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More robot errors in Chinese history: Prepare to be “assimilated”

Nothing like a major global event to stimulate the “crap editorial” industry in China, and with the 2010 Expo around the corner (What? Oh, really? You hadn’t heard? Can’t imagine that!) the Shanghai Daily is cranking them out with astonishing energy.

Yesterday’s installment in “How the dung beetle turns crap and calls it writing” was called “Superpower Responsibilities” and after a luke-warm rehash of bad history, we come to this little turd nugget:

After the Roman Empire collapsed because of the massive migration of Germanic people, the spiritual legacies of its civilization were inherited by the succeeding European world. In comparison, even after the Chinese empire was conquered by other ethnic regimes, like the Yuan (1271-1368) and the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, those ethnic groups were eventually assimilated into the Chinese civilization and subsequently became the driving forces that carried forward that civilization.

The Mongols were actually one of the worst examples of “assimilation,” maintaining very specific ethnic distinctions, most notably a caste system with Mongols on the top, Central Asians second, Northern Chinese third, and Southern Chinese at the very bottom.  When Zhu Yuanzhang and the boys got around to toppling their rule in the 1360s, rather than simply fade into the general population of the North China Plain as did many Khitans and Jurchens did following the respective collapses of the Liao and Jin Dynasties, the Mongols high-tailed it for the steppe where they regrouped and were a major pain in the ass for the incoming Ming Emperors well into the 16th century.  (I seem to remember some story about a wall being built…)

The Manchus are a far more controversial example, both for people who like to think (historians and people who, you know, actually study this stuff) and those who don’t (CCP shills and the Han nationalist wingnut crowd).  For the former it’s about definitions of “ethnicity” and whether/how those definitions can be applied to the Qing era.  For the latter it’s about trying to explain how one of the “China’s” most successful dynasties was the result of a foreign invasion.

(Ok, to be fair to the nationalist camp, another reason for the sensitivity regarding this issue is that the case for a unique Manchu identity in the Qing was proposed, rather loudly, by pre-war Japanese scholars who had the ‘legitimacy’ of Manchukuo very much on their minds…)

In any case, I’ll let the calm and collected voice of Mark Elliot have the last word:

“Shedding a distinct ethnic identity  would have spelled disaster for the Manchus, and that Manchu rule was colored by an awareness of that fact…Of course in virtually all monarchical systems the differentiation between ruler and ruled is an important one, since it helps to guarantee dynastic stability.  Ethnic sovereignty, it may be ventured, is a special case in which the differentiation is along ethnic lines.  In China, one might further argue, a non-Han ruling family which had come to power through conquest and was constantly on its guard in an alien, or at least not wholly native environment, might, because of this very vigilance, maintain its dedication longer and thus rule more effectively.”*

*Mark C. Elliott. The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China, Stanford Univ. Press, 2001, pp. 6-7)

4 Comments on More robot errors in Chinese history: Prepare to be “assimilated”

  1. Thanks for this. I get into more arguments with more people about the supposed “Longest continuous government in History” myth than maybe anything else. Convincing people that Legalism isn’t the only valid interpretation of Confucius can be pretty trying sometimes too.

  2. The Yuan Dynasty is such a headache for Han anthropologists; they have to be very inventive to explain away the historical residue of that time, especially any suggestion of lingering dna in the gene pool. They’re so very, very touchy about ‘purity’ (I can testify to this having raised the question several times with Han Chinese). Not a good sign.

  3. Juchechosunmanse // March 30, 2010 at 5:10 am //


    There is no doubt that the Manchu apparatus saw themselves as distinctively Manchu and actively sought to protect their Manchu identity, but politically and culturally they did inherit a lot of Han Chinese cultural elements, probably to their chagrin. (My ignorant head tells me that perhaps it was like the Romans inheriting and embracing Greek cultural elements?) If I remember correctly you argued before that the Manchus did not identify with the concept of “the Middle Kingdom” which was deeply entrenched in Han Chinese psyche, right? So to the Manchus there was only the Da Qing Guo, there was no Zhongguo at all?

  4. Pfeffer/Juchechosunmanse,

    Acculturation is not assimilation, especially when one considers the contributions that the Manchus themselves made to “Chinese” culture (think of the cultural elements that make up “Lao Beijing” or institutional innovations like Governors-general, The Grand Council (junjichu), and the Lifan Yuan).

    As for the latter question, the term “zhongguo,” or its Manchu equivalent Dulimbai gurun, occur frequently in the records, especially, as one might imagine, in discussions of foreign relations, but the meaning is far from stable. Sometimes it refers to the “neidi” or the provinces of the Ming, sometimes it refers to the larger empire. But as one historian has noted, it is difficult when we try to take a slippery concept, such as a historical “zhongguo”, and attempt to equate it in the here and now with a politically overdetermined “China.” Doesn’t mean it can’t be done in some contexts, only that we need to be thoughtful about how we go about it.

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