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China's ethnic Manchus rediscovering their roots

Aristocracy is no longer a dirty word in China, and those with ties to the nation's last imperial rulers are now embracing their past.

January 30, 2013|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Ye Longpei, 70, and his grandson Yehenala Yiyi, 3. The Beijing toddler was given the family's old aristocratic surname, which was changed long ago to hide their imperial lineage.
Ye Longpei, 70, and his grandson Yehenala Yiyi, 3. The Beijing toddler was… (Barbara Demick / Los Angeles )

BEIJING — Nobody would suspect that this impish toddler is of noble lineage. Yiyi has the same buzz cut as other 3-year-old Chinese boys, the familiar habit of scattering his fleet of toy cars across the living room rug.

But his family name gives him away: Yehenala, a famous Manchurian clan that once ruled China.

When Yiyi was born, his father and grandfather made the unusual decision to give him the old Manchu name. Generations earlier, the family had shortened the name to Ye to disguise the fact that they were aristocrats in a communist country founded on the principle of overturning feudalism.

"We are proud of our royal blood," said the boy's father, Ye Jia, a 40-year-old state company employee who says he would change his name too if the bureaucracy wasn't so complicated.

The name is a mouthful in a country where almost all family names are written by a single character and pronounced with a single syllable. Yiyi is the only child with such an exotic name in his Beijing preschool class.

But his father thinks it will serve him well in the long run. "Even his teacher says he's special," Ye said.

Descended from a horse-riding nomadic people of northeastern China, the Manchus were the last imperial rulers of the country, establishing the Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 until 1912. After the abdication of the last emperor, Pu Yi, his clan changed its name to Jin. The Yehenalas, related to Cixi, the empress dowager who was de facto ruler in the late 19th century, became Ye or Na.

A century later, ethnic Manchus are rediscovering their roots.

A few universities have revived the study of the nearly extinct Manchu language, which is more like Mongolian than Chinese. There are culture seminars to study the dance, food and music of Manchuria, even Internet forums. Many people have also begun using their Manchu family names, even if few are legally registered like little Yehenala Yiyi.

Although aristocracy is no longer a dirty word in China (daytime television is full of historical dramas about imperial times and luxury goods are advertised as fit for royalty), China's imperial kin continue to live modestly, not flaunting their lineage like European nobility.

The Ye family has faded black-and-white photographs of Cixi and other illustrious relatives in their brocaded costumes of old, but they are kept tucked away in a folder.

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Tse-tung's decade-long purge of the elites, the stigma attached to being a member of the old aristocracy was so great that many imperial descedents were unaware of their own lineage. Ye Longpei, Yiyi's 70-year-old grandfather, didn't find out until he was an adult that his own grandfather had been the youngest brother of the empress Cixi.

His father, who was then close to dying, confided the family secret in 1975, in the waning days of the Cultural Revolution, during a walk to the Summer Palace, Cixi's retreat in northwest Beijing.

"That's how shameful it was to be part of the royal family. This is something that nobody would brag about," said Ye, a retired schoolteacher who lives with his son's family in a comfortable but nondescript two-bedroom walk-up apartment south of downtown Beijing.

Chinese history deals harshly with the Qing Dynasty. Pu Yi is still despised as a collaborator for having headed the puppet state of Manchuko, which was established by Japanese occupiers during the 1930s. Some memoirs about Cixi describe an insatiable sexual appetite and cruelty, although her relatives say the stories are fabricated.

"Cixi became the scapegoat for everything that was wrong with old China," said Na Genzheng, a 61-year-old descendant of one of the empress' brothers. One of the more outspoken family representatives, he keeps a photograph of Cixi flanked by tall vases, shrine-like, in a niche in his living room. He specializes in Manchu script, producing loopy calligraphy that looks a little like Arabic written vertically.

"People don't appreciate her contribution and the family's to Chinese culture," he said.

His illustrious ancestor, he said, "lived in a period of transition and promoted reforms learned from Western countries." Cixi's descendants held a large family reunion in 2008 on the 100th anniversary of her death and are trying to salvage her reputation.

Some things Manchu have been incorporated seamlessly into Beijing culture, such as the popular pastry saqima and the figure-hugging dresses known as cheongsam. Like the Yiddish woven into New York slang, Beijingers use Manchu-derived insults such as "moceng," meaning "slow," and "mama huhu," meaning "mediocre" or "careless."

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