Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Manchu Way

Book Cover

Book Title

The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2001


Elliott, Mark C.


The author provides a historical description of the development of Manchu institutions and identity. The book is concerned with tracing the development of the Eight Banners, the Manchu's trademark system of social and military organization, and the parallel evolution of Manchu identity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in turn providing a perspective on rule in late imperial China that is less "sinocentric". This means that the study would present observations of the Manchu history that was less predicated on the assumption of the all-encompassing centrality of Chinese civilization and less structured around a deterministic narrative of the rise of the Chinese nation.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Part One focuses on the origins of the Manchus and the foundation of the banner system, the latter becoming an important guiding principle of the political, social and cultural life for the Manchus. It also covers the Manchu occupation of China and the establishment of Manchu cities, before developing into a discussion of the creation of the Manchu state, which simultaneously reinforces ethnic distinctions.

Part Two sees the laying out of the fundamental aspects of banner life in the significant economic, legal and social privileges that people operating within the realm of the banner system enjoys as members of the conquest caste. This section also covers the relationship between the Manchus and the ethnic Chinese.

Finally, Part Three examines the parallel transformation of Manchu identity and institutions that began under the Yongzheng emperor in the 1720s and investigate key aspects of Manchu cultural and social history through the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns. The author ends his discussion with that of the topic of the financial burden of the Eight Banners, and exploring the extent and cause of poverty within the banner system, which also threatened to undermine traditional Manchu institutions.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The author proposes three arguments. The first is that Qing rule relied not only on their acceptance of Chinese political norms and recognition by the Chinese literati, but also on the maintenance of boundaries of difference between the majority Han Chinese and the Manchu conquest group.

The author argues that the legitimacy of the dynasty rested on, and was understood by Qing rulers themselves, on orthodox Chinese ideas of kingship and a narrower conception of the interests of the Manchus in terms of an alien conquest. Hence, if boundaries that set the Manchus as a group apart from the majority Han Chinese crumbled and the Manchus become scattered among the general population, ethnic sovereignty would have been vitiated and the dynasty's future imperiled.

The second argument is that "ethnicity" can help explain the dynamics of group identity in complex societies, and do justice to the intricacies of the Manchu's place in Qing China. This proposal puts us in a better position to appreciate how the Manchu identity was constructed, how it was enforced and how it changes. The author puts forth the main argument that practice ultimately mattered more than ideology, and that even with the waning of many of the obvious cultural markers of Manchu-ness, a coherent Manchu ethnic identity persisted, largely due to the survival of the banner system.

Following this line of argument, the Eight Banners system was a highly militarized form of social organization which stood for their un-Chineseness. Yet on one level, the widespread presence of the banner system in China asserted the identity of the Manchu dynasty as a whole. On another level, the way of life imposed by the banner system upon its people profoundly affected the evolution of the Manchu's conception of ethnicity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Finally, the author examines what the Manchus had written in their own language to distill a fuller understanding of the Qing imperial enterprise - why had the Manchus taken over, as well as how they saw their empire, their people and their fate.

Annotated by Michelle Djong