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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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1Manchu-Language Archives Late Imperial China Vol. 22, No. 1 (June 2001): 1–70 © by the Society for Qing Studies 70 THE MANCHU-LANGUAGE ARCHIVES OF THE QING DYNASTY AND THE ORIGINS OF THE PALACE MEMORIAL SYSTEM Mark C. Elliott 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 1 Research for this article was made possible by grants from the Committee on Scholarly Communication with China, the American Council of Learned Societies/Social Science Research Council, and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. The author would like to express his thanks as well for invaluable assistance rendered on many occasions by staff at the First Historical Archives (Beijing), the Liaoning Provincial Archives (Shenyang), and the National Palace Museum Archives (Taipei). Special appreciation also to Beatrice S. Bartlett and Kat¯o Naoto for advice and comments on preliminary versions of this essay. This is the official figure used by the First Historical Archives in its own publications. See, for instance, First Historical Archives, Zhongguo diyi lishi dang’anguan guancang dang’an gaishu (Beijing: Dang’an chubanshe, 1985), 3, 27. Note that an “item” (Ch. jian) says nothing about the actual size or volume of a document. See Endymion Wilkson, ed., Chinese History: A Manual, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2000), 900, n2. Chapter 50 of this manual offers an excellent general introduction to the Chinese-language archives of the Qing; a partial listing of Manchu-language materials is found on pp. 926–29. 2 This view was advanced by none other than Joseph F. Fletcher (writing in 1973): “Almost all Manchu source material, even from the earliest period, was carried over in one form or another into Chinese. For historians of the middle and late Ch’ing, Manchu records can be useful, but they are not necessary.” This from his article, “Manchu Sources,” in Donald Leslie, Colin Mackerras, and Wang Gungwu, eds., Essays on the Sources for Chinese History (Canberra: ANU Press, 1973), 145. 2 Mark C. Elliott 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...

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