Visions of the 18th century
The charms of Qing TV
IT’S a good time to be a Manchu on television. Costume dramas such as “Palace” and “Bu Bu Jing Xin”, which feature modern-day protagonists flung back in time to the days of the Qing emperors, rank among the most-watched programmes on China’s video-sharing sites. And while these series would seem to mine every possible fish-out-of-water plot element for effect, nobody seems to question that a young woman speaking modern Mandarin would have any trouble communicating with her new Manchu boyfriend.
On yet another popular programme, the breathy 76-episode epic “Hou Gong Zhen Huan Zhuan”, the warring wives and battling concubines of the Yongzheng emperor have sparked their own internet meme. Fans of the show have taken to converting short messages, microblog posts, and even government pronouncements into the elegant and stylised speech of the show’s characters. Yet even with that attention to detail, all of the fighting, wailing, and backstabbing is done in a language that is perfectly understandable to the modern-day urbanites who tune in nightly on their laptops.
It’s a distinction with a difference. The Manchus were a Tungusic people from beyond the Great Wall, distantly related to the Jurchens, who conquered northern China in the 12th century to form the Jin dynasty. In the early 17th century various groups who claimed descent from the Jurchen came together under the leadership of a chieftain named Nurhaci and his family, who had grown wealthy as tributaries of the Ming emperors in Beijing. They had provided the court with ginseng and furs while building their own state in what is today north-eastern China. They spoke a language decidedly different from that of the Chinese. By the time of Nurhaci his people had begun to develop a written script for their language that was derived from written Mongolian, rather than from Chinese characters (it’s the one on the right, in the picture to the right, a snapshot from the Forbidden City). By the middle of the 17th century, this nation—now calling themselves the Manchus—were strong enough to challenge the decrepit Ming state. They seized their chance to sweep beyond the Great Wall in 1644 when a Ming general, Wu Sangui, agreed reluctantly to ally with the Manchus. Bandits had already stormed the capital and the last Ming Emperor had committed suicide. With few options left, General Wu turned to the Manchus to support his troops and help restore order. The Manchus readily agreed, annihilating the bandit army and then staying on for the better part of three centuries as the Qing dynasty.
Mark Elliott, the Schwartz Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History at Harvard, is the author of “The Manchu Way”, one of the first studies in any language to use Manchu sources in the research of Qing history. Is he bothered by TV’s monolingual Manchus?
I’d say there is little doubt that the Manchu emperors could all speak decent Chinese. Kangxi’s was almost certainly not as good as that of his son and grandson, but he could get by just fine. Still, it seems he was more comfortable speaking Manchu, and preferred communicating with the Jesuits at court in Manchu rather than in Chinese. So the issue is not so much that the emperors are speaking Chinese, but that they are never found speaking Manchu, which they most definitely could and did do, especially in dealings with Manchu officials.
Now we can hardly blame the writers and directors of period pieces for taking creative licence with their linguistics. Actors in Chinese film and television productions routinely speak standard Mandarin, even when portraying historical figures, such as Chairman Mao or Sun Yat-sen, who are well known for their colourful dialects and accents. Although most Chinese TV and film productions have Chinese subtitles anyway, few directors would choose to inflict an impenetrable—if historically accurate—Babel of dialects, regionalisms and dead languages on their audience. “Julius Caesar” probably wouldn’t have been quite the same play had Shakespeare been forced to write all the dialogue in Latin.
Yet most Britons would have no trouble identifying the native languages of a Mark Antony or Marcus Brutus with that of Ancient Rome. Many Chinese today however assume that the Qing emperors, and all Chinese emperors before them, spoke Chinese. The erasure of Manchu language from period dramas is of course a matter of artistic expedience, but it is also one of the many small and subtle ways the educational and media environment in the People’s Republic of China reinforces an orthodox interpretation of Chinese history, one which emphasises continuity and unity. For most viewers, the assumption is that what the Manchus spoke doesn’t matter, because, in the end, the Manchus were Sinicised: seduced by the splendour of Chinese civilisation into abandoning their own language, culture and identity. How else could a small population of barbarians have ruled over so many Chinese for such a long time?
Supporters of the “Sinicisation” theory point to the decline in the use of the Manchu language that began in the mid-18th century. It’s true that by the time of the 1911 revolution, which swept the Qing from power, few people spoke Manchu on a daily basis. Today, only a century later, spoken Manchu is in danger of dying out altogether. But language is not the whole story.
In the 1990s, historians in China, as well as international scholars such as Mr Elliott, began to challenge old theories of Manchu assimilation and Sinicisation. A new way of thinking about the Manchu emperors began to emerge. They are depicted not merely as a bunch of housebroken barbarians, but as the universal rulers of a multi-ethnic empire, of which Ming China was to become just one (very large and important) part. They grafted Inner Asian styles of rule onto Chinese political traditions, and were equally content to play the role of Son of Heaven according to Chinese ideals of Confucian piety as they were to present themselves as the Great Khans of the steppe or as patrons of Tibetan Buddhism.
Adherents of this “New Qing History” argue that Manchu success actually lay in their ability to maintain a distinctive group identity, separate from the Chinese they ruled. On their view, despite the Manchus’ acculturation, including the gradual demise of their own spoken language, their separate identity persisted even after the end of the empire in 1912.
Any reinterpretation of Qing history is bound to cause controversy. The Manchu era was marked by periods of great power and prosperity, but it ended ignominiously, beset by internal strife, sclerotic policymaking and repeated foreign invasions. Modern China owes a sizable debt—not the least of which is territorial—to the Qing empire, meaning that anyone who is seen trying to decouple “China” from the “Qing” risks being accused of “splittism”. That bugbear is a legacy of the imperial Japanese project of engineering an “independent” homeland for the Manchus in Manchuria or “Manchukuo”.
Even the very notion of the Qing as an imperial dynasty is difficult for some people to stomach. The story of China as a perennial victim of European, American and Japanese imperialist aggression does not sit easily beside the memory of an expansionist Qing, even if both are part of the same story. The Communist Party draws legitimacy from its historical victory over the twin evils of feudalism and foreign aggression, a victory that was symbolised in part by their claiming and defending the territory of the Qing empire. Awkwardly, the political needs of the present are prioritised above historical nuance.
Few of the million or so people who watch “Bu Bu Jing Xin” or “Zhen Huan Zhuan” this weekend will worry about the fate of empire or about whether the Qing emperors spoke Manchu or not to their concubines and wives. But the Manchus still matter. And with over 10m Manchu-language documents sitting in the Imperial Archives in Beijing, there is much research on Manchu rule and the Qing era yet to be done.