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History & Memory 16.2 (2004) 67-107

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Historical Trauma

Anti-Manchuism and Memories of Atrocity in Late Qing China

In April 1644 the reigning emperor of Ming-dynasty China committed suicide as massive rebel armies invaded Beijing. By the end of that year the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), led by Manchus, had defeated the rebel armies and remnant Ming forces in and near the capital and had seated a new emperor on the throne in the Forbidden City. They had taken control of northern China and were well on their way to imposing their authority in the south as well. The Qing, like the earlier Yuan (Mongol) dynasty of the thirteenth century, was a conquest dynasty, achieving power through invasion from the north. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Manchu tribal leaders had put together, through conquest and alliance, an ever larger and more efficient military machine that also included Mongols, Koreans and Han Chinese (in what we now call southern Manchuria). The collapse of the Ming, the spread of violence across much of China in the early seventeenth century and the final attacks of the Qing forces caused great suffering. Whole cities were razed when their residents did not submit; men were killed, women raped and children enslaved. Men were ordered to shave their pates and grow queues in the Manchu style, and some committed suicide rather than do so. This historical trauma was recorded extensively by literate Chinese.1 [End Page 67]

However, the Qing conquest overall was accepted by the Chinese landholding gentry. Historians generally agree that in spite of widespread Ming loyalism and resentment against the new "barbarian" overlords, the Qing ability and willingness to maintain the basic socioeconomic order led the "gentry" class to cooperate. Tellingly, family heads who refused to accept service under the Qing encouraged or acquiesced as their sons and nephews participated in the revised examination system and pursued careers in Qing officialdom. Rulers like the great Kangxi emperor (r. 1661-1722) understood the need to appeal to this critical social elite.

In the Confucian tradition, populations could be categorized according to standards similar in some ways to modern racial thinking. Certainly, the distinction between the "civilized" (Chinese) and the "barbarous" (foreigners) was central. At one extreme, it was held that barbarians were innately animal-like and could never become civilized. However, the mainstream view essentially held that this distinction was not immutable: barbarians could become civilized ("transformed"—jiaohua, xianghua) and indeed were even expected to do so. Also, rulership was legitimized by the "Mandate of Heaven," which was bestowed on the basis of virtue, not racial purity. Anyone, theoretically, could claim the Mandate and an orthodox place in the succession of emperors. The Qing dynasty's claims to legitimacy were virtually unquestioned through the eighteenth century, but that authority began to fray in the nineteenth. As the Qing government suffered a series of defeats and humiliations at the hands of the British, French, Americans, Germans and other Western powers, and in 1895 at the hands of the long-despised Japanese, and as domestic reforms were stymied by conservatives, calls for radical change increasingly were heard.

The scions of the old gentry elite were then being educated in modern schools located in east-coast cities and abroad, where they learned modern racial thinking, that is, the mainstream Western view that humanity was divided among several major, essentially immutable breeding populations. Generally these were referred to in five, color-coded categories: Whites, Yellows, Browns, Blacks and Reds. This order also represented a hierarchy of intelligence and morality that justified rule by Whites—temporary and tutorial rule in some views, permanent rule over uneducable peoples in other views. The present essay cannot pursue this subject. Suffice it to say [End Page 68] that Chinese thinkers at the turn of the twentieth century accepted some of the basic premises of racial thinking, tending to equate the intelligence of Whites and Yellows and sometimes predicting a racial war between them for world supremacy.2

Chinese thinkers also understood...


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