- From Frontier Policy to Foreign Policy: The Question of India and the Transformation of Geopolitics in Qing China by Matthew W. Mosca
For some years now, whenever I have elicited questions at the end of my undergraduate lecture “China and the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” I have awaited with mild trepidation for a voice—invariably from somewhere in the back row—to pipe up: “So if by the Qing the Chinese had so much knowledge about the outside world, how come they maintained a sinocentric worldview for so long?” or some such variation on the question. My carefully prepared response never felt entirely convincing. It lacked substance and, to make matters worse, there existed no study that would allow me to deflect the question with “I suggest that you read so-and-so’s book.” Matthew Mosca’s meticulously researched book has not only solved my personal angst; it has also filled a serious vacuum between our burgeoning knowledge of Qing “frontier policy,” which dealt with foreign relations on a fragmented, localized basis, and the development of an integrated “foreign policy.” The Opium War was, of course, important to this change in policy; but viewed in isolation, this war, which took place on a maritime frontier, cannot of itself explain the seismic shift in China’s global geostrategic thinking.
Taking India as his focus (a brilliant decision), Mosca is able to trace the development from geographic to geostrategic thought. Only with the standardization of geographical knowledge about India, he argues, did the Qing court come to understand the rising power of the British in India from the mid-eighteenth century, and only then was it possible to grasp the global nature of British power as well as the new form of threat to China’s security posed by global interconnectedness. We may have suspected this to be the case, but Mosca demonstrates it conclusively with a wealth of sources and keenly observed insights.
Two facts seem to have ensured that identifying the geographical contours and position of India was a protracted process for the Qing state. First, in the seventeenth century, the application of mathematical cartography remained less developed in China than it was in Europe; [End Page 359] and in the late Qing era, foreign geography was still studied primarily through texts rather than images. Faced with conflicting textual sources and the absence of any pressing need for accuracy, even the mapmakers themselves often accepted that their images were conjectural (pp. 27, 45). Second, although relatively little weight was given to firsthand accounts by merchants, sailors, and foreigners, the accumulated volume of geographical information was, by the seventeenth century, vast, often contradictory, and still growing. At the heart of the problem seems to have been the lack of any standardization of geographical place-names. Thus Mosca suggests that the system of listing and tabulating the historical sequence of names (yan’ge 沿革)—applied to geographically correlative but ever-shifting administrative units—became almost a substitution for geographical study. Terminology aside, efforts were made to synthesize the mass of textual information by merging and blending sources and constructing theories to order it, but to little effect. Islamic and Jesuit sources were also drawn upon, but in a piecemeal manner. Further compounding the problems was the failure to develop a hierarchy of sources or a methodology for sifting the material. Mosca illustrates all this with numerous examples and a detailed account of the well-known confusion surrounding the Western Ocean (Xiyang), which was central to the Chinese conceptualization of India. It took a change in the political climate and a pressing military need before the approach to global geography began to change. The turning point, according to Mosca, was the Qianlong emperor’s western campaigns.
By the mid-eighteenth century, on the eve of the conquest of Xinjiang, Qing officials and scholars were juggling a plethora of names for India and parts of India: Yindu, Enetkek, Tianzhu, Banggela, Minya, and Piluo, to...