Who Are the Manchu?

Empress Cixi's funeral procession
Manchu honor guards carry Empress Cixi's casket at her funeral procession. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Manchu are a Tungistic people — meaning "from Tunguska" — of Northeastern China. Originally called "Jurchens," they are the ethnic minority for whom the region of Manchuria is named. Today, they are the fifth-largest ethnic group in China, following the Han Chinese, Zhuang, Uighurs, and Hui. 

Their earliest known control of China came in the form of the Jin Dynasty of 1115 to 1234, but their prevalence by name "Manchu" didn't come until later in the 17th century.

Still, unlike many other Chinese ethnicities, the women of the Manchu people were more assertive and had more power within their culture — a trait which carried into their assimilation into Chinese culture in the early 20th century.

Lifestyle and Beliefs

Also unlike many of the neighboring peoples, such as the Mongols and the Uighurs, the Manchu have been settled agriculturalists for centuries. Their traditional crops included sorghum, millet, soybeans, and apples and they also adopted New World crops such as tobacco and corn. Animal husbandry in Manchuria ranged from raising cattle and oxen to tending silkworms.

Although they farmed the soil and lived in settled, permanent villages, the Manchu people shared a love of hunting with the nomadic peoples to their west. Mounted archery was — and is — a prized skill for men, along with wrestling and falconry. Like the Kazakh and Mongol eagle-hunters, Manchu hunters used birds of prey to bring down waterfowl, rabbits, marmots and other small prey animals, and some Manchu people continue the falconry tradition even today.

Prior to their second conquest of China, the Manchu people were primarily shamanist in their religious beliefs. Shamans offered sacrifices to the ancestral spirits of each Manchu clan and performed trance dances to cure sickness and drive away evil.

During the Qing period (1644 - 1911), Chinese religion and folk beliefs had a strong impact on Manchu belief systems such as many aspects of Confucianism permeating the culture and some elite Manchus abandoning their traditional beliefs altogether and adopting Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism had already influenced Manchu beliefs as early as the 10th to 13th centuries, so this was not an entirely new development.

Manchu women were also far more assertive and were considered equals of the men — shocking to Han Chinese sensibilities. Girls' feet were never bound in Manchu families, as it was strictly forbidden. Nevertheless, by the early 20th century the Manchu people, by and large, were assimilated into Chinese culture.

History in Brief

Under the ethnic name "Jurchens," the Manchus founded the later Jin Dynasty of 1115 to 1234 — not to be confused with the first Jin Dynasty of 265 to 420. This later Dynasty vied with the Liao Dynasty for control of Manchuria and other parts of northern China during the chaotic time between the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period of 907 to 960 and the reunification of China by Kublai Khan and the ethnic-Mongol Yuan Dynasty in 1271. The Jin fell to the Mongols in 1234, a precursor to the Yuan conquest of all of China thirty-seven years later.

The Manchus would rise again, however. In April 1644, Han Chinese rebels sacked the Ming Dynasty capital at Beijing, and a Ming general invited the Manchu army to join him in recapturing the capital.

The Manchu happily complied but did not return the capital to Han control. Instead, the Manchu announced that the Mandate of Heaven had come to them and they installed Prince Fulin as the Shunzhi Emperor of the new Qing Dynasty from 1644 to 1911. The Manchu dynasty would rule China for more than 250 years and would be the last imperial dynasty in Chinese history.  

Earlier "foreign" rulers of China had quickly adopted Chinese culture and ruling traditions. This happened to some extent with the Qing rulers as well, but they remained resolutely Manchu in many ways. Even after more than 200 years among the Han Chinese, for example, Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty would stage annual hunts as a nod to their traditional lifestyle. They also imposed a Manchu hairstyle, called a "queue" in English, on Han Chinese men.

Name Origins and Modern Manchu Peoples

The origins of the name "Manchu" are debatable. Certainly, Hong Taiji forbade the use of the name "Jurchen" in 1636. However, scholars are unsure whether he chose the name "Manchu" in honor of his father Nurhachi, who believed himself a reincarnation of the bodhisattva of wisdom Manjushri, or whether it comes from the Manchu word  "mangun" meaning "river."

In any case, today there are more than 10 million ethnic Manchu people in the People's Republic of China. However, only a handful of elderly people in remote corners of Manchuria (northeast China) still speaks the Manchu language. Still, their history of female empowerment and Buddhist origins persist in modern Chinese culture.