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Non-Han Languages in China (中国少数民族语言)

Oddly Monolingual Manchu Emperors and “New Qing History”

In The Charms of Qing TV, The Economist takes a closer look at the popular Qing historical dramas that are so popular on China’s video-sharing sites.

Is Mark Elliot—author of The Manchu Way, one of the first studies to use Manchu sources in the research of Qing history—bothered by Chinese TV’s monolingual Manchus?

“I’d say there is little doubt that the Manchu emperors could all speak decent Chinese. Kangxi’s was almost certainly not as good as that of his son and grandson, but he could get by just fine. Still, it seems he was more comfortable speaking Manchu, and preferred communicating with the Jesuits at court in Manchu rather than in Chinese. So the issue is not so much that the emperors are speaking Chinese, but that they are never found speaking Manchu, which they most definitely could and did do, especially in dealings with Manchu officials.”

This soap opera representation of the Manchu ruling class as curiously dependent on the Han tongue is at odds with a fresh but problematic interpretation of rule under the Manchus, known as “New Qing History.” For the details, see The Charms of Qing TV.

One reply on “Oddly Monolingual Manchu Emperors and “New Qing History””

I’m not sure if this was the same series (I guess it was). At any rate, I was watching it with a Chinese friend last month, and it appeared that there was an epidemic of smallpox in the court. She said to me in a compassionate tone, “In those days they didn’t know how to deal with diseases like that”. As usual, Chinese seem to have a lamentable understanding of their own history.

1) The northern peoples (such as Mongols and Manchus) were extremely susceptible to smallpox — unlike the Chinese themselves — because they had no immunity to it. So the vulnerability to smallpox wasn’t anything to do with ‘those days’, it was an ethnic thing.

2) The Chinese at the time did practice a kind of immunisation (vaccination) against smallpox. However, it was apparently very dangerous because instead of immunising you it could kill you. (Apparently the Kangxi emperor had pockmarks from undergoing this immunisation).

The positioning of the Qing as ‘just another Chinese dynasty’ is, in my opinion, the reason for this distortion of history. Quite simply, it’s in the interest of the Han Chinese (in particular) to pretend that the Qing dynasty was “Chinese” since that’s the basis of all their current territorial claims. This why the Qing court is presented as though it were purely Chinese in these shows, and why every speck of “Manchuness” is removed.

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