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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.

      In the first piece of Mongolian literature, The Secret History of the Mongols, there is a well known scene where Alan Goa, the mother of five sons who in turn will be the mythical fathers of the Mongol tribes, scolds her children for their arguments and incessant fighting. She hands each son an arrow and instructs them to break it. They all do it easily. She then takes an arrow for each son and combines them into a bundle, instructing her five sons to break it. All fail. The parable of the arrows is a motif that appears often in Mongolian history with the irony that despite its repetition, the Mongols failed to heed its wisdom. Ultimately, their internecine warfare led to their conquest by the Qing Dynasty, forever reshaping Central Eurasia. 1
     When discussing the Qing Empire, most world history survey texts focus on the 17th century establishment of the Qing dynasty, the 19th century Western intrusion and, particularly, the Opium Wars. The Qing Empire's Central Eurasian conquests rarely merit discussion. Richard Bulliet et al., The Earth and Its Peoples, is a notable exception, though this is really no surprise, since Pamela Crossley, a Qing specialist, is among its authors. Since such careful treatment is rare, students usually conclude that the borders of the modern People's Republic of China are more or less the same as they have always been. Of course this is misleading. The addition of Inner Mongolia, Mongolia, Xingjiang, Tibet, and Koko Nur created a nearly insoluble challenge for the Qing. Peter C. Perdue's book examines that challenge: dealing with threats to the north and northwestern frontiers. 2
    Students as well as scholars will find Perdue's introduction particularly useful for its overview of Qing Central Eurasian conquests and of historical debate they have generated. Perdue firmly locates the conquests in the context of world history, preparing readers for his argument that Qing expansion fundamentally altered Eurasian history. 3
     Part one focuses on the formation of the Central Asian states–China under the Ming and the Qing, the rise of Muscovy and of the Zhungar in Western Mongolia. Focusing on Ming and Russian expansion, Perdue creates a backdrop for appreciating how drastically the Qing altered the Central Eurasian status quo. Here Perdue defines the nature of relations between Chinese and Russian empires on the one hand and such Mongol groups as the Khalkha and Zhungar on the other. When discussing the rise of the Qing state, Perdue lucidly contrasts the Mongol-influenced early Manchu state against the 19th century Qing state. 4
     The second part of the book explores Qing imperial expansion. Perdue's coverage of this topic is ambitious but balanced, drawing from Khalka and Zhungar perspectives as well as that of the Qing. Finally, he considers the position of the Russians as they come into increasing contact, both friendly and hostile, with both the Qing and the Mongols. Perdue's study of the conflict between the Qing Emperor, Kangxi, and the Zhungar Khan, Galdan, is quite good and convincingly shows theirs to be a struggle over who will lead the Mongols–the Zhungars or the Manchus. The author's examination of Galdan's rise to power and his failed effort to unite the Mongols is nuanced and ably exposes the historical biases in Chinese sources and historiography. Perdue makes it clear why many Mongols preferred to be ruled by the Manchus, a Tungusic people, rather than another Mongol group. Many Manchu institutions had either roots in or parallels to Mongolian ones. Further, the many Manchus and Mongols intermarried – Nurhaci had six Mongolian wives. Marriage alliances, economic incentives, and Manchu appropriation of Mongol history (the Manchus claimed, for instance, to possess the state seal of Yüan Dynasty) helped solidify their authority. 5
     Despite Kangxi's success, the Zhungars remained a threat and became the catalyst for further expansion. The Zhungar presence not only undermined Qing control over the Mongols, but also the emperor's legitimacy as a Buddhist ruler. The struggle to control the Dalai Lama and other living Buddhas plays a significant role in Qing expansion into Tibet, Koko Nur and, finally, Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang). The final struggle against the Zhungars reveals just how dangerous the Qing believed them to be. Unlike previous campaigns, its purpose was not to defeat the Zhungars militarily and annex their territory, but to annihilate the Zhungars as a people. 6
     The first two parts of the book would have made a nice monograph on the Qing conquests. Perdue, however, goes well beyond this. The third part of China Marches West discusses the economics of conquest and control. Although most maps still depict the Han and Tang empires extending into Xinjiang, that region was as much Chinese as 18th century Colorado or Montana were Spanish. While Chinese merchants and, occasionally, an army ventured into the region, imperial control was minimal at best. Like their predecessors, the Qing found it economically difficult to maintain garrisons in the region. The cost of supplying an army in the steppe was simply tremendous, prolonging China's wars against the Zhungars. The number of horses required to carry supplies outnumbered those animals employed in battle. In assessing the economics of conquest, Perdue deals not only with supplying and managing the frontiers, but also with settlement – the key to long-term control.  7
     The Qing were not alone in their quest for control. In the third part of his book, Perdue focuses as well on Galdan's attempts to create a stable state. Perdue's assessment of the Zhungar clearly demonstrates that Galdan envisioned something more than an ephemeral nomadic confederation. His creation of cities, his importation of agriculturalists and artisans, and his rudimentary bureaucracy reveal that, for Galdan, stability and economic power were just as important as military success.  8
     Perdue's work is a useful addendum to one generalization found in most world history textbooks: that before the 19th century, China wasn't buying what Europeans came to sell. As a result, Westerners poured New World silver into China to for silks, porcelain, and other products. What became of that silver? According to Perdue, the Qing state spent it to maintain frontier garrisons, conduct military campaigns, and procure horses (often from the very peoples the Qing state would later conquer). 9
     Perdue concludes with two sections exploring the Chinese understanding of western frontier regions. Perdue first discusses the demarcation of boundaries, both on the ground and in Chinese maps, before turning to historiography. In a particularly fine discussion, he compares interpretations of state- and empire-building in China to evaluations of similar developments, not only in Inner Asia, but in Europe as well.   10
     What role did frontier expansion play in the rise and fall of the Qing? Perdue points out that while subduing the Zhungars was integral to creating the Qing Empire, it also played a role in its demise. Without the constant threat from the Zhungars, Perdue argues, the Qing became more complacent. As the frontier stabilized, the Qing had less reason to devise new methods of harnessing the resources of a nation. Thus the emperor's control over administration eroded. Meanwhile, the Qing shifted from policies favoring the Mongols to others which favored the Han. This in turn caused a new set of frontier problems. In the end, Europeans exploited nineteenth century Qing weaknesses which were rooted in the Qing's quest to stabilize their northern and north-western frontiers.  11
     Perdue's book is a masterpiece. It offers a balanced and nuanced perspective as well as sound scholarship from a variety of primary and secondary sources in Chinese, Russian, German, English and French. The color maps and illustrations enhance the argument. While not suited to the undergraduate classroom, China Marches West is would be an effective addition to an upper level seminar. For graduate students, and for anyone who teaches a world history class, this is a must-read. 12
Timothy May
North Georgia College and State University

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