Gansu-Qinghai’s Social Landscape


Picturing Gansu-Qinghai’s Social Landscape: A Brief Historical Retrospective Based on Recent Chinese Sources

This paper explores the diverse human geography and cultural settings of one of the most representative marginal societies in northwestern China, at the edges of today’s Gansu and Qinghai provinces. The majority of academic works produced by Western scholars on such unique cultural regions have failed to recognize the contribution made by recent Chinese-language research on minorities and local history. Their contribution to understanding the function and role of Gansu-Qinghai in the making of Central Eurasian premodern history unfortunately has been overlooked or simply dismissed by Western academia as not properly fitting historical reality. In an attempt to reassess the value of Chinese sources, this article tries to unveil a colorful chapter of Central Eurasian history that challenges both Chinese and Western academic traditions as well as the Chinese state-sponsored Confucian narrative and the cultural hierarchies it reproduces locally in and around minority areas. It argues that Chinese sources should be used to formulate a constructive critique of the Chinese legacies and of the imposition of a Confucian moral-led historiographic approach to minority history and the whole process of record-keeping related to marginal societies. On the basis of such theoretical assumptions, it seeks to offer a renewed perspective suitable to dismantling the poisonous academic discourse that dominates recent scholarship on China’s borderlands and its peripheral civilizations.

The paper first probes into the process of ethnogenesis and historical development of the main minority groups that compose this complex region in order to highlight their distributional pattern and internal differences. It illustrates how in premodern and early modern times the striking multicultural dynamism of the region generated a network of alliances and enmities, which at times led to the antagonism of Central Plains society by the nomadic powers of Qiangic (Qianghu 羌胡) ancestry, hence allowing the inhabitants of Gansu-Qinghai to swing constantly from one boundary to another, from one loyalty to another. In addition, by disclosing the intricacies of their group identity along with the dynamics of economic and political transitions as well as socio-cultural and religious trends, I postulate that the establishment of such a network of shifting relations granted them the special status of “cultural go-between,” a condition that honored and preserved their cultural differences until the modern era. Finally, I further examine their recent predicament and consider the reasons behind the ongoing obliteration of these differences, as Gansu-Qinghai’s “in-between” status seems to be threatened now by the new geopolitics and economies reshaping the contemporary world.

1. Geography of the Northwest Corridor and a Brief History of the Main Minority Settlements in the Region

The buffer zone at the Gansu-Qinghai borders is part of a broader cultural region commonly known in Chinese as Gan-Qing Diqu 甘青地区, which falls under the Chinese “Northwest Corridor” (Xibei Zoulang 西北走廊) (see Qin Yongzhang 2011; Li Xingxing 2005). During imperial times, it lay on a major trade route that linked China Proper with Inner Asia and that expanded further into the Middle East and Europe, thus forming a strategic axis for trans-civilizational exchange on a global scale (see Matsuda 1993, pp. 68). When referring to this corridor region, Chinese academics usually split it into two sub-branches: the Hexi Zoulang 河西走廊 (east-west oriented), renamed the “Gansu Corridor” in the Western academy; and the Longxi Zoulang 陇西走廊 or “Longxi Corridor” (north-south oriented). Its contemporary ethnic makeup and cultural pattern are the result of centuries of intense interactions between people, settings, and geographies. Environmentally speaking, the Northwest Corridor is an “ecological frontier” that serves as the dividing line between nomadic-pastoral and sedentary-agricultural economic lifestyles. Its physical landscape is hemmed-in by the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau and its rocky mountain barriers to the south-west, the peripheral mountainous (or semi-mountainous) zones and deserts to the north-west, the Mongolian grasslands to the north and, to the east and southeast, the loess plateau where the upper reaches of the Yellow River flows. Being located at the edges of four cultural systems (respectively, from north to south: Mongolian nomadic culture,  and Tibetan pastoral-farming culture; and from west to east, Central Asia sartha’s trading culture [see below], and Central Plains agricultural culture), it characterizes itself as a “cultural frontier” as well. In this sense, it can be better described as a crossroad of civilizations: a region with an extremely diversified morphology that hosts communities with totally different economic, cultural and religious practices.

