Chinese Academy of Social Sciences throwing shade at The New Qing History

The idea of Manchu Sinicization is a hobgoblin unlikely to die anytime soon in China. Historians affiliated with what has become known as the “New Qing History” have been attempting to complicate this narrative for nearly three decades, and while scholars overseas — and even a few within China — are starting to come around, the dominant narrative inside China remains that the Manchus succeeded in ruling because, unlike earlier non-Han dynasties, they assimilated and adopted Chinese styles of rule and other cultural values. Indeed, according to the most strident adherents of “Sinicization”, the Manchus couldn’t help but assimilate once they encountered the vastly superior civilization of China.

Earlier this month, I came across an article in the China Daily on the study of Manchu language in China today and how this “archaic language is helping historians to solve Qing mysteries.” Sadly, after a few mentions of Manchu-language sources on the architectural and material culture of the Forbidden City and other imperial sites, the article descends into hoary and outdated old tropes:

According to Tong Yue, a Qing history expert from Shenyang, in northeastern Liaoning province, where the Manchu originated, the decline of the language started the moment this ethnic people sought to rule over the entire land of China, in the early 17th century.

“The Manchu people, similar to the Mongols 400 years before, came from the northeast to sweep the country by sheer military might, at a time when Han rulers – from the Chinese majority group – had become corrupt and weak,” he said. “Dutiful students of history, the Manchu had from the very beginning tried to avoid the fatal mistake committed by the Mongols.

“Instead of imposing on their subjects everything Manchu, the Qing rulers, awed by the much more sophisticated form of civilization they encountered in Central China, borrowed enthusiastically from this newfound cultural wealth, including the language.”

It’s a notion which obviously had great appeal to Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century who were faced with writing a history of an era during which a ‘barbarian’ conquest dynasty not only ruled China for nearly three hundred years but also pushed the boundaries of the Chinese world further than any Han-ruled dynasty had ever achieved. In the rush to lay claim to China’s exceptional qualities as a nation (5000 years of history, 5000 years of continuous history, inventor of everything), it made sense to explain away Manchu success as a result of their thorough inculcation and internalization of Chinese values and civilization.

The Manchus also conquered vast areas in what is today Western China, including Tibet and Xinjiang. They were the first state on the mainland to consolidate their control over the island of Taiwan. This makes the issue of Manchu cultural identity politically problematic as well. Separating the Manchu-ruled Qing Empire from the post-imperial governments of the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China not only complicates modern Chinese attempts at establishing the extent of the Qing Empire as “inherent territory,” it also recalls bad memories of Japanese and British attempts to use the “Manchu-ness” of the Qing Empire to wrest control over Manchuria and Tibet respectively.

Which partially explains why the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences this week loaded up for the academic equivalent of a drive-by shooting, spraying exclamation points and vitriol at Qing historians Pamela Crossley, James Millward, and Mark Elliott. The article charges them as imperialists, revisionists, splittists…the usual epithets hurled when a Chinese scholar can no longer take the cognitive dissonance pinging around his brain like a meth-addled gerbil and finally decides to go apoplectically patriotic.

In this case, the apoplectic patriot is Li Zhiting, a Qing scholar with quite the fetish for exclamatory punctuation, and the article appeared earlier this week on the website of CASS and was then published in the official journal Chinese Social Sciences Today.  (The always excellent China Media Project has a rundown on Professor Li and partial translation of the first page of the article here.)

(It’s fair for me to state from the beginning, that I’m pretty firmly in the camp of New Qing History. My love of learning about Manchus has long been a running joke among my students and friends who accuse me, not unfairly, of having an unhealthy man-crush on The Kangxi Emperor.)

The litany of charges against the New Qing historians is a long one, but mostly they have come under fire for having the temerity to destabilize the idea of a historically-fixed China and reject the teleological narratives which so many Chinese historians love to cuddle up with at night to keep the bad feelings away.

It is clear that separating the notion of “Qing” from “China” is a good way to make Professor Li grumpy: Of course China=Qing, it always has! This is obvious! Anyone who says otherwise is an evil imperialist! Why am I shouting! I don’t know!

If the Chinese language had a version of writing in CAPS LOCK, I think this article is it.

On the issue of whether the Qing was an empire, and in particular an expansive empire, James Millward—who, full disclosure alert, is one of my favorite historians—comes in for a bit of a drubbing:

“New Qing History” obscures the truth about “Empire.” The essential characteristics of Imperialism are aggression, expansion, and plundering of occupied territories. For example, from the beginning of the 16th century, first Spain and then especially England, extended their power from Europe to North and South America and eventually to Asia and Africa. Wherever their ships landed there was blood and fire! Then an occupation of the land and the enslavement of local people. France, Germany, Russia similarly expanded and invaded foreign lands. In the 19th century, there was the rise of Japanese militarism and an especially frenzied form of aggression. After the conclusion of the Civil War in the United States, the tentacles of American Imperialism reached toward Asia. Ask: Which of the five continents has not been invaded and enslaved by these powers? Which of these countries did not invade China? 200 years ago, what was the United States? It was White people from Europe plundering, killing,  and annihilating the Native Americans to take their land and build the United States. THAT is real Imperialism!

During the century between the Opium War and 1945, when Japan surrendered [Ed Note: To whom, I wonder?] European powers and Japanese bandits came to China and brutally massacred Chinese people of all nationalities. They plundered China’s resources, with Russia and Japan seizing huge swaths of territory. The powers carved up the land of China into spheres of influence. Is this not the basic characteristics of Imperialism? The Western powers and Japan imposed humiliation on the Chinese nation and the Qing government was unable to resist and had to sue for peace. How can this become Imperialism? The Qing Dynasty was corrupt, backwards and never on a par with Western or Japanese imperialists, how can we use the same language to describe it?

