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Rethinking ‘Inner Asia,’ ‘New Qing History’

By Liu Wenpeng | 2015-06-17 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pictured here is “Receiving the surrender of the Ili.” Marching during the spring, the Qing army reaches Kulja (modern-day Yining City) on the Ili River without resistance in 1755. The Pacification of Dzungars and the later suppression of the Revolt of the Altishahr Khojas secured the northern and western boundaries of Xinjiang.


Since the mid-1990s, the notion of “Inner Asia,” said Lynn Struve, a history professor at Indiana University, has become a core concept in Western scholarship on the history of the Qing Dynasty. In a way, it laid the theoretical foundation for the “New Qing History,” which argued that the main theme of Qing history was not the process of being integrated into the Han Chinese, sometimes called “Hanization,” and that the Manchus shared plenty of religious and cultural characteristics with ethnic groups in Inner Asia. Because of their distinctive Inner Asian features, the Qing rulers were able to gain the recognition and support of the Inner Asian peoples, resulting in the establishment of the Qing Empire. Therefore, an analysis of Inner Asian elements has become the key to analyzing the New Qing History.

Basic concept
Inner Asia refers to the vast region extending from the Volga River eastward to the Xing’an Mountains.

American scholar Owen Lattimore believed that Inner Asia includes Inner Mongolia which lies to the north of the Great Wall as well as Mongolia, Northeast China, Xinjiang and even Tibet. From an economic perspective, Lattimore regarded these areas, which have interdependent and inseparable ties with the Central Plain, as the reservoir for China’s development in history.

On the other hand, American historian Joseph Fletcher tried to introduce the concept of Inner Asia to the study of world history. In his opinion, Inner Asia consisted of different regions, each of which had its own driving force and interior elements for their historical development. In contrast, these regions of the Eurasian continent demonstrated parallel histories as a whole from the 16th to 18th century.

Since the 1990s, New Qing History scholars have regarded Inner Asia as a basic concept. They took advantage of the marginalized study of the peripheral ethnic groups, delving into languages and textual materials of the Manchus, Mongols and Tibetans to examine their differences from the Han Chinese in religion and culture.

Inner Asia therefore was transformed from a geological unit into a political and cultural unit that holds intrinsic characteristics divorced from those of the Central Plain region, populated by the Han.

To these scholars, the Qing Dynasty (or the Empire of Great Qing) consisted of Inner Asia and China Proper, whereas it had natural affinity to and a shared identity with Inner Asian features, creating an unbridgeable gap with the Han. They contend that the Qing’s Administration of Outlying Regions (Lifan Yuan) was an essential measure for acquiring political identity with the Inner Asian ethnic groups. In the meantime, their acceptance of and respect for Han culture as well as the policies of appeasement toward the Han Chinese were indeed a strategy to consolidate political domination instead of an attempt at integration into the Han culture.

Neglecting Han significance
Logically, the conclusion should be that the Qing rulers could not have triumphed in China unless they conquered Inner Asia. In other words, their success in Inner Asia was essential for the Qing’s establishment and prosperity. As a result, a new historical concept was brought up in an effort to deconstruct the concept of Hanization, exerting profound influence on the study of Qing political history.

However, New Qing History neglected an even more significant element—Han people’s role in the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). Accounting for 95 percent of the Qing’s total population and with their economic and cultural advantages, the role of Han people should by no means be ignored.

No matter before or after fighting their way to enter the Shanhai Pass, a gateway to China Proper, the Manchus had not conquered all the Mongolian tribes. They formed a coalition with some Mongolian tribes in the eastern region but these allied forces were quite limited. In contrast, assistance from the Han people was more important for the cause of unification.

Needless to say, although the Manchus managed to win support from some Mongolians, they were far from gaining military advantage within all of China. Suffice it to say that during the Qing’s reign of nearly three centuries, the Han Chinese were indispensible for addressing every single serious crisis that faced the Manchus. Unification not only relied on close relations with Mongols but also possibly more on their alliance with the Han.

