Proud Manchu reclaims his rich heritage

If the Qing dynasty had not fallen in 1911, Aisin-Gioro Shoukun would still be an aristocrat, enjoying the honorary rank of general.

The 60-year-old retired teacher is a 13th-generation descendant of Nurhaci, the warrior founder of the House of Qing that ruled China for more than 250 years. His uncle would have inherited the title of a prince, but his family kept that secret hidden for decades.

Having an aristocratic pedigree might be impressive nowadays, but that has not always been the case in China. The Manchus, descendents of nomadic Jurchen tribes that settled in the northeast for centuries before their warrior emperor overthrew the Ming dynasty in 1644, were resented by the majority Han Chinese population for incompetent and corrupt governance in the later days of Qing rule, resulting in the country being divided up by foreign powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

When revolutionary Sun Yat-sen founded the Revive China Society to garner support for a revolution to topple the Qing dynasty, its slogan was 'Expel the Manchus and revive China'.

According to missionaries' accounts, massacres of ethnic Manchus started with the onset of the 1911 revolution in Wuchang, Hubei province, followed by violence in other cities including Xian, Guangzhou and Nanjing, where hundreds of thousands of Manchus were believed to have been killed.

Like most Manchu families, Aisin-Gioro's family changed their name in official records and abandoned their Manchu dress and traditions to escape discrimination and political repression in the decades after the imperial regime fell.

'My grandmother used to talk to us about our family history, but my mother would stop her, fearing it would affect our future,' said Aisin-Gioro, whose Chinese name is Jin Jiapeng in official documents. He only reverted to using his ancestral name on social occasions in recent years.

Simply being a Manchu would have been a big enough stigma when Aisin-Gioro was a child in the politically tumultuous 1950s and 60s, let alone being a descendant of the Qing imperial family and carrying the same surname as the last emperor.

The Cultural Revolution was a hard time for people of Manchu descent, many of whom were persecuted for their supposed links with the late imperial family or for simply speaking in their native tongue.

So it was little wonder that most descendents of aristocrats adopted Chinese names to hide their ancestry until recently. Aisin-Gioro said whenever his mother filed official documents in the 1960s and '70s, she always declared the family's ethnicity to be Han. When he was sent to the countryside like other young people during the Cultural Revolution, he was particularly anxious to keep his ancestry secret, fearing his royal ancestry would make him a target.

'I daren't say a thing - there would be big trouble if I did,' Aisin-Gioro said. He only changed his ethnicity back to Manchu when he returned to live in Beijing in the '80s at the age of 37. It was not until he retired nine years ago that Aisin-Gioro started learning his ancestral language and he has since dedicated much of his time to writing Manchu calligraphy. He is also researching a book on his family history.

'We have to let our children know about our ancestry, otherwise no one else can pass it on.'