“China Marches West” compares expansion of Qing Dynasty to European expansion

“China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia” student review

Professor Peter Perdue’s China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Asia, undertakes an ambitious study of a much neglected topic: the westward expansion of the Qing Empire that occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Three theoretical perspectives guide his work: frontier environments, state building, and construction of national and ethnic identities through historical representation (p. 15). His work compares the expansion of three empires in the making: Manchu Qing (1644-1911), Muscovite Russia (1613-1917), and Mongolian Zunghar (1671-1760). Perdue argues that the Qing Empire’s expansion compared very closely to that of the European expansion, as well as the expansion of North America as settlers moved westward to expand their frontier.

Perdue’s enormous sprawling book is structured into five parts: (1) “The Formation of the Central Eurasian States,” which looks at the ecology and the environmental conditions; (2) “Contending for Power,” examines the contest between Manchu Qing, the Mongol state, and Russia; (3) “The Economic Basis of Empire,” is a structural analysis of the economic and environmental constraints the conquered and the rivals had to overcome; (4) “Fixing Frontiers,” an investigation into China’s boundaries; and (5) “Legacies and Implications,” a discussion of modern China and theories on state building (p. xv). Perdue drew from a wide variety of archival and published sources, as well as secondary scholarships in at least seven languages. He revealed the preponderance of his sources were written in Chinese, but cautioned that they contained a certain amount of biases. Perdue’s research took him to the multilingual archival sources at the Number One Archive in Beijing, the Palace Archives in Taiwan, the Archive of Foreign Policy and the State Archive of Ancient Acts in Moscow (p. xvii).

Perdue masterfully unravels the complexities of Eurasian political and cultural kinetics concerning why and when the Qing Empire chose to expand. Once the expansion took place, the dynamics of the environment, confrontations, politics, and a myriad of other encounters quite often altered the strategic expansion plan. Clearly, one of the chief reasons that drove people to migrate was the environment. Perdue points to the geographer, Ellsworth Huntington, who drew a direct connection between environmental changes in Central Eurasia and the evolution of civilization: “In relatively dry regions increasing aridity is a dire calamity, giving rise to famine and distress. These, in turn, are fruitful causes of war and migration, which engenders the fall of dynasties…” He asserted the inverse occurs if the environment becomes less arid: “If, on the contrary, a country becomes less arid, and the conditions of life improve, prosperity and contentment are the rule” (p. 16). Huntington presented climate change as an explanation for forcing nomads out of the center of the continent, causing barbarian invasions of Rome, and a reason for the rise of Islam. More horrifying, he warned of a possible invasion of the United States by starving hordes of Chinese in the twentieth century (p. 16). Of course that time has passed, but it does not alleviate the possibility of a similar condition playing out if conditions become favorable.

The most compelling issue central to this study is China’s acquiescence to the brutal force used by the Qing to accomplish their expansion. Even emperor Qianglong’s genocidal acts against the Zunghar people were legitimized. Scholars of the Nationalist period and the People’s Republic contended that Qing’s policies had the positive effect of promoting economic development in the region, as well as creating a new identity for China as a “multinationality nation-state” (p. 333). Quite alarming, one historian asserted that the Qing is of great interest because “it can provide useful information to the Chinese government for future exploitation” (p. 334). European and Western nations that might take issue with this philosophy are politely reminded by the Chinese historians that the Chinese view expansion much as Frederick Jackson Turner viewed the settlement of the American West. Turner is remembered for his “Frontier Thesis” published in 1893, which argued “…the spirit and success of the United States is directly tied to the country’s Western expansion” (p. 335). The Qing expansion was essentially mirroring early Western imperialistic expansion by fulfilling their “manifest destiny”, just as the new world had done (p. 501). Do we need to remind ourselves how the North American settlers viewed Native Americans as “savages” who needed to be civilized? One of Perdue’s sources, James A. Millward, reminds us that the Chinese pay much more attention to history than we do in the United States.

Professor Perdue achieved his goal of simplifing a deeply complex and dramatic subject of the Qing’s conquest of Central Eurasia. He presented his arguments in clear prose that was beautifully produced with colorful maps and illustrations. This book would be of great value to specialists of Asian studies as well as non-specialists seeking to understand more about the world of China.

