Life as it is lived on the Inner Asian steppes - and beyond

Inner Asia
April 20, 2001

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, formerly arcane geopolitical terms such as "Inner Asia", "Central Asia" and "(Central) Eurasia" have achieved general name recognition by a public interested in states such as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or Mongolia. Visiting them and writing about them have become growth industries. Internet discussion groups and societies purporting to deal with any or all of these states multiply on the web, symposiums are held, periodicals are launched - and go under.

The appearance of Inner Asia must be set against this background. It is published for the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit at the University of Cambridge. The unit is headed by Caroline Humphrey, one of three editors of Inner Asia . The journal "focuses on fundamental issues, contemporary social transformation and theoretically informed attempts to understand them". Surprisingly, a definition of "Inner Asia", as the editors understand it, is tucked away only in the middle of the second issue, on a subscription form: "Inner Asia is not defined here (in the journal) by national or political boundaries but as the entire region of the great steppes centred on Mongolia."

The contents of the issues so far do not fit this definition. One is devoted to Xinjiang - certainly not a steppe region. And the sociopolitical life of Irkutsk is irrelevant to inner Asian studies. But most articles do deal either with Mongols - be they in the Republic of Mongolia, Inner Mongolia or Buryatia - or with Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan).

Apparently, and mistakenly, the editors thought to secure respectability for the journal by ensuring the cooperation, at least on paper, of a legion of scholars. The eight members of the editorial panel hail from five countries; the 16 members of the advisory committee reside in nine. Their usefulness is questionable and the list can be seen as a sign of the editors' insecurity. Inner Asia 's success will depend not on the number of advisers but on the quality of the contributions and the size of the readership.

The editors seem to favour tightly focused articles of about 20 pages. Where needed, the texts are complemented by maps, tables and photographs, the latter somewhat blurred because of the poor-quality paper used. Footnotes are relegated to the end of the articles instead of being printed where they belong, at the bottom of the page.

The first four issues contain 30 articles, representing a respectable level of scholarship based on the use of primary sources or on field work. It is impractical to review them all and invidious to pick out one or two for blame or praise. As a sample of the contents, my idiosyncratic choice of the articles I found most rewarding is: "Peasants in an era of freedom: property and market economy in southern Xinjiang" by Chris Hann; the moving "Ethnic behaviour under conditions of high radiation" by Galina Komarova; and "Four generations of Uyghurs: the shift towards ethno-political ideologies among Xinjiang's youth" by JoAnne Smith.

In the proliferation of new journals of similar scope, Inner Asia represents a promising effort. Time will tell whether there are enough non-specialist readers to keep it going.

Denis Sinor was formerly at the department of central Eurasian studies, Indiana University, Bloomington, United States.

Inner Asia: (twice a year)

Editor - Caroline Humphrey, Uradyn E. Bulag and David Sneath
ISBN - ISSN 1464 8172
Publisher - White Horse Press
Price - £25.00 (individuals) £20.00 (students) £45.00 (institutions)
Pages - -

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