The ecological diversity and cultural variability along the Corridor led its inhabitants to develop remarkable internal divergence in several aspects—language, lifestyle, religious faith, and custom, etc.—and it further reflects a high degree of mobility (i.e. continual migration) across group and cultural boundaries (see Qie Pai 2009, pp. 11-12; Zhong Jingwen 2007, pp. 218-219). The same physical and geographic features that kept the Corridor isolated for long historical periods also made it so that local cultures were not easily assimilated by larger groups, even if hybrid cultural identities often arose. A brief summary of the geographical distribution of main ethnic groups could be useful to a better understanding of the regional specifics and the dynamics of cultural exchange. The minorities that compose today’s Gansu-Qinghai ethnic mosaic are the result of repeated migration flows that occurred in different historical periods. In this ceaseless comings and goings of people and cultures, the newcomers successively coupled with the indigenous Qiangic tribes (Chinese Diqiang 氐羌) and other early settlers, thereby giving their contribution to the creation of new cultural hybrids.

By taking religious faith and sectarian loyalties as criteria to define group identities, we can distinguish between two major groups: those attached to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and those practicing the Islamic-Sufi one. The Yellow Yugurs (Chinese Yuguzu 裕固族, including both the western and eastern sub-branches) and Monguors (Tuzu 土族) belong to the first group. Historically they established close ties with the Tibetans. The chronicles of the late Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) provide essential information on the genesis of these two ethnicities, even though their ancestry can be traced back to the late Tang (618-907) and early Five Dynasties (907-960) periods. Concerning the former, scholars all seem to agree in viewing the ancient Turkic Uyghur (Huihe 回鹘) as the progenitor of modern Yuguzu, although it is still debated where these Huihe had settled in the aftermath of the fall of the ancient Uyghur Empire in Central Asia (744-840): some point to Huihe clans in Ganzhou 甘州 (today’s Zhangye 张掖), some to Shazhou 沙洲 (Dunhuang 敦煌), and others to the oasis cities of Xizhou 西州 (Turpan) and Qiuci 龟兹 (Kuqa). The Yugurs mostly inhabit the steppe zone within the administrative borders of the Yugur’s Autonomous County of Su’nan (张掖市裕固族肃南自治县) (Hao Sumin & Wen Hua 1999, pp. 319-320). As for the Monguors, after having descended the Yin Mountains (阴山) to the south between the 785 and 788 C.E., they progressively blended with the surrounding Tuyuhun (吐谷浑) and Huihe tribes (Ibid., pp. 61-62). Today they mainly live in the so-called “Hehuang Region” (河湟), at the intersection of the headwaters of the Yellow River and the Huangshui River (湟水河), in the Tu and Hui Autonomous County of Huzhu (互助土族自治县), the Hui and Tu Autonomous County of Minhe (民和回族土族自治县), the Tu and Hui Autonomous County of Datong (大通土族回族自治县), the Tibetan area of Repkong (Chinese Tongren 同仁) and in other dispersed hamlets.

