A review of Ethnicizing the Frontier: Imperial Transformation and Ethnic Confrontations in China-Inner Mongolia, 1890s-1930s, by Liping Wang.
Ethnicizing the Frontier is a sociological study examining Inner Mongolian identity, territorialization, and ethnic conflict over the course of the Qing-Republican transition. Liping Wang examines three geo-politically distinct examples of changing patterns of frontier governance. Her creative study primarily shows that many imperial-era governing relationships endured the Qing collapse and that Mongol-Han relations evolved in local political and legal worlds defined by distinct histories of absorption into the Qing formation. For this reason, Wang’s study attempts to mute the privilege too often accorded to state intention in the sociological study of imperial transition, and as such brings the study of late imperial China into close conversation with sociologists such as Andrew Abbott, Peter Bearman, and Roger Gould. The governing relations embodied by a particular state formation, Wang and her sociological revisionists argue, are best understood as products of incremental exchanges between local sites and the central state.
Wang carefully charts how such exchanges between Inner Asian frontiers and Qing-Republican center(s) crossed uneven administrative, territorial, and legal lines. Remaining attentive to the new possibilities afforded by such exchanges, Wang explores the development and solidification of Mongol-Han ethnic affiliation in local habitats defined by ecology as well as history and political structure. These are: the western steppe of Shili-yin Gool League; the peripheral steppe-forest of Hulun Buir; and the eastern agrarian-steppe of three Eastern Mongolian leagues. Each zone was differentiated in part by 1) modes of production (nomadic, agrarian, and mixed respectively), 2) histories of incorporation into the Qing empire, and 3) experiences of the Qing-Republican transition.
In her extended and well-organized analysis, Wang repeatedly questions clean distinctions between imperial and national formations in the sociology of empire. Her attention to regional Mongol-Han confrontations reveals the extent to which Qing-era administration and ideology saturated the weak Republic of China. Noting that clear institutional and ideological distinctions between empire and Republic were uneven at best, Wang adds her voice to a chorus of scholarship seeking to nuance those weathered binaries of Chinese-Inner Asian historical relations: the center-periphery model and the sedentary-nomadic model. Introducing early Republican Chinese ethnological debates rooted in historical geography, Ethnicizing the Frontiers rejects the presumption that Han-Mongol ethnic differences either mattered or were evident.
Even so, Wang admits, ethnic conflicts did arise. What were the terms of their engagement? In constructing her answer, Wang’s focus remains on what she calls “local exigencies”: sites of Han-Mongol confrontations that forced the Qing and Republican governments to modify its frontier tactics and restructure governing relationships in the Mongol hinterland. Three such exigencies receive the greatest share of the author’s attention: private land cultivation, jurisdictional vacuums and Russian territorial expansion. Turning to the sociology of Europe, Wang finds in her eastern and western case studies vassal-like relations that she calls “nomadic feudalism,” whereas in Hulun Buir a military garrison only loosely administered local tribes. All these differences take Ethnicizing the Frontiers far from homogenizing models of center-periphery relations or static ethnic categories. This sustained comparative lens is the great strength of this study. It allows the author to make a substantive contribution to scholarship on singular instances of Han-minority conflict during the collapse of the Qing formation and to provide a rich methodological example for others to follow.
In this, Wang’s attention to local negotiations of land cultivation, jurisdictional vacuums and Russian territorial expansion shows that regional Mongolian negotiations of imperial collapse responded to different triggers and sought security and position by appeal to different state and non-state resources (from the judicial system or through military reorganization, for example). In effect, Wang portrays the changing frontier tactics and state centralization of the late Qing and the Republican regimes as responding to, rather than provoking, scenes of ethnic conflict on the frontier. There is methodological weight to this move as well, which our author styles as “a new approach [that] will focus on how the macro dynamics, such as state centralization, are translated, into the local political worlds where contests between different groups and governing agencies decisively affect the routes of identity formation” (p. 46).
