My friend Andrew Cunningham, a former Beijinger now in Shenzhen and maker of amazing vintage Strat guitar pickups, tells me this is his favorite that's Beijing column I've done. It dates back to December, 2003. Enjoy. By the way, the publisher of the magazine has been talking with me about releasing an anthology of the sixty-odd columns I've done since October '01. So he probably won't want me posting too many more of these...
I was rifling through my wife’s purse the other day when I made the startling discovery that she’s a minority. There it was, right there on her ID card after ‘nationality’: Man, not Han. Wait a minute, I thought. Fanfan doesn’t sing and dance or don colourful raiment and ornate headdresses. Nor, for that matter, have I ever known her to celebrate Water-Splashing Day. What kind of a minority nationality are these Manchus, anyhow? I felt a sharp pang of guilt: how little I understood this important part of her very identity! How remiss in my husbandly duties! And so, the better to appreciate her, I undertook a journey of discovery that would lead me deep into the labyrinthine hutongs of Dongcheng District: A journey in search of the Manchu people.
It turns out that many people I know happen to be Manchu. Why, you may be sitting next to one right now and not even know it. The writer Lao She of Camel Xiangzi and Teahouse fame was a Manchu. So was Cao Xueqin, who wrote Dream of Red Mansions. Manchu people, I discovered, invariably know to which of the eight Manchu banners their family belonged, and are singularly proud of their particular banner. The banners were hereditary military administrative divisions, identified by four colours in plain and bordered varieties. “I’m Plain Blue,” said one friend of mine. “That’s one of the really good ones. They kicked ass.” It turns out by coincidence that another close friend and my wife share the same banner – Bordered Yellow – which is kind of like having the same astrological sign, except there were only eight banners so I guess it’s not quite as special as, say, both being Libras. Anyway, Bordered Yellow was apparently the banner that supplied women to the imperial household in Qing times, so I’m totally stoked.
Compared to some of the other Chinese minorities, who emphasise singing, dancing, colourful costumes and Water-Splashing, the Manchus are rather austere. Fanfan was raised by her stern and dour grandmother, who schooled her in the rigid etiquette of the Manchus. “Chi bu yan, shui bu yu,” she taught her young ward. “Do not speak when eating, and do not talk while sleeping.” Manchus do not eat dog meat, a friendly canine having once saved the life of the great Manchu forebear Nurhachi. I’ve given up gou rou, incidentally, in solidarity with my Manchu spouse. Good posture being the mainstay of the Manchu Weltaunschauung, Fanfan was constantly admonished as a child to stand erect. “Don’t lean against a wall or in a doorway when you stand. And don’t crack sunflower seeds while leaning in a doorway or you’ll look like a prostitute,” Grandma would warn. Posture was important while seated, too: one must never cross one’s legs, and never lean back in one’s chair. Chair backs were strictly ornamental, and just to make sure, Manchu carpenters designed theirs for maximum ergonomic unfriendliness.
Manchu women didn’t bind their feet, which is why Fanfan has to do her footwear shopping at a special store for clowns – that is, if you buy her Lamarckian claims. Other special Manchu characteristics, alas, do not seem to have been passed along genetically. “Jumping onto galloping horses from one side or onto camels from the rear was [sic] the most popular recreational activity among the Manchus,” reads one authoritative source on minority nationalities. “Pole climbing, swordplay, juggling a flagpole, and archery on ice [surely the inspiration for the Olympic biathlon?] are the more interesting sports of the Manchu people,” this authority goes on to say. Pity such arts are now lost.
After the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in the revolution of 1911, the once-proud bannermen – who in better times rode roughshod over the Han and, having wowed them with their flagpole juggling and excellent posture, compelled them to sport the funny hairdos known as the queue – were reduced to a sort of second-class citizenry. “They were popularly regarded as having lost their martial spirit and retained an unwarranted sense of entitlement … bannermen were satirised and ridiculed as lazy wards of the state and as absurdly devoted to defending their declining status,” wrote David Strand in his fascinating study of Beijing in the 1920s, Rickshaw Beijing. Things have of course changed, and nowadays many descendants of the bannermen lead useful and productive lives as birdcage guys or hutong chess kibitzers.
So here are some pointers for you when interacting with your Manchu friends. 1) When someone tells you they’re Manchu, immediately ask, “Which banner?” and, regardless of his answer, say “Wow, that was one of the really good ones!” 2) Emphatically agree with the assertion that Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong were the best emperors in Chinese history. 3) Be respectful about dietary restrictions, and most importantly, never make jokes about pastimes like camel jumping, which I’m told is now making a comeback among young Manchus.