Last emperor's family party in Peking

Teresa Poole reports on the rehabilitation of the surviving Manchus

IN A COUNTRY where for decades the wrong "family background" could ruin a person's life, connections with the former Qing dynasty imperial household were best played down. Under Chairman Mao, belonging to one of China's so-called "minority nationalities" was bad enough; being a well-bred Manchu, with links to the last emperor's court, was highly politically incorrect.

Now that the ideological en-vironment has relaxed, China's former aristocrats are again per- mitted a Manchu identity, with the emphasis on their culture, language and customs. Next weekend will see probably the largest gathering of Manchus in China since the communists took power in 1949. In the banqueting hall of the Peking Hotel, an expected 700 to 800 people will gather for the annual Manchu festival of Ban Jin.

This year's party has special significance because it also cele- brates the 360th anniversary of the naming of the Manchus and the Manchurian nation by Huang Taiji, the son of Nurhaci, the famed Manchu chieftain who in the early 17th century broke relations with the Ming emperor and launched his armies against China. The Manchus went on to found the Qing dynasty which ruled China from 1644 until 1912, when China swapped its emperors for a republic.

China's most distinguished Manchus will attend next weekend's event. Pu Ren, 77, the half-brother of the last emperor, Pu Yi, will be there. Pu Ren is the last surviving imperial family member since the death of Pu Yi in 1967 and his other brother, Pu Jie, last year. Members of the Manchu "eight major surnames" families - Tong, Guan, Ma, Shuo, Shu, Fu, Na, and Lang - will join in the celebrations. Under the Manchu hierarchy, these families could marry girls of the imperial household, or marry their own daughters into the emperor's family as wives or concubines.

Of China's 10 million Man- chus, about 160,000 live in Peking, said Ma Xiyun, 78, one of China's foremost Manchu scholars. After a career as a scientist specialising in measurement equipment, he retired in 1980 and has since spent his time researching Manchu names, Manchu language and calligraphy, and folk literature. As one of only about a dozen Manchus who can fluently write the language, Ma Xiyun has become the latter-day imperial translator.

"Pu Jie could not write Manchu, neither can Pu Ren. If someone wants the Manchu writing they must get me to write it," he laughs. He estimates that only 30 or 40 people in China can still read Manchu, which uses an alphabet similar to Mongolian, rather than Chinese-style characters. Can the language survive? "No, it can only be preserved in the documents," he admits. According to Professor Ji Yonghai, a Manchu language teacher at the Minority Nationalities Institute, there are about two million documents in the Manchu language - about one-fifth of the Qing dynasty archives.

After 12 years of research, Ma Xiyun has updated the family tree of the Ma dynasty, which goes back 23 generations, or 400 years, and covers 10 branches. Today, Mas are scattered as far as Canada, Sweden, Taiwan and Japan.

Ma Li, 52, came back from Japan to live in China last year with her German husband. Ma Li's grandfather was the patriarch of the Ma clan, and escaped with a planeload of his family and servants before the communist victory in 1949. Over generations, this branch of the Ma family had close links with the imperial court. "Ma family girls were all brought up to be married into the imperial family," said Ma Li. "One of the girls was married to one of the emperors and one of her sons later became emperor of China." Ma Li's great aunt is the present wife of Pu Ren and on the walls of Ma Li's Peking apartment hangs the calligraphy of Pu Jie and a painting by Pu Ren.

That any of the imperial family survived is remarkable, considering the bloodshed of 20th- century China. After the 1912 founding of the Republic, Pu Yi was allowed to stay in Peking's Forbidden City until 1924, when he was moved to the Japanese concession in Tianjin city. By the early Thirties, Manchuria was under Japanese control and in 1934 Pu Yi was installed as a puppet emperor of Japan's "Manchukuo nation".

It was a bleak time for many Manchus, whose only skills were painting and calligraphy. "From 1912 to 1924, many Manchu families sold precious possessions because they had no ability to work for themselves," said Ma Xiyun. After the Japanese defeat in 1945, Pu Yi and Pu Jie were imprisoned by the communists, but Pu Ren stayed in Peking as a teacher, and was not arrested.

As the political climate im-proved in the early 1980s, China's minority nationalities were allowed more freedom. The public celebration of Ban Jin was per- mitted to start again in Peking in 1981, and since then the number attending has grown steadily. Many Manchus of Ma Li's generation are now coming back to China to rediscover their roots.

The Manchus have a long pedigree. They are descended from the Jurchen tribe who lived in the north-east of China until Nurhaci organised his troops into eight "banners" and launched his drive south-west towards Peking. As he conquered land controlled by the Han Chinese, Nurhaci used to force his male captives to adopt the distinctive Manchu hairstyle, with a shaved forehead and a long braided pigtail, much to the anger of the Han. Traditionally, Manchu men wore a high collar and a tight jacket fastened at the right shoulder. Manchu women did not have bound feet.

Manchu customs laid great emphasis on courtesy, deference and ritual. Within the family, great respect was shown to older generations, with numerous kow-tows to the grandparents and parents on festival days. Not all Manchus were upper class, but most observed the main customs.

On the north-west edge of Peking, one can still find evidence of the old Manchu settlements, and descendants of ordinary Manchu soldier families. Huoqiying Village (Firearm Camp) was the home of eight Manchu military "banners" around 300 years ago, and although the present buildings are more recent, the layout of the old village is preserved. Hu Fuzhen, 78, has lived there all her life, in the same courtyard home as her forebears.

Does she remember any Manchu customs from her youth? "Yes," she said, standing up, putting her feet together and dipping down, knees bent, laughing. "I feel I am still a Manchu, and I like the old Manchu customs. I refuse to use the popular new words now, they are vulgar."

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