China's Last Empire
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China's Last Empire

The Great Qing

William T. Rowe, Timothy Brook

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eBook - ePub

China's Last Empire

The Great Qing

William T. Rowe, Timothy Brook

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About This Book

In a brisk revisionist history, William Rowe challenges the standard narrative of Qing China as a decadent, inward-looking state that failed to keep pace with the modern West.The Great Qing was the second major Chinese empire ruled by foreigners. Three strong Manchu emperors worked diligently to secure an alliance with the conquered Ming gentry, though many of their social edicts—especially the requirement that ethnic Han men wear queues—were fiercely resisted. As advocates of a "universal" empire, Qing rulers also achieved an enormous expansion of the Chinese realm over the course of three centuries, including the conquest and incorporation of Turkic and Tibetan peoples in the west, vast migration into the southwest, and the colonization of Taiwan.Despite this geographic range and the accompanying social and economic complexity, the Qing ideal of "small government" worked well when outside threats were minimal. But the nineteenth-century Opium Wars forced China to become a player in a predatory international contest involving Western powers, while the devastating uprisings of the Taiping and Boxer rebellions signaled an urgent need for internal reform. Comprehensive state-mandated changes during the early twentieth century were not enough to hold back the nationalist tide of 1911, but they provided a new foundation for the Republican and Communist states that would follow.This original, thought-provoking history of China's last empire is a must-read for understanding the challenges facing China today.

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Belknap Press



IN 1688 Tong Guogang, an officer of the Chinese Plain Blue Banner, petitioned the Kangxi emperor to change his officially registered ethnicity from “Chinese-martial” (Hanjun) to “Manchu.” His great-uncle Tong Bunian had been born in Liaodong around 1580 but moved to Wuchang in central China. As a Wuchang native, he passed the metropolitan examination in 1616, served the Ming as a county magistrate, and later headed up the dynasty’s military defenses in the northeast. After a disastrous defeat, Tong Bunian was accused of treason and died in prison in 1625, fervently proclaiming his loyalty to the Ming. His son Guoqi grew up in Wuchang and there composed a genealogy defending his father’s Chinese patriotism by demonstrating descent from no fewer than ten generations of heroic Ming soldiers. But when Guoqi was taken captive during the Qing conquest of the Yangzi region in 1645, he and his family were impressed into the Chinese Plain Blue Banner.
As it turned out, other Tong men of Liaodong ancestry—men whom Guoqi had candidly included in his genealogy—had been just as heroic in the cause of the conquering Qing armies as Tong Bunian had been in defense of the Ming. Indeed, one of these would become the maternal grandfather of the Kangxi emperor, making Tong Guogang himself Kangxi’s uncle! The emperor thus granted Guogang’s petition for reclassification as a Manchu, noting, however, that it would be administratively awkward to similarly reclassify too many of his distant kin. From that day forward, Tong Guogang and certain of his relatives became Manchus while others remained Chinese. In this time and place, ethnic identities were far from genetically predetermined but were flexible, ambiguous, and negotiable.1
Stories like this one have been central to a new kind of historical understanding of just who were the rulers of the dynasty that took over the throne of China in 1644. Not long ago, the accepted wisdom on the Manchus grew, on the one hand, out of an essentialist assumption that races were, after all, races—each, like the Manchus, biologically or genetically determined once and for all time. But this essentialist view was also based on a teleological Han nationalist historiography that saw a Han Chinese nation-state in the twentieth century as the inevitable outcome of China’s two-thousand-year-old imperial history. According to this logic, all lasting imperial dynasties, including those of alien rule, were roughly analogous; alien “races” like the Mongols and Manchus might conquer the domain of the Han people, but if they were to hold onto that possession they would have to rule it as Chinese, and in effect become Chinese themselves.
According to this scenario of Qing rule, a Manchu race or people existed prior to the conquest of the Ming, though they were in all important ways “barbarians,” culturally inferior to the Han. Once the conquest was accomplished, the Manchus, after some internal debate, opted to rule China as Confucian Chinese Sons of Heaven, a decision that inevitably led to the cultural “assimilation” and presumably also the biological eradication of the Manchu race. Some Manchu rulers such as the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–1795) noted with alarm that their countrymen were losing their distinctiveness and fought a rearguard action to maintain “the Manchu way,” but they were doomed to failure. When the Qing dynasty was itself replaced by the Chinese Republic in 1911, there were few real Manchus left, and these simply melted into the general Chinese population. One convenient implication of this narrative is that it supposedly exposed as fundamentally bogus the Japanese imperialist attempt in the late 1930s to establish the state of Manchukuo in northeast China as a nation-state of the Manchu people, since, in the Chinese view, a Manchu people no longer existed.
In the 1980s, however, historians of the Qing began to rewrite this narrative, almost to stand it completely on its head.2 Through the influence of cultural studies, we came to distrust essentialized notions of biological categories such as race and to see racial classifications instead as the products of specific historical situations and sociopolitical processes of negotiation. Thus, according to this new view, in the seventeenth century there really was no such thing as Manchus. Instead, there were various groups of peoples along the northeast frontiers of the Ming empire, drawn from a wide variety of genealogical stocks and cultural traditions, with not a few of these people fully or partly of Han Chinese ancestry. The group that succeeded the Ming on the Dragon Throne was not a Manchu race but was instead an organization of persons deliberately created for the purpose of conquest. The leaders of this “Qing conquest organization” felt it useful to assign their members national identities such as Mongol, Chinese-martial, and even Manchu, but this assignment was based on political convenience rather than any preexisting biological fact. As seen in the case of the Tong family described above, this initial assignment might easily be rescinded or changed as situations demanded.
Whereas the older view saw an originally distinguishable Manchu people that was assimilated or otherwise effaced over time, the new Qing narrative saw the Manchus as actually having come into existence over the course of the dynasty. The strenuous activities of the Qianlong emperor and others were not so much defending a national culture threatened with extinction as working to create such a culture by providing it with an origin myth, a national language and literature, and a set of defined cultural traits. And in this project they were surprisingly successful. Ironically, if Manchus did not really exist before 1644, they certainly did in 1911, according to this scenario. In keeping with this view, the story of Manchukuo was pretty much as presented in Bertolucci’s great film The Last Emperor. Puyi, in the movie, was roused out of his postimperial career as a Shanghai lounge lizard to answer what he sincerely felt to be the call of his Manchu people to head their national state in the northeast. What was hypocritical about Japan’s Manchukuo project was not some pretense that a genuine Manchu people existed on which to base it (for such a group did exist at this time) but rather the pretense that these Manchus would have real self-determination.
This new narrative is itself subject to overstatement. A second generation of Manchu-centered scholarship argues for the reality of ethnic or racial difference, at least in the eyes of contemporaries, from the dynasty’s very outset. A study of Manchu garrisons throughout Qing China, for example, has detected a significant degree of ethnic tension between their inhabitants and the surrounding Han populations.3 Still, in one form or other most historians today prefer the new narrative to the older one, and that set of assumptions underlies our story here.

