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Sinicization vs. Manchuness

May 1, 2010

Sinicization vs. Manchuness: The Success of Manchu Rule

Xiaowei Zheng (2003)

Ever since the 1940s, the minority rule question has haunted Qing historians. How did the Manchus, who were outnumbered by the Hans by about three hundred and fifty to one, manage to conquer China and then succeed in ruling for nearly three hundred years? What are the implications that the Manchus, a Tungusic people distinct from the Hans, ruled during this crucial phase of Chinese history? This question has been debated for a long time. In 1942, Franz Michael introduced the argument that the organization and ideology of the early Manchu state reflected that of the Chinese empire and that it was the Chinese officials who enabled the Manchu to conquer China.� In 1949, the counterargument of Feng Jiasheng and Wittfogel of the Altaic school appeared, arguing that that there was a social and cultural “symbiosis” whereby Manchus could not be assimilated simply by acquiring Han lands.

The debate has continued over the past several decades. At the end of 1990s, it reoccupied the center of the Asian studies field with renewed vigor, initiated by Evelyn Rawski in her presidential address at AAS in 1996. This address was plainly targeted at Ho Ping-ti’s sinicization theory explaining Qing success in empire building thirty years before. According to Richard Madsen, any good sociological work is the result of the triangular dialogue among social theories, the objects they study, and the general convictions of the time period (35). Historical works bear the same traits. To put it more concretely, researchers are bound by their theoretical knowledge of reality and also by their own constructions and convictions of the world, i.e., their world views. Moreover, researchers’ conclusions can be limited by the characteristics of their research objects and the devices employed in their research. Since any historical study is not just about accumulating materials but also involves building upon a given perspective, it is impossible to claim that any book is free from preconception. In this paper, I shall examine the approaches of three different generations of scholars that have addressed the minority rule question. From their divergent approaches, one can see how much the history field has been influenced and shaped by ever-changing academic trends.

The Hegemony of the Sinicization School, 1950s-1970s: Mary Wright and Ho Ping-ti

The dominant theory from the 1950s onwards was the sinicization school, which argued that Manchus maintained their position by sponsoring neo-Confucian norms of government, which won them the support of the wealthy, lettered Han elite essential for their political survival. After 1800, the distinction between Manchu and Han had disappeared and it was unimportant that it was a Manchu minority dynasty facing western imperialism.

The sinicization school’s huge influence was attributable to the solid foundation laid by Mary Wright. In The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-Chih Restoration, 1862-1874, Wright argues that from 1862 to 1870 a group of extraordinarily talented Manchus and Hans “rallied around the discredited throne with virtually unanimous loyalty” (7) to briefly restore the vigor and effectiveness of a dynasty in fatal decline. This effort secured societal peace and prosperity and the survival of the Qing ruling house for another fifty years. Wright attributes this miracle to the Manchu and Han conservatives who sincerely believed in the “Confucian” doctrine of government and acted to solve this crisis through its revival.

Wright’s writing revised Republican era scholarship that had fixed the blame for China’s troubles on the Manchus, implying that the interests of the Manchu court and the Han Chinese were dissimilar and that the court “sacrificed the people for the dynasty.” To refute this accusation, Wright argues for a Manchu-Han synthesis. She established that the Qing had failed in its attempt to preserve a Manchu homeland in the Northeast; instead, Manchus had melded into the general Han populace. She shows that after the middle of the nineteenth century the court had stopped pursuing its earlier objective of legislating Manchu isolation. Further, the racial animosities that had spawned Manchu and Han factions eroded away during the Taiping Rebellion, because it exposed the cultural outlook and political interests shared by Manchu and Han elites. The result was that while suppressing the rebellion, Manchus and Han had become virtually indistinguishable, united to reestablish China’s stability, sovereignty and prosperity.

Highly influential and well-supported though her arguments were, Wright’s ideas were still bound by the social theories and general convictions of her time. In North America, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, the prevailing belief was in western-style modernization, which advocated industrialization, a market economy, and a nation-state. Amongst researchers of China, that lacked much information about its internal diversity and based much of their scholarship on Confucian classics and several anthropological studies, China’s portrayal was always as an entity which was bound by Confucian structure and tradition. The stereotyped image of a “Confucian China” and the countervailing western modernization trend were so powerful that they together formed a sharp dichotomy of the “modern” west and “traditional” China. Due to this dichotomy, internal ethnic diversity and incongruence were obscured. Consequently, according to a cultural rationale, the failure of China’s striving for Western wealth and power after the Opium War was ensured because the “requirements for a modern state run directly counter to the requirements of the Confucian order” (312).

