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."

Suggested Topics
Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice