State-Making in Southwest China


A review of Gazing at the Tibetan Plateau: Sovereignty and Chinese State Expansion in the Early Twentieth Century, by Scott Relyea.

In September 2011 two teenage Tibetan monks from the Kirti monastery in northern Sichuan shouted “Long live the Dalai Lama,” doused their long crimson robes with gasoline, and set themselves on fire.  More than three dozen self-immolations have taken place in China’s Tibetan regions since units of the People’s Armed Police quashed large-scale demonstrations in Lhasa in early 2008.  Protestors have decried the influx of ethnic Han migrants into greater Tibet during the past several decades, complained of inequitable access to economic and educational opportunities, and condemned Beijing’s attempts to constrain the political, social, and ideological power of Tibetan Buddhism.  Yet these policies stem from the broader strategic objective of integrating Tibetan areas into the modern Chinese state, an agenda with historical antecedents dating from at least the early twentieth century.

In Gazing at the Tibetan Plateau, Scott Relyea convincingly argues for the continuity of state-making efforts in these southwestern borderlands during the late Qing and early Republican periods.  His work focuses on the region of Kham from 1904 to 1922, complementing Dai Yingcong’s study of the Sichuan frontier in the eighteenth century and Lin Hsiao-ting’s treatment of events in the Nationalist era (1927-49) (Dai Yingcong, The Sichuan Frontier and Tibet: Imperial Strategy in the Early Qing. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009; Lin Hsiao-ting, Tibet and Nationalist China’s Frontier: Intrigues and Ethnopolitics, 1928-1949. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006). Relyea describes the attempt to consolidate control over these Tibetan areas in the early 1900s as “infrontier imperialism,” a three-stage process that transcended the temporal and political divide of the 1911 Revolution.  Figures such as the Qing general Zhao Erfeng inaugurated an initial phase of military expansion in 1905, not only weakening Lhasa’s influence in the region but striking at the political, economic, and spiritual power of the local Buddhist monasteries.  At the same time, authorities in Chengdu and Beijing sought to supplant the system of rule by native chieftains (tusi 土司) in Kham with the centralized administration characteristic of “China proper.”  Policies aimed at economic and cultural assimilation soon followed, and Zhao and his Republican era successors established primary schools, expanded mining operations, encouraged the growth of the tea and leather trades, and sponsored the creation of agricultural colonies by Han Chinese.  In the final stage, Chinese officials transformed Kham into the province of Xikang to combat competing territorial claims advanced by representatives of the British Raj and the lamaist government in Lhasa.  Relyea persuasively contends that this “infrontier imperialism” of the early twentieth century synthesized the patterns of traditional statecraft with new concepts based on the “globalizing norms of statecraft and sovereignty” (p.8).  Yet he acknowledges that in the end the weakness of the late Qing and Republican governments undermined their ability to incorporate Kham into the regular bureaucratic framework of the state.  Power in the region remained divided among a host of actors even after 1922, and in practice the province of Xikang represented little more than a cartographer’s fantasy.  By partially dislodging existing structures of legitimate authority in the early 1900s, successive political regimes instead exacerbated the ethnic tensions that continue to afflict the region today.

Relyea’s thoughtful work on Kham reflects a renewed historiographic interest in the peripheries of the Qing empire and shares with other borderland studies the narrative leitmotifs of difference, multiplicity, marginality, and fragmentation. [A representative sampling of important works in this genre includes Peter C. Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005; James A. Millward, Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia, 1759-1864. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998; Nicola di Cosmo and Don Wyatt, eds., Political Frontiers, Ethnic Boundaries and Human Geographies in Chinese History. New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003.] This interpretive emphasis not only mirrors the existential concerns of our own historical moment but marks the recognition that the development of regions like Tibet depended only in part on the actions of the imperial center.  The borderlands represented a liminal space where fluid conditions encouraged mutual adaptation, innovative forms of cultural and economic exchange, and the adoption of overlapping political, social, and religious identities.  Native chieftains in Kham pursued strategies of political legitimation that sought to manipulate competing foci of external power, and they often accepted imperial titles and seals from Beijing while also maintaining close ties with Lhasa.  The work of C. Patterson Giersch identifies a similar dynamic in neighboring Yunnan province, where leaders of the Tai ethnic group maintained a significant degree of independence by balancing their relationships with the Siamese, Qing, and Burmese governments (Charles Patterson Giersch, Asian Borderlands: The Transformation of Qing China’s Yunnan Frontier. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.). Despite radical asymmetries in overall politico-military power, these local actors emerge in analyses like Relyea’s as the protagonists of their own stories rather than mere adjuncts to a teleological narrative of imperial conquest and assimilation.

Yet the themes of resistance and autonomy offer only a partial portrait of the periphery, and Relyea’s work suggests that the political influence of the center continued to shape regions like Kham even in the last decade of dynastic rule.  During this period, a resurgent court attempted to amass the sinews of power through a series of reforms known as the New Policies, and officials throughout the empire promoted administrative rationalization, the creation of modern schools and police forces, and the growth of commerce and industry.  Pressured by powerful gentry elites in Sichuan, Zhao Erfeng and his Republican era successors attempted to implement a comparable program in Kham during the second phase of “infrontier imperialism.”  These entrenched powerbrokers appear to have pursued Sichuanese provincial expansion into the Tibetan borderlands under the guise of following the court’s political agenda, continuing their efforts even after the revolution of 1911 brought an end to Qing rule.  Like local actors throughout the empire, particularistic forces in the periphery served as a kind of prism, refracting the power, ideology, and policies of the imperial center in unanticipated, disruptive, and at times antithetical ways.

The Qing conquest of borderlands like Kham transformed the ethnic and territorial character of the polity as a whole and helped to lay the foundations of the modern Chinese state.  Yet recent violence in the PRC’s Tibetan regions has underscored the partial and incomplete nature of their integration into the assimilative cultural framework of “China proper.”  Scott Relyea’s evocative study of Kham in the early 1900s reminds us that these ethnic tensions have deep historical roots and that clerics in crimson robes have guarded their temporal and spiritual prerogatives just as jealously in the past.

Stephen R. Halsey
Assistant Professor of East Asian History
University of Miami

Primary Sources

Sichuan provincial periodicals
Sichuan county gazetteers
Sichuan Provincial Archives
Number One Historical Archives, Beijing
The National Archives, Kew, London

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2010. 606pp. Primary Advisor: Prasenjit Duara.

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