Why the Manchus Matter – In Conversation with Mark Elliott

Mark C. Elliott is the Mark Schwartz Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History at Harvard University.


Mark Elliott with Elisa Nesossi at The Australian National University

Mark C. Elliott is the Mark Schwartz Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History at Harvard University. He is a noted historian who has made major contributions to what is known as ‘New Qing History’ 新清史, a controversial area for some scholars (in particular those in the People’s Republic of China). Mark’s work engages with and complicates the official, as well as the non-official, ‘China Story’ in profound and important ways.

In the first half of 2012, Mark Elliott was the inaugural Visiting Professor at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW). His research in Canberra was supported by an Australian Research Council grant related to Qing bannermen 旗人. In particular, he worked on a project, discussed below, concerning the fate of the Manchus in the twentieth century and, on 20 June 2012, he presented the Seventy-third George E. Morrison Lecture titled ‘Reinventing the Manchus: an imperial people in post-imperial China’. For the recording of this lecture, see here; see also a related entry in The China Story Journal from 27 August 2012.

Professor Elliott’s research on the post-Qing fate of the Manchus offers important insights into the enterprise of what the Chinese party-state calls ‘the great renaissance of the Chinese nation (or race)’. Mark has also written on this subject for China Heritage Quarterly, an e-journal published under the aegis of CIW. Another academic pursuit relevant to the New Qing History is Critical Han Studies, discussed in the September 2009 issue of China Heritage Quarterly by Thomas Mullaney.

Our thanks to William Sima, a CIW research assistant, for transcribing the recording of the interview. Subheadings have been added.—The Editor

‘Live in the Present, Understand the Past’: calligraphy in the Harvard-Yenching Institute. Photograph by Geremie R. Barmé (hereafter GRB)


Elisa Nesossi: My name is Elisa Nesossi. I am a CIW Postdoctoral Fellow, and I have the honour to be in conversation with Mark Elliott, Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History at Harvard University. Mark is also  the first CIW Visiting Professor and he is in Canberra under the aegis of an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant related to the Manchus, the Bannermen and Qing history.

Mark is a leading expert on Manchu history and the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). He is the author of landmark books related to the Qing: The Manchu Way (2001) and, more recently, a biography of the Qianlong emperor (2009). Thank you, Mark, for taking the time to be with us. I would like to start with some questions related to your expertise on Qing history and the Manchus. I am curious, who or where are the one-time rulers of China, the Manchus, today?

A courtyard inside the West Palace Gate of the Summer Palace 頤和園西宮門門內. Photograph by GRB

The Manchus Today

Mark Elliott: That is one of the questions that I have been trying to establish during the several months that I have been here at CIW. Can we, in fact, speak of Manchus in China today? And if we do, then what do we really mean? Who are the Manchus today? This project, one that I am carrying out jointly with my colleague Ding Yizhuang 定宜庄, who is from the Institute of History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and who was also a visitor for a time here at the CIW.

We have essentially come to the conclusion – and we will be working this into the book that are writing – that the Manchus today are very much ‘around’. There are a little more than ten million people who identify themselves, officially, as belonging to the Manzu 滿族, the minority nationality or shaoshu minzu 少數民族 that is called ‘Manchu’. But this in large measure corresponds to a new kind of group, a different kind of group, than that which we would say existed in the Qing dynasty – the Manchus who established the Qing and ruled as the imperial elite.

This reinvention is the process that we have been so interested in. It is a process that really begins in the 1950s, when the Chinese Communist Party first decides that it is going to recognize the fact that Manchus exist – alongside Mongols, Tibetans, Zhuang, the Yi, and many other groups. Once it had decided that these groups existed, it had to go and ‘find’ them. And that process of creation of the ‘minorities’ is one that follows a variety of different patterns.

It is different in the southwest, for example, in Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces; and it is different again in, say, Tibet, or in Xinjiang or Mongolia. The Manchus present a very peculiar case, because they were supposed to have disappeared after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. Many of them changed their names or were forced to change their names, and there was a very long and drawn-out process whereby they were, gradually – and in some cases not so gradually –turned into Han 漢. And the prediction was that they would just ‘vanish’.

