Uyghur Muslims & the Making of Qing Central Asia


A review of Saintly Brokers: Uyghur Muslims, Trade, and the Making of Qing Central Asia, 1696-1814, by KWANGMIN KIM. 

Kwangmin Kim’s dissertation is a significant contribution to multiple scholarly debates regarding the Qing dynasty’s identity as an imperial state and an important player in the global economy of its time. It consists of a précis within a preface, introduction, six body chapters, conclusion, bibliography, and five appendices with quantitative and qualitative information about Ming and Qing administration of the region presently known as Xinjiang, including tax figures and personnel appointments. The main content is divided into three parts, each consisting of two chapters, that are chronological and thematic. The work traces the late Ming background of the Uyghur Muslim khojas (elite leaders claiming descent from the prophet Muhammad), this group’s collaboration with the Qing state until the late Qianlong reign, and the transformation of the Uyghur-Qing relationship in the early nineteenth century.

The introduction presents the central purpose of the work: to explain why the Uyghurs were prime allies of the Qing in the conquest and colonial rule of Xinjiang and the significance of this connection. The author argues that the key to Qing success in administering a borderland like Xinjiang should not be entirely attributed to political elements, such as employing disparate cultural identities to justify the right to rule diverse populations, but rather that the currency in establishing state control was indeed money. Like many other colonizing governments, the Qing manipulated market forces in a worldwide trend of “merchant imperialism.” The imperial state created attractive opportunities for trade and spread wealth through military expenditures in order to gain the political loyalty of certain populations.

The main chapters explore this argument through the institutional histories of tribute and trade relations between Uyghur groups and the Ming and Qing imperial centers, extensive profiles of individual Uyghur leaders who established partnerships with the Ming and Qing states, and the acculturation of Uyghur elites as Qing subjects seeking full political and social recognition because they had less economic autonomy with the imposition of critical state monopolies for highly valued commodities such as jade. All chapters stress the Qing center’s interest in inter-state trade, which the author believes has been under-estimated in scholarship to date, and the strategic calculations of Muslim populations in Xinjiang to maximize profits in both the Central Asian and Chinese markets.

The key catalyst for the dissertation, namely the inadequate examination of why the Qing state favored Uyghurs over other Muslim populations in Xinjiang, involves a critique of what the author identifies as the Joseph Fletcher thesis of region-specific strategies for administering Inner Asian frontiers. The author argues that this model of political customization gives disproportionate credit to the imperial center for the sustainability of its authority in those areas. As Johan Elverskog has demonstrated with his study of the Mongol elite, successful governance did not occur simply because the Qing court mustered diverse symbolic and culturally specific resources, but that both the Qing state and prospective subject populations negotiated their relations like economic transactions, weighing the benefits and costs, as well as potential alternatives. By stressing that potential subject populations also manipulated variables of politics and culture to construct advantageous relations with the Qing state, this dissertation builds upon recent scholarship on regional leadership structures, such as the studies of John Herman and C. Patterson Giersch that have redefined how “native chieftains” played integral roles to facilitate Qing political penetration into the southern borderlands while upholding economic and social interests of their communities by acting as intermediaries.

In amplifying the agency of the Uyghur elite, the author makes tremendous contributions to the sub-field of Xinjiang history by illustrating new facets of imperial-indigenous relations. This dissertation is an extended prelude to the study of economic relations in post-conquest Xinjiang, as shown in James Millward’s work on the productive and profitable collaboration between the Qing state and Chinese merchants who acted as intermediaries with Muslim populations. It also sets the background for monographs on the nineteenth century such as Ho-dong Kim’s analysis of why the relationship between the Qing regional administration and Muslim populations of Xinjiang would sour, resulting in uprisings stemming from the latter’s discontent and visions of political and economic autonomy.

Moreover, the author proposes new standards for understanding the significance of imperial tribute and the parameters for comparative analysis of the Qing with other empires. He takes bold steps forward from John King Fairbank-guided interpretations with his argument that tribute was not a means to an end, whether sealing diplomatic relations or establishing mutually beneficial economic connections, but that tribute was a form of trade in and of itself, and that the profit motive loomed much larger for prospective tributaries who would even prioritize economic gain over ethnic and other socio-political ties. This dissertation also calls for more rigorous and comprehensive positioning of the Qing in the family of empires. The author propounds that the Qing dynasty is not merely similar to other Eurasian land-based empires, such as the Russian and Zunghar polities that Peter Perdue deemed as sharing “imperial interests,” but to maritime, Western European empires that courted subject populations through financial incentives and create palatable justifications for them to comply with the central government’s directives.

This work looks beyond Xinjiang as just a critical buffer zone between the Qing and neighboring polities or as an economic colony from which the imperial government extracted various prized resources. Rather, oriented around the broader goal of demonstrating that the Qing was a merchant empire, the monograph version of this book will prove that the business of empire was simply that, business. The incorporation of Xinjiang into the Qing domain reflects the sophisticated and deliberate management of a complex political economy encompassing many sub-networks of commerce and finance. Therefore, conquest and consolidation of authority required offering valuable economic incentives to allies as much as the use of military force to dislodge adversaries. The Uyghur khojas, or “saintly brokers” of the title, profited richly from both strategies, as essential human resources in the Qing imperial corporation.

Loretta E. Kim
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Hong Kong Baptist University

Primary Sources

1) Qing military histories (fanglüe) regarding Xinjiang [Government publication] 2) Yonggui, Huijiang zhi (Records on the Muslim Domain), all three versions [Rare book] 3) Manchu-language archives at the First Historical Archive in Beijing [Archival] 4) Qinding waifan Menggu Huibu wang gong biaozhuan (Tables and biographies of Mongol and Muslim princes) by the Court of Colonial Affairs (Lifanyuan) [Government publication] 5) Non-government texts reflecting individual observations about local society, culture and economy, such as Tazkira-i-Khwajagan (The hagiography of khojas). [Literary]

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley, 2008. 485 pp. Primary Advisors: Wen-hsin Yeh, Yuri Slezkine, and Patricia Berger.


Image: Qing Troops Battling Muslim Insurgents. Wikimedia Commons.

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