Manchuria: The Hidden Face of East Asian Civilization

Manchuria: The Hidden Face of East Asian Civilization 


We tend to overlook the importance of Manchuria in East Asia. It is the case of a country that was so successful that it put itself out of business and literally disappeared as a cultural and political entity.

Manchuria was the most powerful nation in the region in the 17th century with a remarkable administrative organization the rewarded those with talent and vision and a powerful vision for the region. And yet today, the Manchurian language is unknown to all but a few specialists and even then is a dead language. Even more striking is the fact that few, if any,  would identify themselves as “Manchu” today. Basically everyone has become Chinese. What happened in the process of modernity and of nation building, the transformation of Asian civilization that led to the complete destruction of Manchurian identity? I think therein lies the answer to many of our questions about the civilizations of China, Japan and Korea and some hints as to what is to come.

We can think of Manchuria as the  inspiration for much of the administrative and strategic culture of East Asia in the 17th and 18th centuries. When Chinese think back on what was Chinese imperial power at its height, they are inevitably thinking about the reigns of Kangxi and Qianlung. For that matter the decor in Chinese restaurants, the traditional furniture and vases that we see in hotels and in the Chinoiserie across Europe is product of exactly that period of Manchu rule. You could say that the first conception of modernity in East Asia started with the  exposure of China and Korea to the military culture of Manchuria inthe 1620s. Modern administration and military efficiency in East Asia was learned from the Manchu model. Even if the Koreans detested the Qing Dynasty of the Manchus, they never the less learned from it.  Many many Chinese went over to the Manchu side in the late Ming. It was in a sense the institutional equivalent of Samsung for the 17th century, an all-powerful organization (the eight banners administrative system) perfectly organized and unstoppable–a contrast with the weak Ming.

There  were scholars like Phillip Kuhn at Harvard who had some proficiency in Manchu, but still limited. Increasingly scholarship is based on Chinese texts–almost meaningless in the early Qing when the Manchu texts were far more central to governance.

Part of the problem of locating the Manchurian impact in East Asia results from unstated influence.  For example, you might say that there is hardly a trace of North Korea to be found if you walk around in South Korea. And that fact is true in the simplest sense. But South Korean culture evolves and grows today  in opposition to what Pyongyang is, or what Pyongyang  is imagined to be. There never need be any overt communication or sophisticated dialog between the North and South, but what they do is always linked together. Such was the case in Manchuria as well. Although Korea or Japan may not have spoken much about Manchuria, they were profoundly aware of its institutional and cultural power.

If we look at Japan during the Meiji Restoration of 1867. The argument made for the political and institutional reforms of the time was that Japan should restore the “tenno” to the status he enjoyed before the Shogun (head general) took that authority away in the pre-modern period. Yet what happened was that Meiji  was made institutionally an “emperor”  as opposed to a tenno who had governed previously as more of a high priest than the head of an empire. The model for the emperor at that time is commonly suggested to be European powers like England and France, but if you look at the consolidation of power and the structure of  Meiji Japan, it was based more upon the models for administration offered by the Manchu emperors Kangxi and Qianlong (of the high Qing in the 17th and 18th centuries) than anything in the West or in Japan’s history. Oddly, at the very moment that the Qing power waned, the Japanese adopted that authority for themselves under the guise of “modernization.”

It does not stop there. England adopted the civil service system, which would power the new British  imperial global system, in the 1870s, at precisely the moment that such a system had ceased to function effectively in China. But the British proposals for civil service refer very explicitly to the Chinese origins of this system. That is right, England took the skeleton required for running an imperial system from China, the country it was in the process of turning into a semi-colony after the Opium Wars. We can see that process as a form of cultural “king killing.” As the old civilization loses its symbolic power, the best parts are selected by others.

I suggest that Korea risks having its own civilization disappear like that of Manchuria. Although Manchuria had so much impact on the administrative culture of China, Manchuria as a unique cultural identity has vanished. No one speaks Manchu and few identify themselves with that cultural tradition. It is in a sense Manchuria was completely absorbed  in other cultures and has ceased to have a ready identity.

Also, in the case of Japan, imperialism in China was articulated through the support of a modern Manchu state, an attempt to create by fiat the Manchu Kingdom that had lost its support. We can see the tragedy of Pu-i in the Japanese effort  to make use of the Manchu imperial past. It was part of the expansion into China, but that was linked to the adoption of Manchu governance as part of modernization. But I wonder whether the fascination with Manchuria had a bit to do with Japanese admiration for this non-Chinese tribe that had so well digested Chinese bureaucratic culture and so effectively modernized its military in the 17th century. It is in this sense that Manchuria is the hidden civilization of modernity.


One response to “Manchuria: The Hidden Face of East Asian Civilization

  1. craig April 20, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    Signal lesson: Never attempt to conquer China. NO matter how well you fight battles, it never works out the way you expect it to.

    Mongols, in retrospect, got off easy. They still exist.

    There’s the kind of war which, in hindsight, you want to lose.

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