Minor Note: Tungusic Lives Matter

This note is a coda to the theme in Part 1 of the series on genocide.


The Manchu ruler Nurhaci welded together the tribes operated just north of the Ming Empire’s northern frontier into a single, effective force.  Most of the Manchu population was enlisted in the “Eight Banner Armies”, the fist of Nurhaci’s regenerated state.  In 1644 his fourteenth son, Dorgon, acting as regent, took advantage of a wave of peasant rebellions threatening the Ming to cross over the Great Wall and seize power. Manchuria was then stripped bare of Banner Armies, leaving a barebones garrison of a few thousand for (as best I can tell) most of the following dynasty.

Even with a total mobilization of this manpower, there were never very many Manchu.  In theory the eight “Banners” should each have included around 18,000 households.  Mark C. Elliott estimates the total Manchu population of the Eight Banners at 206k-309k, at the time of the Manchu invasion.  Thus the Manchus were probably no more than 1% of the population of the realm they conquered; the Manchus would not have been able to garrison their new acquisition, let alone conquer it, without massive recruitment among rebellious Ming army units who were willing to bandwagon with the Manchu invaders. These ethnic Han turncoats were enrolled in the Banner Armies, bringing their total size up to 1.3M-2.4M… with the result that by 1648 the Bannermen were 75% Han, 16% Manchu, and 9% Mongolic.

The same national attrition took place among the ruling class as well. Han generals who defected were offered Manchu princesses, and were accepted into the Manchu ruling class. (It was one of these Han generals who first adopted the Manchu “pigtail” out of respect for his new in-laws.) Han aristocrats who offered their daughters as concubines to the royal family also expected to be adopted into the Manchu tribal structure.  Culturally the Qing were aware of the value of a central identity for the Eight Banner Armies, but were they particularly anxious that this be an ethnic Manchu identity?  It is hard to tell.  The practice of rotating troops through the main cultural and political center at Beijing (whose goal was apparently to make the Banner Armies identify with each other, rather than with the provinces they garrisoned) proceeded hand in hand with the “Zhongwai yijia” 中外一家 policy of national unity: literally, “Chinese and outsiders are one family”.  Past a certain point, even bannermen who were nominally “ethnic Manchu” could not speak the Manchu language.  The language of Beijing was the patois of the army and the bureaucracy, and they brought it with them wherever in China they were stationed.

The Manchu nation had been hollowed from the inside out; it only took a firm blow to knock it over. The Taiping rebellion became a bloody meatgrinder for the “Manchu” in the Banner Armies. With the Manchu running out of manpower, the loss of Outer Manchuria to Russia was humiliating and worrying. Following the defeat, the Qing felt forced to lift a ban on Han immigration into Manchuria that had been in place for two centuries, to keep a firm grip on Inner Manchuria.  With that, their homeland was gone.  When the Qing dynasty fell, and the legal privileges of membership in one of the Banner Armies disappeared, self-identifying “Manchu” evaporated. In fact, even the number of people speaking the Beijing language (what we now call Mandarin or “Chinese”) cratered, since the language was seen as a sign of ethnic allegiance to the defeated dynasty.

Later, the People’s Republic of China instituted a policy on ethnic minorities that gave a protected status to these minorities. Not unlike in America, the number of people claiming descent from the Manchu gradually boomed. In the 2000 census, China counted more than 10M Manchu.  But according to UNESCO, only 10 people speak the Manchu language.  An additional 30k speak a related language in Xinjiang.  I will say nothing for now on how distinct the Manchu are from the Han (and in particular, their Han neighbors in NE China); the data on these will become much more clear in the coming years.  But for now I think it’s fair to say that the Manchu nation disappeared, and the main culprit was its own success.

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