Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia

Follow Us

Asia travel and leisure guides for hotels, food and drink, shopping, nightlife, and spas | Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia

In Search of the Manchus

January 26, 2015

They were China's last ruling dynasty, then pushed to the brink of extinction. In the far northeast, the revived spirits of these plains-dwelling, shamanistic warriors reveal themselves to all who visit. By Gabrielle Jaffe. Photographed by Cherry Li.

Published on Jan 26, 2015


Palms pressed flat together above his forehead, knees bent over a yellow-silk-covered block, Hong Haibo offers an inaudible prayer to his forebears. This genuflecting gesture of ancestor worship is reproduced daily throughout East Asia, but Hong's are no ordinary ancestors. They are the Manchu chieftain founders of China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing, who ruled the Middle Kingdom for nearly three centuries. Like his famously tall kinsmen, Hong towers well over 1.8 meters and stands erect as a guardsman. During important celebrations, such as the Mid-Autumn and Banjin festivals, Hong would be joined by hundreds of other Manchus. But on this crisp day we are the only visitors to the Qing ancestral tombs in Xinbin County, a pinestudded sweep of land beyond the Great Wall, in an area of the northeastern-most extremity of China formerly known as Manchuria.

Qing Ancestral Tombs
Hong Haibo pays respect to his forebears.

Silence surrounds us, broken only by the satisfying crunch of fresh snow under foot. As we return to the entrance, we pass four pavilions casting long shadows in the weak winter sun. "For me, this is not just history," Hong says, stopping to ensure he has my full attention. "I have a responsibility to come here. In return, my ancestors watch over me."

Such open worship would have been unthinkable in the Maoist China. And even before the Communists came to power, Hong's family had to keep their Manchu identity secret. For nearly 300 years of Qing dynastic rule, the Manchus had lived as a ruling class, holding the Han apart both physically—by barring the majority from inner Beijing and Manchuria—and culturally, by keeping up their distinct pickle- and sausage-heavy cuisine, tasseled dress, husky language and plainsinfluenced riding and warring culture. But when the Qing fell in 1912 to the republican tide, they found themselves dispossessed, disenfranchised and sometimes even disemboweled.

It is testament to the Manchu warrior skill that their small group managed to take control of the empire, and their tactical savvy that they kept power in part by appointing both Han and Manchu ministers. But the end of Qing reign, also the end of dynastic China, represented a return to Han tradition that their minority numbers could not weather. Faced with discrimination and violence, most Manchus dropped their customs and tried to blend. They did such a good job that by 1928 a report in the New York Times warned, "Within a few decades, it seems evident, the Manchu will have ceased to exist as a separate race and will have been entirely merged with the [Han] Chinese." Yet somehow they survive, almost a century on. That's mostly because of persistent people like Hong, who are reviving centuries-old traditions from art to the art of war. But it's also because, unlike many other lost tribes, the Manchus still have a spiritual homeland to which they can return. Today 10 million people in China openly claim Manchu heritage, and I thought a trip to the faintly but still-beating heart of their birthplace would reveal the stitches that still bind them.

Yongling Mausoleum
At the Yongling mausoleum.


HEMMED IN BY MONGOLIA, Russia and the Korean peninsula, a stone's throw from the Sea of Japan, the mountain and river-ringed melting pot that was Manchuria wields influences from all of these cultures, but it is the Manchu presence that is most strongly felt. Many of the counties in this part of China, including Xinbin, have been declared autonomous Manchu regions by the government. In these rural areas, many Manchus live much as their ancestors did, in thatch and mud-brick farmhouses. With Hong, I visit some of these small homesteads in Yongling village and find plenty of evidence of preserved historic practices, from artisans crafting paper-cut artworks to the shamanistic red ribbons tied around wizened trees that are believed to harbor powerful spirits.

Xinbin County is where the Manchus came from and where the Qing's founding emperor Nurhaci grew up, but, in order to trace their rise and fall as a people, I must travel to nearby Shenyang. A now-typical northern Chinese city, thick with high-rises and frozen rivers, Shenyang nevertheless holds at its core a well-preserved slice of history: the grand Imperial Palace, erected on Nurhaci's orders in the 1620's.

