World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          

Book Review


Pamela Kyle Crossley, Helen F. Siu, and Donald S. Sutton, eds. Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. Pp. xi + 388. $54.95 (hardcover); $15.95 (Adobe Reader).

      Among the many recent anthropological and historical studies of the frontier and ethnicity in imperial and twentieth-century China, Empire at the Margins stands out. Pamela Crossley and her colleagues have produced a collection notable for its broad coverage of northern, western and southern borderlands in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Empires, its attention to ethnic others within the imperial heartland and its juxtaposition of comparable case studies. 1
    Starting from Manchu and Mongol groups at the core of the Qing imperial power structure, the volume's essays move among new and old frontiers in the west, southwest, and south, before concluding with two essays on the construction of ethnicity in China's internal frontier zones. The essays illustrate a continuum of state versus local agency in the construction of ethnic identities ranging from the very direct state fashioning of ethnic categories in the heartland, the competition between state and local agents in the frontier periphery, to the weak presence of the center in internal peripheries where local constituencies adopted symbols associated with the state and its elites in order to create, sustain, and also cross ethnic distinctions.In the heartland, the state directly defined ethnic categories. At the frontier periphery, the state competed, often unsuccessfully, to impose these distinctions. Between, in China's internal peripheries, local constituencies adopted symbols associated with the state and its elites in order to create, sustain, and also cross ethnic distinctions. Empire at the Margins suggests that the Ming and Qing imperial governments strategically defined and redefined ethnic identity to control their diverse populations. However, these imperial constructs and their effects were always informed by "the dynamism between central and local that is the essence of history" (14). The geographical arrangement of the chapters also reinforces the interactive model advocated here for the study of ethnic categorization. Ongoing redefinitions of Manchu, Mongol, and Han ethnic identity depended on one other, as did southern ethnic boundaries drawn for instance around the Yao, She, Hakka, and Dan. 2
    The essays by Pamela Kyle Crossley and Mark Elliott show how imperial institutions such as the Eight Banners and the Court of Colonial Affairs were instrumental in the forging of Manchu and Mongol identities. Crossley attributes the Qing success in forging unity among the Mongols out of fragmented federations that included Turkic-speaking groups as well as Mongolian-speaking groups to the Qing government's replication of Chinggis Khan's own strategy of using loyalty or followership to define Mongol identity. David Faure writes that the Yao survived in Guangxi after disappearing elsewhere because the state differentiated between those whose names appeared in government registers (and were thus transformed into subjects) and those whose names did not (and who the state categorized under ethnic labels). 3
     Ambiguity characterized the state's efforts to govern its ethnic others. This resulted from negotiation between the imperial desire for expansion and control and the complex dynamics of local practice in the borderlands. James Millward argues that the Qing government refrained from assimilationist policies in governing Islamic subjects in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Xinjiang but, at the same time, policed the distinctions between Chinese or Sino-Muslim immigrants and local Turkic Muslims, forbidding the former from adopting the practices of the latter. In an essay on local government institutions in the southwest, John Herman shows that, despite policies aimed at dissolving formerly autonomous leadership positions into the regular administrative structure, the Ming court confirmed the dominance of local powerbrokers. 4
     Beyond ambiguity, the dialectical relationship between center and periphery translated into competing discourses in officialdom. Jonathan Lipman analyzes two competing official discourses on Sino-Muslims who were theoretically considered Chinese. One, derived from Confucian models and adopted by emperor Yongzheng, portrayed them as objects for moral reformation. Another, a racial discourse influential among local officials, described them as inherently violent and, on this basis, discriminated against them. Focusing on the Miao frontierland in Guizhou and Hunan province, Donald Sutton reaches similar conclusions. In this case, the Emperor Qianlong and non-Han officials both promoted policies of quarantine while Han officials urged assimilation. On Hainan island, as in Anne Csete shows, economic tensions between immigrant traders and the indigenous Li resulted in one set of policies intended to protect Li territory and another designed to suppress Li resistance.   5
     The last two essays foreground local agency. Wing-hoi Chan traces the original meaning and transformation of the ethnic label "She". Chan argues that "She" originally denoted a group of vagrants. By Ming times it had become an ethnic category; the She remain an official ethnic minority in the People's Republic of China. While he sees state intervention as crucial to this transformation, Chan emphasizes that individuals claimed She identity as a symbol of resistance against state intervention. She identity exerted such an appeal that it occasionally led to "reverse sinicization" (278). The assertion of common descent from the mythical creature Panhu created ties between She and Yao peoples (who shared the same belief) and thus cemented alliances between groups resisting state control. Helen Siu and Liu Zhiwei propose that in the Pearl River Delta the state intervened in ethnic categorization only virtually. Local populations who adopted symbols of imperial orthodoxy (education, examination degrees, genealogies, and community rituals) understood themselves as Han; they defined the floating population who did not as the Dan. As in the case of the She and the Yao, these distinctions were, to an extent, permeable. 6
     Clearly, the authors Empire at the Margins embrace a constructivist interpretation of ethnicity. They propose that this interpretation be applied not only to ethnic classification in the modern nation-state but equally to pre-twentieth century world: "Ethnic phenomena are not only dynamic across time, but are produced by intertwining acts of naming others and naming oneself, using distinctly "ethnic" institutions of language, religion, economic activity, or family organization—or using no external markers at all and relying solely on consciousness of difference and similarity" (1). In doing so, Empire at the Margins challenges unreflective use of ethnic designations and thus poses crucial questions about the creation, adoption, and contestation of ethnic distinctions as well as the purposes these distinctions served for individuals, local groups, and the state.   7
     These questions are answered in different ways in the essays, but they are indicative of a paradigm shift. Empire at the Margins demonstrates that historians of imperial China have moved beyond the grand imperial narrative which stresses the opposition of Chinese to non-Chinese and the inevitable pull of Chinese civilization. Yet these authors also go well beyond mere rejection of the sinicization/sinification model. The authors invite us to enter a debate animated by a different set of questions, a set of questions bound to bring the history of ethnicity in China back from the exclusivism of sinicization to a new engagement with world and comparative history. 8
     Empire at the Margins will appeal to world and comparative historians interested in frontier and ethnic studies or in state-building. The essays, originally presented at a conference in 1996, are remarkably cohesive and read like chapters that transport the reader to different regions and locations but resonate with each other throughout. I would assign it in graduate or undergraduate seminars that address the topics central to it. Excerpts will enrich world history survey classes. I dream of supplementing such excerpts with translated documentary sources illustrating the complexities so carefully teased out in this remarkable volume.   9
Hilde De Weerdt
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use