In addition to the Tibetan Buddhist component that is particularly evident especially in southern Gansu and the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Hainan (海南藏族自治州), there are also many Muslims scattered along the whole Corridor: namely the Hui (), the Dongxiang (东乡), the Salar (撒拉族) and the Baoan (保安族). The process of ethnogenesis of these four minorities is deeply related to a series of huge migratory flows driven by the presence of the Mongol army starting by the early thirteenth century. The Hui should be considered separately, as historians have usually traced their origins back to three different periods: the first one was during the Tang (618-907) and Song (970-1279) dynasties, when a branch of people from the “Western Regions” (in Chinese Xiyu 西域, today’s Xinjiang/Chinese Turkestan) and possibly from as far as the Arabian Peninsula and Persia moved into the area and never left. The second period coincided with the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). During the domination of Inner Asia, the Mongol generals conscripted army garrisons, artisans, skilled craftsmen and other Central Asian semuren 色目人 (lit. “people of assorted categories” or “persons with special status,” sometimes improperly translated as “people with colored eyes”) with the aim of getting support for their military expeditions in China. After being absorbed into the China-based Mongol Empire, most of them served as officials who implemented a series of administrative and additional military functions. The Hui were part of this group of people, known by the sources as huihuijun 回回军. The third period was during the Ming (1368-1644), owing to the expansion of the “Tea-Horse trade” (chama maoyi 茶马贸易) and tributary relations (gongci 贡赐) in the region (see Liu Xiabei 2009, pp. 42-43; LHZG 2008, pp. 38-40). Nowadays the Hui are settled mainly in Linxia (临夏) Hui Autonomous Prefecture, Gannan (甘南) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Lintan (临潭) County (see Liu Xiabei 2003, pp. 77-87) and the neighboring villages. A relevant percentage of Hui people can be found also in Qinghai’s provincial capital of Xining (西宁), in the Hui Autonomous County of Hualong (化隆) and in the aforementioned counties of Datong and Minhe (see QBW 2007, pp. 1-4).

The historical emergence of the Dongxiang was very similar to the Hui’s. These people, who recently proclaimed themselves to be saerta 撒尔塔 (Chinese transliteration of the ancient Sanskrit word sartha, lit. merchant, also known as Santa), were originally recruited by Genghis Khan’s army during an expedition in Central and Western Asia between 1219 and 1223. They remained with the Mongols until the Mongol armies defeated the Tangut-Western Xia reign (1227), streamed into China Proper and eventually took over the Celestial Empire. The Dongxiang followed the Mongol Tammacin armies (in Chinese Tanmachi 探马赤) across China along with their military expansions and finally stationed themselves in Hezhou (河州)—today’s Linxia Dongxiang County (临夏州东乡族自治县)—where they have lived until now (see Ma Zhiyong 2004, pp. 15, 40-43; Hao Sumin & Wenhua 1994, pp. 182-183). Tens of thousands of Dongxiang can be found also out of the corridor zone, in northern Xinjiang (see Chen 2012, p. 74). By contrast, the Salar case is quite singular, as their forefathers migrated directly from Samarkand (or, according to new findings, more likely from Sarakhs in present-day Turkmenistan) sometime during the Yuan era or even a few decades before. Once they settled in what is today’s Xunhua County (循化撒拉族自治县) in northeastern Qinghai, they intermingled with other ethnic groups of the region such as Mongols, Tibetans, Hui and Han (see Li Xinghua 2009, pp. 64-69; Previato 2012, pp. 63-67). The Salar developed close relations with the surrounding Dongxiang, Baoan and Hui, with whom they share the same social and religious landscape. Nowadays, there are a few Salars living also around the townships of Dahejia (大河家) and Mengda (孟达), on the top of the Jishi Mountains (临夏州积石山保安族东乡族撒拉族自治县), as well as in the counties of Hualong, Guide (贵德), Qilian (祁连) and Xiahe (夏河) (see QBW 2007, pp. 75-77). Finally, the Baoan were another branch of semuren professing the Islamic faith. After the Mongols brought their ancestors into northwestern China, they had long-lasting relations (at times confrontation and open conflict) with Tibetans, Hui, Monguors and other border people. As soon as they intermarried with these groups, a new ethnic community emerged in early Qing times (1644-1912), thus they represent the latest group to be formed among the ethnicities taken here into consideration. The Baoan made their home in the Jishi Mountains (see QZS 2000, p. 196; Hao Sumin & Wen Hua 1994, pp. 107-111), even if they can also be found in Linxia and Xunhua as well as in a few smaller settlements around these two counties.

