The Manchus (in Chinese Manzhou 滿洲, in Manchurian manju) were a federation of various tribes living in what is today China's provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, a region accordingly called Manchuria. The leader of the Manchu federation, Nurhaci (posthumous titles Qing Taizu 清太祖, r. 1616-1626, in Chinese Nu'rhachi 努爾哈赤), founder of the so-called Later Jin dynasty 後金 (founded in 1616, after 1636 called Qing 清), challenged the ruling Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) from the late 16th century on. With the collapse of the Ming dynasty in 1644 after a series of rebellions and the conquest of Beijing by Li Zicheng 李自成, the Manchus took the chance to conquer northern China, and then advanced to the south, as heirs of the Ming. Their Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) was the last conquest dynasty (after the Northern Wei 北魏, 386-534, Liao 遼, 907-1125, Jin 金, 1115-1234, and Yuan 元, 1279-1368), and also the last imperial dynasty of China.
Ethnically, the Manchu tribes belonged to the Tungus branch of the Altaic peoples, as distant relatives to the Turks and Mongols. The northern Tungusic languages include Even, Evenki, Oroqen, and Negidal, the southern ones Nanai, Orok, Ulch, Oroch, Udihe, Manchu, and Sibe. Sibe (Xibo 錫伯) is the closest surviving relative to Manchurian, and is spoken by the ethnic group of the same name, and one of the official ethnic minorities of the People's Republic of China. They live in Jilin, Liaoning, and Xinjiang.
The Manchurian language is written with an alphabet script borrowed from the Mongols. It was introduced in 1599 by Nurhaci to replace Mongolian as the official language of the Manchu federation, so that texts could be written down in Manchurian language. The script was reformed in 1632 by adding diacritical marks to the letters (so-called tongki fuka hergen "script with dots and circles").
The Manchu tribes were believed to be descendants of the tribes in the federation of the Jurchens (in Chinese called Nüzhen 女真) that had lived in the same area and once founded the Jin dynasty, which conquered northern China. The Manchu tribes before the renaming of Nurhaci's dynasty must therefore correctly be called Jurchens, not Manchus. The Jurchen tribes living in the prefectures of Jianzhou 建州 (mountainous region north of the border of the DPR Korea) and Haixi 海西 (eastern parts of Heilongjiang and the Russian province Primorsky Krai) were the most important of the Jurchen tribes and were the founding stock of the later Manchus. In Chinese the Jurchens were called Nüzhen (also read Ruzhen) or Nüzhi 女直, in Manchurian Jusen, Jušen or Nioji.
The rulers of the Ming dynasty appointed the chieftains of the various Jurchen tribes as native rulers to indirectly exert control over this region beyond the Great Wall. During the early 17th century the chieftain Nurhaci unite various Jurchen tribes. In 1616 he adopted the Mongolian title of Qan (Khan, in Manchurian han) and founded the (Later) Jin dynasty. His son and successor Hung Taiji (in Chinese Huang Taiji 皇太極), sometimes referred to as Abahai (r. 1626-1636), officially adopted the name "Manchus" for the tribal confederation of his empire. Scholars disagree about the origin of the term. It might be the name of a creek, but might also be derived from the name of the Bodhisattva Mañjuśri.
The tribal affiliations of the various Jurchens were later artificially defined in the book Manzhou yuanliu kao 滿洲源流考 from 1777. The Qing emperors had a "catalogue" of customs and practices (military virtues, expertise in riding and shooting the arrow, exercising military training, and hunting, mastering the Manchu language) defined which marked the identity of Manchu-ness, all the more as the conquest "people" was a minority within China, and therefore needed clear criteria to avoid the risk of sinification or sinicization. After the conquest of China in the 1640s the Manchu dynasty established a rigorous system of ethnic separation from the Chinese, and the most important ethnics of China were classified in five groups: Manchus (Man 滿), Mongols (Meng 蒙), Chinese (Han 漢), Tibetans (Zang 藏) and Uyghurs (Hui 回).
The families of the Manchu federation were organized in the so-called Eight Banners (baqi 八旗, in Manchurian jakūn gūsa), into which also some groups of collaborating Mongols and Chinese were integrated. The Banner Chinese, mainly from the region of Jianzhou having joined the Manchu federation at an early point of time, were gradually expelled from the Banners during the 18th century. The "Manchus" were thus not a homogenous people, but a conglomerate of various Jurchen tribes, Mongols, Chinese and Koreans. Ethnic or "racial" identity was floating, with the sole constant of being "Manchu" or a member of the Banners. Members of the Manchu "class" were thus characterized by cultural simultaneities, dictated by their own culture and language, and their political-administrative affiliation to the Banners. There was an imposed ethnic coherence inmidst of cultural incoherence. The Manchu rulers themselves experienced a similar kind of simultaneity, being heads of the Jurchen tribes, khans of the Mongols, Chinese emperors, and protectors of the Tibetan Mahākāla cult, and they exerted patronage of Chinese elite traditions like studies of the Confucian Classics, connoisseurship of arts, and reading Chinese romances. The Manchus thus adopted different identities due to their lack of tribal consciousness, as it was common among the Mongols, and were therefore very able to assume Chinese characteristics rapidly and thoroughly. It was therefore all the more important the the Qing emperors continuously stressed the importance to keep with the (artificial) Manchu traditions, and not to forget one's cultural heritage.
The Qianlong Emperor 乾隆 (r. 1735-1796) in particular, whose large empire included a wide range of culturally distinct peoples, managed the "choreography" of switching between the different roles needed to rule his unequal subjects, be it in a political sphere, a cultural one, or a religious one. The Manchus did not impose their (constructed) identity to others, nor did they become "Chinese".
The Banner families lived in segregated residential compounds in the larger cities of China, yet most of them remained in Beijing, where they occupied the northern quarters of the city, surrounding and protecting the imperial palace. While the southern part of Beijing was known as the "Chinese city", Western foreigners called the Manchu compounds "Tartar city". During the conquest period, each family was given a tract of land (see Banner land) to live on. Bannermen were hereditary soldiers, and the state cared for their wellbeing from cradle to grave.
During the late 19th century, Chinese nationalists increasingly put the blame for China's continuous defeat against foreign powers on the Manchus, the ruling foreign people. After the foundation of the Republic of China in 1912, persons of Manchu origin, as a consequence of public suppression (and a massacre of Manchus in Xi'an and elsewhere by Chinese), adopted Chinese names and concealed their identity. Only recently it became again possible to openly declare oneself as descendant of Manchus. The People's Republic of China had declared the Manchus (Manzu 滿族) as on of her national minorities. The Manchu language had actually died out, but is revived by hobbyists, and scholars studying Qing history.
The success of the Manchus in ruling China cannot only be seen in their conquests of Dzungaria, Xinjiang and Tibet, but also by their successful changes of the administrative structure of the Ming empire. They reformed the provincial administration, standardized all types of jurisdictional and administrative mechanisms, developed a very effective system of granaries to forestall famine, and successfully adapted the Chinese class of merchants and the local gentry to bring about economic prosperity. The cooperation of various ethnic groups and of groups with different social functions made the Manchu regime a universalist one. This was unique not only in China, but in world history.