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Breaching the Great Wall

How the Manchu Took China

By Tina Pamintuan | HUMANITIES, March/April 2003 | Volume 24, Number 2

Emperor Kangxi came to power in a turbulent time. His people, the Manchu, had come down from the hills to defend the Ming dynasty in 1644--but once they rid China of its attackers, they refused to leave. Under Kangxi and his successors, the size of China doubled with Taiwan, Mongolia, Tibet, and part of Central Asia brought into the empire. They consolidated the bureaucracy, opened ports to foreign trade, and declared the beginning of a new era: the Ch’ing, or “pure,” dynasty.

The Ch’ing conquest of China is recounted in the ninth book of the fifteen-volume Cambridge History of China. The most comprehensive history of China to date, the project began in 1966 as a collaboration between two American professors, Denis Twitchett and John Fairbank. With twenty-five years of NEH support, the project has grown to include China scholars from all over the world.

The Ch’ing Dynasty to 1800 chronicles the first half of the dynasty, beginning with its rise to power in 1644. Kangxi took the throne at a time when stable dynasties were being established throughout the region. Japan was entering a period of isolation and peace, which would last two centuries under the Tokugawa shogunate. In Russia, the czars and czarinas of the Romanov dynasty would rule until the revolution in 1917.

Kangxi’s people, the Manchu, were non-Chinese from the northeast who believed they had an ancient right to rule the nation. The warrior Nurhaci had created a state, outside the Great Wall and beyond the ruling Ming’s influence. When his state became strong enough by the turn of the seventeenth century, he renounced loyalty to the Ming and planned his conquest of Beijing.

When warlords from the north sacked Beijing in 1644, the Ming generals turned to Nurhaci’s son in desperation. His warriors answered the call: they crossed the wall into China, defeated the rebel forces, and freed the country from the scourge of bandits.

But the victors were not content to return leadership to the Ming, and instead set up their own dynasty. Nurhaci’s six-year-old grandson was placed on the throne.

They granted all surrendering military leaders noble rank and reassured the gentry of their social status, winning over many influential Chinese. But every Chinese man, regardless of his social position, was required to shave his head except for one plait, to demonstrate his obedience. Anyone who did not comply within ten days was executed.

The new Ch’ing rulers preserved many Chinese institutions of government. They continued to employ Ming officials in their previous positions, such as provincial posts, while placing their own people, the Manchu, as supervisors and governor-generals. Half of the grand secretaries were Manchu and half were Chinese, and each board of the government was led by both a Chinese and a Manchu minister.

In this way the Manchu secured administrative and military control. “It was like using each side against the other so that the emperor always had the upper hand. That was unprecedented,” says Willard Peterson, a professor of East Asian studies at Princeton University and editor of the current volume.

The rule of Kangxi and his two successors, Yongzheng and Qianlong, constitutes one of the most stable periods in Chinese history. The emperors’ longevity was partially responsible for the stability. “Most high officials didn’t stay around for more than ten or twenty years,” says Peterson. “Because of the number of years they ruled, they had practice doing government and so were able to work out these institutional means.”

One such innovation involved imperial intelligence in outlying areas of the empire. Missives called “memorials” were sent from trusted officials in these areas directly to the emperor with seals to guarantee that the document had not been changed or tampered with en route. “They were also returned to the sender in the original, so the sender had confidence that no one else had read it,” Peterson says. This innovation contrasted with earlier periods, such as the Ming, when reports from rural areas were copied many times and often changed before they reached the emperor.

Political methods for ruling the empire developed under the Ch’ing, but the period lacked the previous dynasty’s emphasis on artistic creativity and social and sexual freedom. The Ch’ing period marked a return to more traditional views. A woman’s virtue was held in particularly high regard. Special homes were built where impoverished widows could live separate from men. The number of widows who honored their dead husbands by refusing to remarry or by committing suicide reached a historical high. The records of one local prefecture show that four widows committed suicide during the Song dynasty, ninety-five during the Ming, and two hundred and three during the Ch’ing.

“There was a revival of a kind of puritanical, for lack of a better word, attitude toward sexual freedom and hedonistic pursuits,” says Peterson, adding that such attitudes contrasted with those of the late Ming period, which was famous for its pornographic novels and art.

“I don’t think so much that the Manchus caused it as it was the community’s social leadership,” he continues. “It was an emphasis on restoring social order after the perceived disorder of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries--before the Manchus were even there.”

The Manchu leadership, however, did exercise strict authority over literature during their reign. In the later half of the eighteenth century, more than two thousand manuscripts were lost forever when Emperor Qianlong ordered thousands of books to be examined for negative references to the Manchu. Writers accused of composing subversive works were jailed, exiled, or executed.

