Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Manchus: second installment

Well, that last post on The Manchus was a whole lotta verbiage for only the first 10 pages! I will try to get a little further with this second post. I wanted first to explore what I think is the intent of the series, which I have yet to verify. The intent that I can divine is to present the peoples of Asia apart from their connections to nations or empires. This might seem obvious, but at least in the case of the Manchus, the population that was so-named was very diverse and had streamed in and out of societies and alliances long before they acquired the name “Manchu,” or led a Chinese empire. So much for my assessment of intent; this may be the first book in the series because series-editor Morris Rossabi happens to be expert in this area. So, now, I’ll talk a bit about the sources used here.

Crossley expressly discusses her source material—and the available sources for all historians—in the introduction. She may, in part, feel this necessity because new sources have become available for a variety of reasons. American access to sources had been variable through the 20th century, and downright difficult at many points. Internally, the Chinese may also have found some difficulty finding or using unusual sources too, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. Some suggest, too, that sources which present divergent or non-nationalist viewpoints have at various times been suppressed or destroyed. I am not sure, at this point, how much that applies to the study of the Qing empire or the Manchu ethnicities, but it seems to have affected it.

The other source-related discussion is around new findings, or perhaps sources which have been used in non-traditional or innovative ways. Korean sources are essential to Crossley’s work, particularly the narrative of a diplomatic visit to “Manchu” khan Nurgaci. The narratives of travelers, students, and merchants add another dimension to official state records, upon which many histories have probably been formulated. Manchu sources of varying kinds have also enjoyed a resurgence, in part because of recent interest in the Manchu language. Like the Korean sources, there are non-traditional sources, like poetry, drum-songs, ballads, eulogies and other writings in the social-history tradition. The use of sources like these in a social or cultural context seems like a no-brainer, at this point—but the further into the past we venture, the fewer of these exist . . . not to mention, the meanings of these sources become increasingly contestable!

So, once having dispensed with these necessary considerations, Crossley leaps into the history of the Manchus. This gets a little complicated because the name “Manchu” is a 17th century invention following conquest of Han China by northern peoples (roughly speaking, the Jurchen, with Kitans and others). Crossley, then, must begin much earlier, in order to talk about the ethnic and linguistic background of the peoples who became the Jurchen, who became the Manchus. There are a series of complex allegiances on a large scale, and smaller familial or social groups which have been labeled “clans” to indicate “consciousness of mutual descent (25).” There are a couple points in this discussion that I found particularly interesting.

The first has to do with some of the linguistic origins of Manchu. I won’t discuss here, but I will suggest that the ability of early language to travel long distances and be adopted is a marvelous thing. The second is the historical/anthropological use of “clan.” This struck me as an oddly western and possibly pejorative usage, though Crossley clearly doesn’t intend it as such—the tern “clan” to describe the social groups of the Jurchens has been in use for some time. However, I was surprised to see Crossley retain it when she chose to use “Taiping War” for “Rebellion,” and “Qing Empire” for “Dynasty.”

Finally (for the time being!), I was interested in the “re-education” the Jurchens or Manchus used for their aristocrats who had strayed too far from the hunter/warrior persona. I was very much reminded of modern re-education of elites and professionals. This is not to say there’s a connection—there’s not!—but I was reminded of Umberto Eco’s colorful characters in the novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, who find that everything in the world is rife with connections, if we only make them.

No comments: