The Manchu Conquest

Jonathan Spence

  • The Great Enterprise: The Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in 17th-Century China by Frederic Wakeman
    California, 736 pp, £63.75, January 1986, ISBN 0 520 04804 0

The fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, and the consolidation of its successor Qing dynasty over the ensuing twenty years, was one of the more dramatic events in human history. It is a complex story to tell, since so many aspects must be considered. The erosion of Ming power took many years, and various Ming pretenders fought on, by land and sea, until the early 1660s. In central and north China rebel groups had chipped away at Ming power for decades, as the state gradually lost its power to control the countryside and to extract revenues from it. In the far north-east the Manchu tribes had consolidated in Liaodong under their formidable leader Nurhaci by the 1620s, and it was the descendants of these warriors who inherited the mandate of heaven by ousting one set of victorious rebels from Beijing. Frederick Wakeman’s massive study is the first attempt in any language to tackle this terrific subject in a fully comprehensive way: that is, to create a narrative analysis that pays due attention to the Ming civil and military bureaucracy, to the rural rebels and the reasons for their discontent, to the rise and spread of Manchu power, and to the phases of resistance and the shape of final victory. Though there are some problems of balance between individual chapters, some overloading of the narrative line by the sheer density of the number of characters introduced, and some passages that will be opaque to all but other specialists in the field of Chinese history, The Great Enterprise is a remarkable achievement. It is rare to be presented with history on this majestic scale, and to confront the great themes so confidently presented.

Professor Wakeman is already well-known for the richness and variety of topics he has tackled: the society of south-east China at the time of the Opium Wars, the fall of the Qing dynasty, the political theory of Mao Zedong, the historiography of the Chinese revolution, to name just a few. With this work on the 17th century he confirms his reputation as one of the finest American historians of China.

The first volume moves the reader along two interconnected tracks, one chronological and one geographical. Starting in the far north, with considerations of the Ming strategy for border pacification and the Manchu assertion of independence, the setting then shifts to the politics of the Beijing court and the north China rebels. As the Manchus cross into China proper in 1644 and seize Beijing, the story gets a central China focus as the Ming remnants try to shore up their regime in Nanjing, on the River Yangzi, during 1645. Later chapters in Volume Two cover the story of resistance attempts on the south-east coast and on Taiwan, and the despairing days of the last pretender in the south-west of China during the 1650s and in Burma in 1660. The story ends contrapuntally in the 1670s, as Manchu policy-makers in the north seek to contain the massive civil war caused by disaffected Chinese collaborators in the south. By 1683, these last rebels are crushed, Taiwan is captured, and a new, secure Manchu policy begins to emanate from Beijing and strengthen the foundations of Qing government – so successfully that, despite the chaos of foreign aggression and civil strife, the dynasty was to last until 1912.

Professor Wakeman has done a prodigious amount of reading and research in Chinese, Japanese and Western languages for this book, and it is effectively a synthesis of the state of the field in the early 1980s. Thus he incorporates into his narrative the path-breaking work of Gertraude Roth on pre-conquest Manchu social organisations, numerous studies on the central Chinese élites and lineages, Lynn Struve’s remarkable work on the various ‘Southern Ming’ regimes (as the courts of the various Ming pretenders after 1644 are generally called), and a wide variety of studies on the reasons for social dissatisfaction in north China and the nature of land-holding and tenancy both before and after 1644. He also makes a bold attempt to integrate the whole study of events in China into the world-historical context of the monetary crises of the first half of the 17th century, especially the flow of silver bullion from Spanish America into China, by way of Manila or Macao. His conclusion that the Manchu Qing regime recovered faster from the effects of this crisis than any of the European powers is a provocative one, that will only be definitively assessed when the true impact of the erratic shifts in bullion flow on China has received further attention. But it is a worthy attempt to draw China into world history, and it is supplemented by Wakeman’s equivalent attempt to place the events of the Manchu conquest in the context of shifts in global weather patterns that have been charted by the students of ‘the Maunder minimum’, who have traced a period of extreme cold between 1645 and 1715 due to decreased solar radiation.

As several of his earlier essays on the Manchu conquest and Ming fall showed, Wakeman has long been deeply interested in the problems of the moral crisis that lay at the centre of these events, as they were perceived by the members of the Confucian élite, especially in the rich, scholarly and densely populated cities of the lower Yangzi region in east-central China. Some of the most vivid passages in The Great Enterprise show the tragic consequences of resistance based on principles of ‘loyalty’ to the concept of Ming dynastic legitimacy. Confucian scholars, many of them members of the high-toned literary societies that had criticised the improper practices of corrupt and ineffective court politicians in the late Ming, often felt a profound moral commitment to resist the Manchu advance, even if that resistance brought the destruction of their entire communities. Artisans in the cities, lesser bureaucrats, local landowners, prosperous tenants or poorer peasants – all got caught up in the political and ethical struggles that tore communities apart.

