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Book Review


Reardon-Anderson, James. Reluctant Pioneers: China's Expansion Northward, 1644-1937 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005). 288 pp., $60.00.

     Reluctant Pioneers is a clearly written and fascinating account of the Chinese settlement in Manchuria during the Qing and Republican periods. Prior to the nineteenth century, this agriculturally rich region the size of the six states of the upper Midwest was sparsely populated by peoples ethnically and culturally different from the Chinese. Reardon-Anderson points out that as late as 1820 there were only two million, mostly non-Chinese in the huge region. The Qing sought to keep Manchuria separate from China proper by establishing a manorial system of landed estates to support Manchu and Mongol service nobility and the banner troops; ethnic Chinese were prohibited from settling there. In the late nineteenth century, faced with financial problems and worried about Russian expansion, the dynasty began selling land to ethnic Chinese and eventually promoted their settlement. Population pressure in north China drove many peasants into this new land. By 1940, there were 40 million people in Manchuria, over 85 percent ethnically Chinese.

            Reardon-Anderson examines this expansion, seeking to understand how it impacted both Manchuria and China as a whole. In particular, he addresses the debate over whether, as Thomas Rawski and Loren Brandt have argued, China achieved higher productivity in agriculture from 1870-1930 or if, as Philip Huang and Sucheta Mazumdar believe, economic growth was merely a factor of population growth rather than development. Reardon-Anderson comes down on the side of the latter, who maintain that an unfavorable balance between population and resources and the failure to develop new agricultural techniques in fact resulted in stagnation in terms of output per capita.

            What makes this book most useful for those interested in world history is the author's comparative approach to the study of the Chinese frontier. Along with Russia and the U.S., he points out, China was one of the three great empires that expanded its frontiers in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries and then went on to become a global power. How, Reardon-Anderson asks, did the frontier foster change in Manchuria and in China? What role did the frontier/borderlands play in the development of China, and how was it similar to the impact of frontier in the U.S. and Russia? After reviewing the Frederick Jackson Turner thesis (which posits that the existence of the frontier shapes attitudes and institutions in the heartland), he turns to the theoretical insights of the "new Western historians" who see frontiers as dynamic areas of cultural interaction between empires and the non-state world. In the case of the China-Manchuria frontier, Reardon-Anderson argues that neither model is appropriate. Indeed, he argues that Manchuria did not have a significant impact on Chinese institutions and culture, nor was it a middle ground where cultures interacted. Instead, the Manchurian frontier was incorporated into China as economic and cultural patterns were simply reproduced there with little modification. This lack of change can be explained by the fact that Chinese settlers brought with them their deeply rooted family patterns, traditions of partible inheritance, a religious focus on ancestor worship, farming methods, and small-scale family enterprises. This point is supported at the end of the book by examining literature of the Northeastern Writers, a group of young authors who grew up in Manchuria in the early twentieth century and wrote about rural life there. The author finds their descriptions of village society little different from accounts of life south of the Great Wall. In short, in contrast to the Russian and American experience the "Chinese expanded by the replication of existing forms and practices rather than the creation or invention of something new." (261)

            The reasons for this are partly geographical. Most of these settlers were from neighboring provinces in North China and entered a region where soil and climatic factors made it possible for them to maintain their customary cultivation practices and lifestyles. Geographic proximity, the long winters, and frozen rivers made seasonal travel back to home towns and families easy. Furthermore, the author finds these settlers had little sense of going off to a frontier: rather, they reluctantly edged into borderlands while maintaining a close attachment and connection to their adjacent homelands. Geography, however, was not the only explanation. In addition, Reardon-Anderson argues that a combination of social and cultural patterns discouraged innovation, change, and creative adaptation. He supports this by showing how Chinese settlers in Manchuria adhered to customary practices, failing to take full advantage of opportunities presented by the abundant resources of Manchuria, by Russian and Japanese railroads, and other new developments.

            Although scholars may disagree with some of his arguments, Reardon-Anderson presents them clearly and convincingly. He avoids jargon, writes lucidly, and presents some interesting examples, including foreign observations, to support his points. Thus the book is quite accessible to the non-specialist and could probably be assigned at the undergraduate level. Also useful are the eight maps, two charts and fourteen photographs. Reluctant Pioneers is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in modern Chinese or frontier/borderlands history.


Michael J. Seth
James Madison University


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