China’s Manchus Rediscovering Identity


Young men leap like the horses their forefathers rode into battle. Women’s arms flutter like the wings of the magpie, their legendary ancestor.

In the morning, they are bank clerks, kindergarten teachers, office workers and waiters. But each afternoon, they are dancers asserting their identity as Manchus, descendants of nomad warriors who swept south past the Great Wall in 1644 to seize Beijing and found China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing.

Pang Zhiyang, 61, a retired choreographer who teaches the 40-member class, said of the early Manchus: “At feasts, everyone would eat and drink and then welcome the god of dance.”

The Manchu image was blackened by the corruption and weakness of the last Qing rulers, including the boy emperor Pu Yi, who later collaborated with Japanese invaders in the 1930s.


“A lot of people were brought up thinking it was China’s calamity that Manchus seized China for 300 years,” said actor Ying Ruocheng, a former vice minister of culture and one of China’s most prominent Manchus. “Now people are beginning to look at it differently. We should give credit for what the Manchus achieved.”

Communist history books have portrayed the Manchus as effete aristocrats who painted and raised prize pigeons while foreign aggressors dismembered the nation.

After the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, most Manchus adopted Chinese names and forgot their own customs. Unlike Tibetans, who often wear traditional dress, and Uighurs and Kazakhs, whose features set them apart, Manchus became indistinguishable from the majority Han Chinese.

Shenyang’s dancers are part of a cultural awakening among Manchus, more than half of whom still live in the northeast region formerly called Manchuria. Shenyang was the Manchus’ capital before they seized Beijing.


Almost 10 million people registered as Manchu in the 1990 census compared to just 4.3 million in 1982, when many called themselves Han for fear of discrimination.

The change occurred largely because the Communist government, trying to encourage economic progress, eased its emphasis on class struggle and its insistence that minorities submerge their identities in nationalism.

“A lot of Manchus are gaining confidence,” said Ying, who played Pu Yi’s Communist jailer in the movie “The Last Emperor.” His 3-year-old grandson is named Batu, the Manchu word for hero, which would have been unthinkable a decade earlier.

Other Manchus are reviving clan names, tongue-twisters like Aisingiorro that are very different from standard one-syllable Chinese family names. Moreover, Manchu societies have been formed and cultural gatherings held.


Historians are taking a new look at Manchu rule--not just the final years, but also at its genesis in the warrior tribes that built a kingdom in northeastern China’s rugged forests early in the 17th Century.

Nurhaci, the Manchu equivalent of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, united the tribes, devised a Manchu script, established a system of government and began the conquest of China.

The 40 men and women in the dance class learn steps that date from that time.

“The men were used to crouching as they ran through the forest to hunt and were frequently on horseback, so these are characteristics of Manchu dance: bent knees and shoulder movement,” said Pang, the teacher.


He sees the Manchus not as effete, but vigorous and fun-loving, more so than the strait-laced Han raised on Confucius.

Local officials organized the class so that Manchu dance could be included in an international folk-dance festival in Shenyang this fall.

For Pang, teaching the class is an unpaid labor of love. He was born into a noble Manchu family and spent years researching Manchu dances by talking to elderly Manchus and studying old books.

Now, he says, “I am looking for a young person, to pass on everything I know.”