Recent Posts

The perils of studying the Qing

Via Danwei:

The Beijing News
October 7, 2008

Yan Chongnian (阎崇年), a scholar specializing in Qing history and Manchu culture, was attacked on October 5 when he was in Wuxi to promote his new book, The Kangxi Emperor. The prolific author was smacked twice in the face, allegedly because the attacker disagreed with his historical views.

While it was unclear from the report which views got Professor Yan slapped by another dude (what kind of a guy slaps someone, anyway?), Danwei did some digging and came up with these little nuggets of Qing wisdom by searching the internet for “Yan Chongnian” and “traitor”:

  • Wu Sangui, the general who has usually taken the blame for the collapse of Ming Dynasty (the last Han Chinese Dynasty) by virtue of his surrender to the Manchu invaders, should be reevaluated for avoiding mass bloodshed that may have resulted had he not surrendered;
  • Censorship and crackdown on dissenting views by the Qing ensured social stability despite certain limitation;
  • The Manchu invasion promoted the integration of different ethnic groups, and the human loss it caused was inevitable.
  • The Qing can be a touchy subject.  I’ve occasionally riled people by (tongue ever so slightly in cheek) correcting their assumption that I study Chinese history, telling them instead that “I study the Qing Empire, of which China was one, albeit very large, part.” 

    The fact that the Qing Era was so prosperous and successful (for the first two hundred years or so) can be tempered in the zeitgeist by the knowledge that the Qing emperors were not Han, did not consider themselves Han, and would likely have chopped off anybody’s head who claimed that His Majesty’s Empire had succeeded due to Manchu assimilation, as early 20th-century Han nationalist historians argued in an attempt to reconicle past events with contemporary sentiment.

    Prior to the 1911 revolution, revolutionaries such as Sun Yat-sen, Zhang Binglin, and Zou Rong wrote passionate tracts lamenting the depravity, cruelty, and, yes, the “Otherness” of the Manchu rulers. Post-1911, as the KMT and later the CCP took up the baton of statebuilding, the desire to hold on to the territorial conquests of the Manchus trumped ethnic nationalism, and the Manchus were brought into the fold of a newly-defined “Chinese nation,” which transcended Han ethnic or cultural definitions to include those groups, like the Tibetans, Uighurs, and Taiwanese, who had also been ruled by the Manchus. This is the narrative which dominates in the PRC today.

    In fact, the very idea of the Qing as an empire, and, as such, an imperialist power, is a highly volatile subject in light of European and Japanese imperialist aggression of the 19th and 20th centuries.  But one look at the challenges the PRC (the modern-day heirs to the Qing territorial legacy) has managing restless areas of the country suggests China shares with other post-colonial powers the lingering problems of an imperial past exacerbated by the always difficult transition from empire to nation-state.

    I’ve never been slapped for my views, but I’ve gotten into some pretty heavy seminar discussions…really steel-octagon-bring-your-best-citation-and-obscure-reference bare knuckle matches.

    Does that count?

    25 Comments on The perils of studying the Qing

    1. “In fact, the very idea of the Qing as an empire…is a highly volatile subject in light of European and Japanese imperialist aggression of the 19th and 20th centuries. ”

      I’ll say! The cognitive dissonance was obviously a little too much for Yan Chongnian’s attacker.

      Not for the first time, I leave more informed than when I arrived. Thanks.

    2. Ahem. That should be ‘depravity’, surely. And do you mean ‘nation-state’ instead of ‘nation-station’? Now you can consider yourself slapped, but not because of your views.

      Sorry, I have too many essays to mark this week.

    3. Thanks Chris…made the necessary corrections…

      but you missed where I misspelled “definition.”

    4. Glad to see that you’re back blogging. Echoing Stuart, I learn something over here. Great post.

    5. Nobody has ever claimed the Manchus are Han. What ur advocating is that only Hans are Chinese, which is fine as an academic point of view. Though I bet you’d been exiled by His Majesty to 满洲里 in no time for calling him 异族.

      Qing was an empire for sure. But then China has always been one. There’s a reason that southern Chinese have different languages and genetic makeup.

    6. Cindy,

      Thanks for your comments. I wasn’t really advocating any specific definition of “Chinese” so much as arguing against the rather over specific definition that has become part of the narrative of the 19th and 20th centuries.

      The Manchus wouldn’t have considered themselves separate from the Qing Empire, but within those parameters they clearly saw themselves as separate and not equal to the Han Chinese.

      But your point about calling the Manchus “Han,” is a valid one and I fear I didn’t write that passage as clearly as I should have. Perhaps better, but longer, would have been that the Manchu emperors would likely rejected a notion that despite belonging to the same empire, the Manchus were an indistinct cultural and ethnic group (admitting that such terminology carries a significant amount of baggage) from the Han Chinese.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    7. Oh come on, Jeremiah! That last paragraph of yours:

      “would likely rejected a notion”

      Perhaps the auxilliary verb “have” is needed in there somewhere?


