Intellectuals, the State & Frontiers in the Nanjing Decade


A review of Stretching the Skin of the Nation: Chinese Intellectuals, the State, and the Frontiers in the Nanjing Decade (1927-1937), by ZHIHONG CHEN. 

In Stretching the Skin of the Nation, Zhihong Chen offers a meticulously researched, cogently presented and empirically rich analysis of the “Go to the Frontier” (dao bianjiang qu) movement during the Nanjing Decade. Through a careful examination of key Republican era journals, books and professional activities related to the “frontier” (bianjiang), Chen convincingly argues that Han Chinese elites actively “territorialized” frontier space—constructing a unified, sovereign yet imaginary geobody through their research, travel writing, disciplinary practices and technologies of modern state-building. She asserts that Chinese intellectuals and officials viewed the frontier through “instrumentalist” lenses in a visceral, almost knee-jerk, reaction to foreign imperialism, propelling them to reconfigure traditional strategies and adopt new, modern practices aimed at saturating, controlling and institutionalizing frontier space. Yet, as she goes to great lengths to stress, this “borderizing” process was contested, contingent and continually adjusted in response to local, national and transnational circumstances.

In her introduction, Chen seeks to situation the “Go to the Frontier” movement within the larger Sino and Anglophone scholarship on the “frontier,” and its relationship to transnational and national ideologies of modernity. In particular, she places the Republican era movement within the larger context of modern “territoriality,” and the “enclosure” of modern frontier space where once liminal frontier zone were bordered and more fluid borderlands were transformed into precise borders. The emphasis here is on the frontier as a dynamic process rather than a static place.

In chapter one,  “Frontier in the Intersection of Imperial Dreams and National Visions,” Chen explores how Chinese intellectuals and officials repositioned China on the Asian and global stages by refracting Japanese-style “pan-Asianism” and re-adapting the old Sinocentric worldview in defense of a fragile Republic’s national sovereignty. Providing a case study of Xinjiang, she demonstrates the contested nature of transnational imaginaries, like pan-Islamism and pan-Asianism, and how these ideologies developed in dialogue with territorial nationalism while also contributing to intense concerns among Chinese intellectuals and officials about the potential lost of national territory, especially in the wake of the 1931 Manchurian Incident.

In chapter two, “The Romance with the Frontier,” Chen turns her attention to the rich and often colorful frontier travel literature produced during the Nanjing Decade. Here she argues that these travelers and their texts “served as a conduit of erasure and appropriation in modern Chinese national understanding of its frontier” (p. 84). Yet, the sheer diversity of this literature also serves to underscore the disparate interpretations of the frontier, its peoples and their relationship to the modern Chinese state. Chen asserts that this literature was “like romance, sweet and intense, but unreal and evanescent” (p. 130), and generally lacking in “authenticity” and “truthfulness,” something that stands in sharp contrast to the more empirically rigorous and disciplinary specific research conducted by Chinese geographers and other academic researchers that are the subject of chapter four.

In chapter three, “Transportation, Migration, and Land Reclamations,” Chen examines different frontier technologies and projects aimed at suturing together China’s geobody. By exploring different proposals and initiatives for the development of new railway, road and migration infrastructures, she demonstrates some of the complexities of territorial integration in modern China, including limited resources, fragmented political authority, and unrealistic expectations. In arguing that “Chinese intellectuals and the state” adopted an “instrumental view” and “expedient attitude” towards the frontier (p. 187-9), it is sometimes helpful to distinguish between the often unrealistic “imaginings” of individuals located in the GMD capital of Nanjing and the more practical, but at times no less instrumentalist, concerns of Han warlords and transfrontiersmen operating at the “coalface” of the frontier.

In chapter four, “Frontier in Crisis,” Chen looks at the relationship between the perceived “frontier crisis” and the disciplinary formation of geography and historical geography. She argues that “the disciplinary development of Chinese geography reflected Chinese nationalist concerns during the Nanjing decades” (p. 252) but there is also an underexplored tension here between the political and ideological expediency Chen finds in the travel writing and academic scholarship explored in previous chapters and the professionalization and institutionalization of modern disciplinary knowledge, where scholars like Gu Jiegang, Zhang Qiyuan and Zhu Kezhen sought to develop rigorous new methodologies in dialogue with international standards and traditional practices.

In her conclusion, Chen provides a thoughtful reflection on the continuities between Republican China’s “Go to the Frontier” movement and the current regime’s “Western Development Strategy,” astutely demonstrating how the ideologies and practices of enclosure remain a powerful force in Chinese political thought and continue to frame Han perceptions and policies towards its frontier region. What has changed, of course, is the size, strength and sophistication of the Chinese state, allowing for a much deeper, more hegemonic and thorough saturation of frontier space.

In sum, Chen Zhihong’s fascinating study takes us back to a more prosaic, albeit no less “romantic,” time when the Chinese state and its elites were actively constructing the new nation and its geobody: negotiating its boundaries, filling in its territory, and developing new tools of geographic administration. Following publication, there is little doubt that this manuscript will make an important contribution to the growing body of literature on the frontier and the development of Chinese nationalism during the Republican period.

James Leibold
Assistant Professor
La Trobe University

Primary Sources

The primary sources for this manuscript are frontier-related journals, travel diaries, and local gazetters produced by Han elites during the Nanjing Decade. Many, but not all, of these sources were either directly or loosely affiliated with the GMD government in Nanjing. The author also examines in some detail academic journals related to the development of geography as an academic discipline in Republic China. The main journals under review include the following: Bianjiang yanjiu (Frontier Research), Bianshi yanjiu(Frontier Affairs Research), Xin yaxiya (New Asia), and Yugong (The Evolution of Chinese Geography); Dixue zazhi (Geo-Science Magazine), and Dili zazhi (The Geographical Review).

Dissertation Information

University of Oregon, 2008. 304 pp. Primary Advisor: Bryna Goodman.

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