Writing the Frontier: The State’s Creation and Deployment of Qing Frontier Knowledge

Title: 1280 | Writing the Frontier: The State’s Creation and Deployment of Qing Frontier Knowledge
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Manchu Wu, Johns Hopkins University, United States (organizer, presenter)
Yichi Chang, Renmin University of China, China (presenter)
Tingchieh Ouyang, University of Washington, United States (presenter)
Kevin Kind, Johns Hopkins University, United States (presenter)
Akira Yanagisawa, Waseda University, Japan (discussant)
Helena Jaskov, University of Zurich, Switzerland (discussant)


Today, China stands at a crossroads regarding its relationship to its Inner Asian peripheries. Faced with the unprecedented challenges of instability, foreign scrutiny, and a newly energized Chinese foreign policy aimed at Central Asia, Beijing seeks to strengthen its position on China’s modern frontiers. To this end, the five papers in this panel examine how early-modern states, faced with pressing issues of political power, diversity, identity, and cross-border politics on the periphery, sought to reinforce their control over center and periphery through the generation, distortion, and dissemination of knowledge about the Qing frontier and its peoples. At the level of the court, Qing emperors commissioned fabricated or distorted histories, gazetteers, and works of poetry about the Manchu homeland in order to strengthen the Eight Banners and integrate the northeast into the empire’s ideological domain. Officials also participated in these enterprises. In the nineteenth century, Han "statecraft" experts of the frontier collected geographic knowledge to advance their reformist scheme to provincialize Xinjiang, and by the early twentieth century local officials worked tirelessly to produce gazetteers aimed at consolidating the place of the borderlands in the new Qing Nation State. The Russian Empire also sent agents into the region to collect geographic knowledge that might strengthen its position within Sino-Russian relations, and indigenous peoples, too, found opportunities to participate in the production of frontier knowledge. Knowledge is power, and this panel will demonstrate that, then as now, states asserted control over frontier knowledge to confront issues of governance and political control.

Panel Abstracts:
Inventing History: Rewriting the Manchu Origin Story in the Late Qianlong Reign
Manchu emperors, as the rulers of a conquest empire, were experts in fabricating new historical discourses and appropriating them to their political needs. For example, both the myths of Manchu origins and even the ethnic name “Manchu” itself were produced and redefined by several early rulers of the Qing. These official historiographic projects heightened in the Qianlong reign when the emperor sought to create a new shared Manchu history in order to manipulate discourses on loyalty and foster a sense of unity among the conquest elite. However, the official historical narratives that were accessible to Han Chinese and Manchu readers respectively were significantly different. Most scholars focus on the first category, that Qianlong emperor redefined what it meant to be loyal during the Ming-Qing transition. This paper, on the other hand, focuses on the second category. By examining the challenges placed upon the bannermen of the conquest elite and by analyzing the new official narratives about the origins of both the Manchus and the Manchu state, this paper argues that the banner system reform beginning in the Kangxi reign reflects the changing identity of the bannermen themselves, who (after generations in China proper) had lost many of their distinctive Manchu characteristics. In response to these “rootless” Manchus, the Qianlong emperor commissioned the creation of a new Manchu origin story, one that could bolster a sense of unity and responsibility among the bannermen by inventing a new historical memory to replace what had been lost.

Imagining Shengjing: the Construction of "Mukden" in Political Culture during High Qing (1681-1818)
By illustrating the conceptual history of “Mukden” or “Shengjing” (盛京) in eighteenth-century China, this essay discusses how the Qing state reshaped its political culture with its power in the ideological world. Having once served as the old Qing capital prior to 1644, Shengjing, a city at the heart of the northeastern frontier, continued to exist in the Qing’s conceptual domain as a symbol of the geographical extension of the empire’s territory after the Manchu court’s installation in Beijing. However, in the Qianlong era (1723-1795), the court proclaimed Mukden as a symbol of Qing political culture unified by three elements: Manchu origin myths, Manchu conventions, and the history of the rise of the Manchus. Highlighting this city by touring it four times during his life, the Qianlong emperor, with his loyal and half-hearted Han literati subordinates, integrated Mukden into his imperial ideological domain through the circulation of court poetry, the compilation of historical texts and gazetteers, and the reconstruction of historical relics. Based on imperial documents, manuscripts, and gazetteers, this essay will focus on the details of imperial cultural construction and will examine the context of these historical texts and materials from a new perspective, deduce how the Qing state engaged with the world of ideas, and track the responses from Han literati in the reading of history. Thus, this paper will offer a comprehensive view on the building of a new political culture and the politics of frontier knowledge production in early-modern China.

Provincializing Xinjiang: The Geographical Knowledge and Writing of Jinshi scholars in the Early Nineteenth Century
This study investigates the geographic writings on Xinjiang of jingshi 經世 (statecraft, or ordering the world) activists in early nineteenth-century China. In the Qianlong reign, most Han literati were unable to acquire confidential information about the borderlands. However, beginning in the early nineteenth century, restrictions on borderland information started to loosen, and a flock of low-ranking Han scholars began to study Xinjiang. The members of this coterie included Gong Zizhen (1792-1841) and Wei Yuan (1794-1857), who later became symbolic reformists. My paper studies why these cohort fellows were eager to study information on Xinjiang, the social and political network supporting their access to frontier knowledge, and the ways in which they gathered and composed their geopolitical papers under the flag of jingshi.This paper is made up of four sections. In the first section, it reviews the general motivations of Han literati and their interests in geographical writings during the Qing period. In the second section, it inquires why these jingshi scholars reassessed Gu Yanwu (1613-1682), the controversial Ming loyalist, in the early nineteenth century and explores this reassessment’s connection to their enthusiasm for studying Xinjiang’s geography. In the third section, this paper scrutinizes the application of geographic data in the field of map-making and also the social networking that supported this enterprise. Finally, in the fourth section, I will demonstrate how these jingshi activists composed their political essays by using geographic information of Xinjiang.

Burnt Archives and Muslim Books: History Writing and the Story of the Four Imams in Post-War Xinjiang
This paper examines official local history writing in Xinjiang during the New Policy reform era of the late Qing with an emphasis on how officials drew upon and distorted indigenous histories in their efforts. In 1907, when the newly formed Board of Education in Beijing ordered every county in the empire to compile gazetteers, local officials in Xinjiang quickly encountered two major problems in their efforts: 1) because Xinjiang had only recently become a province, most counties had no older gazetteers to draw upon, and 2) a recent rebellion destroyed countless official documents that would have aided in the compilation of gazetteers. Officials in Xinjiang thus relied heavily on oral histories and non-Chinese texts gathered from the province’s non-Han natives. Qing officials dispatched yamen functionaries into the villages and towns of Xinjiang in order to “collect materials and conduct interviews.” Although direct citations of such materials were uncommon, the Yutian County Gazetteer faithfully summarized a popular Turkic history of the region, The Tazkirah of the Four Sacrificed Imams. The use of this and other non-Chinese texts in official local histories reveals a growing willingness of some Qing officials to reconcile regional Chinese and non-Chinese histories, but through a close comparison of the original story, its summary in the Yutian gazetteer, and its eventual inclusion within a provincial gazetteer published in 1911, I argue that officials were simultaneously distorting indigenous histories in order to make Xinjiang’s history conform to the official history of the new Qing Nation State

This panel is on Tuesday - Session 05 - Room 7

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