly proved quite palatable to patriotic Chinese historians. Like a lot of historical myths, there is embedded in the embellishment the grains of truth.

The Qing rulers did adopt quite a few of their political institutions from the preceding Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) both before and after the conquest of China proper, and were assisted in this endeavor by a legion of Han officials who either defected or were captured and forced to serve. It’s also worth noting that even at the height of the Qing Era, few of the ‘Banner People’ spoke Manchu in their daily lives or practiced the traditional Manchu arts of horsemanship and archery. All of which was much to the chagrin of the Qing rulers, even as these same rulers, mindful of their largest constituency, were themselves carefully showing their respect to the Confucian political tradition.

At the same time it is important not to overstate the case. Research done by scholars such as Mark Elliot, Pamela Crossley, and Evelyn Rawski on Qing politics and society utilizing both Manchu and Chinese language sources has–at the very least–problematized long-held assumptions about assimilation. Their findings suggest that not only did the Manchu ruling class not become as completely ‘Sinicized’ as once thought, but in fact Qing rule in its own way ‘Manchufied’ Chinese politics and society. (The latter especially apparent in the capital, where the cultural and linguistic proclivities of the Qing Banners survive in ‘lao Beijing’ culture to this day.)

This inherent ‘foreignness’ of the Manchus did not escape the notice of 19th century and early-20th century Han nationalists. Writers such as Zhang Binglin, Zou Rong, and even Sun Yat-sen, built upon a tradition of anti-Manchu rhetoric from the early years of the Qing conquest, most notably in the writings of Wang Fuzhi, Gu Yanwu, and Huang Zongxi.

In 1903, Zhang Binglin (1868-1936) wrote this passage as part of an ‘open letter’ to Kang Youwei, a key figure in the 100 Days Reforms of 1898 and a supporter of constitutional monarchy. Zhang mocks what he saw as Kang’s slavish devotion to the “foreign” rulers and questions the notion of Manchu assimilation:

“Today, have the Manchus assimilated to the Han people? Or have they conquered the Han people? Manchu shamanism is not the orthodox imperial religion; queues and jeweled necklaces are not the Chinese caps; and the documents of the Qing in its own language are not traditional Chinese characters. The Manchus merely respected Confucius, followed the ways of Confucianism, and presented a false picture as a technique for claiming the emperorship and fooling the people. Their talk is of the ‘same race’ is not to tun the Manchus into Han people, but to make Han people Manchus!”

Obviously, Zhang Binglin has an axe to grind, and how one reconciles his use of ‘Han’ and ‘Manchu’ with the more general term ‘Chinese’ is also a point worthy of discussion. But to simply say, as I’ve heard once too often here in the PRC and spoken by people who ought know better, that “The Manchus were Sinicized (汉化),” is to ignore a great deal of groundbreaking research about how Manchu identity was created, perceived, and deployed in the formation, consolidation, and perpetuation of Qing rule.

Translation found in Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume II. Wm. de Bary and Richard Lufrano eds. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2000), pg. 310.

10 Comments on Voices from China’s Past: Zhang Binglin on Manchu Assimilation

  1. “Obviously, Zhang Binglin has an axe to grind, and how one reconciles his use of ‘Han’ and ‘Manchu’ with the more general term ‘Chinese’ is also a point worthy of discussion.”


    I believe that, to the ethnic majority at least, ‘Han’ and ‘Chinese’ are considered synonymous. This is underlined by a feeling among minorities that they are not ‘Chinese’, either politically or racially – a feeling that the attitudes of many Han Chinese do nothing to discourage. I believe this attitude is the result of a sense of racial superiority.

    One need only consider the state media’s coverage of the recent events in T1bet, where graphic images of (specifically) Han victims has created outrage among Han people, many of whom are demanding a punitive response to what is regarded as the ingratitude of a backward people.

    On the subject of assimilation, I’ve encountered more than a little resistance to the suggestion (in response to the argument that all westerners are of ‘mixed blood’) that all Chinese people must have a little Mongol or Manchu blood coursing through their own veins.

    This suggestion is anathema to most of the Han Chinese I’ve put the argument to, often meeting with expressions of genuine offence and denials that their blood is anything other than 100% Han. This seems implausible, and a little disturbing, to me.

    One friend confidently informed that ‘history proved’ that Han Chinese are of pure blood. I didn’t press him further because we were eating, and the subject was clearly giving him a sense of nausea.

    As you said: “…unsurprisingly proved quite palatable to patriotic Chinese historians. ”

    It appears to me that any historical suggestion that dilutes the influence of Han culture or blood is unpalatable in modern China, whatever the strength of the evidence presented. No doubt Chinese school history texts have a lot to answer for.

    Apologies for being slightly tangental. Interesting post.

  2. Dear Stuart,

    It sounds like you’re stirring up a lot of trouble for yourself with that line of questioning! Do you remember that in ‘True Romance Dennis Hopper brought up the Moorish ancestry of the Sicilians specifically to provoke Christopher Walken into killing him?

    One small quibble – I think you have the distinction backwards in your opening remark: it tends to be China’s minorities who identify ‘Han’ and ‘Chinese’ as one, while Han Chinese protest the importance of the distinction for political reasons (“You may be a disdained and marginalised ‘lesser race’, but you are also Chinese citizens”). This very point came up in an interview with Wolf Totem author Jiang Rong in last month’s That’s Beijing magazine: it was cited as by Jiang as one of his dissatisfactions with the English version of his book by veteran translator Howard Goldblatt (Goldblatt had said ‘Chinese’ when Jiang insisted it should have been ‘Han’, in talking about relations between Han and Mongol).

