Harvard University FAS Shield

  • Home
  • Introduction
  • Language and History
  • Course Information
  • Graduate Study
  • Resources for Study
  • Links
  • About Manchu Studies

    Early Development

    As an intellectual project, Manchu studies -- sometimes called Manjuristics -- traces its history back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when Jesuit missionaries at the Qing court found that to accomplish their goals it was necessary to become conversant in the language and culture of China's rulers at that time. The earliest published works on Manchu history and language, largely in French, were the result of Jesuit endeavors, and their belief that the Manchu translations of Chinese texts provided the best point of entry into the Chinese classical corpus shaped not only Manchu studies, but also the field of Sinology, then in its cradle.

    In the 19th century, interest in Manchu continued to grow, in large part thanks to the efforts of linguists and philologists, especially in France, Germany and Russia. The first chair of Manchu studies was established at the Collège de France in 1814, filled by Jean-Pierre Abel-Remusat. Grammars and dictionaries began appearing in mid-century, with the first English-language introduction to the language published in 1895.

    Manchu studies in the 20th century

    With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, scholarly interest in Manchu began to wane, most noticeably among Sinologists, who fell in line with the prevailing view among nationalistic Chinese scholars that the Manchus had become totally sinicized and that there was no real reason to study Manchu language or history. For most of the 20th century, the tradition of Manjuristics was kept alive primarily by philologists and historians in St. Petersburg, Berlin, Bonn, and Tokyo. In the United States, the language continued to be taught at Harvard, Berkeley, the University of Washington, and Indiana University, but student numbers remained very small, though, and with the exception of a very few who worked under Joseph Fletcher in the early 1980s, included almost no historians. With a couple of rare exceptions, historians in mainland China and Taiwan completely neglected the field for most of the 1900s.

    Manchu studies today

    Beginning in the 1970s, the Qing archives gradually opened to scholarly use, first in Taiwan and then, after 1979, in the PRC. By the middle 1980s, it had become apparent that, contrary to received opinion, Manchu was an important research language for Qing history. Around the same time came the "ethnic turn" in Chinese studies, which saw a burgeoning interest in the non-Han peoples of China, a movement away from ethnocentric models, and a questioning of the sinicization paradigm. Over the last two decades, anthropology has provided the cutting edge of much of this scholarship, but historians have contributed as well to ongoing debates regarding ethnicity, identity, nationalism, and "Chineseness." Especially as modern Chinese nationalism was fired in the crucible of anti-Manchu revolution, the issue of Manchu identity and the particulars of the Manchu experience as rulers of China have quickly become important topics in the field and have contributed toward the unfolding of what is now being called the "New Qing History" as well as to reexaminations of the transition from empire to nation that took place during the twentieth century.

    Insofar as the New Qing History seeks to escape some of the obvious biases and limitations of older Sinocentric assumptions, Manchu studies is key to its development. The Qing is the only dynasty to rule in China for which we have significant historical sources written in a language other than Chinese. One important implication of this simple fact is that for the first time we have full access to a perspective on happenings in China written by non-Han witnesses and participants. The history we write on this basis, whether it is of the frontier, of court politics, or of legal or economic history, is bound to be different. Because it offers students a broad array of courses in Qing history and Manchu language, Harvard has become an important training ground for the generation of historians who will write these new histories.