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.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.
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").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.
We've already done a topic on this:
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.