The Jurchen are an ancient people of Manchuria, the geographic name used since the 1600s for the vast forested area east of Mongolia, north of Korea and south of the Russian Far East. The Amur and Ussuri Rivers run through the heart of historic Manchuria, though today these two rivers form the border between Russian and China. The words "Manchu" and "Manchuria" were coined by the Jurchen only in the early 1600s.
The Jurchen are related to the Evenki, Udegei, Nanai and other Tungus-Manchu peoples of Siberia and the Russian Far East. The word "Jurchen" originally meant "reindeer people" and is the same word as the Tungusic ethnonym "Orok" and "Oroch". The Jurchens early on settled down in villages near rivers, as did the Nanai and other Manchurian native peoples.
After the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 907 the Jurchens came under the influence of the Khitan Mongols (this was a few centuries before Chinggis Khan). The Khitan conquered part of northern China and also made many Manchurian tribes their vassals in what came to be called the Liao (Iron) Dynasty. Southern China at this time was ruled by the Song Dynasty. During this period the sedentary, semi-farming, semi-hunting Jurchen acquired horsemanship from the Mongols. They gradually built up a warlike tradition that allowed them in 1134-27 to destroy the Liao Dynasty and replace it with a larger and more powerful dynasty of their own. The Jurchen ruled all of what much later came to be known as Manchuria and also extended their sway over most of northern China, even farther south than the Khitan Mongols. Their dynasty was called the Jin (Golden) Dynasty, and it lasted until Chinggis Khan and his sons destroyed it during the period between 1215 and 1235. After this, the remaining Jurchens lived in Mongolia as subjects of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1270-1368). With Chinggis Khan, it seemed the Jurchens were finished being important players in history, but that was not at all the case.
When the Mongols were driven out of China in 1368, native-Chinese rule was reestablished under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Most Mongols themselves went back to feuding and practicing shamanism. Unlike the Mongol Dynasty, the Ming ruled only over the native Chinese areas, while the Mongols, Tibetans and the Jurchens were all independent. During Ming times, the Jurchens gradually became powerful again. Under their brilliant leader Nurhachi they even conquered some eastern tribes of Mongols and were a power to be reckoned with in northern China, as well. Nurhachi forged alliances between various groups of Jurchen, but he was merely a baile (pronounced "by-LEH") a local chieftan whose inherited power historically derived from shamanistic rank. (The Jurchens were originally shamanists but gradually became Buddhists through their association with Chinese culture.)
Even though Hurhachi started the Manchu military miracle, it was his ambitious son Hung Taiji who officially adopted the name Manchu (probably based on a word for a local deity) in 1635 and led the drive replaced the Ming Dynasty with a new, Jurchen Dynasty called the Qing (Pure) Dynasty. Hung Taiji not only elevated himself to the rank of Khan over all the Jurchens, become emperor, as well. Under him, the newly named Manchus soon conquered all of China, which had been wracked by widespread peasant rebellions during the last decades of Ming rule. The situation had become so hopeless that the last Ming emperor committed suicide in 1644when one of the rebel leaders threatened the capital (Beijing), thus ending the dynasty. Hung Taiji's forces soon took the capital from the rebel leader and took up residence in the Forbidden City, the area of Beijing that the Mongols had originally set aside to hide their "un-Chinese-ness" from the rest of the country.
Qing (also called Manchu) rule in China was amazingly long lasting, considering these people were not native Chinese. They forced the men in their realm to wear a pigtail, which became a hated symbol of foreign rule among the Chinese. Manchu rule ended only in 1911, when the last emperor was deposed and a republic inaugurated in China. The Qing, like the Mongols who they imitated, succeeded in uniting China with Manchuria, Mongolia, and Tibet into a sort of superstate, a multi-enthic empire greater than any native-ruled Chinese empire. The Manchus even provided a geographic model for the modern Peoples Republic of China.
During its heyday, the Manchu Empire was the largest and possibly the most powerful state in the world. In addition to Nurhachi and Hung Taiji two long-reigning emperors are credited with this glory.
The Kangxi Emperor reined from 1662-1722. He established Manchu banners throughout the land. Banners were regiments of soldiers, each organized under a banner, or flag, of a particular color – there were eight originally. He defeated the Western Mongols (Oirats) and drove their leader Galdan to suicide. He fostered the penetration of Tibetan lamaist (priestly) Buddhism into Mongolia, already begun in the 1570s, in an effort to make the Mongols less warlike. This worked, and by the 1700s all of Mongolia was Buddhist, with hundreds of monasteries established. He also kicked the Russians out of the Amur River area, reserving the whole of Manchuria for the Qing. The 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk cemented this arrangement. It was followed by the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta, which allowed trade in tea and furs with the Russian Empire across a single, remote border town (Kyakhta). Other Europeans came to China as missionaries or traders, but were not significant adversaries of Qing Empire China at this time. Jesuit (Catholic) missionaries in China brought back the idea of smallpox vaccination to Europe and also were the first Europeans to learn Chinese and Manchu.
