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Radical History Review 88 (2004) 193-206
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The New Qing History
Pamela K. Crossley, A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.
Philippe Foret, Mapping Chengde: The Qing Landscape Enterprise. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.
Jonathan S. Hay, Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Laura Hostetler, Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Susan Mann, Precious Records: Women in China's Long Eighteenth Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.
James P. Millward, Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia, 1759-1864. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Evelyn S. Rawski, The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Angela Zito, Of Body and Brush: Grand Sacrifice as Text/Performance in Early Modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. [End Page 193]
What was special about the Manchus, who ruled their Qing empire from 1636 until the early twentieth century? Did they differ from other dynasties that ruled China, and if so, in what ways? How and why was their empire so successful? Did they assimilate almost completely into Chinese ways, or did they manage to maintain their distinctiveness? Can Qing practices properly be described as imperialist? Should one characterize the Qing as "early modern," "late imperial," or something else? In recent years, these and other questions have been the focus of intense debate among historians of the two centuries or so that preceded the pervasive disjunctures introduced by European determination to bring China to heel after 1842. For specialists and nonspecialists alike, this debate provides fresh insights both into specifics and into some of the broader issues relating to non-Western modernities, whether seen as alternative, coeval, or otherwise. For the purposes of this essay, I limit my discussion to certain key topics, both because of their centrality to the new Qing history itself—the full range and complexity of which is much greater than a single article can do justice to—and because of their not coincidental relevance to some of the central concerns of those working in other areas and disciplines. Thus I survey what the new scholarship has had to say about the following: ethnicity and multiculturalism; gender; empire and the techniques of colonialism; war and military culture; religion and ritual; public and private spheres; and material culture—all of which are, of course, inextricably linked to one another. In the process, I reflect briefly on what the findings of the new scholarship may suggest about the utility of Western criteria for assessing Qing history and its relation to Chinese modernity. 1
Not long ago, the Manchus, invaders with a language and background culturally distinct from China's, were seen as the last in a line of alien rulers whose wholesale adoption of China's culture and institutions enabled them to govern its vast territories and populations. At its simplest, the Qing (i.e., the Manchu dynasty and its rulers) were seen as having assimilated almost completely by 1800 and then as having lapsed into a long, slow decline in which, contrarily, an apparently resurgent ethnic self-interest conflicted with their responsibility to save China from Western and Japanese imperialism. This account not only largely blamed China's wide-ranging woes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on the Manchus but it also, in a false teleology, read the presumed ineptitude that eventually led to their downfall back from the nineteenth century to cover the entire Qing period.
Recently, however, the new accessibility of Chinese- and Manchu-language archives and hard-to-find texts has produced enough new evidence concerning the subtleties and savviness of Qing policies—at least during what Susan Mann appropriately calls China's "long eighteenth century," from 1683 to 1820—to enable us to set aside definitely any notion of total assimilation or of...