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Qing alternately encouraged, banned Han migration

By Liu Xiaomeng | 2016-04-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

This is a stage photo of the Chinese TV series Journey to the Northeast, which tells the epic story of the Zhu family’s migration in Northeast China. From refugees to traders, their experience mirrors the fate of a critical mass of Han people at that time.


After defeating the army of the rebel leader Li Zicheng (1616-45) at the Battle of Shanhai Pass and wresting control over the country from the remnants of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Qing court applied two measures to benefit Manchu people living in Northeast China. It adopted a military-political control system in which Shengjing, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces were each governed by a general, and it barred war refugees, most of whom were Han, from entering the region.

However, a large number of refugees still flooded to Northeast China to reclaim wastelands. Their arrival boosted the border economy and profoundly affected local society and Manchu-Han relations.


Ban on Han people
To consolidate its power, the Qing court deployed a critical mass of soldiers from the northeast to  Shanhai Pass, leaving the once prosperous northeastern region desolate. To address this issue, the government ordered local officials to relocate refugees to the eastern part of Liaoning Province to reclaim fallow land there.

But the mass migration of Han worried the Manchu administrators of the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). A line dividing the farmland of the two ethnic groups was drawn through Fengtian, modern-day Liaoning Province, in 1689, but from the start, the measure was ineffective.

In 1653, the Qing court further refined management beyond  Shanhai Pass. It set up district and county administrative levels designed to contain Han migrants and favor the interests of the Manchu people. Yet, in order to rule effectively, the government had to consider the welfare of Han people.

Later on, it issued a decree barring Han people from entering the area outside Shanhai Pass. However, the law did little to stem the tide of Han, whose numbers grew, and they continued migrating to the north.

During the reign of Emperor Jiaqing and Emperor Daoguang (1796-1851), the ban was poorly enforced because the court alternated between encouraging migration to promote development and prohibiting it to control the Han population. Under the reign of Emperor Xianfeng (1831-61), the frequent fighting inside Shanhai Pass and the difficult financial situation forced the court to end the ban in parts of Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces. In 1907, Emperor Guangxu (1875-1909) announced the establishment of Fengtian, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, ending the distinctions between Manchu and Han in Northeast China.


Manchu-Han relations
In the early and middle Qing Dynasty, many Han people migrated every year to Northeast China during farming season and returned to the place where their household was registered after the harvest. They were forced to leave their homeland, mostly alone or in groups, because of poverty and  migrated to Jilin, Ningguta and more remote areas via Fengtian.

The Han people from various places developed new social structures, including landlords, owner-peasants and tenant peasants in the process of localization. Through years of hard work, some of them became the earliest squires.

The Han people mostly worked as hired farm laborers, but they also engaged in commerce, business and medical treatment as well. Various professions not only earned a living but also enriched the local economy and improved the standard of living.

As a result, two changes took place in Northeast China. The military-political control system developed into an administration based on district and county divisions. Meanwhile, the two ethnic groups began to live and farm in the same area. They became neighbors, relatives, friends, or established tenancy or employer-employee relationships.


In the early Qing Dynasty, most arable land belonged to Manchus. The increasing numbers of Han were confined to live within a limited space, making competition for land inevitable.

To obtain land, the Han started to reclaim wastelands. The Qing court encouraged Manchus to follow suit in order to get more land. Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722)decreed that the land should be divided into Manchu and Han areas. However, the measures did little to prevent the growing Han population from taking more land.

The Han showed some restraint in reclaiming wasteland in response to repeated orders from the court. But at the same time, they sought out ways to circumvent imperial decrees, either by buying land from Manchus or privately reclaiming it under a Manchu name. In this competition for land, the Manchus made one retreat after another.

Despite being protected by the Qing court, the Manchus were at disadvantage to compete with the Han, who had nothing to lose. Their awkward situation can be attributed to the constraints from the Manchu system, represented by harsh conscript labor and military service in Northeast China. Also, the Manchu officials and soldiers made up the dominant military force, which gave them superior political and economic status. Because they were issued pay and other aid from the court, they did not have to rely on land as their only income.

Though it had a negative effect on the Manchus, the Han migration also brought positive changes to the region. The large number of Han people accelerated the exploitation of Northeast China. They also brought with them advanced farming techniques, different cultures and new ideas that raised the living standards of other ethnic groups in the area. At the same time, the intermingling of Han and Manchu people helped to break down the dual administrative system that separated the two ethnic groups.


Administrative management
In the early Qing Dynasty, some Manchu and Han peoples entered into Shanhai Pass with the army, leaving ghost towns behind them. But the Manchu, Mongolian and Han peoples that stayed forged a diverse and interdependent economy.


To grapple with the increasing number of Han people, the Qing court adopted two administrative measures. It set up offices at the prefectural, district and county levels to manage households, which had been divided into groups. It also established a department of management to deal with criminal affairs concerning the Manchus and Han.

The Manchu-Han dual system had two separate legal systems. Criminal cases concerning both ethnic groups were complicated by the conflicts between the two systems. Officials qualified for such posts had to be fluent in both Manchu and Han languages, and proficient in knowledge about criminal lawsuits.

Many Han officials were experts in law,  but few of them had enough familiarity with Manchu affairs or a sufficient mastery of both languages. That explains why most administrators were Manchu people.
In 1875, Shengjing General Chong Shi was ordered to reform the bureaucratic establishment in Fengtian to root out corruption. The major reform standardized local administrative power for criminal cases, which were then handed to officials at district and county levels. Starting in 1905, officials in Jilin Province began to govern the two ethnic groups together, all but ending the dual system.


Commerce, culture
The arrival of Han people promoted local commerce in which a number of trade centers based in garrisons of the Qing court were set up. During the late reign of Emperor Kangxi (1667-1722), there were about 1,000 wine shops and 30 pawnshops in Shengjing, and 19 pawnshops in Jinzhou, Liaoning Province. The business of wine shops, pawnshops and the brewing industry in other mid-sized and small cities was thriving.


In the late reign of Emperor Kangxi, about 400 households and 36 shops were located in Ningguta. At first, the Manchus inhabited the city center, while the Han lived outside the city. The Han started businesses and attracted regular streams of traders after moving to the city. However, the majority of the population consisted of Manchus in villages.

In the early reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1722-35), the number of migrant merchants in Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces increased sharply. Emperor Qianlong (1711-99) banned the Han from migrating with their families unless they were moving to Heilongjiang Province for trade. The act was intended to meet the daily needs of the local Manchu people. Meanwhile, fixed commercial streets sprouted up as commercial networks expanded. The Han merchants accelerated the commercialization of local products. In the late Qing Dynasty, food, leather and antlers were traded in large quantities in Heilongjiang Province.

The Qing court set up a department around 1900 to attract migrants from Shandong and Hebei provinces to reclaim wastelands. After that time, the Han people were permitted to legally own land. Their advanced farming techniques changed production at a time when the feudal system that drove the Manchu economy was beginning to collapse.

In terms of culture, the Han literati enlightened the border region and promoted Confucianism. The Han merchants, migrants and peasants made collective efforts to carry forward the culture that originated in the Central Plains. The cultural exchanges in Heilongjiang Province were multi-way interactions rather than a one-way process of assimilation. But the cultural differences grew less distinct the longer the two ethnic groups lived together.


Liu Xiaomeng is from the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.