Due to the strong Tibetan Buddhism presence in the southern part of the Corridor, the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Gannan is alternatively called by locals the “Little Tibet,” being a central position for the spread of Tibetan Buddhist teachings over the whole of Amdo. The famous Gelug monastic complex of Labrang (in Chinese Labuleng Si 拉卜楞寺) and Taktsang Lhamo (Langmu Si 郎木寺) are to be found exactly in this region. But the region is also clearly identifiable as a notable religious center for Muslim people as well: Muslims’ commitment and historical attachment to the place soon made it a “Little Mecca,” which found its center in the Hui Autonomous Prefecture of Linxia, only a few hours from Labrang. Here lies, in fact, the old Great Mosque of Nanguan (南关) erected in the late Yuan Dynasty (see LHZG 2008, p. 38). Another important place of worship is Xining’s Dongguan (东关) Mosque, listed as one of the four most notorious and largest mosques in northwestern China. In post-Mongol China, the Corridor’s diverse ethnic makeup witnessed a period of gradual stabilization. During the Ming Dynasty, it was formally and fully incorporated into the central administration of the empire, and a large flow of Han Chinese poured into the area and set up new military corps. These Han settlers progressively mixed together with a sizable number of Hui garrisons and civilians, which had already been settled there for a few centuries, and took control of the most important townships and mountain passes. These two groups played a decisive role in isolating the “barbaric tribes” (Fanhu 番胡) from each other and preventing the sorts of strategic alliances among them—especially those between the Mongols in the north and the Tibetans in the south, globally known as chö-yön (Tibetan mchod yon) or “priest-patron” relationship—that ultimately ruined the Ming (see Liu Xiabei 2003, pp. 48-55; Arpi 2008, pp. 33-38). The Chinese Muslims seem also to have played a pivotal role in strengthening the Ming’s central power over the borderland, in enforcing the feudal system of granting imperial recognition to minorities’ chieftains (the so-called tusi 土司) in the later Qing period (1644-1911), and enhancing the Kuomintang leadership in the early years of the Republic of China (1912-1949). Such cooperation is just one example of the complex historical evolution of alliances and enmities that arose among the various peoples of the Gan-Qing borderlands.

2. Recent trends and patterns: The Development Discourse and the Obliteration of Cultural Diversity?

The above are the specifics that can be deduced from the general trend of cultural exchanges that took place in pre-modern and early modern times. Only hasty generalizations can be made regarding the religious practices and shifts in identities entailed by the major ethnic groups of the region, as they are the product of a long process of cultural accommodation and adaptation to different social landscapes. This point has already been argued especially by Chinese and Western scholars focused on the historical development of the Chinese Muslim intellectual tradition. Despite the differences existing between Chinese and Western scholarships in the selective use of sources, research orientations and strategies, they both agree in using the concepts of minzuhua 民族化 (ethnicization), bentuhua 本土化 (localization), and even zhongguohua 中国化 (Sinicization) to describe the formation of Chinese Muslims’ identity within the boundaries of Chinese cultural order (see Ding Hong 2011, pp. 112-117; Lipman 2004, pp. 46-47). Under such circumstances, religious institutions have become an increasingly prominent part of the Gansu-Qinghai’s social landscape, working as a de facto mediating tool that shapes not only the dynamics and magnitude of group identity but also the complex weave of human relationships on two fronts: on a inter-cultural level, between Muslims and the surrounding ethnic groups; and on a intracultural one, in respect to the Muslim populations of diverse ethnic makeup and loyalties (whether among elites or larger portions of the population). In the wide range of inter-cultural relations along the Corridor, Chinese Muslims certainly occupy a crucial position: placing themselves at the margins of both Chinese and Tibetan cultural systems, they acted as “cultural go-betweens” fostering transregional connections and civilizational exchange. But this propensity to occupy an in-between dual status was not actually unique to the Muslims. Recent research on various borderland societies (see Wang Mingming 2008; Wang Mingke 2008a-2008b; Wang Xiuyu 2006; and Liu Xiabei 2003) certainly attest that there was a common set of narratives and systems of meaning emanating from the political center of China on the Central Plains (中原地区). Comparing the ways in which Islamic, Buddhist and other religious-folk traditions confronted these narratives and systems of meaning and spread throughout the Gansu-Qinghai borderlands can help us to understand that the function of “cultural go-between” was not limited merely to the Chinese Muslim communities but also involved multiple cultural referents (non-Muslim and Han Chinese subjects), hence underscoring an intrinsic characteristic of the region itself.