The state rescued them from that oblivion in the 1950s, and in so doing, set in motion a series of processes that applied to all of the different minority groups, processes that had far-reaching consequences, such that today the Manchus are the second most numerous of all minority groups in China. That is not an outcome, I think, that anybody originally expected. So that, to a degree, scholars, whenever we find a situation that we didn’t expect, the obligation is upon us to then to find out what is going on, and how to explain it. Here, we come up against various sorts of explanations, having to do with the advantages of being a non-Han – particularly after 1980. And also, a kind of renewed interest among a lot of people in their connections with their past, as individuals.

So, these are some of the reasons why the Manchus have survived. The fact of their survival, though, is one that has all kinds of political meanings, for society and the state at large. Again, the Manchus founded the last dynasty; anti-Manchu sentiment was very strong at the end of the Qing; the Republic of China was established very much on a platform of ‘let’s get rid of the Manchus’ – and yet somehow, in some strange way, the Manchus are necessary to the existence of the modern Chinese state. You have to have them around, still, to prove your organic connection to the old imperial state. It’s one of those sorts of situations where ‘you can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them’. And that is a kind of puzzle that we will be trying to understand a little more about, as we continue working on this project in the months to come.

EN: What do you believe are the main features of the story that the Manchus themselves tell to the world? Do they have a voice within China, do they have a voice outside China, or are they silent? Do they tell a story?

Editorial changes to a Manchu translation of a Buddhist text in the hand of the Qianlong 乾隆 emperor. Source: Harvard Yenching Collection. Photograph by GRB

ME: Now, it’s hard to make this case with respect to the Manchus, because there were lots of people making very loud noises, in the seventeenth century and continuing into the eighteenth and nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that the Manchus in fact were not part of the Zhonghua minzu. That they were not Chinese, they were aliens, they were outsiders, that they were uncivilized interlopers, et cetera. And again, as I said a minute ago, the foundation of the modern Chinese state depended for a lot of its appeal and power, to a kind of Han chauvinism, if you will, a nationalism, which was anti-Manchu in nature. So now to go back and say: ‘Well, actually, the Manchus are our brothers’ is a contradiction that is obvious not only to historians, but its obvious to a lot of people in China as well.

The story that the Manchus have to tell today is, I think, a little different from the story that one normally hears. The main story – if we are speaking of stories of non-Han peoples – the story that we are told is that all of these different peoples, the Han, together with the fifty-five (as the number eventually came down to be) minority nationalities, all together compose one harmonious and single entity. This is called ‘the Chinese people’, but in Chinese, the term is the Zhonghua minzu 中華民族. So, you need this unitary and unified Zhonghua minzu, this minzu, because China today is said to be a nation-state, a minzu guojia 民族國家, and a minzu guojia needs a minzu. So, in the case of China, that minzu cannot be said to be the Han, because that would leave out about one tenth of the population, and about a third of the territory. So instead we have a minzu which is called the Zhonghua minzu, and everybody belongs to this Zhonghua minzu, and everybody – interestingly – always has belonged to the Zhonghua minzu, whether they knew it or not. So, the Mongols are part of the Zhonghua minzu, as are the Tibetans and Uighurs, even at times in the distant past when they were not part, necessarily, of the Chinese state, they were still part of the Zhonghua minzu.

So, we had an incident a few years ago, in which a very well-known and well-respected scholar of Qing history [Yan Chongnian 閻崇年.—Ed.] was at a book signing in Wuxi 無錫. He had published a number of books, was well known on television as a scholar with the ability to tell complicated stories in ways that could attract large audiences. And his line on the Qing, and on the Manchus, was that this was all a big story of national unification – which is, in fact, what The China Story would like us to think. At this book signing he was attacked by a man waiting in line who didn’t want his book signed, but in fact slapped the professor in question and called him a traitor, called him a Hanjian 漢奸, somebody who had betrayed the Han people, because he had tried to make the Manchu conquest seem ‘prettier’ (in this man’s opinion, anyway) than it really was. He quite clearly saw this as a question of alien conquest and invasion – massacre, murder, rape and all the rest of it. [This incident occurred in October 2008; see Eric Mu, ‘The Slapped Historian Speaks‘.—Ed.] And that is not part of the story of ‘grand unification’ and ‘harmonious brotherhood’ between all the peoples of the Zhonghua minzu.