Organizing the Conquest

Whether the Qing conquerors were an ethnically distinct frontier people or a deliberately constructed multiethnic conquest organization, their achievement was truly remarkable.4 How could such a motley assemblage possibly overcome the mighty Ming war machine, arguably the most formidable fighting force in the world at that time?
The rise of the Qing as a military and political force in the area that became known as Manchuria, and is today northeast China, was the work of three successive tribal chieftains of the clan known as Aisin Gioro. “Aisin” means “gold” and is written in Chinese with the character Jin—which was the dynastic name of the Jurchen-speaking people who ruled north China from 1115 to 1260 and from whom the Aisin Gioro claimed descent. The three chieftains were Nurhaci (d. 1626), Hong Taiji (d. 1643), and Dorgon (d. 1650). The efforts of these three men to deliberately prepare their subjects for the conquest of the Ming included confederation, centralization, and (to a debated degree) sinicization—the appropriation of Han Chinese organizational techniques and cultural traits.
For most of the Ming era, “Manchus” did not exist. Population groups in northeast China were widely diverse, and while several of them shared linguistic and no doubt genetic similarities, no overarching identity united the peoples of this large and ecologically variable region. Unlike the Jurchen of the past and the Mongols to their west, the Aisin Gioro and their immediate neighbors were not nomadic herdsmen. The economy of their Liao River valley home had over the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries developed into a mixture of agriculture and hunting, with a significant amount of intercultural trade, especially in furs and the highly prized medicinal root ginseng. Under Nurhaci, the Aisin Gioro gradually accumulated a monopoly on franchises to import ginseng to the Ming, where demand for the stimulant was growing rapidly just as indigenous sources became exhausted. Although, like all of the Ming’s other trading partners, the Aisin Gioro took in exchange some silk and other fine Chinese manufactures, ginseng tipped the balance of trade greatly in Nurhaci’s favor. In the early seventeenth century the Ming may have re-exported to the Aisin Gioro as much as 25 percent of the silver it took in from Europe and the New World. This profit from trade, applied to the acquisition of weaponry (including firearms) and the hiring of skilled military officers, very largely financed the conquest.5
Governance along the northeast borders was primarily in the hands of hereditary tribal chiefs. As had most imperial regimes before them, the Ming practiced a policy of divide and rule toward these mobile and frequently martial peoples, investing each tribal chief with a vassalage and sporadically attempting to stir up rivalries among them. Nurhaci was one such chieftain enjoying a vassal relationship with the court. Around the turn of the seventeenth century, urged on by the Ming, he declared a vendetta against a neighboring tribe, which he accused of murdering his father. In pursuit of this cause, he forged a series of alliances with other population groups through marital unions, coercion, and conquest. The result was the creation of a significant confederation.
Events such as these had happened several times previously under the Ming and were not in themselves alarming. If a confederation was to become a serious threat to the dynasty, it needed some sort of permanent institutionalization. This was precisely what Nurhaci attempted to provide. The first step was to create a written language for his growing population, which he accomplished by commissioning a team of local scholars in 1599 to adapt the Mongol script to the Jurchen speech: with that stroke, the language later known as Manchu was born. A more decisive step was his creation of the system of “banners” in the years before 1615. There were initially four, and subsequently eight, such banners—solid white, white bordered with yellow, solid blue, and so on. Each banner signified a fighting unit, but it also represented a unit of residence and economic production and included not merely fighting men but also their dependents. As the system was gradually worked out, each banner came to be identified with a discrete national grouping—Manchu, Mongol, Chinese-martial—though assignment of national identities and consignment to ethnic groups was a matter of expedience and ongoing readjustment. Like the Mamluk armies of the medieval Middle East, members of the eight banners were all legally slaves. Inasmuch as hierarchical relationships within and among the banners were governed by a military command structure that was simultaneously a system of administration and property ownership, this resembled a feudal system. It was not quite feudal, however, in that the system of proprietorship that underlay it was not land but rather slaves. In 1616 Nurhaci proclaimed his regime the Latter Jin.6