The sinicization argument was expressed more forcefully in Ho Ping-ti’s 1967 article, “The Significance of the Ch’ing Period in Chinese History.” In this article, Ho lists five reasons demonstrating the significance of the Qing Dynasty: geographic expansion, demographic expansion, a successful government run by conquerors, the maturity of its political, economic, and social institutions, and its phenomenal material culture and art. Moreover, he attributes the success of the Qing to its systematic sinicization policy (Ho a, 191). In the article, Ho uses the term sinicization in a very loose and favorable way, for example, adopting Han political institutions also meant “becoming Chinese,” which expanded the scope of sinicization and helped prove his conclusion (Ho a, 192).

Though very subtle, one still notices the impact of Ho’s own ideology on his writing of Qing history. He was bound by a contemporary consensus on history writing that gave precedence to the nation-state and also by his conviction of Han dominance. By comparing the Qing with all the dynasties that had occupied China proper, Ho has introduced his implicit ideology, that of a continuous China in which the Qing are just one chronologic stage. However, such a presumption is actually a nationalist invention since “it was not until the rise of nationalism that history was written as a seamless narrative of one realm, the territory of the modern state” (Rawski, 841). Nevertheless, in 1967, when almost every contemporary Chinese historian projected China’s past in terms of its 1911 borders and thought of modern China as the natural heir of the Qing, Ho was never challenged. It was only thirty years later that his claim that “all non-Han people who have entered the Chinese realm have eventually been assimilated into Chinese culture” faced severe challenges from critics of Han nationalism.

Challenges and Debates, 1980s-1990s: Crossley and Rawski vs. Ho Ping-ti

Pamela Crossley tells us that though it is fashionable today in Qing studies to point out how significant the Northeastern heritage is for understanding the political style, social milieu and cultural vigor of the Qing Dynasty, it used to be extremely difficult in the 1970s when she started graduate school. It was a time when the fad was to brush aside any questions of Manchu culture or language as having little importance both before and after its conquest of China. Discourse was awash with ideas like sinicization, which “is hopelessly vague and unapologetically stamped with the prejudices and assumptions of Chinese nationalist scholarship” (i).

However, new academic trends encouraging writing histories of the underprivileged developed. As one of the “hegemonizing” histories, sinicization came to be suspected of masking other narratives. Moreover, theoretically, the newly developed conceptual tools about identity which deconstructed the well-received categories such as “nation” and “ethnicity,” also encouraged the deconstruction of terms such as Han, Manchu, and Chinese. In terms of historical sources, the reopening of Qing archives brought about a new awareness of Manchu aspects of the Qing court. All these led to increasing discoveries of the historical improbabilities underlying the conventional sinicization model. A new paradigm was required.

Pamela Crossley was a pioneer among scholars who rediscovered Manchu identity. In her dissertation-based book Orphan Warriors, she looks at the journey of three eminent Manchus of the Suwan Guwalgiya clan in Hangzhou and Zhapu garrison: Guancheng, his son Fengrui, and his grandson, Jinliang. She challenges Wright by arguing that “knowledge of life at the court sheds no light upon the life of Manchu people in China” and demonstrating that Manchu identity in fact survived beyond the fall of the dynasty and well into the twentieth century.

Crossley traces the changes in Manchu identity and suggests that it was weak at first and strengthened over time. In the seventeenth century when the Eight Banners began to be formed, people were classed as Manchu based on their cultural affinities, with little reference to ancestors. By the eighteenth century, the Qianlong court put a new emphasis upon genealogy and led to the creation of new racialized identities for deciding who was and was not Manchu. An ethnic identity, according to Crossley, emerged only in the late nineteenth century after the Taiping Rebellion when Manchu communities in Nanjing and Hangzhou were slaughtered and the alienated banner garrison communities scattered around China. The construction of a common Manchu identity was the result of these newly marginalized groups and was further reinforced during the Republican revolution in 1911.

In Crossley’s writing, we can see the large impact of theoretical trends represented by Benedict Anderson’s theory of the “imagined community.” Refusing to accept the static category called “Manchu,” Crossley tries to see the Manchu identity as a matter of self-perception, a personal statement regarding the relationship of the individual to society which occurred despite the state no longer assigning racial identities.

