Was Chinese culture ever "at fault" for their decline and defeats by outside powers?

Jan 2016
United States, MO
Most Western scholarship recognizes the Qing as a Manchu empire. We don't say that the Chinese conquered the Song dynasty just because the Mongols relied on an entire Chinese navy and many Chinese troops and siege engineers to do it. What matters is who holds power in the governing structure, those are the true conquerors because they managed to subdue both external and internal threats to their power. Yes, the Qing made extensive use of the Chinese bureaucracy, but the Manchus retained a privileged status over the course of the dynasty, though by the end that privilege also came with poverty for many Manchus. Earlier on during the 17th and 18th centuries they also actively worked expanded and engaged with non-Han peoples not as a Chinese state, but a Manchu one. The Manchus had a special relationship with the Mongols and the Tibetans which Han controlled dynasties simply lacked.

The Qianlong Emperor is the best example of this. He was simultaneously recognized as the different leaders of the Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, and Han Chinese all in one person.

Li Shimin is the only Han emperor that I can think of which could pull this type of thing off and he also had a little Xianbei heritage which likely contributed to his success.
Feb 2011
The Manchu ethnic group was not like how we define ethnic groups. Manchus were just the original subjects of Nurhaci, which includes Han Chinese as well. Once the ethnic group became established, Han Chinese could still become Manchu, you don't have to be born into it. So it was more like royalty if anything.

I don't know what you mean that they "actively expanded and engaged with non-Han people's as a Manchu state". How is that engagement different from what China did before? Last I checked, they signed treaties in which they willingly described themselves as Chinese. I have yet to see a treaty in which they described themselves as a Manchu state, they only described themselves as a Chinese state.
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Jan 2016
United States, MO
I am relying on Mark Elliot's conception of the Manchus. He argues that unification of the Jurchens and the formation of the banners by Nurhaci are the ethnogenesis of the Manchus. Not everyone agrees with his conclusion, but they are fairly established.

The Qianlong emperor in particular obsessed over preserving and promoting what he deemed to be the markers of "true" Manchu identity such as speaking the Manchu language or horseback archery. I am not claiming that the manchus never picked up a Sinitic traits or habits, but that they constituted a recognized separate group identity which was reinforced by the central government via preferential treatment and sumptuary laws.

As for backing up my previous statement about how the Manchus dealt with non-Han groups, I will quote from Evelyn Rawski in her essay Presidential Address: Reenvisioning the Qing: The Significance of the Qing Period in Chinese History in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Nov., 1996), pp. 829-850

"The new scholarship suggests just the opposite: 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 regions from the administration of the former Ming provinces." page 831

When discussing Tibet, Rawski states,

"Early Qing rulers developed specialized channels for dealing with Mongol allies and Tibetan prelates. The Office of Surra Translation, housed in the northwest corner of the Forbidden City, was the first to specialize in Tibetan Buddhist affairs (Wang Jiapeng 1991). Tibetan Buddhism was an important vehicle for extension of Qing control over the Mongols (Zhang Xixin 1988). High prelates like the Qianlong emperor's spiritual tutor, Rol pa'i rdo rje (1717-86), the lCang skya Khutukhtu, negotiated on behalf of the throne over the successor to the seventh Dalai Lama (17 5 7), and persuaded the Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu, spiritual leader of the Khalkha Mongols, to remain neutral during the 1756 Chingunjav revolt (Wang Xiangyun 1995)." page 833.

When discussing the Mongols,

"Mongol allies were vital to the Manchu conquest. Since these alliances were usually cemented by marriage exchanges, early Qing emperors claimed Mongol as well as Manchu ancestry (Hua 1983, Rawski 1991). Mongolian and Manchu were the primary languages during the crucial conquest decades before 1644 (Li 1995, 85; Guan 1988, 54). Several of Nurgaci's sons and nephews bore Mongolian names or were given Mongol honorific titles (Liu 1994, 172-73). The many shared roots of Manchu and Mongolian words relating to livestock, livestock rearing, riding paraphernalia, and even agriculture reflect the close historical interaction of Jurchen and Mongols in this region (Liu 1994). The Manchus borrowed heavily from the Mongols in creating their famed banner organization, while many Chinese elements in the pre-1644 Manchu state were actually filtered through the Mongols (Farquhar 1968, 1971)." page 834


"The ideologies created by the Manchu leaders drew on Han and non-Han sources. The earliest title claimed by Nurgaci was the title ofKundulen khan (han in Manchu), meaning "Venerated Ruler" in Mongolian. As Pamela Crossley (1992) has explained, the concepts underlying the khanship differ significantly from those supporting the Chinese emperorship. After Chinggis, the title "khan of khans" or supreme khan (kaghan) was the ultimate political goal sought by ambitious tribal leaders in the steppe world. But the "khan of khans" was not a Chinese emperor. His power was based on the much more loosely integrated tribal confederations that emerged from time to time in the steppe world and was conditional on the acquiescence of tribal chieftains. This title-and the political conditions it implied-formed the political context of Nurgaci's Later Jin dynastic rule. Mongols throughout the Qing dynasty referred to the Qing emperor as "Great Khan" (bogdo kaghan). 3" page 834-835.