The historical experiences, however, seems to clash with the contemporary narrative. Due to the acceleration of global interconnectedness and the ongoing process of modernization the situation might dramatically change in the next few years, as Gansu-Qinghai’s condition of cultural go-between is fading away under the strain of severe geopolitical circumstances and economic development. This new state of affairs poses a series of questions that have far-reaching implications for local communities, whose ability to live in accordance with their traditional values and beliefs is greatly challenged. What is the desirable and sustainable future for the minority groups living in this buffer zone? What about the future of the Muslim ones? Will their exquisite oral traditions and knowledge be lost? Will the new global interconnectedness act as a catalyst for the revival of indigenous rituals in the region? Will the teachings of “official Islam” emanating from the patriarchal clan system (in Chinese, menhuan zhidu 门宦制度) incorporate native beliefs and elements into a new “folk Islam”? In such a rapidly changing environment how will the Muslims’ strong feeling for continuity of tradition be nurtured? How will they (re)shape their relations with non-Muslim groups and, on a broader scale, with the members of the mainstream, politically conservative and atheist Chinese society? To what degree will these borderland intermediaries accommodate themselves within the narrow confines of the new “China dream” (Zhongguo meng 中国梦)? These are questions of pivotal importance to which is hard to find answers. Future prospects depend on the extent to which local government and minzu ganbu 民族干部 (ethnic minority cadres) are willing to compromise the existing cultural diversity in the name of development.

The changes that have taken place along the Corridor during recent years under the growing pressures of modernization have been particularly striking. One of the most representative cases is the planned urban development of the City of Wuwei (武威), one of the biggest municipal centers of Gansu Province. According to reliable sources provided by the School of Architecture at Lund University (Sweden), which has been a consultant for this ambitious urban-planning project, the peri-urban territory just outside Wuwei’s city core is still occupied by small farms, greenhouses, and communities relying almost exclusively on agricultural activities. The traditional agricultural-based economy in the nearby suburban and rural areas could suffer massively from such an expansive urban growth. Urbanization will not solely affect farmers and their lifestyle but will irreversibly transform the Corridor’s geographical features per se, as the government has in the last decade begun vigorously pushing forward a suite of policies know as tuimu huancao 退牡还草 (lit. “return grazing lands to grasslands”) with the aim of converting lands to agricultural use. The deterioration of the ecological environment is the most visible threat to the Corridor’s biodiversity: salinization of soil, desertification, and the rapid shrinkage wetlands are just a few of the consequences of such policies. Furthermore, while from one perspective these policies are believed to promote ecological balance by supplying the cities with foodstuffs and fresh agricultural products, from another perspective they are seen as forcing ethnic minorities (including sensitive groups such as Tibetans, Muslims of Turkic origins, etc.) and other endangered tribes still living a nomadic lifestyle in the remote periphery to abandon their traditional lifestyle and to become increasingly sedentary. These measures are intended to speed up the process of forced sedentarization (dingjuhua 定居化 in Chinese) and work in tandem with the central policies on modernization that, by pushing these groups to give up their lands, have them easily assimilated into Chinese mainstream society. Tuimu huancao and dingjuhua are seen as key factors to stimulate modernization and ensure social stability. They are also critically important for development goals more broadly.