So, you can find similar sorts of dissonances with a number of the different minority nationalities, but it is particularly acute in the case of the Manchus, because of that special role that the Manchus play in the gestation of the modern Chinese state.

Amorphous China

EN: You have just said that the existence of the Manchu empire is extremely problematic, even today, particularly because it is linked to historical unity and problems of legitimacy. And it has also undermined the legitimacy of the contemporary Chinese state, is that not so?

ME: Well, some people would like to see it that way; I actually don’t think it is necessarily so problematic. I think a lot of it comes down, as is so often the case, to your definitions, and how you understand different terms. If, by ‘legitimacy’ – this word in Chinese is typically hefa xing 合法性 – if the legitimacy of the modern Chinese state, the People’s Republic, is seen to derive from its connection with the Qing dynasty, then, potentially, what you might have to say, what I might have to say, or what anybody might have to say about the Qing, is politically sensitive.

My understanding, though, is that the political legitimacy of the People’s Republic – this is based on my own reading of the Constitution of the PRC – is the support it has from the people, and its revolutionary credentials. It doesn’t have anything to do with what kind of empire the Qing was at all, in fact, for most of its history the PRC has rejected almost any sort of connection, of any meaningful sort, with the Qing. So if indeed the state derives its legitimacy from popular support, as it claims to, then this seems to me a non-issue. It is an historical issue, not a political issue.

But let’s grant, for the sake of argument at least, that there is a connection – and in fact I do believe there is some connection. I still don’t think this is necessarily so difficult a problem. Here, then, the question pivots on the issue of how one understands Chinese historical unity.

Anybody who has been to China knows, after a day in the country, that China has a very long history, and that has been ‘unified’ for at least four thousand, if not five thousand or more years. This is something that a lot of people take great pride in and there’s no getting around the fact that it’s quite remarkable indeed, that we still have a unified Chinese state today that is more or less of the same territorial extent of a number of the antique empires of China. However, I think that to understand China today, literally, as the same ‘China’ as the Qing, or the Ming, or Tang, or – pick your favourite dynasty, Qin? – is a mistake. I think that the idea of China is one that is inarguably very old and antique, and is one that has animated a lot of people over many centuries. Again, I don’t want for a moment to deny the remarkable longevity of that idea, but each of the times in which that idea has resulted in the formation of a political state has been a unique event. And each of these states, although they will invoke, and they have invoked, the notion of the Zhongguo 中國, or of the unity, the Yitong 一統, or of the creation of something ‘All-Under-Heaven’ 天下, each has done so in its own way, in very particular circumstances, and in very specific contexts, and no two are the same. And for this reason I prefer to think of the Qing as yet one ‘other’ – and since it was the last, one of the more important – instances of such a re-imagination of the Chinese idea.

In the particular case of the Qing we can see pretty clearly that they were inspired both by Chinese notions of what the state ought to be, what the rulers ought to do, or what the proper hierarchies and relationships were, but also by ideas that did not come from within China itself – what we think of as China, or what we call China – but from Inner Asian territories, and from previous states that had managed to control all or part of the Chinese heartland, like the Liao or the Jin or the Yuan. And those sorts of models and institutions also played a very important role in what kind of state that the Qing became, and in explaining the successes that the Qing state had in achieving consolidation, and ultimately in territorial expansion, and so on.

So, when we say that the Qing empire was a ‘Manchu’ empire, that’s what I have in mind, that this is a particular inflection of the Chinese idea, one which we cannot understand without understanding the Manchu language – at least, we can’t understand it in the way that it was understood by the people who were running the show then. I, and a number of others have on that basis gone so far as to say that we don’t want to draw a neat equivalence between the Qing empire and what we think of as ‘China’. Some have understood this to mean that we are denying any connection between the Qing and China – that is to say that the Qing was not ‘China’. And I think that is a bit of a reduction of what we’re trying to say. But admittedly, if that’s how you understand the argument, and if you believe that the PRC today derives its legitimacy because it occupies the same territory as the Qing, and inherited that from the Qing – (and here, we have to forget about the fact that there was a Republic of China, between 1911 and 1949, and which is still in existence in Taiwan!) – then of course what anybody might say about the Qing, if they want to deny that there is a one-to-one equivalence, then that will be taken as a challenge to the legitimacy of the state today. I think that this is a misunderstanding, but it is a misunderstanding that can be understood.

