Qing Borderland Policies on the Sino-Russian Frontier


A review of Marginal Constituencies: Qing Borderland Policies and Vernacular Histories of Five Tribes on the Sino-Russian Frontier, by LORETTA KIM.

Recent scholarship on late imperial Chinese history has examined how the Qing state devised distinct strategies to manage its heterogeneous population. Loretta Kim’s dissertation contributes to this on-going debate by focusing on the “Five Tribes” along the northern frontier with Russia: the Dagur, Heje, Oroqen, Sibe and Salon. Her objectives are twofold. First, she analyzes the Qing state’s changing policies toward the Five Tribes from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries to show how the imperial court employed native populations of the borderlands to secure its territorial ambitions. Second, Kim examines the extent to which contemporary perceptions of the Five Tribes’ position in the Qing empire have influenced the ethnic identities of these groups’ modern-day descendants.

Throughout the first two chapters, Kim analyzes the growth of the Qing empire’s northern borderlands and the role that the Five Tribes played in the process. In chapter one, she focuses on the shifts in Qing administrative policies that followed the establishment of a border with the Russian empire. Kim identifies the collection of tribute and military conscription into the Eight Banners as the two main strategies pursued by the Qing government in its efforts to solidify territorial control over the Northeast and guarantee the loyalty of the local peoples. She shows how the incorporation of the Five Tribes into the Eight Banners triggered a process of acculturation that led to transformations in the social and cultural organization of these groups. But Kim argues that such changes also provided opportunities, as the literary education and military training that individuals from these groups received as bannermen enabled them to rise in the military hierarchy and gain prominence in the Qing project of extending political control throughout the northern frontier. In this regard, this dissertation builds upon Mark Elliott’s work on the Eight Banners and Ding Yizhuang’s study on the Qing garrison system.

The growing participation of the Five Tribes in strengthening the Qing presence over new territories along the empire’s frontier with Russia throughout the eighteenth century is discussed in chapter two. Kim claims that the resettlement of Five Tribes soldiers to the Hulun Buir (present-day Inner Mongolia) and Ili (Xinjiang) commands reflected the central government’s strategy of occupying these regions with migrant troops whose responsibilities were not limited to border security and law enforcement. The Qing also expected the Five Tribe troops to be economically self-sufficient and promote agricultural development. Kim draws upon John Sheppard’s depiction of soldier-settlers in Taiwan during the Yongzheng period to demonstrate that the Qing promoted this strategy in other border regions.

Chapter three examines the transformation in the relationship between the Qing state and the Five Tribes amid the domestic and foreign crises that plagued the empire during the nineteenth century. Kim argues that local rebellions and the threat of Russian encroachment along the northern frontier forced the central government to adjust its approach toward the local peoples to meet military needs. The granting of “New Manchu” status to Sibe and Solon troops, the lowering of tribute quotas and the lenient treatment of desertions among the bannermen are a few of the strategies discussed in this chapter to demonstrate the imperial court’s increased willingness to accommodate the interests of the Five Tribes. Kim notes that the adoption of more flexible policies toward the local populations indicates that the central government actively sought to prevent the erosion of its authority in the region. She also argues that certain Qing institutions functioned well into the Republican period, pointing out that the Five Tribes “remained the gatekeepers and police forces of the frontier regions into the 1930s and 1940s” (p. 172).

The enduring influence of the banner system on the Five Tribes for decades following the institution’s official dissolution is examined in the fourth chapter. Kim emphasizes that the Eight Banners still functioned as a form of political and social organization in Xinjiang and the Northeast during the Republican period. Banner leaders continued to wield power, as the central government maintained banner units as administrative entities. Drawing on gazetteers and other local records of these regions, Kim also demonstrates the lasting impact of the banner system on ethnic classification and the production of vernacular histories. She argues that the transition from imperial to ethnic identities was marked by mixed perceptions of the Five Tribes. Even though the Five Tribes were eventually recognized as official ethnic groups in the 1950s, ethnographers throughout the first half of the twentieth century “seemed to have varying ideas about whether the Five Tribes should be considered Manchus or as sub-populations in a greater ‘Manchu race’,” given the inclusion of these groups in the Eight Banners (p. 264). This heritage, Kim notes, continues to hold a pivotal significance in forging the contemporary identities of the ethnic groups that claim descent from the Five Tribes.

In her final chapter, Kim discusses the contemporary interpretations of the relations between the Five Tribes and the Qing empire in vernacular histories through three case studies: the Dagur as gatekeepers against Russian incursions, folk heroes of the Five Tribes as prominent officers in the Eight Banners, and Sibe resettlement in Xinjiang. While Kim acknowledges that some of these vernacular histories conform to the official narrative of Qing history in the PRC, she challenges the simplistic view that they merely reflect the ideology of pan-ethnic nationalism that has been imposed upon them by the central government. Instead, she argues that these vernacular histories provide the Five Tribes with greater agency in asserting their position within the Qing state, promoting interpretations that at times challenge official perceptions.

Kim’s dissertation provides a significant contribution to Qing frontier and the ethnic studies in China. By tracing the development of Qing policies toward tribes that have generally only received brief mentions in studies on Qing-Russian relations and the Eight Banners, Kim illuminates new issues in the transformation of political and cultural boundaries. Finally, her analysis of vernacular histories provides a unique approach to understanding the interplay between the state and ethnic groups in the construction of contemporary identities.

Eric Vanden Bussche
Stanford University
Department of History
450 Serra Mall, Building 200
Stanford, CA 94305-2024
e-mail: evb0919@stanford.edu

Primary Sources

DBHD. Daor bitegei horiewu debtlien 1-5 (Dagur historical materials anthology 1-5). Dawoer ziliao ji bianji weiyuanhui yu Quanguo shaoshu minzu guji zhengli yanjiu shi (Dagur Historical Materials Anthology Editorial Board and National Ethnic Minorities Historical Document Compilation and Research Bureau). Beijing: Minzu chubanshe, 1996-2005.

JMLZ. Junjichu Manwen lufu zouzhe (Grand Council Manchu-language file copies of
memorials). First Historical Archives of China, Beijing.

Hulunbeier zhilüe (Draft gazetteer of Hulun Buir). Eds. Cheng Tingheng and Zhang
Jiafan. 1924. Repr. Hailar: Nei Menggu wenhua chubanshe, 2003.

QHLD. Qingdai Heilongjiang lishi dang’an xuanbian (Selected collection of archival documents on the Qing-period history of Heilongjiang). Ed. Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences Institute of History. 2 vols. Harbin: Heilongjiang renmin chubanshe, 1987.

QSL. Qing (lichao) shilu (Veritable records of the Qing Dynasty). Compiled by reign. Repr.Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1986.


Dissertation Information

Harvard University, 2009. 427 pp. Primary Advisor: Philip Kuhn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like