      “the Manchus were an indistinct cultural and ethnic group”

      ‘an indistinct’ or ‘a distinct’? There could be quite a difference.

      Sorrysorrysorry, far too much essay marking for me this week.

    8. Chris,

      Luv ya, Man…but you’re killing me. I meant “an indistinct” as in, not easily distinguishable or separated.

      As for the lack of auxiliary verb…mea culpa.

    9. Do not underestimate or misunderestimate the “manslap.” It is a potent weapon compared with the punch. One bruises the face, which is easily repaired, the other bruises the ego and conveys a lack of disdain (or doubt) about your opponent’s masculinity.

      Walk softly, have your obscure quotations safely in pocket, but most of all, have a “manslap” locked and loaded.

    10. I can really add no academic insight into this comment, not being a scholar. However, I think it is important to bring up modern Chinese interpretations of the Yuan Dynasty, at least as an aside.

      The CCP party line maintains the idea of an unbroken cultural lineage and a constant Chinese empire. Indeed, besides the Qing, many Chinese have difficulty coming to terms with the fact that the Mongols were not Chinese at all and that China was only a corner of their empire. This point factors heavily into the Tibet controversy as many Chinese cite control of Tibet by the Yuan Dynasty (followed by general independence under the Ming) as grounds for China’s continued control of that area.

      And all of this, of course, is what makes the concept of the 5,000-year culture laughable. Aside from the survival of the writing system, China, just as every other place in the world, is a mish mash of cultural influences that have collectively produced the modern country.

    11. Are the Mongols not Chinese? Their ancestors were very much engaged in one way or another with China proper/China south of the Wall as far back as the Western Zhou at least. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the Qin were more of Altaic than Sinitic origin, and there are stories that claim the first king of the Xiongnu was a close and direct descendant of the last Xia rulers. And Genghis seemed pretty damn keen to conquer China south of the Wall.

      Thomas, if you remove the first sentence and first clause of the second sentence from your last paragraph, you’ll find a pretty accurate description of most countries, including China.

    12. I want to point out that the Euroasian Mongolian empire has fallen apart by 1260, long before Yuan was established in 1271. So China was not a corner of Yuan, it was pretty much the whole of it.

      Under the Yuan administration, Tibet and part of Turkestan were dealt more or less like a kind of oversea territories.

      Yuan’s superficial claim over other parts of the former Mongolian empire was rejected by all the other Mongolian khanates except for Il-Khanate, whose relation with Yuan was also quite loose.

    13. Well….we’ve had this argument before (for those who are interested, having trouble sleeping, under house arrest, or just really really bored…feel free to search the site for “Mongol”) and it comes down to how the term “China” is defined both in contemporary and (as opposed to) historically, which is another topic we’ve covered pretty extensively here.

      I might add that, rather than looking at territory, sources related to Mongol administration under the Khans in Dadu clearly show how the Han Chinese were considered a separate, and subject, people in a broadly conceived pan-Asian empire. But this is more Wu Ming’s territory than mine.

    14. “Are the Mongols not Chinese? ”

      Ask the residents of Mongolia. I think you will get a very sharp rebuke.

      And yes, Chris, you are right. That is an accurate description of most countries. What I find objectionable is the insinuation by most Chinese I have met that China is different in this regard. China does not have one continuous culture stretching back 5,000 years, but this line of thinking is used by propagandists to justify dubious claims to territories based on history.

    15. I would echo Thomas’s response above.

      Turning Chris’s question on its head slightly, are not all Han Chinese part Mongol?

      I have argued with several Chinese that, given the dynamics of the Yuan dynasty, a little Mongol blood must be seeping through the veins of every son and daughter of the Motherland.

      If only words could convey the revulsion that this notion evokes in Han Chinese, and the lengths that they then go to in order to support their sanguine purity.

      No wonder ‘out of Africa’ struggles to find a sympathetic ear when even ‘out of our own back yard’ ignites such indignation.

      On a side note, and not speaking as an authority, I often counter claims of China never having pursued territorialism by referring to the westward rampage of the Yuan. At this point, the Mongols tend to get blamed, but without any concession on the point of 5000 years’ unbroken culture.

    16. Thomas, I agree whole-heartedly.

      Stuart, no. Northerners, certainly, but what makes one Mongol? Or Han? Or Korean? To take one example: My wife is a pretty normal northern Han Chinese. Looking at her family history, it’s almost certain she is a mixture of Xiongnu, Mongol, Jurchen, Khitan, and whatever else descent. What really differentiates these groups? And dare I throw in the Shanrong- a group for whom I have found no reference at all in any language other than Chinese so far? Now, my wife, as I said, is pretty normal. I can’t see how, apart from her choice of husband, she is any different from any other northern Chinese whose ID and hukou classify her as Han. In other words, so far as I can tell, such things as Han, Mongol, Jurchen, Shanrong, Khitan, Scot, Irish and Pakeha are purely artificial constructs.