Tree in Prospect Hill Park 景山公園, Beijing. Photograph by GRB

New Qing History

EN: So, is this a misunderstanding that is shared among Chinese scholars, academics and experts on the Manchu and the Qing? What I would like to understand is, what is the shared view among elite Chinese on the issue? Would they share your view, or would they basically disagree?

ME: Well of course, as you well know, as soon as you start to generalize about ‘the Chinese’, then immediately it all falls apart. There is a range of views, and some of my colleagues are willing to make the effort to understand this argument on its own terms. Not all of them – in fact, most of them – won’t accept it, on its own terms. They may be willing to go so far as to agree that each of these ‘Chinas’ is a little different – but they are still ‘China’. And again, I don’t want to deny that they are ‘China’, I just want to point out the fact that ‘China’ doesn’t always mean the same thing, to everybody, all the time.

Other people, though – and this includes senior scholars who are very knowledgeable in the field, and whose work I respect – reject this idea. For them, this is simply to take things and put them into a perspective that, for them, distorts reality. For them it is turning the telescope around and looking through the wrong end. It exaggerates, (again, from their point of view), the importance of the Manchus, or of the non-Han elements of the empire, and downplays excessively the central role, as they see it, of the heartland and of the vast majority of the population, which is Han Chinese. So for them this attempt to understand the Qing in this way is understood, and grouped, as a ‘school’. It isn’t really, but it is thought of that way by many people, as the ‘New Qing History’. For them, this is all just Western scholars who don’t really understand what they are talking about, and who are in some cases – and I have seen this in print – believed to be politically motivated.

Again, this goes back to what you were saying a minute ago about questioning political legitimacy, this crossover, and when what ought to be questions of academic importance then come to be seen as questions that have serious political implications behind them. That makes it very difficult, then, for conversation to take place, because there are assumptions being made on one side that what you’re really trying to do is something that is actually quite different than what you think you’re trying to do.

EN: In one of your articles on the emergence of Manchuria, you say that China’s territorial integrity continues to be defended today on the basis of the eighteenth-century geo-body. Now, in view of the tensions between the local and global definitions of the Chinese geo-body where do you see that the main challenges for the future lying?

ME: The challenges for the future! No sensible historian will give you a word about the future. We withdraw back into our shells like hermit crabs when the word ‘future’ is mentioned, because we don’t know anything about the future. So really, I wouldn’t presume to say.

What I wrote in that article was an effort to understand how a part of the empire became part of the nation. That process of incorporation is complete for Manchuria – complete, at least, after World War II. Whether it is complete for other parts of China is, I think, an open question. It doesn’t take a lot of exposure to current news to learn about the tensions that make life very difficult for lots of people in places such as Tibet, or the Tibetan regions in Qinghai or Gansu or Sichuan – not to mention Xinjiang, or even Inner Mongolia. I think that Chinese scholars – I know, from reading their work – and policy-makers as well, are quite conscious of the fact that there are problems with the way that China has been put together.

Benedict Anderson had a great way of describing this movement from ‘empire’ to ‘nation’, which is a process that we are still in the middle of, I think, today. Anderson’s line had to do with ‘stretching the short, tight skin of the nation over the enormous fat body of the empire’. And China’s empire was very big. The skin that is now being stretched over Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, is – well, there are ‘tears’ appearing, it would seem. So, there either needs to be a change in policy, or there needs to be a change in the way that present policies are implemented.

