Transforming Inner Mongolia’s Frontier

A review of Transforming the Frontier: Land, Commerce, and Chinese Colonization in Inner Mongolia, 1700-1911, by Yi Wang. 

Recent studies of the Qing Empire indicate a turn towards approaching and understanding the northern borderlands of Manchuria, Mongolia, and Xinjiang “on their own terms.” Rather than reinforcing the idea of a purely exploitative relationship between the center and periphery, these historians have sought to restore agency to local actors in order to show a mutual exchange (but oftentimes momentarily so) between empire and its frontiers. Within this imagined space of what Richard White calls “the middle ground” (The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), various individuals cooperate to create a new world of meaning out of their miscommunication. In Transforming the Frontier: Land, Commerce, and Chinese Colonization in Inner Mongolia, 1700-1911, the Hetao/Ordos region emerges as one such space—a nexus of social, economic, and religions transactions between herders and farmers, merchants and missionaries, nobles and officials. Yi Wang’s sweeping and yet detailed study challenges the popular narrative of dispossession and marginalization in Qing Inner Mongolia. Instead it points towards a series of “more complex and mediated changes in economic practices, property regimes, and political reconfigurations” (p. 439).

In historiography, Qing Inner Mongolia has become the overlooked, dead zone crossed over by camel caravans, saddled with brick tea and silk, on the way to Kiakhta, Kashgar, Kokand, and beyond. Few works as comprehensive as Wang’s dissertation have come out in the English language on this region during this period over the last several years. Thus, Wang must respond to Owen Lattimore and his original conceptualization of “the frontier” from the 1940s; she critiques the Western-impact model of railroad modernity disrupting the cyclical conflict between nomadic and sedentary peoples. Reading local archival documents against the latest scholarship by Chinese, Japanese, and (most importantly) Mongol historians, Wang seeks out the domestic causes of this transformation on the steppe. She identifies three primary vectors of Han migration in Inner Mongolia, sometimes intertwining, other times undermining each other: commercial expansion, land reclamation, and Catholic proselytism, which make up the content of her chapters.

The first two chapters of the dissertation give a geographical and social overview of Inner Mongolia in the late imperial period. In locating Inner Mongolia in both time and space, Wang begins with a provocative idea: early modernity, as it emerged through the nation-state system, allowed for a “sleight of hand” in which a territorially-defined “Mongolia” came to replace a tribally-based “Mongol” in a new epistemology, and in so doing, linked together the land to its people and subsumed them under state control (p. 21). Throughout the eighteenth century, Wang writes, Inner Mongolia witnessed dramatic internal changes quite separate from the external pressures of Han migration: a centralizing bureaucracy in Beijing consolidated clan lineages into fixed banners and migrant communities into official prefectures; the rise of Tibetan Buddhism fostered the growth of trade towns around temples and lamaseries, but led to deep inequalities between clergy and laity; and finally, a monetary economy based in silver rendered the barter system obsolete, resulting in inescapable patterns of usury and indebtedness. She then focuses on the Hetao/Ordos region, an area cradled by the arms of the Yellow River. For Wang, the duality of Hetao/Ordos represents a contested site between civilization and barbarianism, where two ideological systems of knowledge compete as prelude to the clash between China and Europe in Lydia Liu’s “Birth of a Super-Sign” (The Clash of Empires: the Invention of China in Modern World Making. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004).

