Illuminating the Shadow Economy of the Banner Garrison: Manchu Language Contracts as Sources for Qing Social History

Illuminating the Shadow Economy of the Banner Garrison: Manchu Language Contracts as Sources for Qing Social History

Illuminating the Shadow Economy of the Banner Garrison: Manchu Language Contracts as Sources for Qing Social History

Tristan G. Brown Ph.D. Candidate, Columbia University

Though relatively understudied, Manchu-language commercial contracts provide valuable insight into local banner life and Qing economic history. The exact number of extant Manchu language contracts is hard to ascertain, but in both the Capital Museum (首都博物馆) and the library of the Modern History Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (社科院近史所图书馆) there are considerable collections of contracts (Manchu-only and bilingual Manchu-Chinese) written by Beijing bannermen. Additional such materials seem to be scattered in different libraries and museums across China, awaiting future study. A small number of Manchu-language contracts have already been published in translated and transcribed forms in Chinese (Wang 1988, Liu 2001) and Japanese (Ishibashi 1984). The contracts cited in this post are from Liu Xiaomeng 刘小萌, “Research on early Qing Manchu-language deeds for Beijing bannermen,” (“清前期北京旗人满文房契研究”), published in Minzu yanjiu (2001.4: 84-94), which is a good starting point for an introduction to this body of primary sources.
Since banner land was technically owned by the state and intended to provide long-term economic support to Eight Banner communities, pawning, mortgaging, or selling such property was nominally illegal in the Qing (Elliott 2001, 126-27, 193-94). Yet contracts from the Kangxi era show not only that such transactions were common in the decades following the establishment of Manchu rule in Beijing, but also that the Manchu language was swiftly adopted as a language for just this type of exchange between bannermen in the capital. One example from 1708 illustrates the vocabulary:

kubuhe šanyan i fulbu nirui sula fušen i juwan giyan i boobe, emu gūsai g’ao coo ju nirui hoo guwe yong ni juwe tanggū susai yan sain menggun gaime diyalaha. ilan aniya duleke manggi teni jolibumbi. erebe juwan i da fulhū funde bošokū hamban uheri akdulaha.

elhe taifin i susai ilaci aniya juwan biyai ice jakūn (Liu 2001.4:87).

For the consideration of 250 taels of good silver, Fušen, an unemployed bannerman under the command of Company Captain Fulbu of the Bordered White Banner, mortgages his ten-bay [giyan = 間] house to Hoo Guwe Yong (Hao Guoyong), who is in the same banner, under the command of Company Captain G’ao Coo Ju (Gao Chaozhu). Not until after three years shall [this note] be redeemed. Jointly guaranteed by Headman Hamban and Corporal Fulhū.

Kangxi 53rd year, tenth month, eighth day.

The contract above is recognizable in its general form, though there remains much to analyze and discuss here. It begins with the introduction of the buyer and seller, the value of the property in question, the conditions of the loan, a list of witnesses, and then the date. On at least a couple of levels, one may point to this agreement as an example of acculturation: a Chinese contractual form (what does “Chinese contract culture” mean in this instance, when we are not working in the Chinese medium?), executed in the Manchu language; a Manchu bannerman pledging his house in order to borrow money from a Chinese bannerman. How to understand this transaction? How were commercial terms such as pledge, conditional sale, mortgage, or pawning used among bannermen? The term “mortgage” (Ch. dian 典) in particular is a complicated idea that is not easily translatable and almost always possessed local connotations (Zelin et al. 2004: 119). The etymology of the Manchu word diyanlambi suggets that there was no such term, and perhaps no such idea, in Manchu originally. Related to this point is the Chinese-language concept of diya 抵押, or the illegal mortgaging of communal land.
Manchu-language contracts were written in Beijing until the end of the dynasty, although the majority of known contracts date from the Kangxi through the Qianlong reigns. Another contract, dating from 1748, highlights a transaction between two Mongols of the Bordered Red Banner:

