The Qing Invention of Nature


A review of: The Qing Invention of Nature: Environment, Identity in Northeast China and Mongolia, 1750-1850 by Jonathan Schlesinger.

For Western travelers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the northern stretches of the vast Qing empire appeared as a realm of untouched nature with rich undeveloped natural resources that seemed ripe for the imperial plucking. As Jonathan Schlesinger convincingly argues in his dissertation, however, this seemingly unspoiled natural wonderland was less a product of Qing weakness or apathy than it was a central component of Qing border policy. Schlesinger reveals that the cultivation, maintenance, and the enforcement of ecological “purity” was a cornerstone in the Qing court’s ordering of its vast multi-ethnic empire.

Schlesinger’s work draws substantially on Manchu and Mongol language sources related to tribute exchange uncovered in archives in Beijing, Mongolia, and Taiwan. In blowing the dust off of these long underutilized sources and collating the seemingly endless lists of a dizzying variety of furs, pearls, ginseng and other products presented to the court, he has uncovered a story of ecological collapse and environmental transformation. The work certainly resonates for environmental historians, but the story that emerges from this remarkable piece of scholarship extends well beyond environmental history. Schlesinger’s dissertation, in seeking to understand the political, economic, and social ramifications of the ecological transformation of the Qing northern border region, also offers important insights into the political economy and ethno-cultural politics of the High Qing period in Manchuria and Mongolia, and offers a fresh ground-level perspective on the commodity networks that came to bind the borderland to empire-wide and ultimately international markets.

The work starts in Beijing, as Chapter 1 seeks to document the emergence of a new market for commodities produced in the northern stretches of the empire during the 17th and 18th centuries. Drawing on archival material, published Qing sources, traveler accounts, as well as popular fiction, this chapter documents the growing demand throughout the empire for “authentic” frontier products such as tiger skins, fox furs, sable pelts, freshwater pearls, and wild ginseng. The value of these products, Schlesinger argues, was determined by their connection to the frontier, as these commodities, collected in the rugged northern borderlands, were seen to reflect Manchu ideals of manliness, strength, and virility. The value and the growing demand for frontier products served as the economic engine driving demographic shifts within the empire, inter-ethnic and inter-cultural instability in frontier regions, and the ecological transformation of Manchurian and Mongolian forests, steppe land, and taiga.

The second chapter focuses on tributary exchange and the attempts by the Qing court to grapple with the ecological pressure that tribute and poaching exerted on Manchuria’s eco-system. In highlighting the systems by which the Qing court sought to promote tribute but also regulate the extraction of tributary products, Schlesinger reminds the reader of the material (as opposed to simply political, economic, and diplomatic) exchange that lay at the core of the tribute system. Through detailed charts and graphs drawn from reports to the Imperial Household Department, Schlesinger carefully documents the sharp drop-offs in tributary products such as freshwater pearls, ginseng, and sable presented to the court during the early 19th century. In response to the alarming declines, the Qing court sought to “purify” Manchuria by cracking down on poaching as well as releasing local banners from their tributary obligations. The sharp declines in tribute prompted the court to periodically let the rivers, the mountains, and the forests “rest” in order to bring back the populations of oysters, wild ginseng, and fur-bearing sable, and to return the land to abundance by “restoring” an invented notion of ecological purity.

In Chapter 3, Schlesinger addresses the ways in which the Qing court sought to control trade and production and ensure that the emerging commodity markets did not upset the regime’s carefully calibrated multi-ethnic order in Qing Mongolia. Early on, the court sought to channel trade and enforce internal territorial boundaries through strict oversight of the caravans working the Trans-Mongolia trade routes. Later, however, as the market for Mongolian commodities like furs, mushrooms, and deer horn began to boom in the 19th century, the court extended this strategy from trade to production through the issuing of licenses – for settlers tilling the land, for the collection of firewood, and for those hunting deer horn. Drawing heavily on archival material from the National Central Archives of Mongolia, Schlesinger argues that licensing was a strategy by which the Qing court could facilitate trade and provide a livelihood for impoverished imperial subjects residing in border regions without sacrificing state control over commodity production, markets, and immigration in Mongolia.

The growing power of the empire’s markets in the 19th century prompted the Qing court to extend its quest for purity in Manchuria to Mongol territory as well. Seeking to hold back the polluting impact of markets for steppe mushrooms, deer horn, and other products produced in Mongolia, in Chapter 4 Schlesinger reveals the court’s attempts to “purify” not only Mongol territory but also the livelihood of Mongols themselves by returning the land to herding and, in imperial game parks, to hunting. Yet the problem with these attempts to enforce Mongolian purity was that this purity that the court sought to protect and enforce was a figment of the collective imaginations of Qing officials. As Schlesinger clearly reveals in his data on the demographic make-up of trading communities and caravans in the eighteen and 19th century, there was no pure Mongol territory. The Mongolian frontier was and had long been a zone of dynamic inter-ethnic and inter-cultural interaction between Mongols and Han Chinese that had supported non-pastoral forms of production.

Chapter 5 shows the ramifications that the collapse of fur bearing animal populations in northern Mongolia had on border security in the Qing empire. In order to facilitate border patrols, the Qing court sought to “purify” borderlands by emptying them of human habitation and production. As fur-bearing animal populations collapsed in Mongolia in the 19th century, however, groups in northern Mongolia who had depended on hunting for tribute exchange as well as their own livelihoods gradually made their way into these protected border zones. Confronted with the growing Russian threat, the Qing court was forced to choose between the provision of tribute and maintaining its border defenses. The Qing court chose the latter and insisted on the clearing of border regions and the strict state enforcement of the purity of the borderlands. The result, Schlesinger provocatively writes, was the construction of a “Green Wall of Inner Asia” that confronted 19th and 20th century Western travelers to Mongolia with its lush seemingly untouched abundance (p. 306).

In addition to its significant scholarly contributions to China’s environmental history and “New Qing history,” Schlesinger’s well-researched and engagingly written dissertation also serves to humanize the Qing imperial borderlands in the north. His work opens a much needed window onto the lives and livelihoods of those dispatched by the Qing court to enforce the purity of the northern stretches of the empire as well as those motivated by the new markets to violate that contrived purity. In the end, the human story that Schlesinger’s work helps reveal reminds the reader of the intimate and ultimately inseparable connection that exists between the environment and the humans who seek to shape it.

Judd C. Kinzley
Assistant Professor
Department of History
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Primary Sources

Secret Palace memorials of the Yongzheng Reign, National Palace Museum, Taipei
Archival Records of the Ambans’ Office at Ikh Khuree, National Central Archives, Ulaanbaatar
Archival Records of the Military Governor of the Military Governor of Uliasutai, National Central Archives, Ulaanbaatar
Manchu Palace Memorial Record Books of the Grand Council, First Historical Archives, Beijing
Archival Records of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, Taipei, Taiwan
Accounts of the Imperial Household Department, First Historical Archive, Beijing

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2012. 365 pp. Primary Adviser: Mark C. Elliott.

Image: “Twenty-Seven Old Ones” 二十七老 by Jia Quan 賈全, Court Painter for the Qianlong Emperor.

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