One complicating factor in the equation was that the conquering Manchus decreed, after 1645, that Chinese subjects must shave their foreheads and braid the long hair into a queue or pigtail, following the Manchu custom. This attempt to force the Chinese to give tonsorial evidence of their acceptance of the new order was bitterly resented in many areas, and fuelled moral outrage, since the cutting of the hair could be seen as a violation of laws of filial piety and respect for ancestors. Wakeman gives the most careful analysis I have seen of this complicated question, trivial-looking on the surface, perhaps, but profoundly significant when viewed from the standpoints of male self-identity and of national self-image. There is no doubt that the hair-cutting order drove many communities that might have surrendered peacefully into open and usually fatal resistance to the newly appointed magistrates of the Manchu state.

Those who did the killing and the conquering were by no means all Manchus. There were far too few of them – less than a million – for that. In fact, the conquest and consolidation were made possible by the millions of Chinese collaborators who worked actively with the Manchus, and throughout his study Wakeman gives dramatic descriptions of the varieites of collaboration that were possible: junior Ming military officers surrendering to Nurhaci, captured Liaodong farmers enlisted in para-military companies, disaffected senior generals who could bear no more Ming incompetence, unpaid and mutinous regular soldiers, disillusioned followers of defeated or fugitive Ming Pretenders, renegade militia units, co-opted pirates. The characters march across the pages in splendid procession.

Yet another theme that Professor Wakeman keeps to the forefront of his narrative is that of developing military technology, especially the casting of cannon, which had come into China early in the century via the Portuguese in Macao. At first, the Ming generals had a monopoly of the forging skills and the use of cannon (the Jesuits missionaries had been persuaded to help, along with Portuguese gunners). But with the capture of Yong-ping by Nurhaci’s son in 1629 the Manchus obtained a group of Chinese gunners, along with foundry foremen and ironsmiths: by 1631 these men had cast 40 cannon for the Manchus. The ‘sustained and withering artillery techniques’ that Wakeman ascribes to them may be an overstatement, but he does give some vivid examples of the successful use of cannon fire against walled cities or massed troops in a range of battles from Yuzizhang in north China down to Guangzhou in the far south-east. The thorough documentation that Wakeman has assembled on these battles makes it all the more surprising that the Manchus failed later on to attempt any further systematic strengthening of their armed forces by the development of artillery.

These three sample areas of Wakeman’s concern – moral stances, collaboration, firepower – can serve merely as a hint to the richness in these volumes. Wakeman gives attention also to such matters as the rhetoric of Sino-Manchu discourse, coal shipments, refugees, male homosexuality, smallpox quarantine, fake Manchus, tenant-serfs, booksellers, the Manchu policy of apartheid, ethnic intermarriage, deforestation, the logistics of cavalry supply, mass suicides, women’s economic roles, the problems posed in mathematic primers, naval skills, patterns of withdrawal and ‘eremitism’, religious sects, Catholic converts, tattoos, Muslims. Despite the density of the book, and its length, there is something new or of interest on almost every page. Not surprisingly, many knotty points of interpretation remain, as Wakeman would be the first to admit. For instance, we still have serious gaps in our knowledge of Manchu planning and policy in the late 1630s and 1640s. It is also extremely hard to know how to evaluate many of the more dramatic tales of ‘loyalism’, or to assess the accuracy of the sources in which they are discussed. Southern Ming politics are a quagmire, and Wakeman is not always clear in presenting them. The post-conquest Manchu regent Dorgon, shrewd though he was, emerges here as a paragon, as does Emperor Shunzhi after he took personal power. Both men need more highly nuanced study if they are to be fully understood. (One should maybe emphasise that the index-glossary is a joy, so that any reader can easily follow up any area he feels to be problematic.) Professor Wakeman usually knows when he is on thinnish ice, and shares his musings with us in a barrage of lengthy, informative and erudite footnotes. Indeed, so rich are his notes that they end up militating against his sincere attempt to write flowing, highly-paced, narrative history: the reader’s eyes are constantly tugged from the flow of the text to the dense thickets below.

Does this major study give any definitive ‘explanation’ of the Ming fall and the Manchu triumph? I think the answer is yes, though not in any simple sense. Wakeman shows how the social, military, political, economic, cultural and aesthetic levels all interpenetrate with each other in this fascinating period of Chinese history; and how one dynasty’s fall and the other’s rise, given impetus by vast general forces, hinged also on a myriad private decisions and actions, and on the force of individual personalities.

The book has a dark lesson, too. It leaves us with an unforgettable sense of the sickening violence prevalent at the time. Wakeman never gloats over it, and even underplays the sources on such murderous figures as the rebel leader Zhang Xianzhong who made a wasteland out of much of Sichuan province. But as with accounts of the Thirty Years’ War that raged in the same period, the case of China gives us a jolting reminder of what happens to societies when all the restraints are off, when roaming armies wreck the rhythms of agriculture, and random mutilation and murder shred urban and village life alike to pieces. Life, in this mid-17th-century period of China’s history, was a nightmare for tens of millions of people. It is in this context that we must measure the achievements of the successors to the conquerors who laboured to shore up the powers of the state.