Manchu

Photo by Cherry Li (http://cherryliphotography.com)

Palms pressed flat together above his forehead, knees bent over a yellow silk-covered block, Hong Haibo offers an inaudible prayer to his forebears. This genuflecting gesture of ancestor worship is reproduced daily throughout East Asia, but Hong’s are no ordinary ancestors. They are the Manchu chieftain founders of China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, who ruled the country for nearly three centuries.

Like his famously tall kinsmen, Hong towers well over 1.8 meters and stands erect as a guardsman. During important celebrations, Hong would be joined by hundreds of other Manchus. But on this crisp day we are the only visitors to the Qing ancestral tombs in Xinbin County, a pine-studded sweep of land beyond the Great Wall, in an area of northernmost China formerly known as Manchuria.

Silence surrounds us, broken only by the satisfying crunch of fresh snow under foot. As we return to the entrance, we pass four pavilions casting long shadows in the weak winter sun. “For me, this is not just history,” Hong says, stopping to ensure he has my full attention. “I have a responsibility to come here. In return, my ancestors watch over me.”

Such open worship would have been unthinkable in the Maoist China. And even before the Communists came to power, Hong’s family had to keep their Manchu identity secret.

For nearly 300 years of Qing dynastic rule, the Manchus had lived as a ruling class, holding apart the conquered Han majority by barring them from inner Beijing and Manchuria. They also distanced themselves culturally, bringing with them their own distinct customs from their nomadic days on the northern plains. Manchu women didn’t bind their feet as Han women did and Manchu men kept up their mastery of archery and horse-riding in regular competitions.

It is testament to the Manchu warrior skill that their small group managed to keep control of a country as large as China for several centuries. But when the Qing fell in 1912, the Han majority returned with much resentment. Faced with discrimination and violence, most Manchus dropped their customs and tried to blend in. They did such a good job that by 1928 a report in the New York Times warned, “Within a few decades, it seems evident, the Manchu will have ceased to exist as a separate race and will have been entirely merged with the [Han] Chinese.”

Yet somehow they survive, almost a century on. That’s mostly because of persistent people like Hong, who are reviving centuries-old traditions. But it’s also because, unlike many other lost tribes, the 10 million people who claim Manchu heritage today still have a spiritual homeland to which they can return.

 

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HEMMED IN BY MONGOLIA, Russia and the Korean peninsula, the mountain and river-ringed melting pot that was Manchuria wields influences from all of these cultures, but it is the Manchu presence that is most strongly felt. Many of the counties in this part of China, including Xinbin, have been declared autonomous Manchu regions by the government. In these rural areas, Manchus live much as their ancestors did, in thatch and mud-brick farmhouses. With Hong, I visit some of these small homesteads in Yongling village and find plenty of evidence of preserved practices, from artisans crafting paper-cut artworks to the shamanistic red ribbons tied around wizened trees that are believed to harbor powerful spirits.

Xinbin County is where the Manchus came from and where the Qing’s founding emperor Nurhaci grew up, but, to trace their rise and fall as a people, I must travel to nearby Shenyang. A now-typical northern Chinese city, thick with high-rises and frozen rivers, Shenyang holds at its core a well-preserved slice of history: the grand Imperial Palace, erected on Nurhaci’s orders in the 1620s.

Stretching out over an area the size of eight soccer pitches, this royal residence was meant to be a grand statement. Just two decades earlier, the Manchus were a group of disparate tribes. Hunting and gathering, fishing and fighting, they had lived until then in simple villages like the present-day ones in Xinbin. But after Nurhaci unified them, he had more august visions. Upon conquering Shenyang in what was his first major victory against the Han, he evidently liked the symbolism of making the city his new capital. He renamed it Mukden, the Manchu word for “flourishing,” and employed the best Han Chinese architects to create a palace to rival Beijing’s Forbidden City.

At first glance, the Mukden palace seems like an exact replica of its inspiration: a parade of endless courtyards, auspiciously laid out according to feng shui principles. But the Manchu influence is soon revealed. In one courtyard, a deer-antler throne room points to the hunting habits of the ruling elite, while eight pavilions represent the eight military banners into which the Manchus were organized. A shamanistic “spirit pole” stands in another courtyard where the royal court’s shamans would hoist meat for the sky gods. I crane my neck up and imagine the birds circling, the blood dripping. This palace might have the geometric order of Beijing’s Forbidden City but something of the wild, something of the untamed still hangs about it.