The remaining four chapters examine the overlapping processes of marketization, agriculturalization, and Christianization in the Hetao/Ordos region. Wang begins with the history of two discrete, transitory groups, merchants and farmers who “cross the western pass” (Ch. zou xikou) after the Ming had negotiated with Altan Khan to reopen the horse fairs. In Chapter 3, the Great Wall as a military barrier between these two powers slowly opened up as an economic gateway for petty peddlers, itinerant brokers, and large banking firms. Wang specifically looks at the firm Dashengkui in order to explain the mechanisms of market penetration in the eighteenth century. Simultaneously, migrants sought out opportunities to work on Manchu estates or rent out Mongol rangelands. Jasaghs and other banner nobles often petitioned the state to open up these pastures in south Ordos for cultivation, despite repeated bans from Beijing. To retrieve the voices of these farmers, Wang analyzes examples from the folksong genre “mountain tunes” (Ch. shanqu), recorded by ethnographers in the 1950s, to characterize cultural transmission between Mongols and Han as “two way traffic” (p. 218). Nevertheless traders and farmers—at first two disparate communities—merged to form a powerful figure in Hetao/Ordos in the latter half of the nineteenth century: the land-merchant. As discussed in Chapter 4, land-merchants “combined capital with cultivation” by investing in irrigation projects and managing grain production along canals flowing into the Yellow River. According to Wang, the arrival of the land-merchant signaled “a new trend of … capital intensive, profit-oriented colonization” (p. 233).

These drastic economic and ecological changes led to violent confrontations between herders and farmers, which imply that the fault lines on the steppe did not necessarily lie along ethnic divides. Rather, banner aristocracy just as often allied with peasants against nomads. Private land became increasingly concentrated among the upper classes, leaving behind a shrinking commons for the poor. While Han migration already intensified land pressure in the nineteenth century, the involvement of Catholic churches in territorial acquisitions throughout Inner Mongolia made the situation unbearable. Chapter 5 centers on the Scheut missions, which bought up large tracts in the banners in order to attract migrant converts to farm. These aggressive reclamation tactics rankled Mongols, leading to conflict and resistance—land occupations, church burnings, enslavement, and indiscriminate slaughter, with the final wave of violence coinciding with the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Certainly, the Christian presence in Inner Mongolia illustrates how Han migration and Western imperialism reinforced each other through land reclamation, but Wang notes the ultimate irony in this collaboration: over the long run, these missionaries—even as agents of Western imperialism—had inadvertently helped to incorporate the Mongol territories into the emerging Chinese nation-state.

After the Boxer Rebellion, the Qing exacted payment from the Mongol banners through the official sale and taxation of their territory in order to settle foreign indemnities. To sell and tax plots, the state set up reclamation bureaus to measure, map, and categorize some 1.5 million acres in this area. Chapter 6 shows how reformist writings by Manchu and Han officials established these new institutions in order to bring the jasaghs under more direct rule. Yigu, the imperial commissioner in charge of land reclamation in central Inner Mongolia, for example, threatened the more obstinate jasaghs that they would lose their positions if they did not comply with the New Policies. While Wang describes this process of dispossession as “multiple levels of negotiations and mutual accommodations,” it eventually led to the integration of the Mongol territories into a nationalized administrative structure (p. 381).

For Wang, “the middle ground” provides a framework in which she can reinterpret complex power relations—relations that others have previously dichotomized as Han versus Mongol, colonizer versus colonized, East versus West. As such, Wang describes an elaborate narrative over two centuries that transcends the usual categories of ethnicity, class, and nation. The dissertation compels us to reconsider the capital investments, land grabs, development projects, and ethnic tension so prevalent in Inner Mongolia today not as products of the present but systemic repercussions of a more distant past.

Sakura Christmas
Doctoral Candidate
Department of History
Harvard University

Primary Sources

Archival Materials on the Boxers, published 1959 and 1990
Memorials of Colonization Commissioner Yigu, published 1974
Records from the Administrative Office of Junghar Banner, published 2007
Records from the Imperial Commissioner Supervising Land Reclamation in the Mongol Banners, Inner Mongolia Regional Archives
Zongli Yamen Archives of Religions Affairs and Missionary Cases, published 1974

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago, 2013. 511 pp. Primary Advisors: Prasenjit Duara and Jacob Eyferth.

Image: An inscribed board located in Suiyuan General Government Office, Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. It reads pingfan shuomo [Safeguard the northern dessert]. Photo by Author.

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