- Chinese/Manchu: 八旗 (bāqí / jakun gûsa)
The "Eight Banners" system was a central institution of the Qing Empire. It constituted an elite class of "martial" families, distinguished from the rest of society in its privileges and perquisites, and responsibilities and obligations, as well as spatially: members of the banners lived in walled compounds within most cities, apart from the civilian population. The Banner system was comprised of eight Manchu Banners, eight Mongol Banners, and eight "Chinese-martial" (Hànjūn) Banners; each group of eight included three Upper Banners (Yellow, White, and Bordered Yellow), and five Lower Banners (Bordered White, Plain and Bordered Red, and Plain and Bordered Blue). Established in 1636 alongside the formal declaration of the establishment of the Qing Dynasty (renamed from the Later Jin Dynasty), the system predated the Manchu conquest of China.
Bannermen families lived in separate garrisons within the major cities, and were subject to separate administration and legal & judicial systems from the civilian population. They took separate (and generally easier) civil service exams from those Han Chinese civilians sat for, and enjoyed the advantages of a quota system which placed Manchu and Mongol officials in numerous prominent positions. There were also separate military service exams, which consisted of both written portions, and portions testing one's demonstration of martial skills (horse-riding, archery, etc.).
In Beijing, bannermen garrisons were placed just outside the Imperial Palace, creating a ring of elite space & military defense just outside the palace walls, much as was the case in Edo and most other Japanese castle towns. Following the conquest of China, much farmland was taken from the civilian Chinese, and divided up amongst the bannermen, such that each bannerman family owned, or controlled, at least a few acres of their own hereditary landholdings. Unlike their samurai counterparts in Japan, Manchu bannermen did not typically wear swords, but rather carried weapons only when specifically on duty, or otherwise actively attending to a situation.
The Manchu Banners were each originally headed by one of eight Manchu princes (beile), sons of Nurhachi, founder of the Jurchen Later Jin tribal confederacy which became the Manchu Qing under their brother Hong Taiji. In a system Michael Chang calls "patrimonial," and which closely resembles in certain ways the "feudal" structure and logic of Tokugawa samurai society, the members of each Banner were loyal to the head of their Banner, more so than truly being loyal to the Qing government or the Empire in the abstract or "national(ist)" sense. Each bannerman family was obliged to provide a single warrior to their associated military company within the Banner, along with sufficient grain, horses & sheep, and arms & armor to equip and support that warrior. Reciprocally, the heads of each Banner, and of each company within it, were expected to reward their troops with loot or spoils from successful military efforts.
Categorization & Ethnicity
The Banners originally constituted chiefly identities of service or loyalty, and included not only those who we might today consider to have been ethnically Manchu, Mongol, and Han Chinese, but also many Jurchens, Liaodongese, Koreans, Oirats, and the like. From around the 1750s onward, these identities hardened into "ethnic" identities, and many people who had not been of Manchu or Mongol background, genealogical descent, or culture, were now not only considered to be Manchu or Mongol, but were expected to observe the customs appropriate to that ethnic/cultural identity. Somewhat similarly, at that time, the "Chinese-martial" banners were disbanded, with many members being absorbed into Manchu Banners, but most (including some number of Korean, Jurchen, or Liaodongese ancestry) being re-classified as "regular" Han Chinese civilians. This is cited by many scholars of the so-called "New Qing History" as evidence of the flexibility of ethnic distinctions and identities, and as evidence that the Banner distinctions had previously been (and perhaps continued to be) something other than "ethnic" categories.
In the last decades of the Qing Dynasty, as ethnic nationalism and anti-Manchu sentiment rose, many people of genetically Han Chinese stock but from families with histories of Banner membership came to be regarded as "Manchus" and/or as "race traitors."
- Chang, Michael G. A Court on Horseback: Imperial Touring and the Construction of Qing Rule, 1680-1785, Harvard University Asia Center (2007), 20-22.