The final steppe for Qianlong

China Marches West

December 1, 2006

When in the mid-18th century China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), finally expunged the Mongol Zunghar empire on its northern border, the Qianlong emperor opted for blanket coverage. The imperially approved version of the conquest was commemorated in paint, print, stone and other media besides.

Move over, Max Clifford. After decades of conflict, punctuated by bouts of trade and diplomatic wrangling, in 1755 Qing troops advanced deep into the steppe; their task, to realise the unfulfilled project of Qianlong's father and grandfather. Two years later, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Mongol lives had been lost and their territories annexed.

The Qing emperor's benevolent gaze had finally come to rest over some 1.5 million square miles of Central Eurasia - almost two thirds of which is still ruled from Beijing. The story is as compelling today as it was nearly 250 years ago, but it is also fused with political dynamite - just one reason perhaps why it has been sorely neglected by modern historians.

In this acclaimed book, Peter Perdue presents a study of more than 100 years of the frontier relations, military campaigns, logistics and diplomatic manoeuvres that resulted in the Qing conquest of Central Eurasia. Taking his cue from the Qianlong emperor, he positions the Qing at the centre of his narrative, yet he is at pains to show that this is the story of not one, but three great empires: Qing, Russian and Mongol, which contended for power in the heart of Eurasia in the 17th to 18th century.

And herein lies his thesis. While never losing sight of the unpredictability of conquest, Perdue uses the model of competitive state-building to explain why it was not until the 18th century that a dynasty ruling from Beijing conclusively eradicated the nomadic enemy to its north.

Picking his way deftly through national historiographies and an impressive array of primary sources, Perdue recounts the familiar story of how, by the late 16th century, the Russian state was gradually expanding, not only westwards but deep into Siberia.

Facing little opposition from tribal peoples, Russia moved inexorably eastward, hard on the heels of the profit-minded fur traders. By the 1620s, it was clashing with the Mongols, and 60 years later it had penetrated as far as northern Manchuria. It was here, in the forests of China's northeast, that by the early 17th century a confederation of tribes was flexing its muscles under Nurhaci (1559-1626). Within 50 years, the Manchus, as they became known, had overthrown the Ming (1368-1644) and had taken control of China.

Like the Romanovs, this new dynasty, the Qing, also had expansionist tendencies; the latter driven by security concerns, the former by the prospect of economic gain. The thorn that festered in the flank of both dynasties was the Mongols.

There are no startling revelations in Perdue's detailed narrative of how the Zunghar state - Jwhich at its height covered much of western Mongolia, modern Xinjiang and parts of Siberia - was slowly but surely outmanoeuvred until, against a backdrop of internecine tribal fighting and a smallpox epidemic, Qing forces delivered what Perdue terms "the final solution".

Scholars have long agreed that the simultaneous expansion of the Qing and Russian empires deprived the Zunghars of the resources they needed to ensure the long-term viability of their state. Perdue's contribution, however, is to reinstate the Zunghar state as a powerful player and formidable enemy that, like China and Russia, was also an active participant in the game of competitive state-building.

By the mid-18th century, the days of "unfettered nomadism" were over; the Zunghars were building cities, sponsoring trade and developing bureaucratic institutions.

Yet, we still know all too little about the internal organisation of the Zunghar state, and Perdue's explanation for its failure - the scattered distribution of resources over a vast, unintegrated area - is clearly only the beginning of the story.

By contrast, Perdue's analysis of the Qing success, supported by a barrage of statistics, is much more satisfying.

Faced with powerful rivals on its northern border, the Qing had to build structures to support their repeated military campaigns. Commercial networks were expanded, and fiscal and communication systems were transformed; no aspect of the local agrarian economy remained unaffected.

These innovations and institutions, which made possible decades of expansive warfare, played a vital role in the construction of the Qing state. If this sounds familiar, it is not surprising. Arguing that the bargained incorporation explanation of agrarian empire-building fails to take account of how military and commercial forces served to secure Qing dominance in China's frontier region, Perdue suggests that we should also look to 16th and 17th century Europe and Charles Tilly's model of capitalised-coercive state-building.

Yet if such strong resemblances exist between Qing empire-building and European state and nation-building, why did matters go so very wrong for the Qing once the expansion stopped? The very reluctance of the Qing to incorporate Xinjiang as a province suggests that the Qing had a much more ambivalent attitude towards the fixing of boundaries than Perdue might have us believe.

In the author's own words, this is a "large, sprawling" book, and one that demands our patience, even tolerance, as we are led into corners of China's late imperial history not immediately relevant to the main argument.

But this is a weighty book in every sense, and along the way Perdue pointedly engages with many of the major theoretical perspectives and trends in recent scholarship on modern Chinese history: ethnic and national identities, frontier management, China's place in world history and the interaction of nomad and steppe empires.

They are all here - the issues and debates that have been quietly transforming the face of Qing studies over the past ten to 15 years but which, for the most part, have still to filter into mainstream writings and comparative studies. For this reason, if none other, this book should be read not only by China specialists, but all those with an interest in bringing Chinese history in from the cold.

L. J. Newby is a fellow of St Hilda's College, Oxford.

China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia

Author - Peter C. Perdue
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 752
Price - £22.95
ISBN - 0 674 01684 X

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