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Book Review


Perdue, Peter C. China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005). 725 pp, $35.00.

     Most of us would probably associate "westward expansion" and "the frontier" with images of pioneers traveling on the Oregon Trail in Conestoga wagons, Native Americans, and mountain men. But how many of us would also connect the phenomenon of expansion into western frontier regions with the Qing Dynasty and the nomads of the Eurasian steppe? Until now, the story of China's expansion into Central Eurasia and the struggle of the Zunghars, one of the tribes of the Western Mongol group known as the Oirats who fought the Qing during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has largely been ignored by most historians. In China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, Peter Perdue argues that in fact the Qing conquest was even "more significant in world history than the closing of the North American frontier lamented by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893" (10).

     Even though Perdue emphasizes that the study of the creation of the multi-ethnic state under the Qing is a significant event worthy of study, he points out that there was nothing unique in the Qing's experience with acquiring vast amounts of territory in Central Eurasia. There are a number of striking similarities between North America and Eurasia. Both regions had temperate forests, grasslands, deserts, arid regions, fertile agricultural zones, fur-bearing animals, and nomadic tribes. In addition, China and Russia, the two largest empires adjacent to the nomadic peoples of the steppe, both ignored the histories of the native inhabitants much in the same way that Turner did in his interpretation of the frontier in U.S. history.

     The fact that such similarities existed implies that the histories of Eurasia and North America reflect a global process, specifically, the process of state building that occurred in North America, Asia, and Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Russia and China had to contend with the threat of Mongol raids, and the Mongols took advantage of the political fluidity of the region to shift allegiances. The Russian and Qing empires both sought to eliminate the ambiguity of these boundaries in order to fix the allegiance of Mongols within the borders. Creating fixed boundaries was the first step towards state building, and both sides wanted to solidify their control of clearly defined territories. The Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689 and the Treaty of Kiakhta of 1727, both between the Qing and Russia, were significant because China and Russia were thereafter able to control movements across borders and suppress groups within newly demarcated spaces.

     The Qing saw the Zunghars as a security threat to the empire, and the Kangxi Emperor thus organized campaigns to kill Galdan, the leader who unified the Western Mongols, and the remaining Zunghar "rebels." Perdue analyzes the Qing-Zunghar conflict as a "process of competitive state building in which both had to mobilize economic and military resources, build administrative organization and develop ideologies of conquest and rule" (518). As he shows in a chapter entitled "Cannons on Camelback: Ecological Structures and Economic Conjunctures," the Zunghars started to look more like sedentary state builders than nomads. Galdan's military tactics had transcended raiding, and he used heavy artillery, such as cannon, in order to conquer territories in Turkestan and Russia. In addition, he created a tax system and required corveé labor each year. Indeed, the way of life for the nomads was shifting from a mobile society into a settled one during the early eighteenth century.

     Perdue marks the final closing of the steppe with the story of "The Return of the Torghuts." In 1770, the Torghuts, the last free nomads of the steppe, made a massive exodus from the Volga River region back to their homeland in Mongolia. Purdue explains that once the last of the nomadic peoples "came under domination from the great agrarian empires that surrounded them, the steppe ended, and a great chapter in world history closed." (299) This work makes a powerful addition to the growing field of comparative empire studies.

     China Marches West is not only a book about state building, but also an attack on nationalism as a barrier to the writing of good history. Perdue writes that modern nations are guilty of using history as "a weapon…appropriated for the purpose of nation builders and citizens" (18). Ideologues often turn historical events into myths and use these fabricated histories to construct national identities. Historians in China, for example, interpret the Qing's expansion into Eurasia during the seventeenth and mid-eighteenth century as the "unification of the peoples of Central Eurasia in the multinational Chinese nation-state" (4). The implication here is that the Qing conquest was one stage in a teleological process that resulted in the modern Chinese state. Furthermore, this view ignores the fact that the "unification" was not inevitable or peaceful. In other words, modern Chinese scholars view the destruction of the Zunghars and the return of the Torghuts as "inevitable."

     As a historian, Perdue believes that it is his job to show "the falsity and the effectiveness of myth" (18). Perdue successfully shows that the events that occurred during this time were not "inevitable," but contingent. The Qing conquest of Eurasia was not part of a teleological, progressively linear movement in China's history, but a sharp break with the policies and strategies of the previous dynasty. As the Kangxi Emperor pursued the Zunghars on the steppe, the Qing became more actively involved in Central Eurasia. After the defeat of the Khalka Mongols in 1715, the Kangxi emperor began to plan for the creation of military colonies in Mongolia and by the 1720s the Qing began building fortresses in Mongolia. When the Yongzheng Emperor came to power, he began establishing military colonies and building fortresses in Turkestan in order to supply the Qing troops. These changes in policy illustrate that the conquest of these lands was not based on a single plan to incorporate the lands in Central Eurasia into the empire. Instead, these events were the result of changing and contingent circumstance.

     Perdue dedicates nearly a quarter of his book to the Zunghar campaigns; his fascinating and highly-detailed analysis of this military conflict shows that the defeat of the Zunghars was far from "inevitable." The Qing armies had a number of logistical issues, including problems with supplying the troops on the frontier. As time went on, the Qing embraced a policy of exterminating the Zunghar state. Would the emperor have had to take such drastic and extreme measures to eliminate a group whose destruction was supposedly inevitable, as both Qing rulers (and many modern Chinese scholars) seem to have thought?

     Although today the Chinese state claims that Xinjiang "naturally" belongs to China, Perdue points out that the Qing knew that it was doing something unprecedented. The Qing did not have a vision of a "unified people (minzu), defined by nationalist ideology" (336). Instead, the Qing's motivation for incorporating Xinjiang was security. The goal was to create a self-sufficient region, but Xinjiang was never able to independently sustain itself. The Qing had to create new policies in order to govern this periphery. The government used encouragement and coercive measures to settle the frontier. After the establishment of military colonies in 1760, the government encouraged merchants to move into the area in order to link Xinjiang commercially with Central China. Next, the government implemented a policy of exiling criminals to Xinjiang; eventually those people began to work the land. Again, this process by which the region was settled implies that the creation of the multi-ethnic Qing state resulted from choices made along the way as new problems arose.

     China Marches West is a very important addition to the literature on world history. The book focuses on a time and place in history that has been neglected, and Perdue persuasively explains why the conquest of the steppe and the creation of a multi-national empire based in China should be studied alongside European expansion and state building. This book shows that nations, borders, and national mythologies are all created, not part of an inevitable history. This book may not be appropriate for undergraduate courses because of the amount of material covered, but graduate students who are studying imperialism, nationalism, modern history, or Asian history will certainly benefit. Students studying the American West may also find this book of interest since Perdue makes some interesting comparisons between China and America's westward expansion.

     High school teachers and college professors can all benefit from some of the main themes that appear in this book. The process of state building, comparative frontier studies, and national myths are topics that are relevant in modern history as a whole. Perdue also discusses important ways of analyzing history that all teachers and students of history should pay close attention to. For one, he suggests that we need to empathize with the actors involved in historical events and understand that they were not certain of outcomes. Also, many of the goals that these people had "were not fixed in advance but evolved within a fluid situation" (515). Finally, Perdue believes that we need to be objective by giving equal weight to all historical actors, not just the victors, and that we must be careful to avoid anachronism and understand the real intentions of the parties involved in order to avoid seeing complex and contested events only as "stages on the way to national states" (515).


Jesus Solis
University of Colorado


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