Even though obviously, Modern China clearly suffered at the hands of the Western Powers, James Millward says: “Modern China is a part of the story of Imperialism.” How arrogant! How wildly presumptuous! We can see how the absurdity of these American scholars is a kind of pathology!

Mark Elliott–okay, another Granite Studio fave–also receives a fair amount of criticism, especially for promoting the idea that Manchus are different from Han, Manchuria is different from China, and for arguing that the Manchu conquest of Ming China constituted an invasion. This is, of course, a pretty simplistic reading of Professor Elliott’s work, although by the end of Professor Li’s article one wonders if he actually did his own close analysis of Crossley, Millward, and Elliott or if he simply cribbed the notes from one of their less attentive undergrad students.

They are claiming that Manchus were “foreign” and so not a part of the Chinese nation and are not inherently a nationality of China. therefore, Manchu and Han, and Manchu and China are not related. As Mark Elliott said: “The Manchu people conquered ‘中原 Zhongyuan’ (Ed Note: The word is a little ambiguous because while it can mean China, it also specifically means the central provinces of China) to establish the Qing Empire…and used overwhelming military force to conquer the Ming Dynasty…and was a foreign invasion against China’s sovereignty.”

The New Qing History clearly declares: Manchus are “alien.” They entered through the pass and seized power. They destroyed China’s sovereignty, and further slander Manchus as foreign invaders. These arguments abound in the writings of scholars from Europe and America…These scholars equate the Qing Dynasty as if it were Japanese militarism!

Yeah…that was totally Elliott’s point in “The Manchu Way: How the Qing Emperors were really Hideki Tojo in Pigtails.” No wonder I got that question wrong on my comps.

If these things all seem like a spitball fight in the faculty lounge, then Professor Li’s final point is where arcane arguments of historiography intersect with the real fears of the Chinese leadership over territorial integrity. You can mess with the Kangxi Emperor and question what language he used to speak to his kids, but you don’t call him expansionist because…well, I’ll let Professor Li tell you why:

Did the Qing Dynasty unify the frontiers (Ed Note: Refers to Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, etc.) or invade them? The New Qing scholars insist on the latter point of view: The Qing consolidated their control over these regions through military force….The fact is however that the Qing Dynasty inherited the unity of past dynasties including the unity of these regions. How can this be an invasion? Mongolia,Τibeτ, Χinjiang are China’s inherent territory, how can the Qing reunification of these areas be a military conquest? There is no need to refute the arguments [of these scholars]. How are they different than the splittists who cry out for “Τibeτan Ιndependence” or “Μongolian Ιndependence” (Ed Note: Uh…Mongolia is independent, or at least most of it…) and “Easτ Τurkesτan Separaτisτs” or that these places are “not part of China” and bang the drum of “independence”?

It’s clear that by introducing ideas and evidence at odds with accepted and cherished narratives, the New Qing History and its associated scholars have hit a nerve in the academic community. 

I also agree with China Media Project’s David Bandurski who argues: “Most readers of the piece could not fail to note the clear political bias at work — not to mention the unwarranted (in academic discourse) aggression. The essay, in fact, is not about historical scholarship at all, but about China’s current ideological climate.”

The concluding paragraph — and here I’m being lazy and using CMP’s translation —descends into a veritable orgy of righteous indignation and exclamation points:

“New Qing History” is academically absurd, and politically does damage to the unity of China. It is necessary to stir all scholars with a sense of righteousness to fiercely oppose it. We entirely reject “New Qing History.” Moreover, we expose its mask of pseudo-academic scholarship, eliminating the deleterious effect it has had on scholarship in China!

Fortunately, China has many academics who are neither as angry or absurd as Professor Li. One of my favorite researchers, Ge Jianxiong, wrote an essay a few years ago entitled “To exaggerate the size of China’s historical territory is not patriotic.”

First of all, “China” (Zhongguo) only officially became the name of our country with the founding of the Republic of China in 1912. Before this, the idea of China (“Zhongguo”) was not clearly conceptualized. The concept of “China” has continued to expand. From referring specifically to the central plains of China, the concept has since grown to now refer generally to a whole nation. Even during the late Qing, “China” would sometimes be used as a name to refer to the Qing State, including all the territory with in the boundaries of the Qing Empire, but other times it would only refer to the “18 Interior Provinces” and not include Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Therefore, if we want to understand the extent of ancient China’s territory, we can only speak of how large was the actual territory controlled by a particular dynasty at a particular moment. For example: How big was the Qin Dynasty? How big was the Tang Dynasty? How big was the Qing Dynasty? If you want to say how large was “China” at a certain time, you need to explain how “China” is conceptualized, including explaining which Dynasty or regime is being discussed…

Until now, there are those people who feel that the more they exaggerate the territory of historical “China” or China’s successive dynasties and kingdoms the more patriotic they are. Actually, it is exactly the opposite. If China really wishes to rise peacefully, we must understand the true facts of history, only then will we be able to know the sum of our history, learn from our experiences, and so be on a solid footing to face the future.

Earlier this month, historian Yao Dali launched a broadside against tired old notions of Manchu Sinicization, arguing that these narratives are more a reflection of nationalist wishful thinking than based on any evidence.

So clearly not all members of the historical community have completely lost their minds. I also think that many (most?) of the younger generation of Qing historians — quite a few of whom did their graduate training outside of the PRC — would roll their eyes at Professor Li’s vitriol. But it’s clear that the ideological retrenchment which seems to be the new normal is reaching into even arcane corners of the Sinological universe.