Sunday, September 12, 2010

Beyond the Pass

Beyond the Pass is an economic history of the Qing’s dealings with, conquest of, and maintenance of empire in Central Asia, or Xinjiang, from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries. While the majority of the book examines trade relationships, Beyond the Pass also discusses the rationales given for maintaining a struggling or costly territory, and also Chinese perceptions of the land itself as romantic, foreign, barbaric, or even familiar. As a preface to this discussion, Millward has written an engaging historiography of the field, which skewers some of the icons of historical writing on China, including John King Fairbank, Owen Lattimore and William Skinner. Millward expresses dismay at the treatment of Inner Asia as secondary or peripheral to China’s interests, particularly given the Qing government’s emphasis on conquest and maintenance of empire there, at the expense of its borders in other places, and in the face of losses of control to the west (5). More importantly, perhaps, these authors are critiqued for their frameworks of understanding China’s relationship with its territories and ethnicities.

Millward begins in almost a narrative fashion with Qi Yunshi’s journey northwest to Xinjiang, and his preconception of the terrain there, in comparison with his actual findings. Millward brings this idea full-circle in his final chapter, by using Han Dynasty poetry about Xinjiang, and a modern “Xinjiang folksong” to illustrate perceptions of the area as foreign in varying ways. Even though Beyond the Pass is not a cultural history, Millward considers this perception of the terrain because the use of “terrain” in the division of China from Inner Asia has been so crucial to the arguments of Millward’s historical predecessors. This book is a re-examination of widely held ideas of assimilation into Chinese culture (Sinification), and a hierarchical and concentric system of tribute surrounding a central Chinese entity.

I was puzzled, at first, by the harshness of Millward’s accusations of prior historians Fairbank, Lattimore and Skinner, until I realized that Millward is taking issue with a very specific subgenre of literature on China—specifically, the social histories and economic analyses that had been written in the early to mid-20th century. These social and economic histories that Millward is challenging are distinct from other histories of the Qing by virtue of their closeness with social science. The social scientist’s outlook on China, particularly when examining the 19th century, would be overwhelmingly an attempt to explain the (perceived?) failure of Qing China to adequately respond to the intrusion of the west. This framework of response, and its focus on Western-Chinese relations may be a specific characteristic of 20th century American scholarship on China. Millward and others, at the end of the 20th century, find this model incomplete and possibly misguided, and with the help of newly available source material, are able to look at the Qing Empire from different perspectives—in its relationships with its territories, internally between ethnic groups, or economically, apart from dealings with the West.

Millward’s sources are diverse, resulting from the increased access to Qing archival materials from which Crossley and other authors benefitted. Palace memorials, gazetteers, financial records, and a substantial historiographical collection from (mostly) the mid to late 20th century make up the majority of sources. As reviewer Linda Benson suggests, in the American Historical Review, Millward’s critique of earlier scholarship seems “somewhat disingenuous, as these pioneers of Chinese history in America had no access to the Qing archives that have clearly stimulated a re-thinking of Chinese relations with Inner Asia.”

A few parts of the book, in particular, caught my eye. The first is Millward’s “mapping” of Gaozong’s vision for the Qing Empire, in comparison to prior historical analyses (197-203). It certainly seems like one of the main points of the book to demonstrate the Qing view of the empire as not “starkly hierarchical,” but in a “parallel” relationship with Muslims, Mongols, Manchus, Tibetans and Han Chinese, with the Qing Imperial House (not identified as “Manchu”) at the center. I was amused and interested to read Millward’s analysis of the cover design for Fairbank’s book, The Chinese World Order, because in his view, the concentric octogons represent an older Sinocentric idea of China and its foreign relations in Asia. The skeptic in me, however, says that this design has about as much to do with Fairbank’s point as the interlocking cubes on the cover of Kuhn’s book have to do with the structure of scientific revolutions. Also interesting was Millward’s discussion of official and “out-of-office” scholars’ thoughts about the retention or possible loss of the Xinjiang region, and their rationales for maintaining it. In addition, Millward’s narrative moments, speculative though they may be, keep the book from becoming too dry, and add color to what could have been a personless economic history.

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