As just one important example from the many comparative micro-studies that make up this dissertation, Wang develops an argument that land reform was a primary cause of state centralization at the end of the nineteenth century. This was, she argues, the actual process whereby imperial control was tightened in Inner Mongolia. The memorials of two principal fangken-period administrators are given pride of place: Xiliang’s Xiliang yigao and Yigu’s (?-1926) Kenwu zouyi and Suiyuan zouyi. These two played important roles during the imperial land reform project that aimed to persuade Inner Mongol banners to make some grazing land available for agrarian cultivation. Wang uses these memorials (and other sources besides) to show how the Qing accomplished their reforms by restructuring local governing relationships without provoking or polarizing Mongol-Han conflict. These two groups had already been engaged in managing co-habitation for some time and Mongol nomadism was already by then long in decline. Wang shows that early twentieth-century land reform and ethnic conflict was: 1) less a rupture in local Mongol life and 2) less an impetus for the growth of Mongol nationalism than is often presupposed in our present scholarship (see, for example, pp. 120-133).
On that basis, Wang shows instead that Qing governing capacity was increased along the frontiers in a delicate negotiation between government institutions (such as the Qing Lifan Yuan), neighboring Han populations, foreign Churches (especially in the western region she considers) and local Mongol nobility. Richly textured descriptions of varied administrative procedures are used to show how frontier administrators and their local partners simultaneously garnered the support of Han farmers and many aristocratic Mongol managers of pastoral land. With the former, social advancement along with “debts, desire for profits and the beneficial terms extended by the state all motivated them to open the lands” (p. 156). Wang then shows how the shift to Republican-era warlordism in the 1920s and 1930s upset the delicate balance carefully developed by frontier Qing military leaders, especially in terms of judicial administration of territory boundaries and disputes.
Critically, Wang sketches how the Republican separation of civil and criminal codes initiated legal norms that Mongols soon called upon to solidify post-imperial boundaries in new rubrics of ethnic territory. Adopting a legal pluralism analytic from Lauren Benton, Wang notes that Republican-era Mongols response to state efforts to unify Mongol and Han legal processes “generated a chance for indigenous Mongols to ethnically purify and homogenize the Mongolian jurisdiction” (p. 263). This greatly enhanced Han-Mongol ethnic conflict in both the western and eastern zones Wang considers. In Hulun Buir, Wang traces a separate history of state intervention and ethnic conflict. There, Chinese and Russian forces intervened for much of the later nineteenth century alongside the development of a broad Mongol ethnic consciousness within the multi-tribal military garrisons. Wang shows that in this frontier, Russian and Chinese intrigue compounded distinct ethnic identities and gave shape to the conflicts that arose during the Republican-era transition. As Hulun Buir became contested space between Russian imperial expansion and Qing territory over the nineteenth century, waves of Chinese garrison leaders grouped local tribesmen for the first time as “Mongols”: a cohesive social imaginary that endured the Qing decline.
In all these ways (and others besides), Ethnicizing the Frontier makes an interesting contribution to Qing border studies. Noting that while polyglot projections of imperial authority and ethnic-based realms were responsible for the success of the multi-ethnic Qing formation (as argued by Pamela Crossley and others), we must also account for the ecological constitution of the frontier. Wang uses ‘ecology’ interchangeably with ‘locality’: the former designating “the specific habituating environment for a population, including its geographical conditions and human relations” (p. 36). Frontier ecology helps nuance sociological theories of empire and of ethnic relations and, in the author’s estimation, exposes theoretical blind spots in sociological theories of state formation. These lacunae revolve around theoretical models of feudalism as either an economic relation of captive labor bound to land (Marx) or else as an age of pre-state anarchy in opposition to modern state sovereignty. In either case, the idea that modern nationalism and statehood could arise from feudalism remains antithetical to a received sociological wisdom overly preoccupied with colonialism. Wang draws on two historical features of European feudalism to begin building a more comprehensive description of Mongolian political organization under the Qing: “the decentralized power structure and the collaboration rather than coercive subjugation involved in the procurement of a feudal state” (p. 63).