The Qianlong Emperor reined from 1736-1795. During his reign an enormous number of books were published (before 1800, half the world's books were printed in Chinese). He also extinguished the last resistance of the Western Mongols, using genocide and ethnic cleansing, driving some of them all the way to southern Russia, where they became the Kalmyks. Under Qianlong, the number of people in China more than doubled, passing 300 million (the current population of the US. The increase was due to the unification of the country, but also to the importation of African and Native American food crops such as yams and sweet potatoes into areas that formerly could not support much agriculture.
However, the great success of the Qing Empire began to turn against it by the last 1700s, and the last 20 years of Qianlong's reign were marked by growing problems. By the mid 1800s, Manchu-ruled China would come to be known as "the Sick Man of Asia". First, the huge number of bannermen (Manchu soldier regiments) was costly to support and had no external enemies to fight anymore. They started to meld into the native Chinese population, even forgetting the Manchu language. Attempts to send them back to Manchuria for military training, or to make them study Manchu language and culture, were expensive and largely unsuccessful. During this time, many Manchu government officials became very corrupt and embezzled lots of money. Also, great increases in agricultural output led to erosion, flooding, and land impoverishment led to many people living on the edge of famine. Manchu relief efforts rarely worked because greedy officials often stole aid money. Military weakness and internal corruption also led some of the country's minorities to revolt, starting local guerrilla wars that drained the treasury further. At the end of the 1700s the large, native-Chinese inspired White Lotus Rebellion tried to kick the Manchus out of China. It failed, being finally put down in 1804, but it was a sign of things to come.
Unlike earlier dynasties, the weakening Manchus faced a novel adversary – European sea power and modern military might. The British, then other Europeans, began demanding that China open up its markets to foreign goods. The traditional Manchu way of doing things was to keep a government monopoly on all trade, so that they sold tea at great profit, but hindered their subjects from buying foreign goods. Foreign traders were confined to select seaports, like Canton or Hong Kong, so this came to be called the Canton System. To get around this, and open more of China to foreign commerce, the British began smuggling opium from South Asia into China. Many Chinese became addicted to it. When the government tried to prevent this, the British retaliated with the Opium War (1837-42) in which China was humiliated by British sea power, which moved up China's rivers. In 1858-60 there followed a second opium war, called the Arrow War. During this time, other European empires began to take advantage of the helpless Manchu state. Russia took control of all Manchuria north of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers, after signing treaties with corrupt officials. Most disastrous of all was the huge Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), where a native Chinese man claiming to be Jesus's younger brother rallied around him many elements who wanted to get rid of Manchu rule (many native Chinese believed that the Manchus, being foreigners themselves, were selling the country out to the Europeans). The Taipings were finally crushed, in large part with European help after the Arrow War, but at the cost of 20-30 million lives, making it one of the most destructive wars in human history. Much of central China was devastated by starvation and epidemic disease. The Europeans helped mainly so the Manchu government would be in a position to pay indemnities (war-loss penalties) and be further exploited. From this point on, the various European empires were more afraid of each other than of the government of China.
Another low point in China's 19th century history came in 1900 when a group of rebels called the Boxers (a shortening of the Chinese name "Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists") began attacking foreigners in Beijing, hoping to drive them out and restore the country's autonomy. The foreign empires all banded together and crushed the Boxers. When the Manchu government was implicated in supporting this rebellion, the last effective ruler, an old lady know as Cixi, the Dowager Empress, became a virtual prisoner in her palace within the Forbidden City. Only rivalries between the various European empires (and Japan, which was also taking its share of China's resources and territory) kept the Qing Dynasty from being completely swept away and China from being further dismembered.
The end of the Qing came in 1911, after the Dowager Empress dies and the two-year old Pu-Yi, the Last Emperor, was deposed (I very much urge you to see the movie, "The Last Emperor"). China became a western-style republic, but the country soon fell apart into civil war and then an invasion from Japan. Only with the victory of Mao Zedong in 1949 was the territory of the late Qing Dynasty China reunited under a single strong government and it has remained that way to this day. By the 20th century, most Manchu had adopted Chinese language and culture so thoroughly that they connection with historic Manchuria was in memory only. Today, the historic territory of Manchuria is densely populated with Chinese farmers in the south and Russians in the north. The native peoples of this area, on both sides of the Amur-Ussuri river border are tiny minorities in danger of losing their traditional culture and languages.