Crossley’s and other new scholarship enabled Rawski to advocate a new paradigm in understanding Qing history: a Manchu-centered view. Though agreeing with Ho Ping-ti on many aspects of the magnitude of the Qing achievement, Rawski disagrees with him about the key to its success. In contrast with the adoption by early Manchu rulers of a policy of systematic sinicization argued by Ho Ping-ti, Rawski believes that the key to Qing success, at least in terms of empire building, lay in its ability to use its cultural links with the non-Han peoples of Inner Asia and to differentiate the administration of the non-Han region from the administration of the former Ming realm (831). In contrast to the view that the Han Chinese literati dominated Qing government, Rawski finds that the conquest elite, composed of banner nobles and imperial kinsmen, were superimposed upon the Han bureaucracy. Moreover, Rawski argues that the ability of the Manchus to bind warriors from a variety of cultural backgrounds, by disseminating different images of rulership to various subject people, differed significantly from Han precedents.

Radically, Rawski points out that the reason for the wrongful sinicization interpretation of Qing history was due to contemporary ideology, namely, nationalism. Thus, Ho Ping-ti’s portrayal of the Qing period as a milestone along the path of China’s development as a nation-state needs to be powerfully questioned and reevaluated in response to new scholarly trends and research. The tendency to conflate the Qing and China was debunked by scholars who viewed both “the nation” and “Hans” as newly constructed concepts. Rawski maintains that Han identity dated from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when scholars like Liang Qichao responded to the European notion of race and claimed that Hans were the dominant yellow race, initiators of civilization, and civilizers of all Asia (839). Thus, Rawski attacks the sinicization school as a twentieth century Han nationalist interpretation of the Chinese past and not as a historical process. Since sinicization is only a nationalist ideology, it cannot be the reason for Qing success in territorial expansion. The reason can only be its hybrid origins and the way it drew on multiple sources and adapted ideologies of rulership and administrative structures from the cultures of subject people.

Rawski’s denial of the Han and sinicization as a real process infuriated Ho Ping-ti. In his “In Defense of Sinicization: A Rebuttal of Evelyn Rawski’s Reenvisioning the Qing,” Ho attacked Rawski for her “distortion” of his arguments and her misrepresentation of the international scholarship in a very unforgiving style.

Ho is a “hopelessly” unconscious nationalist who will never try to understand the ideological bias to his theory. His tracing back of the Sinitic people to 9000 years ago and naming them the culture precursors of China has been proven wrong by archeological findings about the multiple origins of Chinese civilization. However, Ho was quite right that Rawski formed a false dichotomy. The multiethnic measures that the Qing employed to govern Inner Asia could not explain how the Qing ruled China, especially since governing China meant first and foremost developing the capacity to rule China’s many millions. Without putting the issue of how Manchus ruled the China proper in her explanation, Rawski’s argument about the success of Manchu rule is severely limited Also, Ho was clear that sinicization refers to acculturation. Thus, Rawski’s failure to recognize clearly the cultural aspects of sinicization theory made her unable to effectively refute Ho’s argument.

The Current Neo-traditionalism: Mark Elliot’s Ethnic Sovereignty

Facing the challenges of the sinicization school, Mark Elliot emerges in the Altaic camp to straightforwardly respond to Ho Ping-ti’s challenge by looking at the way that the Manchu governed China proper and by recognizing Han acculturation of the Manchu people in the cultural sense. In addition, Elliot is critical of the notion of the late beginnings and limited influence of Manchu self-referential ethnicity, which according to Crossley only appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century after the Taiping. Instead, Elliot takes a neo-traditional stand. Like Crossley, Elliot insists that the notion of Manchu difference mattered throughout the dynasty and that the Manchus were not in fact ever really absorbed or assimilated. At the same time, he argues that with the creation of the Eight Banners in the early seventeenth century, the fundamental outlines of Manchu identity were already falling into place; otherwise, it is easy to argue that there could not possibly have been an ethnic discourse during the Qing making the concept of a Manchu-centered approach pure fantasy.

