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A new book about Chinese conquest of Cent

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Uyghur Oghli View Drop Down

Joined: 08-Jun-2005
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    Posted: 15-Aug-2005 at 14:57
China Marches West : The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia
Editorial Reviews
Building on meticulous research in several languages, Perdueargues convincingly that the Qing conquests were of enormous importance both locally and globally. Drawing us deep into interconnected issues of frontier environments, state formation, and control of the historical record before the age of mass communication, his nuanced account sets a new standard for the study of both comparative empires and identity formation in the early modern world.

Book Description
Perdue illuminates how China came to rule Central Eurasia and how it justifies that control, what holds the Chinese nation together, and how its relations with the Islamic world and Mongolia developed. He offers valuable comparisons to other colonial empires and discusses the legacy left by China's frontier expansion.

China as imperialist; China as colonist
China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia by Peter Perdue
Taiwan's Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683-1895 by Emma Jinhua Teng.
Reviewed by Macabe Keliher

In the 17th and 18th centuries, China as a state underwent a great transformation, the consequences of which reverberate to the present day. Through extensive and sometimes protracted military conquest, China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), effectively altered the special understanding the empire ruled from Beijing by doubling the territory under its command and colonizing the lands of what we know today as China.

The territory directly controlled by the Qing's predecessors, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), only went as far north as Beijing, and the western frontier began at Gansu. Taiwan lay overseas and beyond the fringe. With the rise of the Qing dynasty in the mid-17th century, and its extensive state-building enterprise in the 18th, Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Manchuria and Taiwan came under the jurisdiction of the Chinese empire for the first time in history. Indeed, in less than 200 years the Qing widened their frontiers in a fashion as dramatic, if not more so, than the US. Through literary and scientific works, and state-building institutions, the Qing redefined the entire spatial and ethnic composition of what constituted the Chinese state.

Yet our modern day histories of China either treat the Middle Kingdom as a static socio-political phenomenon of two millennia or fail to address the vast measure of expansion the Qing achieved. Early European Sinologists and the later Harvard crowd have created the image of a 2,000-year stasis of politics and culture that could not for the life of it modernize, and which eventually failed because of the rise and encroachment of the West. Chinese histories have likewise made China out as a great peace-loving nation that fell victim to Western imperialism. In these standard histories, China has always been China, from the Taiwan Strait to the western ridges of the Himalayas.

Such history, however, is akin to writing US history without the mention of westward expansion, or to treating US republicanism as a mere transplanting of the British parliamentary system. A key development in the historical process is missing. Furthermore, this traditional history of China sets it apart from the rest of the world, as a unique and timeless civilization.

In the past decade, China scholars have flexed their creativity to break the chains their academic forefathers have forged, and produced a number of insightful works on the history of China. This new breed of scholars has torn up all that we thought we knew of China's past to reveal a dynamic, evolving, and in many ways modern Chinese state and culture. Works from scholars such as Pamela Crossley and James Hevia showed a state partaking in the formation of nationalism and the subjugation of empire. James Millward's book on Xinjiang, Beyond the Pass (Stanford, 1998), was the first work to look at the incorporation of a non-Han Chinese territory into the Chinese state proper. In these works the specter of Chinese imperialism and colonialism - in the Western sense - becomes clear.

Peter Purdue's new work, China Marches West, and Emma Jinhua Teng's first book, Taiwan's Imagined Geography, take this new trend in China scholarship to the next level in exploration of how the Qing effectively conquered and colonized neighboring regions to make them parts of their empire; parts that are considered integral to China today. As they demonstrate, the Qing conquest of non-Chinese lands through military force, and central rule from a metropolis, are very much the characteristics of an imperial tradition.

