Qing Dynasty and Language

If your homeland were conquered by a foreign power, which would you expect: your occupier to force its foreign tongue upon you or to adopt your language and operate its new government under it? Language is a powerful cultural identifier. For the Manchu people that conquered Ming Dynasty China and established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the seventeenth century, language was the most important factor in establishing the legitimacy of their rule. Careful analysis of Evelyn Rawski’s “Reenvisioning the Qing” reveals the Manchu sought to preserve and spread their own language and embrace the language identity of the Han Chinese, with intriguing historic consequences. Whether or not this possibly counterproductive policy helped or hurt the Manchu maintain their empire is ready for examination.

The Manchu had a history of interesting language interaction before seizing China. According to Rawski, “Mongol allies were vital to the Manchu conquest. Since these alliances were usually cemented by marriage exchanges, early Qing emperors claimed Mongol as well as Manchu ancestry. Mongolian and Manchu were the primary languages during the crucial conquest decades before 1644” (834). Even before they took Beijing, the Manchu were accustomed to adopting other tongues and sharing their own. Rawski calls attention to “the ability of the Manchus to bind warriors from a variety of cultural backgrounds to their cause” (834). Language was key to their success. Perhaps the ease of which the Manchu allowed a mutual exchange of language served as a precedent for their seemingly contradictory policies in China.

When the Qing Dynasty began, the Manchu immediately set to work dispelling the view that they were foreigners and establishing themselves as acceptable rulers. “The adoption of Ming state rituals was a crucial way for Manchu rulers to assert their legitimacy by linking themselves to the former legitimate imperial state” (Schoppa, 32). Religious, political, and household rituals were included. Rawski claims “the determination of the rulers to present themselves to their Chinese subjects as Confucian monarchs is evident in their acquisition of Chinese” (834). Among adoption of other Confucian rituals, the Manchu made a point to learn the Chinese language. As the empire expanded, so the embracing of local language increased. The Qianlong emperor of the eighteenth century spoke Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian, Uighur, and Tibetan, and declared these to be the official state languages (Rawski, 835). Rawski notes, “The emperor commissioned translations, dictionary compilations, and other projects to promote each language” (835). It is evident that the Manchu leaders wished to make the tongues of Han China a part of their own identity.

On the other side of the coin, they also aimed to preserve and teach Manchu. Rawski writes, “Northeastern peoples like the Daur, who had no written language of their own, learned Manchu” (836). The Manchu encouraged use of native languages throughout China, but here one sees the Manchu also sought to spread their own. The Daur, Ewenk and Oroqen eventually spoke and wrote Manchu script (Rawski, 836). The Manchu also sought to teach their language to allied leaders residing in the capitol: “Living in Peking, surrounded by the splendors of Han Chinese culture, they developed in the eighteenth century a definition of Manchu identity that stressed…fluency in the Manchu language” (Rawski, 838). Furthermore, the Manchu had many works translated into their tongue, and kept their government records and history in Manchu.

To the casual observer, it would seem that employing both strategies—preserving Manchu and embracing Chinese languages—would prove counterproductive. One might think that the Manchu should have required the use of their tongue in an effort to solidify their rule, or perhaps one would expect the Manchu to give up their language altogether to fully “sinicize,” to blend into Chinese culture. After all, its writing system was indeed in its infancy, having just been created by Nurgaci and his son Hongtaiji (Rawski, 840). One could make the case that sinicization would have been more complete had they let their native tongue die out. However, the Manchu maintaining their language and encouraging native languages established a balance of power that was the key to preserving their rule. It allowed them to demonstrate the legitimacy of their rule and hold a multiethnic together.

While the Manchu did not only spread their language, rituals and traditions (such as mounted archery) do not create a balance of power. Language is key. What better way to show the Han people that life can resume as normal after a hostile takeover than to allow the people the right to continue, and even spread, their own language? Other empires of history have not shown the same wisdom. Additionally, holding on to Manchu within government circles and using it to fill in the gaps of literacy (as noted before, with the tribes on the outer regions), carefully allows the invaders to preserve their identity. It distinguishes them, yes, but not in a way harmful to their rule, not in a way that marks them as aliens. They do so in a way that blends their tongue and thus their culture seamlessly into the multiethnic realm that is China. Whether one accepts that sinicization allowed the Qing Dynasty last so long, or that it was by building cultural links with multiple ethnic groups as Rawski believes (831), the balance of power the Manchu created through language was instrumental.

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Evelyn S. Rawski, “Reenvisioning the Qing: The Significance of the Qing Period in Chinese History,” The Journal of Asian Studies 55, no. 4 (November 1996): 829-850.

R. Keith Schoppa, Revolution and its Past (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 32.