- Qingdai Xinjiang shehui jingji shigang
Works fixed with the label of "nationalist history" are typically given little quarter by serious historians of China.1 This bias, while not fully unwarranted, has recently begun to color Western scholars' approaches to a vast swath of Chinese historiography on peripheral regions, specifically Xinjiang. While it is no doubt true that the political constraints binding Chinese scholars today have guided much of their work on Xinjiang, it is a mistake to dismiss perspectives deemed overly "nationalistic" out of hand.
Cai Jiayi's recently published history of Qing Xinjiang, Qingdai Xinjiang shehui jingji shigang, certainly toes the Chinese Communist Party's highly questionable historical line on the region. In the opening sentence of the work, Cai states without qualification that "since the Qin and Han Dynasties this [region] had always been our country's ancient borderland," a position that echoes the CCP's official white paper on Xinjiang (p. 3).2 But before we simply discard the book as simply a 409-page effort in myth making, as Peter Perdue describes nationalist histories,3 we should take a second look. As the most up-to-date and comprehensive history of Qing Xinjiang published in China in the last decade, it is worth examining Cai's work with more care than is typically given to works seen as overly beholden to China's national interests.
Cai's work is by no means perfect, and scholars will be right to critique a number of highly questionable statements as well as his heavy reliance on several sources of questionable veracity. Despite its faults, however, it also offers an economic-centered perspective on Xinjiang that is largely lacking in the Western scholarship on the region. James Millward's now ten-year-old work on the economics of empire building in High Qing Xinjiang offered an important economic approach to the region, but this perspective has been sidelined in recent years in favor of a focus on military conquest, political control, and ethno-religious conflict.4 While Cai's work leaves a great deal to be desired, it can help indicate some new directions for future research on Xinjiang and can help complement the increasingly ethno-culturally focused story being promoted by Western scholars.
The narrative structure of Cai's book is framed by chapters laying out a fairly conventional, party-line political history of Xinjiang, alternating these with chapters focused on economic history. Beginning prior to the founding of the Qing, Cai starts his account with the rise of the Oirat Mongols in the [End Page 506] fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the subsequent establishment of the Zungar Khanate in northern Xinjiang in the seventeenth, and, later, the extension of Zungar control over Altishahr in the south in the early eighteenth. By the mid-eighteenth century, the dangerous ambitions of Amursana to be named khan of all the Zungar tribes (Peter Perdue and others question this overly simplistic characterization of Amursana's motives) prompt a rebellion among the various tribes that leads directly to Qianlong's conquest of the northern Xinjiang region known as Zungaria in 1755. Following a rebellion by the Khoja Jahan and his brother Burhan al-Din in the south, in 1759, the Qing armies conquered Xinjiang's southern lands of Altishahr as well. These conquests, according to Cai, led to a "unified Xinjiang" and, in his nationalist narrative, "maintain[ed] the territorial integrity of the motherland."5
Cai's political narrative picks up again in the mid-nineteenth century with the rise of an increasingly aggressive Khokand Khanate to the west, the expansionistic tendencies of a Russian empire hungry for more land and wealth to the north, and growing internal unrest in Xinjiang from peasants and workers unsatisfied by Qing demands for taxes and corvée labor. According to Cai, the external pressures and internal unrest resulted directly in the decade-long Yaqub Beg rebellion, which began in 1864 and lasted until Zuo Zongtang's "heroic" reconquest of the region...