Current regime emulates ancestors from “China Marches West”

Peter C. China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

Peter C. Perdue is a professor of history and the History Department Chairman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has traveled and studied extensively the history, culture and languages of East Asia. China Marches West was researched and written over a twenty year period. It provides both novice and experts in Chinese culture and history a comprehensive look at how the Qing Dynasty was able to eliminate the Mongol or Zunghar threat, expand its imperial borders north and west into Central Asia and establish hegemonic power in the region during its reign from 1644 to 1911. This book focuses on China’s imperial growth from the 17th to the 20th Centuries, but historians can easily see the current regime trying to emulate their ancestors. They appear to be looking at bringing this same region back under their “economic web” (p. xiii). For his efforts, he received the 2006 Levenson Prize for Books in Chinese Studies. Steven Durrant, the committee chairman stated in 2007 that “Perdue places the Qing march into central Asia squarely in the contexts both of Chinese and of world history.”

China Marches West is developed in five major sections that allow the reader a logical flow from one concept to another. Part one looks at the interrelationships between Chinese, Muscovite and Zunghar States and how each attempted to increase their sphere of influence. Perdue breaks down complex issues by explaining how logistical requirements needed to support military and diplomatic efforts were hampered by the difficult terrain and the vast distances between settlements. Part two is concerned with the rise of the final Manchurian Qing dynasty and the establishment of the Mongol state and the arrival of the Russians from the west who were looking to exploit the regions fur and ivory resources. Part three provides an analysis of the Qing Dynasty’s settlement of its frontier areas and how the economic and environmental constraints created a strain on the empire. Financial pressures were brought on by encouraging colonization of the area and the high cost of administering the region politically while garrisoning forces required protecting the area from nomadic raiders and enemies (p. 342). Parts four and five looks at establishing patterns of control as the empire expanded. It also highlights the need to create cultural and symbolic patterns associated with the Qing Dynasty while also seeking to legitimize their expansion and the oppressive measures used to eliminate its enemies (p. 484).

Perdue takes a comprehensive look not only at the Qing Dynasty but the Muscovite and Zunghar empires as well. He provides compelling arguments on nation building and compares China’s development to those of Europe in a manner that both the novice and scholar can appreciate (p. 524-25). By reviewing imperial policies and decision making processes of its leaders he provides enough information to show how peasants, merchants and military officials reacted to imperial edicts. He further, creates an atmosphere that while Sino-centric shows the complexities involved with territorial expansion and defense strategies as well as how the Qing reacted when confronted by nomadic peoples along its borders and trade routes. The Battle of Jao Modo is a classic example of this and Perdue goes to great lengths to explain all aspects of the battle and the effect leadership decisions had on all aspects of society. The battle also shows his readers in minute detail the heavy price China’s poorer provinces located in the northern and northwestern parts of the empire paid through their logistical support to defeat the Mongols (p. 180-85).

There are two major flaws with this work. The microcosmic look at logistic issues and the failure to provide a conclusive tie between the development of the Qing and Muscovite Empires and the impact it has on the world today. Without a significant background in Chinese history or the Qing Dynasty, the expansive level of detail can be seen as a distraction. While Perdue provides a concise account of the Qing’s expansionistic policies, too much energy is spent presenting the difficulties in trade, transportation, lack of resources and other logistical matters. Some or all of these could better be explained through a micro account of the subject such as how the shortages of horses and grains impacted Chinese expansion (p. 72). The excessive minutia is continued with the addition of five appendixes and a list of abbreviations. Neither provides an opportunity for greater understanding of challenging content. Instead of continuing this same thread, Perdue could easily have provided a more appropriate appendices if he had included a pronunciation guide, a side-by-side timeline to compare each empire’s important milestones in relation to China’s north and westward expansion as well as more maps within the text for ease of reference and greater clarity. The second major flaw is that Perdue does not go far enough with respect to how China’s last dynasty was able to prepare it for its current place among the worlds’ elite nations. He could have done this by developing how the centralized governments in Russia and China developed out of and were influenced by programs established by the Muscovite and Qing rulers (p. 518) such as Nerchinsk (p. 171) which led to the eventual extermination of the Zunghar people (p. 251). Lastly, had Perdue broken this work up into a few multiple volumes, it would have enhanced his thesis. By breaking his arguments up into manageable parts, he could avoid losing his readers within the book’s varying levels of minutia.

Perdue seems, in his preface, to apologize for what he terms a “sprawling book” which often seems to trip over itself based on its length and amount of detail (p. xv). For those familiar with the topic, they will find a well researched and organized study on the Qing Dynasty. For novices in the field, they may find this text to be difficult to complete but it provides an abundance of information that would greatly enhance the understanding of modern Chinese history. The expansive bibliography and note section provide an additional approach to the topic.

Leave a Comment