BEIJING -- For most of this century, being a Manchu meant suffering shame, discrimination and abuse.
Although the tribe of horseback warriors had conquered China in the 17th century, founding the Qing dynasty and ruling for nearly 300 years, they had become a symbol of everything wrong with China.
From fierce warriors, they had degenerated into welfare addicts unable to ride a horse, string a bow or lop off a head. Conscripts and mercenaries fought their wars, and they usually lost.
After the 1911 revolution over threw the last emperor -- a Manchu named Pu Yi -- the Manchus were vilified. Their imperial stipends cut off, many died of hunger and cold, or were murdered by Chinese who wanted revenge for the Manchus' long rule over China.
Now, though, Manchu culture is undergoing a fragile rebirth. For them, along with dozens of other ethnic minorities in China, having a different history and culture is a source of pride instead of shame.
Listen, for example, to Madame Bao Shiyi, 45, a Manchu entrepreneur who has opened a Manchu teahouse and, last month, a Manchu gift shop in the Forbidden City.
"Privately, I think the 10 emperors of the Qing were versatile, capable, honest and clean. They conquered so much territory for China, like Tibet and Xinjiang," said Ms. Bao. "Our emperors were better than the other dynasties."
Zhao Zhan, a researcher at the Central University of Nationalities, said Manchus used their physical similarity with Chinese to blend in. Now they are trying to distinguish themselves from ethnic Chinese, who make up 95 percent of China's population.
rTC "My Manchu friends have started to ask me to give their children Manchu names," Mr. Zhao said. "Many others have reregistered as Manchu and no longer pretend that they are Chinese."
Indeed, Beijing is in the grip of something akin to Manchu fever, with Manchu restaurants opening and Manchu calligraphy -- preferably by members of the old royal family -- now the "in" style to adorn buildings.
L This open pride would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Assimilation, plus a series of pogroms after the revolution, drastically reduced the number of Manchus from an estimated 5 million at the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911 to 2.3 million in a 1953 census, according to Mr. Zhao. The decrease was especially sharp in Beijing, where the figures shrank from 2 million to 90,000, he said.
A more tolerant government attitude partially explains the Manchus' recent revival. A 15-year-old affirmative action policy gives all minorities easier access to higher education and relaxes China's strict one-child policy.
Nationwide, the population of ethnic Chinese rose 10 percent from 1982 to 1990, but the minorities' population jumped 37 percent, evidence of an "explosion of ethnicity" in China, said Dru Gladney, a specialist in China's ethnic minorities.
For Manchus, the numbers are even bigger. Their population rose 128 percent, to 9.8 million from 4.3 million.
Although exemption from the one-child birth control policy has helped increase the Manchu population, most of the rise is simply due to people who were previously classified as ethnic Chinese changing their status to minority.
Some say they do it for the preferential policies, but many do it because they do not feel a part of the Chinese majority.
The Manchus are a bit different from other minorities because their cultural revival seems fleeting, with previous discrimination and assimilation so strong that few Manchus are able to speak their language.
In addition, government programs still seem to reflect some of the Chinese prejudice against their old conquerors.
In Beijing, for example, Manchus have been repeatedly denied permission to set up a formal cultural association. Manchu schools in Manchuria -- their old homeland in northeastern China -- are indistinguishable from Chinese schools, with little instruction in Manchu language.
"The so-called Manchu schools are not real Manchu schools," said Aixin Jueluo Hengshan, a member of the Manchu royal family who has kept his Manchu name. "There are few people who can understand Manchu language or know the history of the Manchu."
The biggest participants in the Manchus' revival seem to be older people, such as Professor Zhao, who uses a Chinese name but is fluent in Manchu. He and others over 60 who grew up with the language go to most meetings at Ms. Bao's teahouse and reminisce about the past.
Although the post-1911 pogroms were horrific -- virtually the entire Manchu population of Xian, for example, was wiped out by angry Chinese revolutionaries -- Manchus growing up before the Communist takeover of 1949 were able to learn their language, especially those who grew up in remote Manchuria.
Partly this was because Japan controlled this area and used the Manchus to create a World War II puppet state called Manchukuo, a dishonorable chapter in Manchu history but one that helped preserve the culture.
After 1949, modernization of China's northeast further reduced the number of Manchu speakers, while Communist witch hunts against enemies of the new state often focused on the Chinese people's old scapegoat.
During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, for example, one of China's best-known contemporary writers, Lao She, was hounded to death. Mr. Lao, a Manchu, wrote several novels and plays that chronicled the Manchus' plight around the time of the 1911 revolution.
Wu Guohang, a 29-year-old graduate student of Chinese language and literature, said these constant assaults may have fatally weakened the Manchus' viability as a culturally separate people.
"Now we are allowed to be Manchu, we are allowed to be aware of our own nationality, but we just don't have this consciousness," Ms. Wu said. "I consider myself a Manchu but haven't bothered to change my registration in my identity document. I don't know what being a Manchu means anymore."
Mr. Zhao, although thankful for the recent interest in Manchu history and culture, also thinks the Manchus will finally be swallowed up by the Chinese in a few decades.
"After this high tide, I don't think Manchu research can be revived," he said. "Manchu is not a useful foreign language. I suggest that a few scholars learn it so they can read documents from the Qing dynasty."
Others, like Ms. Bao, believe the Manchus can retain their identity.
Her teahouse, in a crumbly part of Beijing north of the Forbidden City, has become a gathering place for painters and intellectuals. Her new gift shop puts her back among the palaces where the Manchu emperors governed the Chinese.
"Some people joke that I'm the first Manchu allowed back in the Forbidden City since the emperor was thrown out," she said. "We want to make this a center of our culture again, maybe only in a small way, but we don't want to lose our past."