Stretching out over an area the size of eight soccer pitches, this royal residence was meant to be a grand statement. Just two decades earlier, the Manchus were a group of disparate tribes. Hunting and gathering, fishing and fighting, they had lived until then in simple villages like the present-day ones in Xinbin. But after Nurhaci unified them, he had more august visions. Upon conquering Shenyang in what was his first major victory against China's then-ruling dynasty, the Ming, he evidently liked the symbolism of making the city his new capital. He renamed it Mukden, the Manchu word for "flourishing," and employed the best Han Chinese architects to create a palace to rival Beijing's Forbidden City.

Fuling Tomb
Fuling Tomb where Emperor Nurhaci, unifier of the Manchus, is entombed

At first glance, the Mukden palace seems like an exact replica of its inspiration: a parade of endless courtyards, auspiciously laid out according to feng shui principles. But the Manchu influence is soon revealed. In one courtyard, a deer-antler throne room points to the hunting habits of the ruling elite, while eight pavilions represent the eight military banners into which the Manchus were organized. A "spirit pole" stands in another courtyard where the royal court's shamans would hoist meat for the sky gods. I crane my neck up and imagine the birds circling, the blood dripping. I can still feel the presence of these fierce peoples. This palace might have the geometric order of Beijing's Forbidden City but something of the wild, something of the untamed still hangs about it.

The palace is also much flashier than its Beijing counterpart: while the Han mostly limited themselves to a studied balance of yellow tiles, red walls and white marble, this palace incorporates more vibrant turquoise and green; in place of delicately carved stone dragons, it features gaudy gold, wooden ones, looking ready pounce off the pillars. "We were a simple, earthy people. Then suddenly we had this rich artisanal tradition to play with and wanted to show off," says Tong Yue, a local historian, himself a Manchu. "It's like the farmer's wife who puts on her most colorful dress when she goes to the big city."

Or, maybe he should say, headdress. Manchu women wore elaborate ones decorated with flowers and red tassels—modern versions of which can still be seen on servers in many of Shenyang's restaurants. As I learn from the artifacts and apparel in the palace, Manchu women didn't bind their feet as Han women did, making for an interesting cultural incongruity in which the tradition was a symbol of prestige for everyone but the actual ruling class. Manchu men were encouraged to maintain their horse-riding and archery skills (demonstrations of both proliferate throughout the region during the Lunar New Year period). And, although they were soon using Mandarin on a daily basis, they were still expected to keep up their Manchu language skills.

Manchu women headdress
Manchu women bear elaborate headdresses.

Over a hearty traditional lunch of meat-stuffed corn pancakes and blood sausage in the Manchu Family restaurant, Tong explains how the Manchus evolved from simple village folks to an elite caste, living off government stipends and honoring strict etiquette rules—some of which can be witnessed weekends at the palace. The royal wedding of Nurhaci's son Hong Taiji and Harjol, his favorite concubine, is re-enacted on spring and summer Saturdays and Sundays, complete with all the pomp, circumstance, ornate embroidery and spine-straining headgear of a Qing formal event. Tong gamely leaps off his seat to demonstrate how Manchu noblemen would bow and how their wives would lock their hands together when standing to attention. "We were barbarians to begin," he laughs, "but we wanted to prove we were better than the Han."


THE FORME R FRONT MAN of the death-metal band Doomsday Cancer, who carries the name Han Xiaohan no less, might seem an unlikely Manchurian candidate. But a grandfather's deathbed confession of their Manchu blood led Han in a new direction, off to record the shamanistic music still performed in remote Manchu villages in the mountain ranges on the borders with North Korea and Russia. Soon he was incorporating the simple melodies, strong percussion beats and throaty chants of his lost people into his own tunes. I meet him in his Shenyang apartment, where he stores a collection of traditional instruments, including a reproduction snakeskin three-string fiddle that he made. "It's not rewarding in terms of money," the born-again Manchu musician admits, "but I feel it's my mission." As I delve deeper into the Manchu community, one invite leading to the next, I hear about a young man who is a BMW office worker by day and Manchu craftsman by night. "Manchu bows were three times more powerful than even the English longbow," says Michael Yang, beaming. "These were the highest of high-tech back in the day." Slender of stature and sporting black-framed glasses, he doesn't at all appear like a Manchu warrior—that is until he picks up his weapons. Head held high, he transforms suddenly into a confident archer and I believe him when he says he hunts rabbits in the countryside.