All this allows Wang to introduce the concept of ‘nomadic feudalism’ as a way to reconsider Qing and Republican administration of its Inner Asian frontiers (see Chapter 2). Wang develops her analysis by reading classic historical works on Inner Asia by the likes of Peter Perdue and Nichola Di Cosmo against sociological theoreticians of typologies of territorial and non-territorial empire (such as George Steinmetz). Among other things, Wang critiques the appropriateness of a European-style indirect colonialism model in the case of Qing Inner Asia since in the latter case there was not an absolute racial/ethnic inequality between rulers and ruled (p. 95). Wang wants to emphasize instead the vassal-like networks that tied Mongol aristocracy to the Manchu emperor outside of strict hierarchies of racial exclusivity. Extending her comparative sociology, Wang later draws upon analytical models from other imperial contexts, such as colonial Europe, the Romanov regime, the USSR, and the Ottoman Empire. For example, Wang engages the work of Karen Barkley, a scholar of the Ottoman Empire who has critiqued the center-periphery model by foregrounded local-imperial entanglement, class-based mobility and the incremental shifts to reliance on new state organs. Rogers Brubaker’s work on post-Soviet ethnic violence similarly directs Wang’s research on Han-Mongol conflict to ask how ethnic boundaries were erected such that certain separatist movements became possible in the periphery.
Expanding upon “nomadic feudalism,” Wang turns to Soviet scholars such as Vladimirtsov who used feudalism early on to describe Mongolian society and kinship. In adopting this lens on Mongolian imperial organization, Wang aligns herself with anthropologists such as David Sneath who have worked to promote feudalism as an alternative to the anthropological bias towards tribalism in non-European societies. Wang, via Sneath, notes that whether nomadic or sedentary, Mongols since the Yuan have maintained a feudalist tradition based on the “golden lineage” (Altan Urug) of the Borjigin aristocracy (the nobility descended from Chinggis Khan’s family). This counted as a trans-Mongol, supra-tribal organization and was incorporated into Qing statecraft (for example, outside of western Mongolia, jasag banner elites were generally drawn from the Borjigin). However, here Wang’s interest is less in the nobility than in the military function of the Mongols, relations with the emperor and detachment from the land. These all, Wang convincingly argues, problematize sociological descriptions of Mongol feudalism as bound by “indirect rule” or “tributary relations”.
Ultimately this is a study of Mongolian identities. The retreating Qing Empire neither vanished entirely nor gave way immediately to a strong Chinese nation-state. Wang is successful in showing that the transitions between Qing and Republican Mongolian identities were hardly the result of regime changes in Beijing. Rather, they came in increments in diverse political worlds bounded by, among other things, ecology, administration and memory. Such were the habitats wherein Mongol identities were mediated in response to a plural Han ‘other.’ Wang uses this observation to challenge the center-periphery model generally used in studies of empire and nationalism, especially since this model depends on either a strong or weak central state. Wang proposes instead to examine escalating and widespread Han-Mongol conflict by focusing on “the variegated interactions between central and local agents unfolding in local political worlds.” (p. 9) Liping Wang’s dissertation thus fills a scholarly gap concerning China-Inner Mongolian politics. Much of what has been written on the topic concerns post-1945 developments under the aegis of the Communist Party. Minority ethnic formations occur in micro political contexts that are not solely reducible to centrifugal movements away from state centers. As expressions of local interests, Han-Mongol formations and conflicts were not necessarily expressions of ethnic unity. Furthermore, fluid elite networks that crosscut the division of center and periphery often orchestrated such formations. Ethnicizing the Frontier thus helps nuance and historicize our models of nationalist minority movements. Centers and peripheries, we are reminded, are never bounded or consensual.
Matthew W. King
Department of Religious Studies
University of California, Riverside
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Image: From the Micro Film Archives of Hulun Buir, Roll 27-501-1 (01):443, The Archives of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China.