NationStates Jolt Archive

China as imperialist and China as colonist

06-08-2005, 04:06
A review of two books which talks about Chinese imperialism and colonialism and and dispels the "One China" myth.

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.

Taiwan: From mud ball to green gold
If Perdue's book is Bleakhouse, then Teng's is Heart of Darkness. Concise, clear, direct, poignant. In the opening pages of Taiwan's Imagined Geography Teng tells the reader that the travel writing, pictures and maps on which she basis her analysis mark a transformation in Chinese consciousness over the course of 200 years of a desolate island beyond Chinese territory into an integral part of the Chinese empire. "In examining the process by which Taiwan was incorporated into the imagined geography of the Qing empire, this book helps to explain how an island that was terra incognita for the better part of Chinese history came to be regarded as an integral part of China's sovereign territory." (p 7)

Not until the 17th century does Taiwan make an appearance in the Chinese history books, and then only as an island beyond the seas to which the last of the Ming pretenders fled after a defeat at the hands of the Qing. When they fell to the Qing in 1683, emperor Kangxi wanted nothing to do with the island, and even entertained proposals to depopulate the island and leave it to the snakes and monkeys. Yet in the end, after a year of deliberations, the Qing decided to bring the island under imperial control for much the same reason as they opted to conquer the west: security.

Once this decision was made, Teng argues, "Qing expansion into territory beyond the seas entailed a shift from the established conception of China to a new spatial image of an empire that transgressed the traditional boundaries." (p 3) She shows how the Chinese conception of territorial space changed through cartography and the rise of geography as a precise science. The mapping of territory made it apparent that no longer was the emperor's domain confined to a traditional continental representation, but now stretched overseas.

When Taiwan entered the dynastic map, Teng says, the literature followed. Travel narratives, pictures and more maps arose to acquaint Chinese audiences with the island. These works represented a distant land and different peoples of the frontier to Chinese readers and helped transform this foreign place into a more familiar part of the empire. "Over the course of two centuries of Qing colonial rule, Chinese literati produced a significant corpus of travel accounts, maps and pictures of Taiwan, providing a wealth of knowledge about the once-unknown island and concomitantly transforming its image." (p 27)

By the end of the 19th century, these 200 years of familiarizing the Chinese population with Taiwan had transformed the national consciousness about the island from contempt to inclusion. No longer a "mud ball beyond the seas", Taiwan had become a "land of green gold"; a known and familiar part of the Qing empire.

Teng's concluding chapter, titled "Taiwan as a Lost Part of My China", brings her argument full circle. The writings of Chinese literati in years after the Sino-Japan War of 1895, which forced the secession of Taiwan to Japan, reflect a longing for the beautiful island. Writers of the early 20th century "shedding tears" for this "beautiful land" certainly came a long way from their 17th-century predecessors who held it as but a undesirable island to be discarded.

Nationalist history
Both Taiwan's Imagined Geography and China Marches West have held nothing back to punch holes in the contemporary nationalist myths about China. The People's Republic of China, and the diaspora of Chinese nationalists, claim that all the territory once held under the Qing dynasty make up the absolute totality of the Chinese state. They condemn separatist movements and claim that these lands are an integral part of China.

Neither Taiwan nor Xinjiang are an integral part of China, as these two books show, but rather imperial spoils of the Qing dynasty.

China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia by Peter Perdue. Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005. Price: US$35, 725 pages.

Taiwan's Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683-1895 by Emma Jinhua Teng. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004. Price: US$49.50, 370 pages.

Macabe Keliher is the author of Out of China: A History of Seventeenth-Century Taiwan (Taipei: SMC Publishing, 2003) and Small Sea Travel Diaries: Yu Yonghe's Records of Taiwan (Taipei: SMC Publishing, 2004). His website is

Hmmm..So the PRC commies who always play the victim of imperialism were themselves imperialists and colonists.

Liberate Uighurstan and Free Tibet ! ;)
06-08-2005, 04:37
Free Tibet !
I’ll take it.
*runs to pay phone*
Hello China. I have something you want, but it’s going to cost you.
That’s right, all the tea. :D