kubuhe fulgiyan i monggo gūsai hisembu nirui beri faksi ilibu i beye ilibuha sin liyan dzi hutung ni wargi jugūn i amargi gencehen de bisire wase boo duin giyan be. emu gūsai dingfu nirui bayara ulintai de nadanju yan menggun gaime enteheme uncaha. Ere boo aika turgun getuken akū ojoro, jursuleme uncara diyalara, alban i menggun edelere, temšere niyalma bisire oci. hisembu nirui miyoocan bayara suihene. foboo nirui bayara bašisy sei akdulaha. Erebe hisembu nirui miyoocan bayara suihene emu nirui beri faksi ilibu foobo nirui bayara bašisy sei akdulaha.


Abkai wehiyehe i  juwan ilaci aniya jakūn biyai orin jakūn (Liu 2001.4:90).


Ilibu, a maker of bows under the command of Hisembu in the Mongol Bordered Red Banner, is selling, in perpetuity, to the guard Ulintai, a person of the same banner under the command of Dingfu, a tiled-roof house of four-bays he himself built on the west street in Xin Lianzi hutong at the base of the north wall, for the price of seventy silver taels.  If for any reason there is confusion [of the title], if [the seller] sells them again, if there is any official lien on the property, or if any persons challenge [the transaction], Suihene, a rifleman guard under the command of Hisembu, and Bašisy, under the command of Foboo, guarantee this transaction. This (contract) is witnessed by Suihene, a rifleman guard under the command of Hisembu, by Ilibu, a bow-maker from the same company, and Bašisy, under the command of Foboo.


Qianlong 13th year, eighth month, twenty-eighth day. 

Obviously, it is impossible get a comprehensive view of the economic life of garrison bannermen through these two contracts; still, they shed some light onto an underexplored facet of Manchu history. We might venture a few tentative generalizations: First, commercial transactions between bannermen were commonplace, with banner officers serving as witnesses and guarantors, taking on the role of Chinese magistrates officiating contractual agreements. Second, Manchu may have been the lingua franca of commercial activity within the banners. Unlike elite Miao families (Chen Jinquan et al. 2007), for example, many of whom did adopt Classical Chinese as the transactional medium of their contracts, Manchus and bannermen in general did not necessarily do so in all circumstances. More research must be done to substantiate this, however: Zhang Weiming (2011: 87) has found evidence of Chinese-language contracts among bannermen in Beijing as well. Finally, and potentially most critically, Manchu-language contracts seem not to involve the actual sale of land – which was owned by the banner – but instead to deal with the exchange, mortgaging, and renting of property, such as a house, horse, or firearm. In this sense, it might be possible to speak of a “banner contract culture,” which was in conversation with, but distinct from, Chinese contract culture.
In short, the language of Manchu-language contracts was mature by no later than the last decades of the Kangxi reign. While certain commercial avenues were not regularly open to the majority of bannermen – a circumstance that helped maintain their difference from the Han, in both everyday life and on the printed page of a contract – yet bannermen regularly engaged in commerce, and were savvy enough to create documentation that protected themselves and their families.


Chen Jinquan et al. Guizhou: Wendouzhai miaozu qiyue falü wenshu huibian. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2007.

Elliott, Mark. The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Liu Xiaomeng. “Qing qianqi Beijing qiren manwen fangqi yanjiu” Minzu Yanjiu, 2001 (4: 84-94).

Zelin, Madeleine et al. Contract and Property Rights in Early Modern China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Zhang Weiming. “Qingdai Beijing qiyue wenshu yanjiu – yi zhongguo lidai qiyue huibian kaoshi jilu qiyue weili.” Beijing Shehui Kexue, 2011 (3: 86-91).


  1. Stephen Whiteman

    Thank you for the very interesting essay. Where is the image from?

  2. Thanks for the question Stephen. The image is entitled: Een tempel met bouwarbeiders aan het werk, anoniem, 1700 – 1800, and is from the Rijksmuseum.

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