      And I say ‘northern’ because when one moves south of the Yellow River basin one finds a different mix of “ethnicities”.

    17. As a recovering Qing scholar, the only type of wounds I have recieved was a bruised ego . . .

    18. @Jeremiah,

      I am not against your statement that Han Chinese were considered as a separate, subject, people. But I doubt that they were just one like every other in a “pan-Asian” empire. I think facing an overwhelming majority of Han Chinese, the pan-Asianness of Yuan Empire was quite shallow, and not very meaningful.


      I’m skeptical about your supposition that CCP has party lines here or there. I think on the issue of cultural lineage and the territorial claims based on it CCP just shares a sentiment with the majority of the Chinese poplulation.

    19. Leo,

      Actually, the Han weren’t like every other group in the empire, they occupied the very lowest places in the Mongol political hierarchy, below the Central Asian “semu” and others. Part of this, no doubt, was due to Mongol fear of the Han as disloyal subjects.

      As for the party line, I’m inclined to agree with Thomas on this one. The idea that the CCP naturally shares the sentiment of the Chinese population is a bit disingenuous. “Cultural lineage,” like all historical narratives, is constructed, and much of the narrative currently accepted in the PRC comes from Han nationalist historians of the May Fourth era and after. It’s a subject on which I’ve done a bit of research.

      As for whether it’s a “party line,” I would gently suggest that the historical narrative in the curriculum as part of the “Patriotic Education” first launched after 1989, a narrative subsequently reinforced through mass and popular media, when coupled with an absence of dissenting or questioning voices, has done much to meld the political demands of the CCP with the emotional needs of the people in this regard. Again, this is a subject done a bit to death in this space. I suggest checking earlier posts for a longer explication.

      In the end though, it is historical research, conducted in a spirit of questioning and inquiry, that suffers most….which brings us back to one of the original points of the post.

    20. @Jeremiah,

      I didn’t deny the fact that Han Chinese occupied the lowest position in the Yuan food chain. But it is also a fact that Han Chinese made up more than 90 percent of Yuan’s population and economy. Actually all the other ethnic areas, like Tibet, a strip of Turkestan, Korea, and most of Yunnan, were more or less run by the local khagans and kings on themselves. The only territories that were under direct Mongolian rule were Mongolia proper (divided and merged with neighboring Chinese provinces), former Khitan, and former Southern Song. Semu was not a real population within the directly ruled territories of Yuan, they were just a small group of “expats”. This is the reason why I questioned the “pan-Asianness” and “multi-ethnicness” of Yuan.

      Regarding the partyline, I have read the history reading materials during the CR, the middle school textbooks prior to and after 1989. I did not have impression that Chinese history textbooks prior to 1989 denied or any less emphasized the notion that China’s history lineage was continuous and Yuan and Qing were part of it. Actually in a lot of provinces the textbooks written in early 1980s were used well into 2000s without major modifications.

      Regarding “Patriotic Education” launched in 1994, I can find nowhere in government documents and activity press release that cultural lineage and “a constant Chinese empire” should be emphasized or even mentioned. I don’t think these things are directly connected to each other.

    21. Guys, see some unequal treaties between Qing gov and foreign powers. The Qing emproers thought they were Chinese. They used the words like “Zhongguo”, “Zhongguoren”. Please Check.

    22. FYI:Sun Zhongshan changed his attitude to Five Races Under One Union((Han, Manchu, Mongol, Hui and Tibetan).

    23. hug,

      Thanks for stopping by…a little late to the party, though.

      It’s a lot more complicated than you’ve suggested and I find it quaint that you’d comment so blithely. I think you might find it interesting to check out actual books (rather than wikipedia) and I might especially recommend looking at the recent (as in the last 30 years or so) research done using the Manchu language archives. Work by Mark Elliot, James Millward, etc. greatly problematizes the simplistic narratives (products of early 20th century Han nationalist historians) of assimilation.

    24. Nobody has ever claimed the Manchus are Han. But I am sure the Manchus are Chinese. Similarly, The whites in USA are americans, but the americans are not equal to the white.

    25. It really depends on how you define “Chinese,” keeping in mind that such terms are historically unstable, we can’t project back modern definitions without running into complications. I also think, hug, that you and I are coming at this from differing intellectual perspectives. You want Manchu=Chinese. I’m not saying you’re necessarily wrong, only that the way such an equation is formulated, the narratives which frame it, and the sources which support it are all unstable and need to be unpacked and looked at carefully and critically. We cannot accept tropes as truth. I know where you’re coming from, though, I’m familiar with the Chinese history curriculum of the past 20 years, and also have done a bit of research on the creation of historical narrative and nationalism in the early 20th century. Paul Cohen once suggested such narratives tell us more about the political and emotional needs of the present day than they do about the past, and I would tend to agree.

    1 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

    1. Jeremiah Jenne

    Comments are closed.