Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier


A review of The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier: State Building, National Integration and Socialist Transformation, Zeku (Tsékhok) County, 1953-1958, by Benno Ryan Weiner.

In July 1958 as the revolutionary fervor of the Great Leap Forward swept across the People’s Republic of China, Zeku County in the Amdo region of cultural Tibet erupted in violence against efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to impose rapid collectivization on the pastoral communities of the grasslands. Rebellion also stirred the region at the beginning of the 1950s as “Liberation” first settled on the northeastern Tibetan plateau. The immediate ramifications of each disturbance both for the Amdo Tibetan elites and commoners, and for the Han cadres in their midst, elucidates early PRC nation-building and state-building struggles in minority nationality areas and the influence of this crucial transitional period on relations between Han and Tibetan in Amdo decades later.

In 2008, just a month before unrest would return to the Tibetan plateau, Benno Weiner arrived in Zeku County, Qinghai Province, to begin research on his dissertation, The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier: State Building, National Integration and Socialist Transformation, Zeku (Tsékhok) County, 1953-1958. In investigating these struggles encountered by the CCP’s United Front to transform the lingering imperial logic of authority to the needs of a “modern” nation-state, his work effectively illustrates the inherent contradiction in China’s nationality autonomy policy in the 1950s between efforts to make Amdo Tibetans “masters of their own homes” yet simultaneously subservient to the Chinese party-state. Contributing to recent historiography which focuses on continuities between Nationalist and Communist policies in minority regions, Weiner situates the inability of the Chinese state to effectively integrate Amdo Tibetans into a multi-ethnic Chinese nation in the contradictions at the core of the United Front’s dual methods of consultation and persuasion, the Party’s hostility toward indigenous elites while initially relying on them as necessary intermediaries between the Party and society, simultaneously expecting them to facilitate the undermining of their own local wealth and authority. The goal of the United Front, he notes, was to foster patriotic awareness through a rise in local production and the standard of living, but initial patience in the early 1950s both with the indigenous elite and the pastoralist commoners was ultimately overwhelmed after only several years by revolutionary impatience for immediate national integration and social transformation, which seemed obstructed by indigenous elites still functioning as they had for decades if not centuries.

After some very helpful maps and an introduction, in which Weiner defines the period and location of this excellent study, he establishes his intellectual approach to the convergence of empire and nation-state in the periphery of each, and integrates the ideology of the United Front into the lingering dynamic of empire. The dissertation is divided into two parts. The first introduces pre-Liberation Amdo, arguing that the long-term imperial relationships between its communities and both what Weiner calls “China-based imperial formations” (p. 43) and the administration of the warlord Ma Bufang were retained by the United Front’s emphasis on gradualism and voluntarism in the early stages of state-building. Part Two then presents the plentiful fruits of what Weiner believes is unprecedented access to Party and government archives in a nationality autonomous county, detailing the United Front’s ultimate inability to convince “the disparate populations of a fallen empire that they had an equal stake as minority members of a Chinese nation” (pp. 44-45). He argues that 1958, the end of the United Front in Zeku County, should be seen as a watershed moment for the transformation of Amdo, rather than 1949.

The first chapter introduces Weiner’s idea of a “syncretic nexus of authority,” based on Prasenjit Duara’s “cultural nexus of power,” to represent the complex web of authority in pre-1950s Amdo among administrative/military, tribal, imperial, and indigenous monastic and secular actors. He stresses that rather than clearly delineated and demarcated, these authorities were both permeable and reciprocal. The chapter then details the evolution of this web from the advent of Mongol influence during the Yuan Dynasty in the 12th century, through the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism’s union of religious and secular rule in the 14th century, and during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Chapter two carries this history into the Republican era, when indigenous elites, designated qianbaihu (heads of 1,000 and 100 households) under imperial rule, continued to collaborate with Republican officials and warlords. The elites expected these old relationships to persist under PRC rule, which seemed likely when the United Front adopted a strategy of “subimperialism,” an idea advanced by Uradyn Bulag wherein the modernizing state uses the old empire’s strategies to promote nationalism. In the early 1950s, subimperialism manifest as the accommodation of indigenous elites within the syncretic nexus of authority, which the Party expected to be only temporary. These two chapters set up the close case study in part two and its compelling analysis of the vicissitudes of the United Front’s efforts to transition the elites and commoners of Zeku County from an imperial to a nation-state paradigm.

Chapters three and four trace the official establishment of Zeku Tibetan Autonomous County in November 1953 after the Party turned its attention to the grasslands south of the agricultural region surrounding the influential Rongwo Monastery in the already-established Tongren Tibetan Autonomous County. Expertly combing the archives, Weiner depicts in their own words the trials and tribulations of the first work teams in Zeku, composed predominately of Han cadres, to make inroads with the pastoral masses. He also reveals the tensions which emerged among Party cadres as some criticized the backward cultural practices of the Amdo Tibetans, even questioning the United Front’s apparent abandonment of class struggle in favor of a feudal minority elite. These indigenous elites filled many of the local Party and government posts established in Zeku under the PRC, thus reinvigorating their historic role, in this case mediating between the local populace and the Party.

The fifth chapter delves even more deeply into the situation of the work teams by closely examining their efforts to forge “a direct and deeply felt relationship between Party-state and society” (pp. 269-270) by focusing on the three primary tasks identified for 1954: district building, social welfare, and tax collection. Their success was limited, according to internal documents, because the Han cadres were ill-prepared and under-staffed, lacked sufficient language skills, and had conducted insufficient propaganda work. Perhaps the most important reason identified, however, was the persistent dependence on indigenous elites, whose loyalties were quietly questioned. Finally, chapter six analyzes the perhaps inevitable shift away from the United Front’s patient utilization of Zeku’s indigenous elite as intermediaries to their condemnation as exploiters of the pastoral masses by the Party, a shift that many elites seem to have foreseen. Though premised on the flawed belief that the work teams had successfully raised the socialist consciousness of the local populace, separating them from the elites, the abandonment of the United Front by the end of 1957 was not necessarily – or only – a result of local struggles, rather linked quite closely to the rising tide of rapid collectivization accompanying the Great Leap Forward. Weiner’s conclusion details the further transformation of indigenous elite from exploiters to imprisoned counterrevolutionaries as the rhetoric and goals of the Great Leap Forward – which included an ambitious seven-year policy to settle 100,000 agricultural migrants in Zeku and convert more than 82,000 acres of grassland to farmland – turned them toward rebellion.

This rich case study of a single county’s slide into rebellion following an initially gradual then sudden transformation between 1953 and 1958 is an excellent addition to a recently expanding literature on the attempted incorporation of minority, and especially Tibetan, regions of the southwest into the Chinese state throughout the 20th century. Its research and conclusions present important insights into the challenges faced by the Chinese party-state to integrate Tibetans into a multi-ethnic Chinese nation and Tibetan regions into the Chinese state in the 1950s, challenges which also confronted late imperial and Republican officials, and challenges which persist even today.

Scott Relyea
Assistant Professor of Chinese History
Hamline University

Primary Sources

Zeku County Party Committee Archive
Zeku County People’s Government Archive
Regional Wenshi Ziliao
Regional Gazetteers
Dangdai Zhongguo series

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2012. 481 pp. Primary Advisor: Madeleine Zelin.


Image: “1954 Work Group Summary Report,” Zeku County Hor 1st District People’s Government, December 21, 1954.

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