When explaining the reasons for Manchu success, Elliot believes that Qing dynastic enterprise depended both on Manchus’ ability to adapt to Chinese political traditions and on their capacity to maintain a separate identity. To be more concrete, the Qing claim to power, apart from its Confucian underpinnings, rested on its domination as a separate people that transcended either the narrow interests of the ruling family or simple considerations of military dominance. Elliot then proposes thinking of the second mode of Qing rule as a separate sort of legitimatizing authority: “ethnic sovereignty.” This sovereignty includes three elements: the special position of the Manchu emperor at the apex of a universal empire composed of multiple hierarchies; the idea that alien conquest instilled fear in the Hans; and the preservation of the cultural integrity of the conquerors. All of these can be said to maintain differentiation between conquerors and the conquered and was vital to all Inner Asian dynasties’ domination over the Han people. The maintenance of this ethnic sovereignty and Manchu identity, in Elliot’s hypothesis, was due to the Eight Banners, which were the preeminent emblem of Manchu hegemony. Therefore, though unable to maintain the cultural framework upon which Manchu mores rested, through the timely reform of the banner system, the Qing court managed to save the institutional bulwark upon which Manchu identity had come to depend.

Though Elliot believes Manchu success was based on its separation from those it ruled, he also recognizes that the Manchus were acculturated by the Hans. “They conversed and wrote in Chinese, enacted its cultural patterns and were gradually forgetting their own culture.” To understand the Manchus obvious cultural similarities and differences, Elliot proposes using the concept of ethnicity to understand the identity of the Manchus. Identity does not operate simply and it is not just determined by or through culture; people do not conceive of themselves as belonging to categories of either this or that. In thinking about identity, ethnicity is a better conceptual tool than sinicization because it is flexible and open to negotiation. Also, it enables us to understand Manchu ethnic coherence in spite of apparent cultural disintegration and it allows us to view identity in a broader context. In contrast, the sinicization definition is misleading. First, adopting Han political institutions did not make one a Han. Second, a term like sinicization obscures the fact that being “Chinese” changes over time. Third, sinicization explains something about how minorities ruled China, but it cannot explain everything. Therefore, by acknowledging both the reasonable aspects and the problems of sinicization theory, Elliot treats the sinicization argument in the most convincing and constructive way.


As we have stated, researchers are bound by their theoretical knowledge of reality and their own constructions and convictions about of the world. For the first generation of scholars discussed in this essay, the belief in an overarching contrast between the West and China and the lack of a critical theory on nationalism, led to the notion that interpreting history according to the development of the nation-state is natural, and strongly influenced sinicization theories explaining the success of the Qing. For revisionist scholars in the 1980s, writing history about the unprivileged and deconstructing the “totality” of nation helped them to challenge the current conventional wisdom that gave primacy to the Han interpretation of Chinese history. However, it was only another decade later in the new millennium that scholars like Mark Elliot could retain a neutral stand and reexamines the merits and ideas provided by the sinicization school. He resumed the previously dichotomized debate, started a real dialogue between them, and recognized both the merits and shortcomings of both groups of scholars. The result of Elliot’s reflective reexamination is the most comprehensive and refined understanding of Manchu Rule. Moreover, we have seen that researchers’ conclusions were also limited by their research methods. Before the 1980s, the only sources that historians could get were the published records of Han literati. The reopening of the archives in China, especially the accessibility of the Manchu language sources, has greatly enhanced scholars’ understanding of the various groups who lived in China. This forces scholars to rethink and redefine China, Hans, nation and minorities at a whole new conceptual level.

As this review has shown, the issue of the Manchu’s success has instigated profoundly opposing scholarly arguments. The result has been a sharpened and more sophisticated conceptual tool which explains reality much better. In the end, I believe that for academia, the process of conceptualization is more important, than the conclusion that are discovered.


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

________________. A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press: 1999.

________________, Evelyn S. Rawski, “A Profile of The Manchu Language In Qing History,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 53, no.1 (1993): 63-102.

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

Ho, Ping-Ti. “The significance of the Ch’ing Period in Chinese History,” Journal of Asian Studies 26, no. 2 (1967):189-195.

__________. “In Defense of Sinicization: A Rebuttal of Evelyn Rawski’s ‘Reenvisioning the Qing’,” Journal of Asian Studies 57, no.1 (1998): 123-155.

Madsen, Richard. “Wudai Meiguo shehui xuezhe dui Zhongguo guojia yu shehui guanxi de yanjiu.” In Gaige kaifang yu Zhongguo shehui. Xianggang: Xianggang zhongwen daxue chubanshe, 2002.

Rawski, Evelyn S. “Presidential Address: Reenvisioning the Qing: The Significance of the Qing Period in Chinese History,” Journal of Asian Studies 55, no.4 (1996): 829-850.

Wright, Mary C. The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-Chih Restoration, 1862-1874. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957.

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