What is very interesting for me, is that this discussion about the proper – or the suitability – of the current policy on the non-Han, is one that is happening right now in China, in academic journals, and to some degree in magazines and in some of the more academic newspapers as well. It is an open debate. Some people are calling for the abandonment of current policies on the shaoshu minzu, that is, getting rid of minority nationality identity altogether, scrapping the autonomous regions and counties, and so on, and going to a situation in which what your ethnic identity is, is no longer something that the state has anything to do with. The idea is that, in that way, this will accelerate the process whereby the Zhonghua minzu all become ‘one’, for real. Every single person I speak to who is not Han opposes this idea, for obvious reasons. They see it as the dismantling of those policies that have provided them with some measure of autonomy – if not complete autonomy – and some measure of protection for their different indigenous languages, religions and customs, and what have you.

There are those who oppose this idea on the government side. Some are for this idea of scrapping the minority nationality laws – this is Article Four of the Constitution, so it is a big deal – but there are those who say that this cannot be done, that it is a not a problem of policy, but that the policies are poorly implemented. So, this debate is live. Within the last six months actually there has been a lot of contributions to this question. What the future will bring as far as the geo-body, I don’t presume to say. I don’t see China splitting apart; I don’t think that that’s going to happen. But some sort of solution needs to be found to the problems that appear to be worsening when it comes to the ways in which the peoples of the Qing empire, in particular on the frontiers, have been incorporated into modern China. There are examples [of solutions] aplenty, in different parts of the world. Which examples are appropriate, which make sense, that’s really for the Chinese to decide.

The China Story: a unified field theory

EN: In one of your most recent articles, you state that today’s leaders in Beijing must be aware that history is not on their side, as they are struggling to put forward a China Story which is unitary, precise and unchangeable. Where do you see the main challenges for the Chinese leadership in producing such a unitary history?

ME: I think that this idea of history not being on their side had to do with the fact that the leadership today, unlike in the Qing dynasty, is Han. No group of Han leaders have run a big empire like the Qing for very long. All the cases we can think of, where China is at the geographic extent that it is today, have occurred during periods of so-called ‘alien rule’, or non-Han rule. So, what the Party is trying to do today is something that no-one has succeeded in doing in the past. And I think that this is a challenge for them – and I’m not in contact with them, so I don’t know! – but I think that that precedent, to the degree that there are aware that the Qing or the Yuan, or even the Tang, and the Tang ruling family was not entirely Chinese, not entirely Han, they must be aware. And they travel a difficult path.

The challenge is also made greater by the fact that history – going back to our earlier discussion about the importance of history to legitimacy – if that’s true, then you want to be able to control what your historians say. That’s never easy. It’s really hard if the historians who are writing your history aren’t even people in your country. It wasn’t always the case that Westerners, or Japanese or Koreans who were working in the field of Chinese history got much of a readership inside China, so what we did maybe didn’t matter so much – with a few exceptions. But that is no longer so true, and Chinese scholars today are pretty aware of the kind of work that people are doing outside of China in their own fields. To that degree, I think, the ability to keep hegemony over what sort of historical narratives get produced is extremely limited.

I’ve found that the kinds of stories that I like to tell – and as I always tell my students, the story needs to be made more complicated, not less complicated – often seem to go in the opposite direction from what seems to me to be the kind of work that my Chinese colleagues want to do, which is to reduce things to a story of: ‘This is the correct interpretation that we all need to agree on’. So, we are working in very different ways, and within very different intellectual traditions. Inevitably, if you’re able to tell a persuasive story on the basis of evidence, that both sides recognize as legitimate, and good, then you are going to find people on the other side who are persuaded by your story, and convinced by it. That undermines that hegemony. This is another complicating factor, as China is being integrated into global currents in many different sorts of ways, intellectually as well, which makes the task of trying to produce a unified story very, very hard.

EN: What I find really fascinating in your writing is that you contest all the time this absolute assimilative power of the Han, and the fact of China as being cut off from the rest. To what extent are these concepts still alive in China today? (In my view, they are.) To what extent do they shape the way that China tells its own story to the world?

ME: I think that both of these stories, these kinds of rhetoric, are very much alive. The idea of the assimilative power of the Han, the notion of ‘Sinification’, or Hanhua 漢化, is one of the main reasons why scholars in China began to take notice of this so-called ‘New Qing History’ in the first place. Because part of the early debates that grew up in the United States around this interpretation of the Qing had to do with the question of ‘sinicization’ or ‘sinification’, when those debates were translated into Chinese, all of a sudden a lot of people began to realize that important questions were in fact being raised, and the answer that scholars engaged with New Qing History were coming up with were not answers that a lot of people liked.

