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The Manchu-Language Archives of the Qing Dynasty and the Origins of the Palace Memorial System

From: Late Imperial China
Volume 22, Number 1, June 2001
pp. 1-70 | 10.1353/late.2001.0002

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The Manchu-Language Archives of the Qing Dynasty and the Origins of the Palace Memorial System

One of the more noteworthy recent trends in scholarship on late imperial Chinese and Inner Asian history is the growing recognition of the importance of Manchu as a research language. This change owes principally to two developments. One is the opening, beginning in the late 1970s, of the First Historical Archives of China (FHA) to general scholarly use. This liberalization inaugurated an ongoing process of discovery that has enabled historians to gain a first-hand familiarity with the variety and nature of the more than 10,000,000 items on deposit there, most of which are from the Qing period (1636-1912).1 Fuller information has emerged concerning that portion of the Qing archives not in the Chinese script-meaning primarily, though not exclusively, materials in Manchu-which puts us in a better position to appreciate the significance of these sources. In consequence, opinion has shifted away from the old view that Manchu materials are of little relevance for Qing history after 1644,2 toward the view that documents written in a language so [End Page 1] different from Chinese as Manchu might, in fact, offer valuable new insights into the post-conquest period after all.3

The second factor that helps explain the shift in the appreciation of Manchu relates to larger changes in late twentieth century intellectual currents, especially the inclination to question dominant historical narratives (what are sometimes called "hegemonizing discourses") and to rethink the past from the viewpoints of those, such as minorities, women, and outcasts, who have been marginalized historiographically. In part as a result of these trends, and in part because of the social and political landscape of the contemporary world, ethnicity (along with gender, sexuality, and crime) has become an urgent subject of scholarly investigation. For China, this has produced a new literature in search of a fresh understanding of the role of non-Han peoples in Chinese politics and society, a literature, moreover, which has intersected with concurrent rethinking of the development of the ideology of the modern Chinese nation-state, invested as it is with various notions of Han superiority.4 As China's last imperial masters, the alien Manchus have thus become an obvious focus of interest: not only were they minority rulers, but the empire they built-the greatest continental empire since the time of Cinggis-is seen as the predecessor, if not the blueprint, of the vast polyethnic state that China has [End Page 2] become today.5 Learning the Manchu language has thus come to be perceived as a vital tool for getting to know the Manchus and their empire better.

The burgeoning interest in things Manchu is not without precedent. Sinology, in its infancy, was weaned on Manchu. Three hundred years ago the language was seen as a crucial tool for understanding the Chinese classics, many of which had been translated by teams of scholars working at the pleasure of the court in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Jesuit missionaries whose labors laid the foundations of the West's study of China were unanimously of the opinion that the grammatical structures and signifiers of Manchu clarified much that was obscure in the antique Chinese language and that Manchu was more "logical" and easier to learn than Chinese. Moreover, they found a knowledge of Manchu extremely useful in daily life in mid-Qing Beijing.6 But Manchu's early prominence in the field declined markedly in the nineteenth century, when Protestant missionaries and colonialists took the place of Jesuit polymaths at the forefront of Chinese studies. James Legge, for instance, was of the opinion that Manchu translations, however expert, were biased, as they reflected official post-Song interpretations.7 That Legge knew no Manchu may have made it easier for him, of course, to espouse this position. Nonetheless, his view carried the day and it has been a century since any translator has bothered to look for help from the Manchu versions of the Four Books, the Five Classics, or any other Chinese text.8 The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912 further weakened the case...