“Hegemonic Mindset” Hampering Recognition of Manchu Contribution to China’s Literature

Once in a blue moon I come across a well-argued scholarly essay which openly criticizes mainstream thinking about

Nalan Xingde, Manchu poet and official: Inspiration for "Dream of the Red Chamber"?
Yu Zhiding’s portrait of Nalan Xingde, Manchu poet and military official: Inspiration for “Dream of the Red Chamber”?

ethnic literature in New China. 不在场的在场:中国少数民族文学的处境 (Presence of Absence: Situation of China’s Ethnic Minority Language Literature) by Li Xiaofeng (李晓峰) is an outstanding example. He cites the words of author He Qifang (何其芳), and adds that precious little has changed since:

Right up to today [1961], all Chinese literary history is actually the history of literature written in hànyǔ — the history of literature by the Han plus literature written in hànyǔ by some ethnic minority writers.  

Li Xiaofeng’s article appeared in 2011.

In December 2014, another article was published that suggests that the concept of “Chinese literary history” continues to be contested (gasp!). Entitled 满族文学在中国文学史上的地位 (The Position of Manchu Literature in Chinese Literary History), it appears to be a summary of a December 2014 presentation made by Dr. Zhang Juling (张菊玲), former professor, now retired, of Beijing’s Central University for Nationalities (Chinese Language and Literature).

She is the author of 清代满族作家文学概论 (Introduction to Manchu Authors’ Writing during the Qing), 纳兰词新解 (New Interpretations of Nara Xingde’s Ci Poetry),产生《红楼梦》的满族文化氛围 (The Manchu Cultural Ambience that Generated ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’ ), and 阅读老舍, 记住曾被遮掩的民族历史文化 (Reading Lao She and Keeping in Mind Once-obscured Ethnic History and Culture). Nothing in the article or elsewhere on the web that I found mentions fluency in Manchu, so I assume that her research has been done in Mandarin.

Because I read and enjoyed the published text of her presentation, I’ve translated it below, albeit with a light edit. I found it a bit difficult to translate and welcome your comments and corrections. Note that the use of Manchu below never means writing in the Manchu language; it refers to the Manchu people and their culture. Or you can download the audio file — truly a pleasure to listen to her crystal-clear Chinese! — of her presentation here. (Note: Never mind the estimated download time. I downloaded in less than 5 minutes)

How Should One Write Chinese Literary History?

The manner in which Chinese literary history should be written is a very big question. At present, I believe that there exist remnants of a hegemonic mindset [霸权思想] among academics concerning the writing of Chinese literary history, and research into ethnic literature [民族文学] is still very deficient. Therefore, ethnic literature researchers have the responsibility to continue working on this question.

The Chinese people have never consisted of a sole ethnicity. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing for instance, Mongols, Han and Manchu ruled China, respectively. Each made its own contribution to the development of Chinese civilization and to the formation of a heterogeneous culture of China [多元的中华文化].

The discipline of Chinese literary history was established at the beginning of the last century, and this occurred concurrently with the slogan “Expel Manchus, Revive Zhonghua.” Therefore, from its very establishment this discipline was Han chauvinist [唯汉独尊], and it was only many years later that some researchers added the works of some minority writers to the original framework, and this framework remained in place for a long period.

During the most recent three decades, the call to write multi-ethnic literary history has grown louder and louder. But in my opinion, the resulting multi-ethnic literary histories have not been written from a broad, variegated Chinese cultural perspective; the specific contribution of each ethnicity has still not been clearly written down. We have a responsibility to identify the contribution of each ethnicity during each dynasty.

The Manchu’s development and expansion underwent a baptism of blood and fire. They breached the Great Wall, leaving behind the land of White Clouds and Black Earth, and experienced the emergence of the first group of Manchu literati who employed the written language. For a long period, most scholars considered that the works of Manchu men of letters, written in Chinese characters, did not constitute Manchu literature or culture. Yet their influence was quite important. Throughout the Qing Dynasty and Republican Era, the Manchu drew upon their former glory and hard times, the twists and turns of their lives, their unique spiritual world and singular aesthetics to intone a mournful canto in a peculiar key — one that was distinct from that of other peoples — for China’s multi-ethnic literary history. It can be said that their four-hundred year history represents a unique contribution to the history of the development of the human soul.