Manchu warrior
Michael Yang: office worker by day, Manchu warrior by night.

Minstrels, warriors and scholars… these were important players at court. So to complete the trifecta, I visit one of only a handful of high schools in the country where the dying Manchu language is taught. One of the teachers, 67-year-old Huang Guizhou, gives me a lesson in Manchu, which sounds like husky Korean. He then begins inking Manchu script onto rice paper, his calligraphy brush soon lost in a muddle of swirls, lines and breaks that looks to me like Arabic, flipped on its side. Actually, the script borrows from the Mongolian alphabet. "I can't imagine we'll ever be using it in daily life," admits Huang, who only started learning the language himself seven years ago. "But it's a way of preserving our culture."

I notice aged Manchu script on giant steles while exploring Nurhaci's mausoleum in east Shenyang with a school chaperone, just before twilight. A gibbous moon in the faltering sky diffuses an eerie light over the fortress-like complex. At the back stands a large hill where the emperor is buried. "It's not a good time of day," the deputy headmistress stops me as I stroll onto a path circling the mound. "Aren't you scared of meeting his ghost?"

Huang Guizhou teaches Manchu language
Huang Guizhou teaches Manchu language.

It's a question I might ask of the musician who takes shamanistic instruments into the recording studio, the archer who scours online Qing texts to recreate bows, the waitresses wearing polyester Manchu costumes, and especially the genuflectors at ancient tombs. But I realize they're not just trying to conjure ghosts, they're reinventing their heritage to fit modern times. It's exactly what Nurhaci did when he moved his people from the plain to the palace. And so I do circle his burial mound, paying my respects to the force that founded a powerful lineage, once pushed near extinction, but 400 years later still battling on.

T+L Guide

Shangri-La Shenyang One of the newest and best luxury options in town, with great park and river views. 115 Qingnian Ave., Shenhe Dist., Shenyang; +86 24 2436 6666;
Doubletree A short drive or a 15-minute walk from Shenyang's Imperial Palace. 89 Fengyutan St., Shenhe Dist., Shenyang; +86  24 8411 8888;

Manchu Family Traditional food, outfits and period photographs. 19 Xiannongtan Lu, Shenhe Dist., Shenyang; +86 24 2411 1130.
Laobian Jiaozi Local institution has a long history serving delicious northern dumplings. 206 Zhongjie Lu, Shenhe Dist., Shenyang; +86 24 2270 0207.
Xita Korea Town For nightlife and Korean barbecue. Xita St., Heping Dist., Shenyang.

Imperial Palace
171 Shenyang Lu, Shenhe Dist., Shenyang; +86  24 2484 3819;
Nurhaci's Mausoleum
Also known as Fuling Tomb. 210 Dongling Lu, Dongling Dist., Shenyang;
Qing Ancestral Tombs
Also known as Yongling Tombs; a daytrip from Shenyang here can be combined with a visit to Nurhaci's reconstructed hometown of Hetu Ala. Yongling Village, Xinbin County; +86 24 5515 6438.
Top Elites City Resort & Spa Unwind after a day's sightseeing at the swankiest spa in town. 6 Sanyi St., Dongling Dist., Shenyang; +86 24 6283 9999.

Shougong Fang Manchu Paper Cutting Pick up local artworks at this artisan's workshop near the Qing Ancestral Tombs. Yongling Village, Xinbin County; +86 24 1234 5678 or +86 158 4137 8059.

Shenyang's Imperial Palace
The palace at Shenyang—which was dubbed Mukden, the Manchu word for "flourishing."


See All Articles...

Manchu Middle School
  • Emperor Nurhaci
  • Manchu women bear elaborate headdresses
  • Manchu Middle School
  • Manchu archery
  • Shenyang's Imperial Palace
  • Manchu women didn't bind their feet
Related Articles