So, the idea of Han assimilation of the non-Han is one that a lot of people will tell you is a process of mutual accommodation or acculturation. But for the most part, I think, [most people favor] the idea of the Han as a ‘snowball’, that grows in size as it rolls down the hill of time, and all kinds of things stick to it as it gets bigger and bigger. But at its core it is always still Han, so no matter how big it is, and no matter what kinds of things have stuck to it, it’s still ‘Chinese’. Now, this process has been going on for quite a long time, obviously. And if you look back at other instances of so-called sinification, when people ostensibly were happy to join up with the Han mainstream, in fact the story is inevitably pretty complicated. Buddhism is the best example, because Buddhism was, of course, rejected by many Han intellectuals for centuries as an alien teaching, and the process by which it became naturalized – as it were, made into part of this snowball – was hardly an overnight event, and hardly something that went on without a lot of protest and resistance, both on the parts of individuals and on the part of the state.

So, here – and here again, the argument often gets simplified, to such a degree that it is hard to carry on the debate – it is not that Chinese culture doesn’t have a great deal of attraction for a lot of people. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be studying Chinese, I wouldn’t be studying Chinese, we wouldn’t be spending our lives working on this stuff. It is more a question of how do you understand processes of cultural change and adaptation. What does it mean to ‘become Chinese’? Can you take on cultural aspects of ‘Chinese-ness’ without abandoning your identity as being non-Chinese? And if you believe, as I do, that you can – the Qing offers many examples of Manchus and others who took on all sorts of performative aspects of being Chinese: writing in Chinese, singing Chinese opera, painting Chinese paintings, and so forth, and yet thinking of themselves notas Han, but as people of the banners, as Manchus – then you realize that a more nuanced understanding of how acculturation happens is required to really get a handle on lived experience.

Corner Tower, Forbidden City 紫禁城角樓. Photograph by GRB

If, on the other hand, you buy into a kind of idea that if you speak Chinese, you therefore are Chinese, and you’re no longer who you were, then it’s a pretty simple sum. But then of course, by that sum, you’re Chinese, and I am Chinese, too. And that usually is not a conclusion that most of our Chinese friends would be too comfortable with. You find a variety of different sorts of responses there.

So the whole notion of ‘assimilation’ is one therefore that becomes tied up with definitions, and also with the idea of needing to produce a single culture for everybody – which is urgent today, or seen by some to be urgent today.

Returning to our discussion a minute ago about removing policies for minority nationalities, the hope is to arrive at a culture that will support the idea of a Zhonghua minzu. What kind of a culture would that be? I think most people would answer that this would basically be Han culture as it exists today – which, again, is admittedly an accretion, but still we regard it as the culture of the Han majority. But that is not acceptable to a lot of people who feel strongly about maintaining the languages and traditions of their fathers and mothers and so forth. So, that belief in the power of Chinese culture is still quite strong.

The idea of China being isolated is also still quite strong, a discourse that is still there as part of the story that people tell themselves – and that the textbooks tell – about history during the Qing, in particular. It is a little bit more complicated, and I think its complexity is recognized by Chinese historians more generally, because of a competing story, a competing discourse, of openness to the world during the Tang. You have the widespread, popular idea of the Silk Road, and of the fact that Chinese culture and cultures of Western Asia mixed in all kinds of ways in Tang Chang’an 長安 and in other places along the Silk Road.

So that China’s isolation is not seen as being eternal, but there is a disconnect, then, between that openness in the Tang and that ‘closing’ of the empire, say, after the Tang – which wasn’t opened again, according to this way of seeing things, until the arrival of the West in the nineteenth century. The fact that half of the silver in the New World ends up in China, coming through Manila from mines in South America and Mexico, is one of a number of powerful arguments to show how connected China really was with the rest of the world. That such a significant proportion of the wealth of the English crown came from the tax on tea, which could only come from China in the eighteenth century, is another – and there are more.

