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


Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
The main theoretical background I rely on for interpreting ethnicity is:

1) Fredrich Barth, who argues that an ethnic group, or any group for that matter, lacks an essence which cleanly separates one group from another and ethnic groups exist because individuals retain "group-boundaries" and basically create groups as abstractions.

2) H.E. Hale who argues that a given individuals identity consists of "a set of reference points". Certain reference points are particularly central to a persons identity while others are trivial. A person will choose to invoke a certain reference point whenever that identity is accessible and relevant. Accessible means that other people have to concede that the individual actually can have the identity they profess. Ie, some African-americans can "pass" and thus have potential, though likely limited, access to a white identity in relevant situations.

3) Rogers Brubraker who stresses the importance of the context surrounding ethnicity. Basically, political leaders often "invoke" ethnicity with the hopes of "evoking" it within a given population.

Obviously I have greatly simplified and deformed these arguments in the vain hope that this post will not be too long.

I believe that we can see all of these factors at work within the history of the Manchus. And I will attempt to address a few particular points of criticism raised by the two Historumites mentioned above.

Why aren't the Manchus simply a ruling class? I would state that the Manchus are an ethnic group and not a ruling class because in the early Qing they clearly had many features which were not Chinese such as their language, culture, and religious beliefs. Overtime, the Manchus took on many Chinese characteristics, but I view this to be more an example of the original Manchu ethnic group changing as opposed to a Chinese elite trying to be different. Yes, it is true that nobles usually try to be different, but it is also true that many ruling classes were from a different ethnic background than the population that they ruled over. Another element to this is the fact that eventually most bannermen ended up living in poverty during the 19th century. Classifying all these destitute people as a ruling class doesn't seem to applicable to me. I would see the Qing ruling class as actually bridging the gap between Manchu and Non-Manchu elites. In my mind a ruling class is more defined by the degree of political and economic power a person has. So, high government positions, political influence, and luxurious consumption are the factors that form a multiethnic ruling class.
I have never thought the Manchus was simply a ruling class; the ethnic elements are real enough. However, I am trying to caution people from applying modern ethnic-linguistic perspectives in viewing the Qing or Chinese history and that the Manchus were dichotomous opposed to a ethnic Han state, because it ignores the fundamental fact that the Han is not an linguistic based ethnicity and China is not an ethnic state based on linguistic affinities.

Isn't China inherently multiethnic? To a degree, yes. However, I believe that there is confusion here because the territory we call China has always, or nearly always, been multiethnic across history. But I don't think that territory called China is the determining factor for what is and isn't Chinese. Are minorities that do not speak any Chinese language still Chinese? (Yes, the Manchus are a more complicated case because they spoke a lot of Chinese and eventually stopped speaking Manchu) but my main point is that the adjective of Chinese (ie. Chinese language, Chinese culture, Chinese buddhism, etc.) is often a much more limited concept than the territory of China itself. The PRC of course states that everyone is "Chinese" but their concept is based on national citizenship and I don't believe it carries as much weight in the past. Do I associate Chinese pretty-much exclusively with the modern Han ethnic group in the PRC? Pretty much, because if someone says "I like the Chinese language" or "I am interested in Chinese culture" they are referring to Han culture and not the culture or language of Daurs, Evenkis, or ethnic Kyrgyz PRC nationals. In my view, the Han group itself is also multiethnic or at least it was. Additionally, the fact that the Chinese terms 中文 "language of the central state/s" (ie 中國 china) and 漢語 "language of the Han" or synonymous shouldn't be overlooked. Yes, the Han identity does not always line up with territory controlled by Chinese states, but I would argue that they share a close connection. The concept of 中華 zhonghua was used by early nationalists and the modern PRC explicitly with the intention of including these non-han groups presumably because 中國人 "Chinese people" was not inclusive enough.
Yes, in fact there are multiple references to people of Chu, Wu, or Shatuo and even Koreans, all of which were not Sinitic speakers (in Chu's case, its at least not considered the same language as those of the central plains) as Hua and not Yi. There was no universal Han ethnic identity before the Ming, so to speak of a Han identity overlapping a Sinitic speaking population is flawed and one should therefore not translate it as "Chinese" without opening up a load of problems (even after the Ming, the term "Han" does not necessarily mean "Sinitic speakers", but rather people under the direct control of the bureaucracy (for we sea Vietnamese sources calling the Vietnamese commoners "Han").

