About the Manchus and the Manchu language

The Manchus

The Manchus were the founders of the Qing dynasty, the last imperial regime in China, which ruled from 1636 to 1912. Of somewhat obscure origin and numerically never very great in number, the Manchu people originally hailed from that corner of northeast Asia locked in between China, Korea, Mongolia, and Siberia, which, owing to them, came to be known as “Manchuria” by the turn of the nineteenth century. This region, along with the Mongolian steppe to its west, was the historic home of various nomadic or semi-nomadic states whose military power posed a constant threat to the stability of Chinese states located on the Central Plains to the south. The last of these frontier states was the Qing.

What began in the late 1500s as a loose conglomeration of feuding tribes had by the 1620s developed into a small but well-organized statelet that boasted an army strong enough to defeat the forces of the great Ming empire, their erstwhile rulers. Following the Mongol example, Manchu leaders cautiously and deliberately expanded the area they controlled, building a sophisticated administrative apparatus to match the formidable army at their command. In 1636 they proclaimed the dynastic name “Qing” 清 — in Manchu, Daicing (i.e., “warrior”) — and by 1644 they and their allies swept out of the northeast to occupy Beijing. In succeeding years, Qing success on battlefields around the country was broadly interpreted as proof of their superior virtue in the eyes of Heaven, and by the 1680s the Manchu claim to sovereignty over the Chinese realm was widely, though never universally, accepted.

While they ruled as an ethnic minority, far outnumbered by the Han Chinese, the Manchus combined uncommon political acumen and military muscle in leading the creation of one of the most powerful and prosperous — and certainly the most populous — empires of the early modern world. For over a century the “Great Qing Empire” (Daicing gurun) was the unquestioned superpower in much of East Asia. Under the leadership of such unusually dedicated rulers as the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong emperors, over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Qing proceeded to double the size of its territory, as its generals, diplomats, and bureaucrats overseeing the addition to the realm of the island of Taiwan and of vast areas of Inner Asia, including Mongolia, Tibet, Dzungaria, and the Tarim Basin. Their successes brought to a close an epoch of some two millennia of interaction between steppe and sedentary peoples along the Great Wall frontier and laid the geopolitical foundations of the modern Chinese state.

Given their disproportionately important place in world history, it is fortunate indeed that so many historical documents, literary, philosophical, and religious texts, and material objects pertinent to the Manchu experience have survived. For anyone curious about that experience, about the Inner Asian frontier, or about Chinese history generally, learning the Manchu language can unlock the door to meaningful new perspectives.

The Manchu language

Manchu is the major representative of the southern branch of the Tungusic languages, traditionally thought to be part of the Altaic language family (or sprachbund), which also includes Mongolic and Turkic languages. It was the language of the Jurchen tribes who inhabited what came to be called Manchuria and who, after 1635, decided to call themselves “Manchus.” When they went on shortly thereafter to take over all of China, Manchu became one of the official languages of the empire they created, the Qing (1636-1912), and remained in fairly wide use until the early 20th c. Though it has practically died out in its original homeland, a dialect of Manchu continues to be used by the Sibe, a minority nationality living in the Ili Valley.

Once dismissed as all but irrelevant for historical research, it is now recognized that a significant proportion of the imperial Qing archives (about one-fifth) consists of documents written in Manchu.  Knowledge of the language has come to be seen as essential for original research in a variety of areas, ranging from the pre-dynastic history of the Manchus, to ethnic history, frontier history, and many areas of institutional history from the 17th to the early 20th centuries. There are also a great many historical, religious, scientific, philosophical, and literary works composed in Manchu. For these reasons, Manchu is of considerable interest and value to students of Qing history and literature, as well as linguists.


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