There is more that I could quote, but the gist of what I am getting at is that Qing success in Inner Asia relied on both Han and non-han practices. The tax revenue and logistics of the Chinese bureaucracy undoubtedly played a huge role in Qing expansion, but when it came to actually interacting and dealing with Inner Asian groups the Manchus were quick to exploit advantages open to them that would not so easily open to a Han leader, such as becoming a Khan or a Llama and emphasizing Confucianism with Han subjects, but Tibetan buddhism with Mongolian and Tibetan ones. Also, the Qing had 5 official languages Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan, Uighur, and Chinese. These are factors that set them apart from other Han controlled dynasties.
Feb 2011
I'm not sure how we can compare/contrast the Ming/Qing control of the Tibetans because whereas the Qing had significant control of Tibet, Ming control of Tibet was mostly nominal. So of course the diplomatic process would be different, because the level of control was different. However, the Ming did use Buddhist language to interact with Tibet despite being Confucian dominated rather than Buddhist:
Out of compassion, Buddha taught people to be good and persuaded them to embrace his doctrines. You, who live in the remote Western Region, have inherited the true Buddhist doctrines. I am deeply impressed not only by the compassion with which you preach among the people in your region for their enlightenment, but also by your respect for the wishes of Heaven and your devotion to the Court. I am very pleased that you have sent bSod-nams-nyi-ma and other Tibetan monks here bringing with them statues of Buddha, horses and other specialties as tributes to the court.. -Zhengtong to Karmapa

A series of Ming emperors, especially Wanli, were patrons of translating/printing Tibetan Buddhist passages and also promoted the influx of Tibetan teachers quite enthusiastically, that is until the edict of 1569 which limited Tibetan tribute missions to once every three yeas. From heavenlykaghan in another post:

The Ming dynasty monk Zhiguang traveled to Tibet and created a clique which translated large quantities of Mahamudra and Path and Fruit texts from Tibetan, Sanskrit, and other languages. Recently, scholars like Shen Weirong have uncovered large amounts of these texts, such as the Dacheng yaodao miji, most of which were translated during the Ming, on Tantric cultivations which the Ming and Qing emperors both practiced. Mamamudra texts such as 大手印无字要 or 端必瓦成就同生要 even entered into private collections of the early Qing scholar Qian Zeng.
Confucians might warn both Ming and Qing emperors of the bad influence of Tibetan Buddhism, but so many palace Tantric texts have been produced by emperors that we know for a fact these emperors ignored Confucian orthodoxy and practiced Tibetan Buddhism heavily. As for innovation, we have Ming era palace texts which mixed Confucianism, Daoism, and esoteric Tibetan Buddhism into one text. Ming Wuzong himself was said to have learned Tibetan and investited himself the title of Dharma king. Qianlong not only learned Tibetan but also had his entire tomb covered in Tibetan Mantra.
Instead of treating Confucian history as representative of all Chinese views, I would caution you instead, to treat them as a mere orthodox narrative which is very limited in describing the complexities of Chinese society and intellectual inclinations. Even Neo-Confucianism is heavily influenced by Buddhist idealism.

In regards to the Mongols, yes the Manchus applied marriage alliances with Mongols, but I'm not sure how that's different with Chinese marriage alliances to northern nomadic groups. Everybody did marriage alliances all over the world. Likewise you mentioned how the Manchu emperor was called a 'khan' by the Mongols in order to differentiate Manchu diplomacy from Chinese diplomacy. Again, I'm not sure how that differs from the diplomatic policy of China. As you said before Tang emperors were the only other Chinese emperors who were also called khan, but that's because they belonged to the only other dynasty which conquered all of Mongolia (you could technically count the Han but they didn't hold it for over a year). So besides the Qing we have only one other sample size, and for that single sample size a series of Chinese emperors (Tang Taizong, Tang Gaozong, Wu Zetian, Tang Zhongzong, Tang Ruizong, and Tang Xuanzong) were called "heavenly khan" in addition to the title of "huang di"(emperor) even when the dynasty lost control of Mongolia. So not so different from how Manchu emperors were called khan. Likewise, administering different ethnic groups differently wasn't exactly a rare occurence in Chinese history, Chinese dynasties did it plenty of times (how the Ming governed the Jianzhou Jurchens being one example), many different states across world history adopted similar policies as well. The Chinese idiom "clear water don't hold big fish" was originally derived by a Han dynasty general to justify administering different ethnic groups differently as according to their distinct cultures. I am curious as to how the Eight Banner system was adopted from the Mongols, haven't heard that before. Of course, I don't deny the impact that marriage alliances with the Mongols had in increasing Qing military prowess, as Mongol soldiers ended up making a significant ratio in the Eight Banner Army.