Far from successful in Inner Asia
One important viewpoint of the New Qing History is that the Qing Empire depended mainly on its success in Inner Asia rather than their Hanization. Due to a lack of clear standards for Hanization, I will not discuss whether the Manchus were Hanized. But undoubtedly, Qing’s success in Inner Asia was not achieved overnight. Rather, it was a dynamic and gradual process that occurred over a long period of time. It was ultimately accomplished only after the Manchus took over the Central Plain.

Though Nurhaci (reigned 1616-26) and Hong Taiji (reigned 1627-43) strived to form an alliance with the Mongols, they only won support from Horqin in the eastern region.

Until the Revolt of the Three Feudatories was suppressed by the Emperor Kangxi (reigned 1662-1722), Qing was far from being victorious in Inner Asia. The Borni Revolt in 1675 not only indicated the fragility of the Manchu’s alliance with the Mongols but also the instability of their rule in Inner Asia. From the Emperor Kangxi to Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736-95), it took Qing nearly 80 years to defeat all the Mongols. During that time, the Manchus were successful in their alliance with the Han people and their rule in China Proper. 

No consensus on definition
Among the representative scholars of the New Qing History, there has been no consensus on the definition of Inner Asia, not even on its geographical scope. Other similar concepts include “Asian hinterland,” “Central Eurasia” and “Altai region,” indicating the complexity of this area’s history and culture.

In fact, there is no Inner Asia with a definite political significance. Inner Asia as defined by Evelyn Rawski is more about religion and culture of the ethnic groups in the area, which are fundamental to establishing political identity. The Emperor Qianlong was endowed with multiple titles, including the khan of the Manchus and Mongols, the tulku in Tibetan Buddhism and the emperor of the Han people. In an effort to win recognition, Qianlong even married a woman from the Khoja (Hezhuo) family as his concubine after they were suppressed .

However, just as Mark Elliott and James Millward have observed, the Qing court failed to find a way to get recognition from the Muslims, and their rule over the Muslims was never truly consolidated. This also suggests that a unified Inner Asia does not exist. The Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Uygurs, Kazakhs and Buruts have their own religious, cultural and value orientations, and the Manchus didn’t even gain allegiance from all the Mongols.

The New Qing History scholars have been devoted to constructing an image of the Manchus featuring their own independent ideology that has distinctive Inner Asian characteristics separate from the Han people’s Confucian culture.

However, what element in Manchu culture can be seen as an ideology? Is it composed of Manchu rituals, shamanism, and Tibetan Buddhism, as Rawski argued, or is it diligence, loyalty, bravery and the idea of exceptionalism, which Michael Chang put forth? As we know, the greatest strength of the Manchus is that they were good at learning from others and utilizing what they learned. They always learned diligently to grasp the essence of other peoples’ thought, taking a vanguard point in their beliefs.

Unlike the Mongols who swept across the Eurasian continent in the 13th century, the Manchus won their wars by expanding alliances. American scholar Thomas Barfield argued that the ethnic groups originating from the Northeast China, such as Xianbei, Qidan, Nüzhen (Jurchen) and Manchus, fell into another category other than the agrarian or nomadic tribes because they did all of the hunting, gathering and farming activities.

Barfield pointed out that those ethnic groups would always swoop in when the agricultural and nomadic regimes were weakening each other or declining.  They would form alliances with other peoples and take over Inner China to gain political and military success.

In 1761, upon the defeat of the Dzungars, the Qing army departed after setting up a monument in the Gedeng Mountain. Right before that, Emperor Qianlong denied requests from the Kazakhs and Buruts to subject to Qing rule. Clearly, the Manchus did not seem to show much interest in Inner Asia.

In conclusion, Inner Asia is not a unified political concept, nor did local ethnic groups have unified characteristics and value orientations. The perspective of Inner Asia could help us better understand features of the ethnic groups in the periphery and their roles in Chinese history, and such comprehensive understanding will help to break the limitations of Han chauvinism. However, the Han Chinese were the major actors in Chinese history, which is an objective fact that cannot be ignored. There is no unbridgeable gap between the interdependent ethnic groups and the Han, and they are certainly not diametrically opposed to each other. 

Liu Wenpeng is an associate professor from the Institute of Qing History at Renmin Univerity of China.