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.