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Reviewed by:
  • Asian Borderlands: The Transformation of Qing China’s Yunnan Frontier
  • Kevin Caffrey (bio)
C. Patterson Giersch. Asian Borderlands: The Transformation of Qing China’s Yunnan Frontier. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2006. xvi, 308 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 0–674–02171–1.

Professor Giersch has done China scholarship a service with this historical treatment of the Tai polities and peoples on China’s southwestern frontier. In an evolution of his dissertation on the same topic (1999), he has produced a readable and theoretically engaging argument about the imperial dynamics and colonial practice of the Yunnan frontier that is as substantial as the complexity of the situation demands.

The Topic

The most specific regional focus of the book is “the Crescent”—Giersch’s term for the territory in southwestern Yunnan traditionally made up of small Tai “states” loosely associated with multiple surrounding powers, but with durable ties to the Tai kingdoms in highland Southeast Asia. The argument is loosely contextualized by work on the North American frontier scholarship of Turner and White, and the now well-known “middle ground” concept does some explanatory work. The Tai Crescent as middle ground provides most of the particular examples the author uses, and he characterizes it as an “ideal case study” because of the sophisticated political and social institutions there, its ties to other states, and its developed written tradition. I am compelled to agree with him, and it is the strength of this careful “case study” approach to fleshing out the mechanisms of interaction, transformation, and dialogic adaptation that make this book so impressive, while [End Page 107] at the same time serving up a region-specific attention to detail that takes Cohen’s “China-centered” approach (1984) to the regional level. It is also worth noting that Giersch’s direct line of sight to his documentary data, even while theorizing in the abstract, is no small part of his success.

The historical scope of the treatment is the Ming and Qing dynasties, when the Yunnan frontier went through its most pronounced transformation. More specifically yet, the events most noticed here occur in that tumultuous period from 1720 to 1850 when the Qing reacted to changing notions of territory and authority to engage in what can only be called a new and aggressive (in recently familiar terms) “forward deployment” of imperial control on the Yunnan frontier. Court-sanctioned and unprecedented levels of violence against indigenes were the order of the day, the mechanics of which can also be demonstrated by the history of Yunnan, Guizhou, Kham, Taiwan, and other frontiers. Throughout the analysis, the themes that resurface from the data are those of dialogic rather than simple adaptation, mutual manipulation rather than unilateral domination, and what can only be called a colonial condition on the frontier. Giersch’s narrative of this violently transformational period is deep and well documented. Its success is due in large part to the author’s careful attention to the various important kinds of agents on the frontier at that time, each category serving as an indicator for the conditions and kinds of change the author is arguing. These agentive social categories were “Qing officials,” “Chinese migrants,” and “indigenes,” and the intended and unintended consequences of their tactical interactions appear here as the motor of frontier change. The vividness of his account delivers a real understanding of the subtle and heated nature of the region in transformation, and one is not surprised that this new forward deployment of Qing empire led directly to rebellion in 1856.


Giersch documents a narrative of ebb and flow in the history of the Yunnan frontier as an oscillation between direct and indirect control of the region, a situation in which actual socioeconomic incorporation and integration of territory is contrasted against indirect rule through tributary relationships and native officials (tusi). Although roughly analogous to the standard history of Yunnan, the stress placed on oscillation rather than unidirectional incorporation and the quality of detailed documentation for the specifics of this argument stand out.1 Documentary evidence of prevailing approaches taken toward conceptualizing different peoples on the frontier shows a similar dynamic of contested positions. Giersch shows notions of inclusive unity of...