The palace is also much flashier than its Beijing counterpart: while the Han mostly limited themselves to a studied balance of yellow tiles, red walls and white marble, this palace incorporates more vibrant turquoise and green; in place of delicately carved stone dragons, it features gaudy gold, wooden ones, looking ready pounce off the pillars. “We were a simple, earthy people. Then suddenly we had this rich artisanal tradition to play with and wanted to show off,” says Tong Yue, a local historian, himself a Manchu. “It’s like the farmer’s wife who puts on her most colorful dress when she goes to the big city.”

Or, maybe he should say, headdress. Manchu women wore elaborate ones decorated with flowers and red tassels — modern versions of which can still be seen on servers in many of Shenyang’s Manchu-themed restaurants. Tong takes me to one of these and over a hearty traditional lunch of meat-stuffed corn pancakes and blood sausage, he explains how the Manchus evolved from simple village folks to an elite caste, living off government stipends and honoring strict etiquette rules. “We were barbarians to begin but we wanted to prove we were better than the Han,” says Tong, before gamely leaping of his seat to demonstrate how Manchu noblemen would bow and how their wives would lock their hands together when standing to attention.

Tong tells me I could see some of these elaborate rituals and all the pomp, ornate embroidery and spine-straining headdresses during the re-enactments that are held at weekends at the palace during spring and summer. This display is put on for the benefit of tourists, but elsewhere in the city, Manchus are reconnecting with their roots in more personal ways.

 

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THE FORMER FRONT MAN of the death-metal band Doomsday Cancer, who carries the name Han Xiaohan no less, might seem an unlikely Manchurian candidate. But a grandfather’s deathbed confession of their Manchu blood led Han in a new direction. He set off to find remote Manchu villages where shamanistic music is still performed. On his return, he began incorporating the simple melodies, strong percussion beats and throaty chants of his lost people into his own tunes. I meet him in his Shenyang apartment, where he stores a collection of traditional instruments, including a snakeskin three-string fiddle that he made himself. “It’s not rewarding in terms of money,” the born-again Manchu musician admits, “but I feel it’s my mission.”

As I delve deeper into the Manchu community, one invite leading to the next, I hear about a young man who is a BMW office worker by day and Manchu craftsman by night. “Manchu bows were three times more powerful than even the English longbow,” says Michael Yang. “These were the highest of high-tech back in the day.” Slender of stature and sporting black-framed glasses, he doesn’t at all appear like a Manchu warrior—that is until he picks up his weapons. Head held high, he transforms suddenly into a confident archer and I believe him when he says he hunts rabbits in the countryside on the weekends.

Minstrels, warriors and scholars… these were important players at court. So to complete the trifecta, I visit one of only a handful of high schools in the country where the dying Manchu language is taught. One of the teachers, 67-year-old Huang Guizhou, gives me a lesson in Manchu, which sounds like husky Korean. He then begins inking Manchu script onto rice paper, his calligraphy brush soon lost in a muddle of swirls, lines and breaks that looks to me like Arabic, flipped vertically. Actually, the script borrows from the Mongolian alphabet. “I can’t imagine we’ll ever be using it in daily life,” admits Huang, who only started learning the language himself seven years ago. “But it’s a way of preserving our culture.”

I notice aged Manchu script on giant steles while exploring Nurhaci’s mausoleum in east Shenyang with Huang. It is just before twilight. A gibbous moon in the faltering sky diffuses an eerie light over the fortress-like complex. At the back stands a large hill where the emperor is buried. “It’s not a good time of day,” Huang says, stopping me as I stroll onto a path circling the mound. “Aren’t you scared of meeting his ghost?”

It’s a question I might ask of the musician who takes shamanistic instruments into the recording studio, the archer who scours historic Qing texts online to recreate bows, the waitresses wearing polyester Manchu costumes, and especially the genuflectors at ancient tombs. But I realize they’re not just trying to conjure ghosts, they’re reinventing their heritage to fit modern times. It’s exactly what Nurhaci did when he moved his people from the plain to the palace. And so I do circle his burial mound, paying my respects to the man who founded a powerful lineage, once pushed near extinction, but 400 years later still battling on.

First appeared in Travel + Leisure Asia in August 2014.