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Orphan Warriors: Three Manchu Generations and the End of the Qing World

March 19, 2010

Pamela Crossley. Orphan Warriors: Three Manchu Generations and the End of the Qing World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Ellen Huang (2003)

The orphan warriors of Pamela Crossley’s title are Manchu bannermen who started to suffer from economic decline and social alienation as early as the first century of the Qing dynasty. The book, centered around the journey of three eminent Manchus of the Suwan Guwalgiya clan, Guancheng, his son Fengrui and his grandson, the historian Jinliang, traces as its underlying theme the changes in criteria for Manchu identity over time. In the seventeenth century, language, religion, and martial arts such as archery and horseback riding provided a sufficient basis for a Manchu identity. During the eighteenth century, the Qianlong court, responding to confusing cultural, economic, and social changes throughout the garrison communities, initiated measures to maintain and manage a Manchu identity, emphasizing genealogy as a basis of identity. The turning point, in the actual shaping of a sense of Manchu self-identification, according to Crossley, was the nineteenth century Taiping War (1850-1864), combined with the war’s aftermath, official abandonment, and economic destitution, from which a Manchu racial and cultural sensibility were forged. By the twentieth century, this resulting Manchu “ethnic consciousness” (6), reinforced during the 1911 Revolution and ensuing chaos, constituted a “choice of identity” (161) and no longer relied on any external signs of Manchu-ness.

This trailblazing study of Manchu social and cultural life during later years of the Qing offers a wider view of modern Chinese history than just the typical Han perspective and sensitizes readers to China’s minority groups and their overall historical significance. In doing so, she challenges the traditional “sinicization” notion as propounded in Mary Wright’s 1957 work, The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism. Crossley refutes the idea that Manchu consciousness simply assimilated with the Han Chinese by 1865; instead the Manchus had distinct political aims and cultural outlooks even throughout the Tongzhi restoration and later political reform movements. Crossley’s Manchu factor thus complicates historical perspectives on the modernization process in China.

Contemporary reviewers praised this book for its original view of modern Chinese history and presentation of the role of Manchus. Kent Guy went so far as to laud Crossley’s discussions of a changing Manchu identity as “definitive treatments” of these topics (Journal of Asian Studies, 49,4:900). In general, reviewers found Crossley’s study thorough in documentation, vivid in narration, and innovative in her interweaving approach to Manchu clan and Qing history. In fact, reviewers were almost without negative comment, the exceptions being Tom Fisher (Pacific Affairs, 64,3:397-9) and Giovanni Stary (Journal of Asian History, 26,1:99-101), who complained about the author’s inconsistent use of Manchu and Chinese and her inexact reconstruction of Manchu names. Indeed, while her approach is original, her argument can be difficult to follow throughout the book’s complex narrative, which combines elements of biography, case study, and local history.

Additionally, Crossley’s Manchu identity is viewed from the perspective of elites; the question of how deeply this new consciousness actually penetrated the thinking of other Manchus needs to be answered for a better understanding of the role of Manchu identity in modern Chinese history. An explanation of concepts such as “ethnic consciousness” and “racial identity” in the context of Chinese history would also serve to clarify her argument.

Despite these points, Orphan Warriors pioneers an important but often neglected aspect of Chinese history, that of minority groups, and invites further investigation of that history from the perspective of a multi-cultural society.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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