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Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia

March 20, 2010

James A. Millward. Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia, 1759-1864. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Brent Haas (2004)

The setting is Qing Dynasty Gansu in 1805. An intimidated traveler pauses to stare at the Jiayu Guan and contemplate the significance of the boundary through which he is about to pass. The protagonist, a Qing official banished to Yili, grits his teeth to make the journey despite his reluctance to leave the familiarity of “China Proper.” Thus begins James A. Millward’s excellent study of the Qing imperial enterprise in Xinjiang, Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia, 1759-1864. Through a wide source base including military histories, official archives, statecraft writings, legal sub-statutes relating to Xinjiang Muslims, local gazetteers, and merchant route books, Millward traces what he calls the “mechanics and ethos” of the Qing empire in Xinjiang’s “economic and ethnic policy.”

The disgraced official’s hesitation towards crossing into “unknown” Xinjiang is symbolic of the gap in scholarly treatment of Qing Inner-Asia, a short coming which Millward’s work seeks to correct. John Fairbank’s deep influence on generations of Chinese historians emphasized nineteenth-century maritime contacts with the West, thus tilting historiography towards the sea. In particular, Millward problematizes Fairbank’s sinocentric “Chinese world order” framework, arguing that the Qianlong Emperor’s vision of empire is more applicable to the Qing in light of its Inner-Asian roots. Instead of concentric rings of decreasing levels of civilization, Qianlong presented the empire as five distinct ethnic/cultural blocs connected by the Aisin Gioro ruling house. Although reviewers called for more compassion towards previous historiography and questioned Qianlong’s theoretical contribution (China Review International 7.1), Millward’s points are well taken in light of high Qing policy in Xinjiang.

The bulk of the book traces the Qing imperial endeavor in Xinjiang from 1759-1864. Initially the Qing pursued policies of ethnic segregation and a dual legal system to shield locals from the destabilizing influence of Han Chinese merchant communities. As time passed and innovative fiscal policies aimed at making Xinjiang self-sufficient repeatedly failed, however, Han mercantile penetration was encouraged as a tax base. Fiscal woes, official mismanagement, and increasing ethnic strife fomented a series of Muslim rebellions through the first half of the nineteenth century. The final chapter on mid-nineteenth century statecraft discussion on Xinjiang presages the Han-oriented, increasingly colonial policies of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Although one reviewer felt a detailed discussion of the jade and gold trade in Xinjiang was lacking (AHR 104.5), political, economic, and social facets of Qing Xinjiang come to life in this work.

By offering new insights into themes of center versus periphery, fiscal innovation, imperial ideology, and ethnic interaction, Beyond the Pass is a bold move toward a holistic understanding of Qing frontier policy. More work on the Inner Asia borders is needed for the latter half of the nineteenth century, as is a reinterpretation of coastal frontier policy in light of new perspectives on Inner Asia. One intriguing question at which Millward hints is the fiscal burden of administering Xinjiang in relation to the drain of silver from the opium trade in the nineteenth century. For scholars of modern and contemporary Chinese history alike, the study of the mechanics of Qing imperium in Xinjiang is essential in that it laid the groundwork for China’s current political boundaries.

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