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Late Imperial China 20.2 (1999) 61-98

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"Coming onto the Map":
"Western Regions" Geography and Cartographic Nomenclature in the Making of Chinese Empire in Xinjiang

James A. Millward


Following Qing conquest of the Xinjiang region in 1759, one of the first Qing travelers to leave an account for non-official readers was a Manchu, Qi-shi-yi. Early in his "Record of Things Seen and Heard in the Western Regions" (Xiyu wenjian lu), under the heading of Hami city, Qi-shi-yi issues this pronouncement:

Outside Jiayu Pass: sand and cobbles for a thousand li, a dearth of water and grass, little trace of humanity. Since ancient times it has been thus. The Former Han had business on the frontier and established the commanderies of Anxi and Dunhuang. Since our exalted emperor opened the New Dominion (Xinjiang) in the northwest, tens of thousands of li have "come onto the registers and onto the map" (ru bantu) in their entirety. 1

The classical term ru bantu is here perhaps best translated less literally, as "become part of our territory," for the word was commonly used in Qing times to describe the incorporation into the Qing empire of two enormous regions: Altishahr (the Tarim basin and its surrounding Muslim oases, also known as Eastern Turkestan) and Zungharia (the triangular basin to the north [End Page 61] of the Tianshan range, defined by the Altai Mountains on the east and the Yili River valley and Lake Balkash to the west). These two regions were in the latter eighteenth and nineteenth centuries collectively known as "Xinjiang," as well as by the term Xiyu, "Western Regions," an archaism that had once taken in anything west of the Han period Jade Gate, including central and south Asia and even the Mediterranean and Europe, but by mid-Qing was becoming restricted to areas under direct Qing control.

The original, literal meaning of ru bantu, "to be entered on population registers and map," is no less accurate, however, for Altishahr and Zungharia were indeed not well represented on Chinese maps before the mid-eighteenth century. And, I will argue below, not only did the conquest of these expanses from the Zunghars literally put Xinjiang on the Qing map, but mapping and research into their historical geography were instrumental in making them part of a new, expanded conception of China.

Map-making and empire

Current trends in the history of cartography have moved away from an earlier stress on tracking the progress of map-making towards greater "rationality" or "accuracy" according to scientific standards. Instead, it is now as common to read maps more relativistically, as cultural and ideological artifacts reflecting the makers' notions of space, political power, the relationship of man to the environment, and so forth, regardless of the accuracy with which they represent physical reality. 2 Advances in physics, astronomy, navigation, draftsmanship, printing, precision tool-making and related sciences and technologies achieved during the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution corresponded with state-building efforts in Europe and the formation of European overseas empires in the Americas and Asia. Recent research has examined the cartography of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, therefore, in the context both of imperialism and of Enlightenment epistemology, especially the privileging of scientific, mathematical, and visual modes of knowledge. Maps of one sort or another were of course necessary to conquer and control territory, design engineering projects, and assess land taxes. But small-scale maps of vast areas--whole empires, nations, or imperial territories--served moreover to provide an overview and even create an iconic image of the realm. This was greatly appreciated by centralizing, scopophiliac rulers aspiring to be lords of all they surveyed but whose territories were too far-flung to visit personally. As Mathew Edney has pointed out in his study of [End Page 62] the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, post-Enlightenment era rulers sought systematically-produced surveys of the realm because such scientific maps seemed to provide the perfect "panopticon" to aid in their totalizing enterprises...


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