We've already done a topic on this:
Chinese Dynasties

The PRC definition of Chinese is not the same as the early Qing definition or of any traditional Chinese definition for that matter; it is a modern nation state based identity. I would even argue that by the standards of the traditional Zhou Li (which almost all Chinese dynasties look up to as the authority for ruling), the PRC is a Yi, not a Hua, and is hence not "Chinese", unless you define Chinese as a pure geographical term.
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Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
Ethnic identities and categories are not mutually exclusive so why can't the Manchus be both Chinese and Manchu? Yes, it is a fact that an individual can possess many identities and they can choose to refer to one in a given context. For example, a person from Chongqing will say they are Chinese when abroad, but while in China they will say that they are a Sichuan person or a Chongqing person. So, when the Manchus dealt with Western powers or certain types of outsiders, identifying as Chinese may have been the more useful categorization to identify as. However, if we look at how things operate within Qing society, identifying as Chinese would be meaningless. Being Manchu determined a lot about one's life because of group boundaries which existed within society between Manchus and Han people in addition to implying a special relationship with the state. I am not saying that Manchus could not identify as "Chinese" but that there were several factors within society and the structure of the state which actively worked to keep them distinct from the population at large. the Qianlong emperor and Manchu elites would emphasize their mastery of the Confucian Classics or other characteristics associated with Chinese identity when it helped them gain powerful connections within the Confucian bureaucracy, but the difference is that these Manchus could also emphasize aspects of or rely on Manchu identity to achieve their goals. So calling them Chinese is ignoring a crucial part of how Manchus actually operated. The banner system served as a counter to the Chinese bureaucracy, and calling the Qing Chinese fails to capture the important differences that differentiate this dynasty from other ones.
You can argue the same about modern PRC, especially in its early phase (notably the suweiai Republic). Communist ideology is neither Confucian or traditionally "Chinese" and it even elevates the notion of the dawn of world communism over national identity. Even today, Communist ideology is still the foundation basis of the present regime; even the reforms of Xi Jinping is phrased in socialist slogans. The only reason we even view the PRC as Chinese is because we are applying the modern idea of nation state, a concept foreign to traditional Chinese ideas of identity. The idea that only the Confucian bureaucracy is representative of China ignores the Buddhist and western ideas of statecraft that existed parallel with Confucian ideology during the Qing; both of which the Qing associated with China (Mahachina in the former, and Chinese empire in the later).

Did the Manchus actually approach Inner Asia differently than other Chinese dynasties? I would argue that the Manchus did indeed approach Inner Asia in a way that differs from Chinese dynasties. There are a couple things that the Manchus which are more generally distinct, but, this is very complicated and the Qing approach also differs according to what part of Inner Asia we are discussing. One general practice which sets the Manchus and other non-Chinese dynasties like the Mongols apart is the use of non-Chinese languages as official languages. The Manchus not only used Manchu as an official language, but also Mongolian, Tibetan, and Uyghur. These languages were used constantly on official documents and displayed on monuments and steles across the empire. The Tang dynasty held huge influence across East Asia, and some of the tributaries or subjects possessed their own languages such as the Sogdians, Uyghurs, and Tibetans but I am not aware of any imperial decrees using these languages. If it was done, it would likely be fairly limited in scope. One could argue that excluding the Tang, Chinese dynasties never ruled over a large population of people which used a different script and this is largely true, but I even if the Ming conquered Tibet, I don't see any indication that they would have promoted the status of the Tibetan language and encouraged its use in the governing structure. The entire system of the Chinese bureaucracy revolves around a shared culture of understanding Chinese classics. The Manchus on the other hand, began with a system which had different languages because their mother tongue at the time was not Chinese. So expanding into additional non-Chinese languages would not have been as big a change.
I would like to point out that we have very little information on communications between non-Chinese government representatives on the local level in places like Xinjiang or Mongolia under Tang rule, but it is highly unlikely that they only used Chinese. Similarly, with the Qing, with Tibet and Xinjiang at least, while Tibetan and Uighur might be used in local communication, in regard to the central Qing bureaucracy, only two language were formally accepted; Manchu and Chinese. The former was more prominent before Jiaqing, while the later was more prominent after Jiaqing.