The banner soldier was a formidable fighting man (Fig. 1). Cavalry wore the uniform color of their banner and were protected by metal helmets with red tassels and cane shields. Each man was responsible for the maintenance of three horses. Soldiers carried distinctive swords and sometimes flails but were most accomplished in the use of the bow; their quiver housed thirty or more arrows. Manchu bows were short (four feet) but very powerful, requiring years of strength-training to master. The distinctive mode of firing arrows from horseback at full gallop—holding the bow and the reins simultaneously in the left hand while drawing the bow with the right—was so original to banner warcraft that it had its own verb (niyamniyambi) in the Manchu language. Infantry included some archers as well, but they were more often musketeers or artillerymen. Use of muskets was something of a practiced specialty among Han Chinese bannermen. They had also learned from the Portuguese how to cast cannon, and they developed the strength to haul them into the field, earning the nickname ujen cooha (heavy troops).7
Fig. 1 Manchu imperial bodyguard (Zhanyinbao). Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
It fell to the second Latter Jin leader, Hong Taiji, to superimpose on this tribal or feudal arrangement a bureaucratic structure on the Ming model. Hong Taiji was no longer to be the first among equals within a caste of feudal princes. He was now also, and uniquely, the emperor (Son of Heaven) within a state structure, and the banner headmen were in part his state officials. This move was significant for at least two reasons: it provided a superior form of political organization suitable for the conquest of the vast lands to the south; and it also provided an unmistakable challenge to the Ming emperor, who now saw to his northeast not a collection of subservient vassals but instead a polity that claimed to be, for the moment at least, a separate but equal state.
Now, for sinicization. Our previous understanding was that the Manchus, like all other aspiring barbarian conquerors of China, adopted Chinese ways of governance and legitimation of their rule, becoming in effect civilized Chinese. We know now that nothing so complete ever happened. The Qing rulers wore many hats and governed their diverse constituencies (Jurchen, Mongol, Tibetan, Chinese) in differing ways simultaneously. If the Qing ruler was the Son of Heaven for his Chinese subjects, he was also the Khan of Khans for the Mongols, the Chakravartin (Wheel-Turning King) for the Tibetans, and so on. The Qing would be a diverse, multinational, and presumably universal empire, very different from the Chinese dynasties it succeeded.8
That said, the conquest organization in the northeast, starting with Nurhaci himself, proved very enthusiastic and adept at adopting Chinese ways in the project of exerting domination over their would-be Chinese subjects. They energetically recruited Chinese elites disaffected from the Ming or simply hungry for personal power to serve as civil bureaucrats and military leaders of their fledgling state. The military men brought with them European-style artillery and other novel techniques of warfare that the Ming had learned from the Jesuits. They assiduously studied the Chinese language and launched translation projects for the Chinese classics, importing in the process Confucian models of ethical conduct, public service, and statecraft. They gradually set up a shadow imperial government, with a Grand Secretariat, Six Boards, and so on, closely imitative of the Ming. And they began to cultivate diplomatic relations with the Ming’s purportedly vassal states, most notably Korea.
In November 1629 Hong Taiji opted for the first time to turn his forces directly against the Ming domain. He breached the Great Wall to occupy four cities of the central plain: Luanzhou, Qian’an, Zunhua, and Yongping. Ignoring his explicit orders to treat the inhabitants graciously, however, his field commanders put the civilian populations of Qian’an and Yongping to the sword. It was a public relations disaster that cost Hong deeply in his efforts to win the hearts and minds of frontier peoples, and he accordingly subjected his guilty subordinates to public show trials.
Three years later, in 1631, Hong laid siege to the stoutly defended Ming garrison and trading city of Dalinghe, along the coast of today’s Liaoning province (Map 3). Massively fortified and surrounded by a ring of castles, this was a formidable prize. Hong be...

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