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  • New Order on China’s Hunan Miao Frontier, 1796–1812
  • Daniel McMahon

The 1795–97 revolt of Miao natives against Han Chinese settlers on the west Hunan “Miao Frontier” is a mainstay in the narrative of China’s Qing dynasty (1644–1911). General histories show the revolt as a minor watermark in dynastic decline. Ethnic histories present it as a major watershed yielding ethnic oppression and a new “phase in Miao ethnogenesis.” In contrast, contemporary imperial observers, including Emperor Jiaqing (r.1796–1820), saw it as precursor to a striking case of administrative success.1

These varying accounts are consistent in their appreciation of the area’s difficult conditions. The Hunan Miao Frontier was a strip of mountains on the border of Guizhou province: remote, recalcitrant, and peopled by fierce, competing ethnic groups. As the Qing empire doubled in population and territory, expanding into borderlands, the region was buffeted by new political incorporation and waves of intrusive Han Chinese settlers. Such circumstances have led Asia scholars to define the Miao Frontier as an “ethnic” and “colonial” frontier, comparable to multi-ethnic areas in Taiwan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan.2 Where accounts differ is the attention given to early nineteenth century reconstruction and the manner it shaped a distinctive regional order.

The postwar rebuilding of western Hunan is relevant not just to historians of China, but also to students of colonialism. Here I follow Emma Teng’s understanding of colonialism as less about unique European action and more about a particular set of “practices, policies, and ideologies” discernible, with variation, in many corners of the early modern world.3 Elements of the colonial experience are also present on this Qing dynasty borderland: unequal power dynamics between imperial periphery and center; differentiated discourses of imperial polity; conflict and accommodation between settlers and natives; imperial institutions of segregation, acculturation, and control; and a messy human drama of emerging order in (re)conquered territory. In light of these conditions, this study aims to clarify the new order built on the Hunan Miao Frontier as a historical case of colonial enterprise in a late imperial Chinese context.

Regional Conditions and Developments

The Hunan Miao Frontier was not unusually big by Chinese standards. In its largest scope, reaching north into Sichuan and west into Guizhou, it was little more than seventy miles by seventy miles, engulfing a smaller core of Hunan “Red Miao” habitation. The problem was its “rugged cliffs, coiled mountain rivers, and ubiquitous narrow passes.”4 Slopes were steep, shooting up to 3700 feet above sea level from swift streams and scattered river valleys. The terrain was hard to farm, difficult to traverse, and part of a far vaster range of mountains unbroken by arbitrary lines drawn on the imperial map.

The indigenous peoples of the Miao Frontier — Miao, Yao, and Gelao — had long dwelt on this west slope of the Hunan basin. From the twelfth century they had been joined by influx of Han Chinese with, as Qing gazetteers and guidebooks record, bursts of ethnic violence that punctuated settlement over some 700 years. Contact brought intensive rice cultivation and, by the sixteenth century, New World crops of sweet potato and maize. It also yielded commercial networks as timber, saltpeter, and forest produce was shipped down the nearby Yuan River from valley portages. An internal frontier emerged, galvanized by inter-ethnic cooperation in trade, marriage, religion, and war, and subjected to intermittent moments of imperial intervention.5

To the seventeenth century, the Chinese state viewed the region as beyond the pale, particularly the higher, inaccessible, and (in imperial eyes) savage areas Donald Sutton refers to as the region’s “inner” and “extreme” peripheries. The Chinese government sought local order in this region via an alliance system with native groups based on divide-and-rule (“using barbarians to control barbarians”) principles. This tusi system, deployed throughout much of China’s frontier southwest, helped quarantine the Miao Frontier while supporting a “border wall” of outposts and fortified stockades that bottled up the most dangerous “Savage Miao” (sheng Miao) settlements.6

The eighteenth century was a time of momentous change in western Hunan.7 The Miao Frontier had previously been a place where the state’s “whip...

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