The Zunghar state
Key to Perdue's argument in China Marches West - and one of the book's major contributions - is the Zunghar state. In the 15th century, Central Asian nomads had carved out a territory in what we know today as Western China and Mongolia. Over the next two centuries they formed a state called Zungharia, which expanded north into Russia and west to the Pamir Mountains to encompass all of modern day Xinjiang, half of western Mongolia and parts of Siberia. "The Mongols ... created an increasingly state-like apparatus of rule in Central Eurasia, one that grew from a loose tribal confederation to approach the structure of a settled regime". (p 518)

Perdue points out that the Zunghar state was nomadic in its roots and offered the last alternative on the world scene to the settled agriculture society. It is true that it built capital cities, sponsored trade, developed bureaucratic procedures and even promoted agriculture, but the state drew much of its resources from taxes on caravan trade and tribute from its neighbors. Furthermore, in times of drought or hardship, nomads would invade settled areas on the Chinese frontier.

For China's emperors - both in the Ming and Qing - the existence of the Zunghar state, which refused to acknowledge the superiority of the dynasty, threatened not only Chinese territory, but also the majority Han-Chinese metaphysical world order. "If they were allowed to survive they would seriously endanger the nation," Perdue wrote." (p 251)

Thus began the Qing conquest of the west. Military campaigns in the late 17th and early 18th centuries attempted to bring the Zunghars into submission, but truces were broken and rebellions rose. In the 1750s the Qing employed what Perdue calls the "final solution" to the northwest frontier problem. What took place was one of the largest genocidal wars in history, even by today's standards, and the complete extermination of the Zungharian peoples. An estimated 600,000 people were killed and the steppe depopulated.

The Qing set up Xinjiang as a military camp and later employed Mongolian collaborators to govern the region. In the 1760s Han-Chinese civilians began to migrate westward, and by 1781 some 20,000 households were established in Xinjiang. Imperial conquest had succeeded and formal colonization had begun.

The secrets of Qing success
Yet herein lies the puzzle: previous dynasties had for centuries attempted to neutralize the western nomads; how did the Qing not only succeed in neutralizing but completely eliminating them?

Perdue cautions against viewing Qing expansion here as "a linear outgrowth of previous dynasties". Rather, "it represents a sharp break with the strategic aims and military capabilities of the Ming dynasty." (p 507) The Qing had developed the necessary military, economic, and diplomatic institutions not only to wage a successful campaign in the west but to undertake a vast expansionist project that began in the early 17th century and ended in the mid 18th. We must view these institutions and innovations as creations of the Qing, not developments from previous dynasties.

The Qing began as a Manchu tribe in the northeast. They had organized their society to make war and united all the regional tribes under one banner and then marched on Beijing where the Ming dynasty lay in disarray and crisis in 1644. In possession of the resources of China, the Manchus continued expansion and institutional change. They pushed commercial penetration, agriculture reclamation, revamped transportation networks, mapped the empire, and streamlined the bureaucratic command system. All of these innovations, Perdue argues, allowed the Qing to move their militaries further west then any previous dynasty, and to succeed in battle.

As titillating and provocative as this book is, it is quite unfortunate that the main points become so obscured in a rambling narrative of Chinese history. At 725 pages, China Marches West is like a Charles Dickens novel: intimidating, dense, discursive at times, and full of information or stories that have nothing to do with the main narrative. Half of the book could have been cut out, and a remaining quarter placed in footnotes; Perdue's thesis would be better served. The well-known story of the succession battle for emperor Kangxi's throne, for example, gets rehashed here, though contributes little to our understanding of Qing relations with Zungharia. Or even more turgid, all of part three meanders through military colonies, harvests and currency in the Qing empire. Over 100 pages of tedious statistics and graphs and charts to make what point?

The book reads at times like a collection of neat ideas about China, which the author never takes the time to fully think through. He only teases by dropping the most provocative thesis in the very last sentence of a section or chapter. "[The Qing] conception of space left no room for an autonomous Mongolian state," (p 457) he writes in conclusion to a section on Qing map-making, but never explains why this annuls the possibility of the autonomous Mongolian state. Or the very alluring thesis articulated but not explored that Zungharia represented the last of the alternatives to settled agriculture society.

Indeed, the reader is often at quite a loss of what to make of all this pedantry. Even the narratives of military battles often seem to lead nowhere. Not until chapter 15, the second last chapter of the book - over 500 pages into the thing - does Perdue explain the method of his madness to his readers. Should this chapter have stood at the very front of the text he might have saved his readers much bewilderment and frustration.

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