Summary Chapter 2: Manchu Conquest


Summary Chapter 2: The Manchu Conquest

The Ming fell at the hands of the rebel Li Zicheng, but it was the Manchu who became the rulers of the next dynasty. The Manchu lived northeast of the Ming territory, in present-day Jilin and Liaoning provinces. They were in many ways very different from the ethnic Han people who were the majority of the Ming dynasty subjects. Originally the Manchu were named Jürchen (Nüzhen in Chinese), and they had ruled northern China in the 12th and early 13th century. In 1616 the leader Nurhaci would revive the name Jin, and with it the intention of conquering the areas now occupied by the Ming. Before that moment, the history of the Jürchen is not entirely clear: they did not have a tradition of keeping historical records, and only under Nurhaci’s reign did they develop their script (based on Mongolian). Depending on how close they lived to Joseon Korea and Ming China, Jürchen were more or less engaged in trade and agriculture. In the northern reaches of their territory, along the Amur (Heilongjiang) River and Sungari, Jürchen were hunters and fishermen.

Imperial bodyguard Zhanyinbao, a Manchu. Archery was a traditional Manchu skill, used to hunt, but also in warfare.


Nurhaci completely reorganized the Jürchen group under his control, and laid the foundations for the Qing dynasty.
He devised a system of Eight Banners to organize his troops on the battlefield, and used this same system to register the entire population. After conquering a number of Mongol and other Jürchen groups, he also began to attack the Ming, north of the Great Wall. He presented himself as a righteous ruler, preventing his troops from plundering, and accepting former Ming officials in his bureaucracy, but he was not always true to his word and some of the conquered people were forcibly relocated, enslaved, or enlisted in his army. Resistance against Nurhaci’s conquest should not come as a surprise: there were significant differences in culture, language, and traditions between the conquered Ming subjects and the Manchu conquerors. However, the Manchu were able to subdue the rebellion which began against them in 1622 and in 1625.

After Nurhaci’s death, a power struggle ensued. Unlike the Ming dynasty, he had not designated an heir apparent, but following Inner Asian tradition, had left his territory to multiple close male junior relatives. Hong Taiji came out on top in the power struggle, and he began to restore relations with the ethnic Han. As a result, more and more ethnic Han people from the northeastern border areas defected to the Manchu. Hong Taiji turned a leaf in his relations with the Ming, and changed the name of his people from Jürchen to Manchu, and the name of the dynasty from Jin (Gold) to Qing (pure, clear). These symbolic changes were quickly followed by massive changes in the geopolitical situation: he forced the Korean Joseon dynasty (1392–1897) to switch its allegiance from Ming to Qing, and his troops began to operate south of the Great Wall, which the Ming saw as the traditional boundary between the civilized world of China, and the “barbarian” world further north.

Progress in the conquest of the Ming was initially slow, but in 1644 Wu Sangui, the general who guarded a strategic pass on the edge of the Great Wall made a fateful choice. He invited the Qing troops to help him against the rebel Li Zicheng, who had toppled the Ming dynasty in 1644. Wu was in later historiography and popular history reviled as a traitor, because once the Qing troops were in Beijing, they continued the conquest of the Ming, while mopping up the rebellions that had brought the Ming down. Just as it had been the case north of the Great Wall, the Ming subjects contined with their resistance against the Qing. Resistance was suppressed violently, for instance in the city of Yangzhou, where the Manchus massacred the population of the city for ten days.[1] Because the Manchus were far outnumbered by the ethnic Han they had conquered, in particular in the southern parts of their newly extended empire, the former Ming subjects would occasionally attempt to rise in rebellion. Early on resistance efforts focused on relatives of the last Ming emperors, and it would take seventeen years before the Qing had killed them all. It was clear that the Manchu could not rule this territory through military force alone, and in particular under the reigns of Kangxi (see Chapter 3) and Qianlong (Chapter 5), the Manchu emperors moved from coercion to cooperation. Hong Taiji had died shortly before the Manchus conquered Beijing.

His successor was his five-year-old son, with Hong’s younger brother Dorgon as a regent, holding the real power.
Dorgon decreed that all adult males –not only soldiers– had to adapt the Manchu hairstyle (shaved at the front, with a braid in the back); this became the standard hairstyle for Chinese men until the early twentieth century.
Another visible change to Chinese culture was in the dress.

Three men with Manchu queue
Late Qing, street barber, by Sanshichiro Yamamoto, Beijing, 1906. Note the shaved forehead and long braid.
Hong Taiji official portrait
Official court portrait of Hong Taiji, Palace Museum Beijing. Note the top is buttoned over the shoulder, and not in the center.

Manchu women were not allowed to have their feet bound, a painful practice which was widespread among ethnic Han women. The Manchu had to walk a fine line between assimilating to China, so that they could be accepted as new rulers, and maintaining their own distinct identity, to enhance their status as ruling group and not simply disappear through full assimilation into Chinese culture. This also had consequences for the bureaucracy, where top positions were jointly held by Manchu and an ethnic Han official. The official documents of the court were recorded in both Chinese and Manchu. Scholars have in recent decades begun to compare these two sets of documents. This trend is known as “New Qing History”. Long thought to be simply translations into one language or the other, putting these documents side-by-side reveals differences which inform us about the different viewpoints of Manchu and ethnic Han in this strange hybrid bureaucracy.

After the conquest, the Qing bureaucracy maintained the complex system with Eight Banners for its Manchu, Mongol and Chinese military units and the families of the soldiers, and the system with six ministries and a Grand Secretariat, which was originally borrowed from the Ming. Local government was organized in three tiers: eighteen provinces at the top, each supervising a number of prefectures, and at the lowest level there were counties. This structure was maintained until the end of the Qing empire in 1911. The ethnic Han Chinese were the lowest in the hierarchy of ethnicities in the empire- they were the conquered group. Mongol and Chinese bannermen were ranked higher. Many of these had supported the Manchu before 1644, and in particular the Chinese bannermen were useful in the consolidation because their Han ethnicity made them more acceptable as bureaucrats (e.g. provincial governors) for the conquered provinces. At the top were the Manchu.

When the regent Dorgon died, a thirteen-year-old Shunzhi began to rule alone, but his court was not immune to the problems that had caused the fall of the Ming: there was infighting at the court, he was not always interested in governing, and gave power to eunuchs. When he died, history seemed to repeat itself: according to the (forged) will, his successor was a young boy, with four regents to guide him. Those four regents attempted to revert Shunzhi’s policies and emphasized Manchu nativism and supremacy. (See Chapter 3 for how this ends.)

Spence also touches on the idea of class warfare. This is an important aspect of the way this history is presented in the PRC.[2] In Marxist historiography, which dominates the PRC’s official view of history, significant changes in history are driven by economic contradictions between classes. Spence points out that while there are conflicts that clearly pit one class against another, this is not consistently the case. In some incidents, the ethnic divisions between Manchu and Han seem to supersede class tensions within the Han group, for instance. The Manchu were able to attract members of the ethnic Han upper class (defined by wealth, lineage, education and positions in the bureaucracy) to cooperate with their regime, but there were also some who resisted. In particular the economically well-developed area around the Yangzi River delta would remain a problem point for many Qing emperors. The elite of this region would collaborate with the regime, as officials, but also thwart attempts to increase imperial control and interference in this region (in particular for increasing taxation). But perhaps this should not be seen as a form of resistance against the Manchu per se, but rather as using political power to further one’s own interests.

  1. See also Lynn Struve’s translations of primary sources, available as a choice for a response paper.  ↩
  2. People’s Republic of China.  ↩


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