As for the Ming, we do in fact have non-Chinese documents and inscriptions. The decree passed by Hongwu and Yongle to various Tibetan rulers and lamas were bilingual in Tibetan and Chinese (which Hackneyedscribe already showed). Ming state sponsored Buddhist inscriptions in southern Gansu were also in both Tibetan and Chinese (in monasteries like the Da Chongjiao Si). The Ming imperial inscription found near the Amur river was in Chinese, Jurchen, Tibetan and Mongolian.
I have in fact looked over these inscriptions in detail, and ideologically speaking other than the fact that the Qing was placing a stronger emphasis on their role as Manjushri and ruler of Mahachina, which in fact ties them closer to China, both the Qing and Ming are using Buddhist language, not Confucian ones.

When it comes to the Uyghurs, I would turn to James Millward's work Beyond the Pass. Basically the Manchus held the idea that their empire should be universal and the Qianlong emperor got into arguments about this with the bureaucracy who believed that there was no benefit to be had from expanding and creating Xinjiang. I would say no Chinese bureaucracy employed any concept of universal empire since the founding of the Song dynasty due to the broader geopolitical context of East Asia at that time.

I hope that this post explain my line of thinking more clearly. There is always more to be said on this subject, but this has to end somewhere.
I argue that there was in fact an idea of universalism during the early Ming and such ideas (for any Chinese Empire for that matter) depended upon military success and not upon some pre-conceived ethnic stereotypes. The idea that barbarians were fundamentally different from Chinese is only a trope that was made based on the limits of military might (for such an argument, see; ‘‘WHAT DO BARBARIANS KNOW OF GRATITUDE?’’ — THE STEREOTYPE OF BARBARIAN PERFIDY AND ITS USES IN TANG FOREIGN POLICY RHETORIC, -Shaoyun Yang).

Before the Tumu debacle, the Ming had quite a universalist approach towards empire (Yongle often exhibited the intention to replace the Mongols not only in China but in the whole empire). For example, after Yongle conquered Karakorum, he declared: "华夷本一家,朕奉天命为天子,天之所覆,地之所载,皆朕赤子,岂有彼此。” "The Hua and Yi (barbarians) are originally one family, I received the mandate of heaven, wherever the sky covers and the earth contains, are all my children, how could there be a division between them and us." Mongol era slogans describing the empire's span from "wherever the sun rises to where the sun sets" is repeated in Yongle era documents (describing the Ming empire as spanning from where the sun rises to where the sun sets, a span greater than that of the Han and Tang.)
After Tumu, due to limits of resource and military potential, Ming officials focused on the savage nature of the Mongols and the inability for them to truly assimilate, hence the Ming emperor should not incorporate their territory into the Ming. We see here that notions of universalism depends on military potential and successes rather than the other way around.
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Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
Also, I want to clarify in regard to what is considered "official language" in the Qing Empire. One needs to make a clear distinction between languages like Uighur or Tibetan with Chinese and Manchu. The former two languages were carried out on the frontier only, and only by the local officials. Centrally appointed Qing officials (such as the Amban) always carried out their actions in Chinese or Manchu when communicating to the court, not in Uighur or Tibetan. Mongolian is a bit more complicated, as the Mongols made up the Mongol banner in the Qing and early Qing emperors all spoke Mongolian. Mongols in Inner Mongolia were also closely tied to the Qing and was conquered before the Qing entered China. Government officials in Mongolia therefore do in fact write in Mongolian.
In a sense, they are "official languages" of the Qing empire at a local level. Yet this is hardly unique to the Qing for European Empires also used more than just one official language. Nahuatl, for example was an official language in New Spain besides Spanish. In the British Empire, Irish and Whelsh were also used at places.