  3. Froog,

    You might also find this account of Jiang Rong and Howard Goldenblatt going mano-a-mano at a recent translator’s conference interesting. Many of the same points are addressed.

  4. Gosh, that was quick, J. Eric only just posted that! A pity he doesn’t go into more detail about Jiang’s other gripes. The political resonances of the Han/Chinese thing are obvious enough.

  5. @ Froog
    “It sounds like you’re stirring up a lot of trouble for yourself with that line of questioning!”

    No, it wasn’t a line of questioning. It was a reasonable response to a comment made about the ‘mixed blood’ of westerners.

    However, there are two important questions raised here. First, is it really conceivable that anyone in China is 100% Han? Second, why are so many Chinese offended by the suggestion that they aren’t?

    “Do you remember that in ‘True Romance Dennis Hopper brought up the Moorish ancestry of the Sicilians specifically to provoke Christopher Walken into killing him?”

    Yes. I also recall the alacrity with which Chinese anthropologists leap on any ‘evidence’ that puts distance between themselves and African origins.

    Thanks for that link, btw

  6. Great article and discussion.

    The “purity” thread also extends into linguistics — more my area of interest. There is a long academic tradition of believing that Mandarin has NOT been influenced by other languages (e.g. Manchu), despite some evidence to the contrary.

    More prominently, there is an ongoing and sometimes vitriolic effort to call “Chinese” a language rather than what it most inarguably is, on any rational basis: a family of related languages. This argument is so political that it extends right into the bowels of academics where some researchers, out of a quite rational fear of stepping on sensitive Chinese toes, still refer to the (mutually unintelligible) languages of Cantonese, Wu, etc. as “dialects” of Chinese. (At least when speaking English. In Mandarin the term 方言 is more neutral). Such conflation is understandable in everyday language, but you might hope for better in academic discussion.

    The language issue is inextricably intertwined with race in the term hànyǔ (汉语) of course, but in this case the ethnic minorities with their distinct languages can get a bit of support from those Han who do NOT speak Mandarin as their native language.

  7. @syz ,

    I am sorry that you are little too late to the language debate that was settled long time ago.

    Difference between language and dialect? One has a army.

    btw. I grew up speaking Sichuanese, which is rather close the Beijing dialect, and is usually classified as part of Mandarin’s southern branch.
    But people from Beijing in general has no idea what we are talking about.


    Nice try. The support for multiregional hypothesis by SOME Chinese anthropologists has everything to do with politics.

    Current Chinese establishment favor the theory over “Out of Africa” theory because it lends legitimacy to the claim that the land area of China has always been inhabited by Chinese.

    Yes, I agree with you that when you are a racist, you would see evidences of racism all around you.

  8. “Yes, I agree with you that when you are a racist, you would see evidences of racism all around you.”

    Grow up. Respond with maturity or not at all. This has never been a blog for ‘tit for tat’ diatribes. There is no vestige of racism in my remarks; if there had been, Jeremiah would have deleted the comment.

    “…because it lends legitimacy to the claim that the land area of China has always been inhabited by Chinese.”

    Exactly. And that imperative, in my opinion, overides the principles of scientific research in this area.

  9. Hi Cao Meng De and Stuart,
    Since I’d hate what’s otherwise a great discussion to degenerate, let me explicate what I heard CMD saying. It sounded to me like agreement that Chinese are motivated by something other than the pursuit of truth in disliking the “out of Africa” theory. CMD is suggesting that it is politics rather than racism that makes some want to reject the theory. If that’s true, then the final “when you are a racist” comment was just inappropriate wording and what CMD intended to say was that “if a person is oriented around racism, they will tend to interpret events as racist.”

    CMD, that said, if you say I’m wrong, then I’ll stop defending you and let Stuart’s “grow up” comment stand.

    Back to the language/dialect thing. For anyone who’s curious, CMD is referring to a quote usually attributed to Max Weinrich, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” (You can see discussion in Wikipedia about possible origins.)

    The interesting thing is that the quote is usually used to explain why two more or less mutually intelligible “languages” (e.g. Spanish and Portuguese) are not called “dialects”. Because, of course, they are politically independent and often at odds.

    China has turned this on its head by taking “languages” that are much more distant linguistically than Spanish and Portuguese and insisting on calling them dialects.

    But I agree with CMD that the quote is still applicable.

  10. Please clarify, how do you define “Han”? I am ethnically Han as it is written on my birth certificate. But I find the notion of “Han” as a race very vague. Many of the Chinese minorities defined today were originally immigrants from the “zhong yuan” area in the Han dynasty or earlier. So how through time they become another race?

    What is “Han” anyway? Are they the people originally citizens of the Han empire? Bare in mind that there were a lot of migration of people and inter-marriages during that time. Many Huns (Or Xiong Nu) choose to live inside Han empire and gradually abandoned their normantic life style and adopted Han culture. So what are they? Han?

    Bare in mind also that in ancient China there was no concept of “race” or country, as the world as a whole is supposed to be the subject of the Emperor. What originally distinguished between the so called “barbarians” races and and the “Chinese” race is a concept that is generally not based on birth, but on the cultural differences.

    I am a firm supporter of our country to abandon the idea of racial difference all together. For me the idea of “Chinese citizen” is good enough, and what is more important is the Chinese culture values and customs. Say if a person of European origins thinks and behaves like a typical Chinese, he is Chinese by all means in my book. On the contrary, if a person of Chinese parents did not have the culture characteristics, he/she will not be regarded as a Chinese but a foreigner by me.

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