The so-called ‘California School’ of Chinese history, which, like the New Qing History, has received a fair amount of attention in China – people like Bin Wong, Kenneth Pomeranz, Hamashita Takeshi and Jack Goldstone – have argued for China as being very much a part of the world system of trade, from at least the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I think that this is beginning to win over some people, and maybe with time the notion of China’s ‘isolation’ from the rest of the world will begin to fade, too. I see both of these as troublesome because they contribute to a belief in Chinese exceptionalism, that China is somehow different from everywhere else and that its history can’t be understood using models derived by the experience of other people in other places, ever, and that for that reason, whatever criticism anybody might have about China, or whatever argument that they might want to make about China’s past, doesn’t apply, because China is ‘different’.

I come from the United States, and there are a lot of people who like to argue the very same thing for the US! And of course, German historians have long made this kind of an argument, since the nineteenth century, that Germany follows a Sonderweg, its own ‘special path’. I don’t buy exceptionalism in any form, I certainly don’t believe it helps us very much when it comes to understanding the Chinese past. Any sort of habit of thinking that tends towards exceptionalism is one that I would have to take issue with. Both of these things fall into that category, I’m afraid.

The Manchus: a great past in the future

EN: One final, if perhaps technical, question Mark. In an article you published approximately ten years ago on the Manchu language archives, you stated that considerable work remained to be done before we could know the extent to which Manchu material could revolutionize our understanding of the Qing period. Today, how do assess the progress in research that has been undertaken over the last decade on Manchu material? Did the revolution happen, or has it at least started to happen? And what are the factors – if there are any at all – that have contributed to any change in perspective on Manchu material?

ME: I don’t think a revolution has happened. But like Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution, it is also too soon to tell what the final outcome will be. I think the number of people actively using Manchu-language sources is more today than it was ten years ago, but it is still a small number. The number of books and articles published on the basis of that research is still pretty limited. I can think of one dissertation in the People’s Republic that I know of – there may well be others, but I only know of one – that has made extensive use of Manchu-language materials. Otherwise, I’m afraid, that there are many people who believe that using the Chinese translations of Manchu-language materials counts as using Manchu-language materials. To which I say, well, if we could use English translations or Italian translations of Chinese-language materials, would that count also as using Chinese-language materials? Of course, the answer to that would be no! So there still remains a lot to be done.

Among my students there will be, in the next five or so years – their dissertations are being completed now – I think that we will see new monographs and articles appearing that will help to show, further, how the use of Manchu-language materials will be able either to correct mistaken beliefs about what happened, or to provide alternate or expanded interpretations of changes in the land, changes in people and changes in society – things that we have understood, but perhaps imperfectly or incompletely.

I am encouraged by the fact that in the PRC there all this attention to New Qing History, and a recognition by very many people of the value of using Manchu – and also Mongolian and Tibetan or Chagatai languages – in research. Just a couple of months ago, the Qing History Institute 清史所 at Renmin University 人大, the leading body for Qing history research in China, established a Manchu Studies Centre. I think that’s a wonderful thing. I am very pleased to see it, and I hope that this means there will be more and more students in China who will take up the study of Manchu – it’s not that difficult, compared to Chinese, anyway – and explore what there is out there.

There are ten million items, as I wrote in that article, that we know of, in Manchu. So, something like one-fifth of the archival deposit of the Qing is in this other language. It seems criminal to ignore it, and at the same time, it does require more work. Asking people to do more work is always tough. But there is growing interest in Korea as well. If I’m not mistaken, a new Institute for Manchu Studies was established earlier this year at Korea University. So this is not something that is restricted only to China; it is something that has long existed in Japan, and Taiwan has places where you have always been able to study Manchu – I studied a little Manchu in Taiwan, with a specialist at the National Palace Museum.

So that’s, I think, a hopeful sign, but these things take time. Most historians will tell you that a change in paradigm – one which filters down to the textbook level – takes about a generation, about twenty years. We are now halfway through such a twenty-year cycle. I suggest we make an appointment to talk again in 2022, and you can ask me this same question.

EN: I would be very happy to do that, Mark, thank you so much!

Mark Elliot (right) with Duncan Campbell of The Australian National University at the Pavilion of Azure Waves Garden, Suzhou 蘇州滄浪亭, September 2010. Photograph by GRB