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The Manchu Way

March 22, 2010

Mark C. Elliot. The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Dahpon D. Ho (2003)

With this masterful work Mark Elliot does far more than bring crucial Manchu-language sources to bear on the “minority rule question” – he shows readers why any neglect of Manchu voices and the historical evolution of Manchu ethnicity deals a fatal blow to one’s understanding of the Qing dynasty. In doing so, Elliot joins a dynamic group of scholars like Beatrice Bartlett, Evelyn Rawski and Pamela Crossley in attempting to account for “la différence Mandchoue” (p. xv) and revising Qing history accordingly. While The Manchu Way owes much to pioneering scholarship like Crossley’s 1990 book Orphan Warriors: Three Manchu Generations and the End of the Qing World, it blazes a new path by integrating historical ethnography with a detailed institutional history. The result is convincing and meticulous treatment of ethnicity that takes the vanguard in Manchu studies and reshapes our thinking on the Qing dynastic enterprise.

The first stalk targeted by Elliot’s analytic scythe is the theory of acculturation or “sinicization,” which has long been used to explain how the small Manchu minority managed to rule over a vast empire of Han Chinese and other groups for nearly three centuries. Proponents of sinicization argue that the Manchus so wholly assimilated Chinese culture that they became virtually indistinguishable from the Han Chinese themselves. Elliot asserts that acculturation was only half of the story; conscious differentiation, or “ethnic sovereignty,” was just as crucial (p. 4). In short, the success of Manchu rule depended on both their adaptation to Chinese culture (e.g. neo-Confucian political norms) and their vigilant maintenance of a separate ethnic identity. As minority conquerors in danger of being overwhelmed by the huge numbers and advanced culture of the Han Chinese, the Manchu ruling elites recognized the dual foundation of their power and maintained lines of separation between the conquest and conquered populations.

Elliot’s institutional history of the Eight Banner system up to the Qianlong reforms of the mid-eighteenth century shows exactly how ethnic sovereignty evolved in practice. This “most fundamentally Manchu of all Qing institutions” (p. 347) not only codified the Manchu identity of the dynasty as a whole, but also imposed a status and a way of life that became synonymous with Manchu ethnicity itself. Bannermen were segregated from the Chinese masses in eighteen walled “Manchu cities” across the empire, favored with quotas and different criteria in examinations, forbidden to take professions other than soldier, clerk, or official, and granted general legal immunity from prosecution and torture. Because banner status was hereditary, it was imbued with an interesting caste-like quality that allowed bannermen to maintain their sense of identity even when they could no longer speak Manchu, ride a horse or pull a hard bow.

Elliot also does an admirable job of detailing the “micromanagement” of the banner population. His estimate of over ten thousand officials (more than the eight or nine thousand officials in the entire Qing civil administration) and up to one quarter of the empire’s annual expenditure devoted to maintenance of the banners is astonishing and reflects the immense lengths to which Qing rulers would go to preserve a mere two percent of China’s population. To say that acculturation made Manchu affairs insignificant to the Qing would be folly.

The book’s final discussion of the eighteenth century reforms of the banner system is fascinating, but it also raises questions which are left unanswered in the end. By weeding many Han Chinese out of the banners, the Qing court narrowed the definition of banner membership to something resembling a “preserve of Manchus and Mongols” (p. 334). Elliot argues that this cost-cutting measure not only saved the Qing fiscally but also resolved the Manchu identity crisis by fusing the identities of Manchu and bannerman – those who remained after the purges were “now definitively ‘Manchu'” (p. 306). Must we assume, then, that members of the Mongol Eight Banners lost their ethnic identity and simply became Manchus? Could they not have maintained a Mongol identity distinct from their identities as bannermen (qiren)? In addition, how are we to reconcile Elliot’s notion of a firmly resolved Manchu identity crisis in the eighteenth century with the post-Taiping (1850-1864) turning point of Manchu “ethnic consciousness” presented in Pamela Crossley’s Orphan Warriors? Elliot’s introduction states that his somewhat “neotraditional” (p. 34) view diverges from the “revisionist” view of Crossley, but more details on the response of the Eight Banners to the turmoil of the nineteenth century would help show how well the reforms played out in practice. James Millward points out some of these shortcomings while praising Elliot’s contribution (HJAS 62.2, Dec. 2002). John E. Wills, Jr. lauds the book as “formidable in its learning [and] lucidly written,” an important work for all students of early modern history (AHR 107.3, June 2002).

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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