I’ve only got a couple of chapters left in Beckwith (see my earlier posts: 1, 2), so I thought I’d pass along a few tidbits culled from what I’ve read so far, to give an idea of the kinds of facts and insights the author provides as sidelights to his main story of the gradual suppression of Central Asia by what he calls the Littoral System.

The first is what to me is a convincing etymology of the name Manchu. On page 225 he writes:

In 1616 Nurhachi (Nurhači, 1559-1626), the leader of the Jurchen in southern Manchuria north of Liaotung, established a Chinese-style dynasty, the Later Chin, named after the Chin Dynasty of his Jurchen forebears. … In 1636 his son and successor Hung Taiji (1592-1643) changed the dynasty’s name to Ch’ing (‘Clear’) and in 1643 adopted a new ethnonym, Manju (Manǰu) ‘Manchu’, apparently after the name of the Boddhisatva of wisdom, Mañju-śrî ‘Lord Mañju’.

A footnote sends us to endnote 89, which says:

By the time of Nurhachi’s son, Hung Taiji (‘Abahai’…), the Manchus had been converted to Tibetan Buddhism, mainly through the efforts of the Mongols and Uighurs, who had themselves been converted to Tibetan Buddhism in the Mongol Empire period. The Manchus belonged to the “reformed” Dgelugspa (‘virtuous school’) sect headed by the Dalai Lama, who had become a politically important reincarnation lineage with the help of the Mongols…. The dynastic name Ch’ing ‘clear’ is evidently connected to the name of the holy mountain Ch’ing-liang Shan (‘Mount Clear and Cool’) in Shansi (Shanxi), where Manchu, Mongol, Uighur, Tibetan, and Chinese Buddhists believed Mañjuśrī resided…. There are other well-argued theories about the etymology of the name Manju (e.g., Stary 1990 [Giovanni Stary, “The Meaning of the Word ‘Manchu’: A New Solution to an Old Problem,” Central Asiatic Journal 34.1-2: 109-119]), and it is quite possible that the Manchus deliberately fostered different interpretations among the different peoples who made up their empire, but for the Manchus themselves it is difficult to imagine most of them, as fervent new converts to Buddhism, seeing the name as anything other than Mañju, the name of the Boddhisatva of wisdom.

(The OED, in an entry revised June 2008, simply says “Manchu Manju is said to have been the name adopted by Abahai, leader of the Altaic-speaking Ruzhen tribes of Manchuria, who conquered China and ruled as the Qing dynasty from 1644-1912.”) I like both the laying out of the reasons he supports this etymology and the fact that he refers to “other well-argued theories”; although he sometimes seems overly certain of his own theories, he doesn’t try to paper over controversies, and is perfectly willing to say some of his previous views were mistaken, a form of humility that is welcome in a scholar (and not as common as one would like).

On pages 76-77 he introduces one of the major themes of the book, the mutual dependence and comparable nature of nomads and settled peoples:

Trade was important for both nomadic and non-nomadic cultures, but it was critical for the nomadic states. The crucial nature of trade was not, however, because of the supposed poverty of the nomads. Nomads were in general much better fed and led much easier, longer lives, than the inhabitants of the large agricultural states. There was a constant drain of people escaping from China into the realms of the Eastern Steppe, where they did not hesitate to proclaim the superiority of the nomadic life-style…. Central Eurasian peoples knew that it was far more profitable to trade and tax than it was to raid and destroy….

All of the Central Asian cities depended primarily on irrigated agriculture…. Yet, despite their urbanity, the peoples there were just as warlike or non-warlike as the nomads—who were just as interested in trade as the urban peoples…. The ancient Chinese travelers to Sogdiana found it an intensely cultivated agricultural region with many cities and huge numbers of warriors. The Sogdians, no less than the nomadic peoples around them, needed to trade to acquire the wealth to bestow on their comitatus members; it was clearly not the reverse. They needed their warriors for their internal political purposes, just as the nomads did.

This is not an especially original insight, but a useful thing to point out (pp. 176-77):

The limitation in the size of states in the period between the Early Middle Ages and the Mongol Conquest limited the evil that governments and politicians could do to individuals. Especially in Western Europe, the Islamic world, Tibet, and East Asia, it became possible for philosophers, scientists, and other creative people to escape to another more amenable state when they were endangered in their homeland. The result was increased international movement, and with it continued intellectual growth.

On page 202 he mentions that Persian miniature painting was “a result of the Mongols having brought with them numerous Chinese scholar officials to help them run the Il-Khanate,” and on page 240 he describes the massacre in 1756-57 of the Junghars, until then the main power in Central Asia, at the orders of the Ch’ien-lung Emperor: “only about 10 percent of the Junghars, mainly women and children, survived.” That’s just a sampling; amid the (rather dry) chronological rundown of rulers and tribal movements, there are all sorts of eye-openers like those.


  1. “Nomads were in general much better fed and led much easier, longer lives, than the inhabitants of the large agricultural states.”
    Funny, that’s how you recognize Oaxacans and distinguish them from other Mexicans (bean and corn diet, almost no animal products) even before they open their mouths. They all seem to be about four feet tall.

  2. For those with interest in the interrelationship of China and the nomads peripheral to China, I recommend Wolfram Eberhard’s _A History of China_ which can be downloaded free from Project Gutenberg and, also Rene Groussett’s _Empire of the Steppes_, still available from booksellers.

  3. While those are both excellent works, Eberhard’s book is originally from 1947 and the Grousset dates from 1938; there’s only so much you can do with occasional updates. Beckwith incorporates the latest research and has thoroughly rethought the history of the region.

  4. I agree with the Hat completely on the issue of modernity and of the importance of Chris Beckwith’s new publication and his new insights–nevertheless, Eberhard’s work remains seminal in its examination of China’s history in relationship to the rann volke, the peripheral peoples of China. Similarly, there is much in Grousset that is not covered in Beckwith, but which should be part of our view and understanding of the peoples of Central Asia.

  5. We are in full agreement!
    Actually, I’m a tad disappointed in how Beckwith has structured the book; if he had gone off on fewer tangents that seem fairly irrelevant to Central Asia, he would have had room for more of what you’re talking about.

  6. caffeind says

    Sounds rather littorally minded.

  7. David Marjanović says

    Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on the Dzungars informs me that “Hong Taiji” is a title (“supreme chief”) rather than a name.

    rann volke

    Based on your explanation I guess Randvölker?

  8. Beckwith also dishes up “Ironsmith” as the meaning of Temujin. I have just read Genghis Khan by John Man, and Man is quite adamant (and rather convincing) in his view that Ironsmith for Temujin is a false etymology. For a start, Mongolian Tomor (iron) has an ‘r’ in it; Temujin doesn’t.

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