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The Manchu Nobility

The Manchu nobility was of two kinds, the dignity of the one being personal, that of the other official. Of the former there were five degrees, the three first of which were conferred only on the relations of the emperor, and were generally translated by the term prince. These princes were bound to live within the precincts of the imperial palace. The personal nobility had precedence over the mandarins, or official nobility.

The Manchu noble families who came with the Manchu dynasty kept separate from the Chinese. There is no unalterable stratification, nor was there outside of the Manchu any class possessed of hereditary privileges; for the orders of nobility eventually conferred on a few of those who supported the government in its struggle with Taiping rebellion, and two or three who previously enjoyed such distinction as representatives of ancient sages, were not sufficient to constitute a class.

The Imperial Clansmen were those who could trace their descent back directly to the founder of the dynasty, Hientsu, 1583-1615, and were distinguished by the privilege of wearing a yellow girdle. Collateral relatives of the Imperial house were privileged to wear a red girdle. The titles of nobility conferred on members of the Imperial house were of twelve degrees. Sons of an emperor were created Prince of the first or second order, their sons descend to Prince of the third order, and their sons to Prince of the fourth order; then came four grades of dukes and four of commanders, until, in the thirteenth generation, the descendants of emperors were merged in the ranks of commoners, distinguished only by their privilege of the yellow girdle.

The hereditary imperial nobility included: Ts'in-wang, prince of the first order; Kiunwang, of the second order; Pei-leh (Bei-leh) of the third order; Pei-tze, of the fourth order; Fung-ngen Chen Kwo-kung, duke of the first order; Fung-ngen Fu Kwo-kung, of the second order; Pu-ju Pa-fen Chen Kwo-kung, of the third order; Pu-ju Pa-fen Fu Kwo-kung, of the fourth order; Chen Kwo Tsiangkiun, Fu-kwo Tsiang-kiun, Fung-hwo Tsiang-kiun, and Fung-ngen Tsiang-kiun, generalissimos of the first, second, third, and fourth classes respectively.

The Tsung-shi were the imperial clansmen, descendants of Hien Tsu (1583-1615), the founder of the Manchu dynasty, and are distinguished by their yellow girdles; all affairs relating to the imperial family were treated by the Tsung-jen-fu, the Imperial Clan Court. There were eight "iron-capped" (or helmeted) princes, direct descendants by rule of primogeniture of the eight princes who co-operated in the conquest of China. These princely families had perpetual inheritance: Li T'sin-wang, Prince of Li; Jui T'sin-wang, Prince ofJui; Yu Ts'in-wang, Prince of Yu; Su Ts'in-wang Prince of Su; Cheng Ts'in-wang, Prince of Cheng; Chwang Ts'in-wang, Prince of Chwang; Shun-ch'eng Kiun-wang, Prince of Shun-ch'eng; K'e-k'iu Kiunwang, Prince of K'e-kiu. I Ts'in-wang, Prince of I, not included in the eight, was also perpetual. To them was added the descendant of the thirteenth son of Kanghi.

The nepotism of the Manchus secured them a monopoly of all the best posts near the throne and precluded the rise of a Chinese aristocracy. The actual organization of society, indeed, precluded any real Chinese aristocracy or ruling class. The Manchus alone had the privileges attaching to an hereditary nobility, and though titles had been bestowed on distinguished Chinese, these were, in fact, for foreign consumption only. While this was the case, it was obviously difficult to evolve any class combination among the Chinese which could vie with that of the small but powerful Manchu aristocracy which were spread over the land, "eating it," as the phrase goes.

The national elite, who comprised perhaps 1 percent of China's population, had a number of distinctive features. They were dispersed across the country and often lived in rural areas, where they were the dominant figures on the local scene. Although they held land, which they rented to tenant farmers, they neither possessed large estates like European nobles nor held hereditary titles. They achieved their highest and most prestigious titles by their performance on the central government's triennial civil service examinations. These titles had to be earned by each generation, and since the examinations had strict numerical quotas, competition was fierce. Government officials were selected from those who passed the examinations, which tested for mastery of the Confucian Classics.

Elite families, like everyone else in China, practiced partible inheritance, dividing the estate equally among all sons. The combination of partible inheritance and the competition for success in the examinations meant that rates of mobility into and out of the elite were relatively high for a traditional agrarian society. Since from the earliest times it had heen the Chinese way to divide the landed possessions of a man among all his sons, there had never been any class of great landowners, renting their land to tenants, such as most other countries have displayed. The Chinese land has always heen cut up into small holdings, which are chiefly freeholds, and cultivated intensively. There were landlords in China who own one or a few farms and rent them to tenants, hut there are no great, permanent estates. When a patch of land, by repeated division, was too small to sustain a man, it is sold to some prospering neighbor, and the former owner drifted to one of the great towns of China to join the mass of wage-earning workers there.

The father of a son who received a title, was, also, allowed to assume a title precisely similar in point of importance to that which had been conferred upon his son. He, however, placed before his title the term Foong, which implied that he had received his title in consequence of the renown of his son. If a father died before his son be ennobled, he, though dead, was nevertheless ennobled. It was necessary, however, for the son in speaking or writing of his father, or in erecting a tombstone to perpetuate his memory, to place the term Tsang before the title - a term which implied that the honour is a posthumous one. Great-grandfathers and grandfathers were also, whether they be dead, or alive, ennobled by imperial decree, if their greatgrandsons and grandsons be so fortunate as to attain to any of the titles and distinctions of the Chinese empire.

Should a man of title marry, his wife was allowed to bear a title precisely similar in point of rank. Should, however, this lady die, a second wife would bear no title, unless he were to be raised still higher in the scale of nobility during her wifehood. A third wife was not allowed to assume a title even though her husband had one. Should her sons, however, become nobles, she was, as a matter of course, allowed to bear a title. Widows of title were on no account allowed to contract a second marriage; and widows who marry clandestinely were never permitted to bear titles.

Manchu nobles absolutely refused either to learn or to be taught. No Manchu noble would tolerate any subordinate, especially Chinese, who claimed to stand on his own dignity and who refused to lower himself to please the chief. One of the causes of China's downfall was the unreasonable suspicion which the officials of the Tsungli Yamen [the Foreign Office] always entertained against those Chinese who had become friendly to foreigners and who had acquired a knowledge of some foreign tongue.

The rivalry and jealousy between Manchus and Chinese had always been very keen. The impartial dispensation of public offices among Manchus and Chinese, wisely insisted upon by the early emperors of the Manchu dynasty, did more to reconcile the Chinese to the Manchu yoke than anything else. The anti-foreign schemes of Manchu nobles were as much anti-Chinese as they were anti-foreign. As a matter of simple truth, the Manchus were anti-foreign because the progressive Chinese exhibited such perverse and incorrigible leanings towards western culture.

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Page last modified: 08-04-2012 18:40:53 ZULU