Minorities & the Manchu Myth

Manchurians, one of China's more numerous ethnic minorities with a population of 11 million, did not actually exist until a dozen years before they conquered China. Originally a loose alliance of nomadic tribes, they became Manchus (the exact meaning is unknown but the name was probably taken from a Buddhist term meaning "great good fortune"), after Qing founder Huang Taiji invented the label to unify his people and distance them from their barbarian roots. But it was Nurhaci, Huang Taiji's father, who paved the way for the Manchu conquest of Ming China. Nurhaci was bent on instilling loyalty and demanded men who surrendered to him to imitate the Manchu tradition of shaving the front of the forehead and braiding hair in the back into a long "queue," a law that was also enforced during the reign of Huang Taiji. By 1645, any man who did not comply faced execution. The Chinese were humiliated by the order at the time, but the queue has recently been reclaimed as Chinese cultural history, and makes frequent appearances on dozens of widely popular Chinese period soap operas.

Manchu culture borrowed heavily from a number of ethnic groups, especially in architecture, but many of their customs disappeared after they established the Qing and adopted Chinese habits -- a phenomenon Chinese historians still note with pride. Some aspects of Manchu culture have survived, however. Most notable among these are kang, heated brick beds still found in some Dongbei homes, and qipao (traditional fitted dresses), made famous in 1930s Shanghai.

Dongbei is technically home to more than a dozen other ethnic groups, including Mongolians, Russians, and Koreans. But the majority of them were, at one time or another, considered Manchurian. Victims of successive assimilation, most are now practically indistinguishable from Han Chinese. A few distinct minority cultures have managed to survive, if only barely, in the more remote corners of the Northeast. These include a few nomadic Oroqen hunters and reindeer-herding Ewenkis in the Greater Xing'an Mountains (on the border between Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang Province), and the Hezhe, the majority of whom live in northeastern Heilongjiang Province. Numbering fewer than 5,000, Hezhe are famous for their fish-skin clothing, a typical suit of which costs between ¥5,000 and ¥6,000 and uses roughly 250 kilograms (550 lb.) of pike, carp, or salmon.

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