To suggest however, that these local languages have equal importance and representation as Spanish and English is ludicrous. Similarly, in the court of Beijing itself, all official decrees are required to be written in Manchu and Chinese, not in any other language. Yet practically speaking, as early as Yongzheng's time (1722-1735), many decrees were written in Chinese only and never had a Manchu version.

The frontiers are a bit different, yet to call it simply as "Manchu centric" is misleading.

In Xinjiang, during the first half of the Qianlong's conquest, Manchu was used more commonly than Chinese. Yet, by the end of Qianlong's period, Chinese documents started to overshadow Manchu ones in importance. Most important documents of the emperor were always written in Manchu and Chinese. However, early on, many legal documents were in Manchu only. Yet by the end Jiaqing's reign (1796-1820), Manchu documents were almost entirely replaced by Chinese except in regard to groups like Kazakhs. Coins found in early Qianlong's time were only in Uighur and Manchu, but by the 19th century, it is in Uighur, Manchu, and Chinese.

In Tibet, Manchu was never as prominent as elsewhere. The army stationed in Tibet were always the Green Standard (Han), and the coins minted by Qianlong (Qianlong baozang) after the Nepalese war (1792) was in Chinese and Tibetan only, not Manchu. The 29 article ordnance regulating Tibetan affairs were first drafted in Chinese, then organized into Tibetan and carried out on the ground. No Manchu copy of this regulation was ever found. Except some letters, and the Golden Urn system in choosing reincarnated lamas (which is written in 3 languages: Chinese, Manchu, and Tibetan), Tibetan affairs during the Qing was largely carried out in Chinese (especially in the 19th century, where its virtually only in Chinese) when it came to Qing government bureaucrats.
This is why in Tibetan sources, the Qing is virtually no different from any previous Chinese regimes and Tibetan sources all referred to the Qing as rgya nag (China), or when it came to Buddhism, Tsina (China).

Only in Mongolian is this more complicated. Mongol sources realize the Qing were Manj and not Hyatad (except some Oirat documents). Yet in Mongolian Buddhist circles, the Qing was still referred to as Mahachina and in Qing sponsored documents, the Qing was Dumdadu ulus (Central State or Zhongguo). In any case, I suggest people use the right terms and clarify what they meant by Chinese and most importantly understand what the Qing ideology and definitions are.

"I am interested in Chinese culture" they are referring to Han culture and not the culture or language of Daurs, Evenkis, or ethnic Kyrgyz PRC nationals. In my view, the Han group itself is also multiethnic or at least it was. Additionally, the fact that the Chinese terms 中文 "language of the central state/s" (ie 中國 china) and 漢語 "language of the Han" or synonymous shouldn't be overlooked. Yes, the Han identity does not always line up with territory controlled by Chinese states, but I would argue that they share a close connection. The concept of 中華 zhonghua was used by early nationalists and the modern PRC explicitly with the intention of including these non-han groups presumably because 中國人 "Chinese people" was not inclusive enough.
No, but when you speak of Chinese clothing, chances are you are thinking of Magua and Qipao, which are Manchu. When you think of Chinese wrestling, you are speaking of a Sino-Manchu hybrid sport. Many Chinese food also have Manchu background (Man-Han Quanxi). Many elements of which we consider Han today actually have non-Han background. Let's not foget that Han minzu is a modern construct itself. Equating "Han language" only as "Chinese" is also an ROC and PRC definition, not a Qing one.
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