“He thought he should control all the important books that existed,” explains Peterson, “So he had them assembled and there was a kind of weeding out of ‘bad’ books along with the process of selecting ‘good’ books, which they were reprinting in the 1770s. They were controlling the intellectual heritage.” The emperor also encouraged the compilation of histories, dictionaries, and genealogies for the exaltation of the Manchu.

Despite political control of the literary production, many writers did follow their own conscience and persist with their work. The poet Yuan Mei was a member of the more conservative circles of Ch’ing literati, but he chose to defy convention and teach female students. One of China’s greatest contributions to world literature, Cao Xueqin’s The Dream of the Red Chamber, a 120-chapter novel about an elite family, was completed under the Ch’ing.

Emperor Kangxi’s hospitality to Jesuit missionaries marks a high point of openness in this era. Jesuits such as Matteo Ricci, an Italian who had studied Confucianism and the Chinese language, were welcomed. “Most early Jesuits tried to learn classical Chinese before coming to China,” says Yeh-Chien Wang, a fellow at the Academia Sinica in Taipei and contributor to the current volume. “They enjoyed the respect of a good number of Chinese scholar-officials and the trust of early Manchu emperors for their command of scientific knowledge and for their skill of adaptation--they wore Chinese robes and tried to give their Chinese audience the impression that the Christian God and Chinese Heaven were the same.”

The emperor was interested in Western mathematics and science, and appointed Jesuits to his Directorate of Astronomy, whose duty it was to determine the official calendar. “They played the role of cultural transmitters, introducing Western science and religion to the Chinese high society and at the same time reporting to their home audience what they saw and learned from China,” says Wang.

Jesuit communities were founded in south and central China, and a church was built in Beijing under the aegis of the emperor. Kangxi’s 1692 “Edict of Tolerance” permitted the practice of Christianity on the condition that converts did not cease performing ancestral rites. Ricci was in agreement, considering such rites not as worship but commemoration. “For the Chinese, worshiping their ancestors is their sacred duty, but to the missionaries it was a kind of superstition. Early Jesuits simply considered worshiping ancestors a civic duty--nothing to do with religion,” Wang explains.

But when the Dominicans and Franciscans reported to the Vatican on the continuation of ancestral rites, Pope Clement XI banned the practice and ordered a papal nuncio to take up residence in Beijing. The emperor responded by expelling all missionaries who did not agree with his edict.

“The Pope’s order prompted the Manchu emperors to expel the missionaries for good,” Wang says. “Thus a short period of brilliant cultural exchange suddenly came to an end.” The Ch’ing Dynasty to 1800 adds to the picture of China that Denis Twitchett has been shaping for more than three decades. The new volume is based on original scholarship, some of which was commissioned for the series. “For the periods before the nineteenth century there wasn’t much secondary literature,” says Peterson.

These gaps in modern Chinese scholarship did not exist because of a lack of original Chinese documents and written sources, according to Michael Reeve, the series production manager. Until the seventeenth century, there were more books written in Chinese than in any other language in the world. But the secondary scholarship had not yet been done in the West.

“At the time, there really weren’t any general histories of China--in any language--that covered the beginning of the Han dynasty in 206 B.C. until today,” says Reeve. Twitchett and Fairbank believed the two histories of China that did exist at the time--one published by a French Jesuit in the eighteenth century and the other by a German historian in the twentieth century--needed updating.

“We thought we could do six volumes in five years. I certainly never anticipated spending thirty years of my life on this, but that’s how it’s worked out,” reflects Twitchett. He explains that a lack of research, logistics, and global politics prevented the first volume of the series, published in 1978, from being completed sooner.

Soon after the project began, the Cultural Revolution broke out in China. Chinese universities were all but shut down. For several years, there was no graduate teaching at all and academic journals ceased publication.

“It was really like writing the history of Mars,” Twitchett says. “Any unfortunate professor who got correspondence from abroad was likely to be persecuted by the authorities. All we knew about colleagues in China were what friends and relatives in the U.S. heard on the grapevine or by clandestine routes.”

By the early 1980s, universities in China were operating again. The Cambridge History of China project was able to invite scholars from Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, and mainland China to a conference to collaborate for the first time on this project in 1980. “They stayed in Princeton for about two months working in the library. Most of them hadn’t worked in a well organized and open library in their lives before,” says Twitchett. “They worked together with a whole group of young university teachers and research students--American and Chinese.”

Since then, a number of such conferences have continued to bring scholars not only from China, but from all over the world, to discuss various periods of Chinese history. “This kind of global collaborative scholarship was groundbreaking in China studies. It is very difficult today for my contemporaries to recall, or for younger scholars to imagine the world of Chinese studies half a century ago when I first entered the field in 1946,” says Twitchett. “When I first went into this field, the average person didn’t know what China looked like and there wasn’t any television to help them on their way.”

About the Author

Tina Pamintuan is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Funding Information

The Cambridge History of China has received $1,517,773 in NEH support since 1977.