The Origins of the Manchus
China is home of some of the world's most diverse and fascinating people; there are 56 officially recognised ethnic groups within China, one of these groups are the Manchus. Before the early 17th century, the Manchus are better known as the Jurchen, Jurced or the Juchen. The name 'Manchu' was applied by the Han Chinese and their history is much longer than their name suggests.
The origins of the Manchus can be somewhat difficult to trace; this is partly due to the fact that what little literary sources we have come from the Chinese. At best it is somewhat sketchy; at its worst it is biased. They came from the northern part of modern China, in the Liaoning Province. This region was later named Manchuria after the Manchus.
Manchuria borders Siberia in the north, the Korean peninsula to the east, the steppes and desert in the west and the Great Khinghan Mountains to the northwest. Because of its location, this area became the meeting place for many different ethnic groups from China, Mongolia, Korea and Siberia. One scholar points out that "the Sungari valley in northern Manchuria was the meeting place for at least four pre-historic cultures: the valley of the Yellow River, the Mongolian desert and steppe, the Pacific coast, and the taiga area around Lake Baikal". It was here that the ancestors of the Manchus evolved from.
One of the main theories of the ancestry of the Manchus is that of the Tungus, who are believed to be one of the Manchus ancestors. The Tungus, according to the most influential theory by the French linguist Jean Pierre Abel Remusat, were "a proto-Mongolian people who were active in east Mongolia and part of Manchuria before the Christian era but subsequently vanished" and that Tungu derives from the Chinese words Tung-hu (Eastern nomads). This theory has appealed to many scholars over the years.
According to another scholar, the Tungus migrated to Manchuria during the 3rd millennium BCE, or even earlier, due to pressure from Chinese migrants. A later wave of proto-Tungus migrated within Manchuria and became known as the Southern Tungus. However, this theory is not accepted by all scholars.
There are several legendary myths concerning the origins of the Manchus. In one version, three heavenly maidens, Enggulen, Jenggulen and Fekulen, were bathing in a lake in southern Manchuria. Fekulen swallowed a red berry dropped on her clothing by a divine magpie and gave birth to a baby boy named Bukuri Yongson. The three chieftains later enthroned him as ruler and he became the ancestor of the Qing ruling house; under him the state was named 'Manchu', the term adopted by Hong-taiji in 1635 CE as the name of his subjects. This version of the myth became the dominant and official version throughout the Jin Dynasty.
Other ethnicities who have contributed to the ancestry of the Manchus include the Su-shen people.
The Su-shen, also known as the Hsi-shen or the Chi-shen, have been found in Manchuria as early as the Shang and Chou Dynasties. Ancient Chinese literary sources recorded them as "hunters, fishermen, primitive farmers, cave residents in cold days, tree dwellers during hot seasons and users of wood arrows with flint heads". Archaeological finds have so far confirmed these statements.
There are several reasons why the Su-shen is believed to be one of the ancestors of the Manchus. Firstly, the region where the Su-shen lived in was the homeland of the Tungus, from whom the Manchus are descended from. Secondly, ancient Chinese literary sources confirm the lineage, whether direct or indirect, to that of the Manchus. Thirdly, both the Manchus and the Su-shen used birch to fashion arrowheads. Fourthly, the Su-shen had a custom of braiding their hair into queues (where the hair is long and gathered into a ponytail), a style that was used by the Manchus - indeed, the Manchus were the last custodians of this hairstyle. From these links, it is believed by some scholars that the Su-shen was one of the ancestors of the Manchus.
Another ancestor of the Manchus was the I-lou. These were a fierce people with powerful bows who were active during the Former and later Han periods. They were dugout dwellers from the Amur-Sungaria-Ussuri region, although some believe that they were simply another branch of the Su-shen, although there is archaeological evidence of a distinct culture.
The Jurchens are the most recent ancestors of the Manchus. The name 'Jurchen' can be translated as 'gold' and was applied to the Hei-shui people by the people who had conquered them. The Liao government split the Jurchens into two categories - those who lived in southern Manchuria, and under their control, were referred to as the 'civilized' Jurchens, whilst those living in northern Manchuria were known as the 'wild' or 'less-civilized' Jurchens. However, it was the Wan-yen (Wanggiya in Manchu), a subgroup of the wild Jurchens, who laid the foundation of the Jin Dynasty and later, the Qing Dynasty.
There has been some debate amongst scholars as to the meaning of the term 'Manchu'. Some scholars believe that the term 'Manchu' was not an invention of Hong-taiji as this term appeared as early as 1613 in the Chiu Man-chou tang. It was only in 1635 that Manchu officially replaced the term Nu-chen (Jurchen, Jurced or the Juchen), which was the original name for them.
There are four interpretations of the name Manchu - Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Western. The Korean version is from when a Korean official scholar, Kim Kyong-mum, in around 1711 CE learned that the word 'man' suggested 10,000 Jurchen warriors and that the word 'chou' implied continuing prosperity.
The Western version was fashioned by the Rev. John Ross who stated that the word Manchu meant 'clear'. However, it is clear that he confused the term with 'Ch'ing', which was the name of the Dynasty founded by Nurgaci and Hong-taiji, which also meant 'clear'.
The Japanese interpretation was accounted by the scholar Ichimura Sanjiro. He stated that the word came about from the Mongolian and Jurchen languages, which implied 'valour'.
The Chinese version states that the term came about from the word 'majan', which can be translated as 'long arrow' in the Manchu language. Out of the four versions, the Chinese version seems more probably, although the Japanese and Korean versions do deserve attention as well.
Determining the origins of both the Manchu ancestry and their name can be somewhat difficult - their ancestry in the literary records can be vague and frustrating due to the fact that the Han Chinese saw the Manchus as barbarians. Notwithstanding this, the Manchus ancestry, and the Manchus themselves, are a fascinating people who have made a deep impact on Chinese history.