I’ve chosen Nara Xingde (纳兰性德) and Dream of the Red Chamber as today’s objects of analysis. These writers and their works engender a feeling of sadness. Beginning with Nara Xingde, and down to Lao She with whom we are all familiar, the strongest spiritual shock Manchu literature gives us concerns the tribulations and sorrow of mankind.

This is actually worthwhile exploring and understanding. Unlike other members of well-off, first-generation Qing nobility, “I am just a melancholic stranger in this mortal world” was his song. Only after reading Nara’s poetry and obtaining a detailed understanding of the process through which the Manchu rose to power and prosperity in the Qing can we appreciate the real meaning of this line of verse. Once inside the Shanhai Pass, the Manchu represented the emerging power. What is most admirable about Nara Xingde was that he didn’t flaunt this; instead, he expressed these desolate words.

In the process of Manchu and Han integration, Nara Xingde absorbed much Han culture, particularly with the guidance of his teacher under whom he read widely among the philosophical and historical classics of the Han. This deeply influenced his thinking, and gave him a grasp of the continuous rise and fall of the dynasties in the Chinese empire over the centuries.

A new element — the Manchu — added color to Dream of the Red Chamber. When a people willingly abandons its mother tongue to employ that of another, it can’t be denied that this is a commonplace tragedy in the history of mankind’s progress, but it is also one we are helpless to stop. Today’s Beijing dialect is intimately related to linguistic developments that followed the entry of the Manchu via the Shanhai Pass. Thanks to refinement by Cao Xueqin, the literary language of Dream of the Red Chamber attained a state of great purity.

For a host of reasons, at different times various literary forms have been in vogue. As times changed and aesthetic standards evolved, the vernacular novel appeared during the Ming. There are three major elements inherent to the creation of a novel: theme, character development and aesthetically appropriate language. These three elements are an important standard by which to measure the success or failure of a fictional work.

We can say that Dream of the Red Chamber both drew upon and developed Chinese culture. Its colloquialness added many fresh elements, and combined with the superb talent of Cao Xueqin, it became the acme of Ming and Qing era literature. The vigorous development of the novel as a literary genre represents an important contribution of Ming and Qing writing to Chinese literature as a whole. The fact that Dream of the Red Chamber occupies a high point in that literature is intimately connected with fresh elements brought to it by the Manchu people. Therefore, in terms of adding brilliant color to the popular novel, Manchu culture’s contribution was a major one.

Cao Xueqin’s grandfather knew Nara Xingde, and Cao Xueqin also became good friends with the descendants of Nara Xingde’s maternal uncle. The Manchu literati and authors, of whom Cao Xueqin and Nara Xingde are representative, took Manchu literature to new heights. This is why it is said that “Dreaming of the red chamber, one senses Nalan.” It was no easy feat — at the very height of Emperor Qianlong’s reign — for Cao Xueqin to integrate the history of the rise and decline of a great family into a novel.

Influenced by the sense of sorrow experienced by his elders, Cao Xueqin employed the genre of the novel — deemed plebian by Han men of letters — to express his sentiments. First of all, he grasped a tragic theme, something not found in novels by Han literati. We are accustomed to reunions which end happily, wedding nights, success in the official exams. These were typical contemporary themes. But Cao Xueqin’s experience and that of those in his world made him feel strongly that this was all a mirage, and therefore, he used his description of the rise and decline of those within the Jia family mansion and Grand View Garden to express his own feelings about the world.

While lecturing at a seminar at Peking University, I spoke with the famous Sinologist David Der-wei Wang. He also expressed interest in Manchu literature. Mr. Wang has conducted a lot of influential research in Republican Era literature, but he said that although he himself has ancestors who were Bannermen (旗人), he had studied little Manchu literature and knew little about it.

I think this may also to some extent represent the views of the typical scholar. We can say that the level of attention paid by the academic world to Manchu literature remains insufficient. In the process of researching Manchu literature, it is quite difficult to understand the lives of the Manchu during the Republican Era, because many Manchu sought to conceal their names, and it is even less possible to find them noted in the government documents of the time. Therefore, unearthing this type of Manchu literary works and recommending them to scholars and readers will help us better understand history and literature. The process of seeking Manchu literary works and historical data is very challenging, but once we truly understand writing by Manchu authors, we will be very surprised at the richness contained therein.

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