I also don't deny (nor have I seen any serious historian denying) that Manchus wanted to maintain their Manchu identity as well as their privilege. But that's not the same as denying their Chinese identity. The two aren't mutually exclusive. Because one is a national identity, the other is not. Which royalty as a whole did NOT want to maintain their privilege, after all? But that doesn't mean they saw themselves as a separate national group from the peasantry (in my prior post I explained how the Manchu concept was closer to a royalty class than an ethnic group when using our modern definitions). Even today, many Chinese ethnic groups see themselves as Chinese nationals while still holding on to their distinct ethnic identity (and they're not exactly complaining about the legal privileges they get for being a minority). The Manchus didn't want to be assimilated into the Han Chinese culture, but that doesn't mean they didn't see the Han Chinese as sharing the same nationality as themselves. I'm aware many western scholars see Manchus as non-Chinese, because they exclusively equate Han Chinese as nationally Chinese but that's not how the Manchus saw it, and it wasn't how the Han Chinese saw it until the Han nationalist movement of the early 20th century. Even a lot of western states didn't define themselves as a single ethnic nation state, so I don't know why this viewpoint is forced onto the Qing when they themselves defined the Chinese empire as a multi-ethnic one.
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Mar 2012
There is more that I could quote, but the gist of what I am getting at is that Qing success in Inner Asia relied on both Han and non-han practices. The tax revenue and logistics of the Chinese bureaucracy undoubtedly played a huge role in Qing expansion, but when it came to actually interacting and dealing with Inner Asian groups the Manchus were quick to exploit advantages open to them that would not so easily open to a Han leader, such as becoming a Khan or a Llama and emphasizing Confucianism with Han subjects, but Tibetan buddhism with Mongolian and Tibetan ones. Also, the Qing had 5 official languages Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan, Uighur, and Chinese. These are factors that set them apart from other Han controlled dynasties.
While I no problem at all with Mark Elliot's idea of Manchu ethnic sovereignty, we should not assume that this is a step closer to something akin to Manchu national consciousness. The Manchus did not have an ethnic national space (Manchuria as a spacial concept did not even take root until Qianlong's time and after) and there is a clear cultural affinity that they shared with the Han over the other Fan people, much less foreigners (for example, Confucian state ideology, wearing queue, Magua, following the Qing code (in contrast to what some earlier scholars thought, new legal studies show that the Manchus largely followed the Qing code as well), and following similar state sponsored rites).
The Inner Asian and Chinese dichotomy is also uncalled for. Qing image to Manchus and the image they portrayed to Tibetans are very different. There is little "ethnic sovereignty" ideology shown to the Tibetan Buddhists. This is understandable as most of the early "New Qing Historians" have little knowledge of Tibetan or Tibetan Buddhism and thought that what applied to the Manchus universally applied to other parts of Inner Asia.
In fact, the Qing emperor portrayed their state as Mahachina 摩诃震旦 or maha tsina ཙི་ན་ (the Buddhist name for China) in Buddhist inscriptions in Tibetan and Mongolian. The only thing Manchu here is the fact that the Tibetans often purposely spelled Manchu as Manju (shri), to portray the Qing emperors as Boddhisatva Manjushri, which always symbolized China in Tibetan tradition (because of Wutaishan being its abode). For the Tibetans, the center of the Qing (China), is in Wutaishan, not in "Manchuria" nor in Beijing.
In fact, Qing image presented to Mongolian nobilities and Mongol monks also differed, as did their representation to Han Confucians and Han Buddhists (see Gray Tuttle's article on Wutaishan on how the Buddhist gazetteers were directed towards Han Tibetan Buddhists foremost, and not to Mongols or Tibetans; a statue of Qianlong as Manjushri in Chengde also demonstrated that this idea was presented to the Han Buddhists as well). Of course, these same historians also seem unaware that Tibetan Buddhism was heavily present during the Ming dynasty in China proper itself. Shen Weirong has recently publishing a series of articles made into a book just to address these problems (with the New Qing History).