Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Manchus: first installment

I’ll be taking this book in several chunks, because it is assigned to me, and I have the time to read in leisure and contemplation before the beginning of school. So, The Manchus, by Pamela Crossley. This is the first installment of a Blackwell series called The Peoples of Asia. I’m not sure if this series was ever finished—particularly because Blackwell became Wiley recently. Having made a long-term study of introductions and prefaces, I found the introduction of this book slightly puzzling. It suggests at, but doesn’t describe the original vision of the book by the series editor, Morris Rossabi. The implication is that the book differs in some basic way from this original vision, and may somehow be linked to the book’s presentation of the Manchus as distinct from “China,” “the Qing Dynasty” and of course the Mongols. In some ways some of this discussion seems a little superfluous… all introductions these days have an extreme sense of modesty and apologetic quality that seems over the top. Alright already!

But let’s suppose that in 1997, the explicit statement that the Manchus need to be considered apart from their various organizations and empires had to be said. That is, if I’m reading her intent correctly! However, I’m unsure what she means by the “frontier of knowledge of Manchu history and culture is receding so quickly that it is hazardous indeed to pretend to write down anything about it for a general audience.” Does she mean that, populated by an excess of historians, the frontier is increasingly contested, and that the book’s lifespan may be short? This is the best interpretation I can offer, and yet, this is the occupational hazard of the historian in general.

Moving on, I ventured into the first chapter, which is dedicated further to the idea of separating out the ethnic-groups, movements, organizations, nations and empires the Manchus were created by or affiliated with. For someone (myself) who is less than well acquainted with the history of the European and Asian continents before 1800, this can be slightly confusing. We learn a truncated version of Asian history which equates these groups when convenient. On the other hand, we might think of the Manchu history in the same way we consider the peopling of America. It would be silly for an American to fail to distinguish between the Aztec Triple Alliance and the Iroquois, though they were both native populations of the Americas. Similarly, we know now that we can’t equate the nations of native populations as they were in 1500 with the organizations of native populations in the 19th century. Since we are Americans, we’re very much aware of the nuances of our own history, while Crossley finds that she has to explain the differences here.

After she has given us the basic ethnic derivation of the Manchus, she jumps into the current, or 20th century view of the Manchus, which is very much tied up with the Qing Dynasty or empire. She connects the identification of the Qing as a Manchu empire with the subsequent Chinese nationalism, and then socialism in the 20th century. Meaning that 20th century Chinese were eager to identify the 19th century failures of China with a non-Han ethnic group, and thereby explain those failures (maybe conveniently forgetting the strength of the empire prior to the 19th century). This is something I haven’t heard before, but which seems legitimate. For my own part, I have always attributed these 19th century difficulties to a gestalt of the time. Likewise, the Republican period and the revolution seem very much tied to what was in the air around the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, history is often used as a way of galvanizing public opinion, and I’m willing to believe that this was, consciously and unconsciously, perhaps.

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