Other minor cities and counties along the Corridor—namely Zhangye 张掖, Jinchang 金昌, Jiuquan酒泉, and Jiayuguan 嘉峪关, which together with Wuwei represent what in Chinese are called the ‘Hexi Wushi’ (河西五市, or the Five Cities of the Corridor)—are, in fact, following Wuwei’s example, and local cadres seem to feel much confidence in supporting similar projects. Local and central governments are determined to invest in highly profitable development plans that aim at increasing the inflow of tourists into the region, that try to establish new and modern facilities, and that encourage leisure and tourism industries, while fueling the fanciful imaginary of a “frontier culture” that combines “urban sustainability” with the uniqueness of ancient Silk Road traditions and the taste of exotic minority cultures. Considering that Gansu and Qinghai still are the poorest provinces in China, the process of modernization in the area will certainly bring substantial increase in the average income and the quality of life of the main groups involved. Nevertheless, it may have a devastating social impact on local communities, and its inevitable outcome will be the dissolution of ethnic diversity and traditional ways of life. In the present scenario of large-scale urbanization, the main ethnic minorities that have inhabited the Corridor since olden times are the most affected, and their traditional lifestyles may undergo rapid and dramatic changes in the next few years.


Sources provided by Chinese historians and ethnologists can be used in a critical way to deconstruct, and not exclusively to justify, the recent dynamics of Chinese state-led development in minority areas. As pointed out by Niall Ferguson, “there are multiple interpretations of history, to be sure, none definitive, but there is only one past. […] The reality of history as a lived experience is that it is much more like a chess match than a novel” (Ferguson 2012, pp. xix, xxvi). Viewed from this angle, differences existing between Chinese and Western scholarships with respect to the history of Chinese borderland civilizations and, specifically with concern to Gansu-Qinghai’s local history, cannot be regarded as intrinsically related to methodological issues to the extent that only one devisable truth can be pursued from the analysis of historical sources. These differences should be ascribed, instead, to the process of cultural legitimation implemented by the selective use of sources, research trajectories and strategies. Given that, which perspective is more suitable and should be applied to the investigation of the cultural and ethnic diversity of these borderlands?

This article argues that we cannot understand the historical reality—if such even exists; the plurality of representations of the past suggests that there is more than one positional truth to be played at the chess table—merely from indigenous traditions, oral accounts, folktales and micro-histories. Chinese sources should be reinterpreted in the context of minority pasts in order to disentangle the intertwined discourses of Chinese legacies, which have exerted a predominant influence over the process of history writing, and those discourses pertaining to minorities’ self-understanding and self-examination. Doing so leaves more room for transcending the constraints of China’s officially sanctioned and national meta-narrative. By encouraging comparative insights, younger generations of sinologists, historians of China and social scientists who work in this corridor zone might try to foster innovative ways of conceiving and writing local histories so as to overcome East-West polarizations and articulate possible solutions to the contested debate over Western China’s minority areas. This implies de-politicizing and de-ideologizing “ethnic issues” (minzu wenti 民族问题) from both sides: the Chinese one as well as the Western one. I believe that if scholars take this as a requisite condition, the dynamism and multi-polar development of such a peculiar marginal society can be fully acknowledged even beyond the narrow confines of academic circles, and the controversial practices of ongoing modernization and tourism development plans can be amended and rectified to truly benefit local ethnic communities.

Tommaso Previato
Sapienza University of Rome

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Wang Mingming 王铭铭 (2008), 中间圈:藏彝走廊与人类学的再构思 [The Intermediaries: Tibetan-Yi Corridor and the Reformation of Anthropology, Zhongjianjuan: Zangyi Zoulang yu Renleixue de Zai Gousi], Beijing: 社会科学文献出版社 [Social Sciences Academy Press, Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe].

Wang Xiuyu (2006), China’s Last Imperial Frontier: Statecraft and Locality in Qing Kham Tibet, 1890-1911, Carnegie Mellon University (Ph.D. Dissertation).

Zhong Jingwen 钟进文 (2007), 甘青地区特有民族语言文化的区域特征 [The Local Language and Culture Characteristics of Gansu-Qinghai’s Ethnic Minorities, Ganqing Diqu Teyou Minzu Yuyan Wenhua de Quyu Tezheng], Beijing: 中央民族大学出版社 [Minzu University of China Press, Zhongyang minzu daxue chubanshe].

Image: Market in Dongxiang Autonomous County, Main Square, October 2010 (photograph by the author).

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