Robert John PERRINS

Group of Manchu men, Peking [Beijing], China, 13 March 1901. UNDERWOOD & UNDERWOOD COLLECTION, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

The Manchus are the second largest (after the Zhuang) of China’s fifty-five official ethnic minority groups, numbering around 10 million people (2000 estimate). They overthrew the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to establish China’s last imperial era, the Qing dynasty (1644–1912).

The Manchus (or Man) are a minority people who ruled China as the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). They are concentrated in the northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjian, as well as Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Their estimated 2000 population totalled 10.68 million. The Manchus are descended from peoples of northeastern Asia collectively called the “Tungus.” The Manchus also claim descent from rulers of the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1125–1234).

The Manchu tribes in the late sixteenth century were organized into a collective nation under the rule of their greatest chief, Nurhaci (1559–1626). Nurhaci’s successor, Abahai (1592–1643), changed the name of his people to Manchu in order to remove the historical memory that as Jurchens they had been under Chinese rule. The Manchus continued to increase in military power in the border region northeast of the Great Wall and eventually overthrew the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to establish China’s last imperial era, the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty. The Manchus remained an important symbolic people in China during the twentieth century, as was shown by their being named in 1912 as one of the five races that constituted the new Republican China (1912–1949).

The Manchu language is a member of the Tungusic branch of the Altaic language family and has some structural similarities to Japanese, Mongolian, and Korean. During the Jurchen Jin dynasty Jurchen official documents were transcribed using a modified form of the Khitan script. In 1599, as part of his nation building, Nurhaci commissioned two scholars to modify the Mongolian script in order to create a written form of the Manchu language. This form of written Manchu is called the “old Manchu script” because it was further modified in the 1620s by the addition of circles and dots, which removed some of the linguistic ambiguities that had resulted from the first attempt to modify the Mongolian script. This new script remained the standard form of written language throughout the Qing dynasty.

Few native speakers of Manchu remain in China, although volumes of the written script are preserved as official documents of the Qing dynasty in the national archive in Beijing and provincial archives in the northeast.

Further Reading

Crossley, P. K. (1990). Orphan warriors: Three Manchu generations and the end of the Qing world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kirk, M. (Ed.). (2009). China by numbers 2009. Hong Kong: China Economic Review Publishing.

Li, Gertrude Roth. (2000). Manchu: A textbook for reading documents. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Michael, F. (1972). The origin of Manchu rule in China: Frontier and bureaucracy as interacting forces in the Chinese empire. New York: Octagon Books.

State Statistical Bureau. (1998). China statistical yearbook. Beijing: China Statistical Publishing House.

Source: Perrins, Robert John. (2009). Manchu. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1377–1378. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A group of Manchu women with typical headdress at the London Mission, Peking [Beijing], China, China (c. 1901). UNDERWOOD & UNDERWOOD COLLECTION, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

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