- Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China
Laura Hostetler’s book is a significant contribution to a growing body of literature on “internal colonialism” in 18th- and 19th-century China, much of it focused on the western borderlands. Classic studies of the development of China’s southwest, the area treated in Hostetler’s work, have focused on the pacification of popular rebellion. 1 By contrast, Hostetler and her contemporaries (who include Peter Perdue, James Millward, Emma Teng, and Daniel McMahon), inspired by historians of colonialism, stress the importance of ethnic discrimination, military occupation, competition over land and resources between incoming Han settlers and indigenous peoples, and the dogged battles over “hearts and minds” seen in campaigns to transform education and religious practice, sexual morés and family systems.
Hostetler’s own study analyzes China’s Qing imperium, from the Manchu conquest in 1644 to the middle of the 19th century, as part of an “early modern” world in which the mapping and classifying of colonized peoples became a technology of state power. Qing rulers drew freely, she argues, on European technologies introduced to China by Jesuits. And because of a long history of Chinese scholarly interest in maps and historical geography, they paid special attention to cartographic skills displayed in French and Russian examples. From illustrated maps festooned with bizarre drawings of “other” peoples inhabiting distant spaces, the Chinese moved — as did their European counterparts — toward new modes of representation: scientifically measured cartographies, and empirically observed ethnographies. In the former, China’s mapmakers located the empire’s borders vis-à-vis the latitudes and longitudes used by mapmakers in “the West.” The effect of these new maps was two-fold: to demarcate the lines separating China’s territories from those of rival states, and to claim on paper disputed or formerly ambiguous borderlands as the exclusive domain of China’s government. At the same time, a new genre emerged (which Hostetler calls “ethnography”) in which the pictures once used to illustrate maps by depicting the inhabitants of other lands came to fill a new genre of “albums” documenting the diverse costume and custom of the non-Han peoples of the borderlands. By these means, China’s rulers were able not only to dramatize the exotic difference between Han Chinese civilization and the “other” cultures of the border regions, but also to identify and describe those cultures and their peoples in order to facilitate their subjugation.
By reconceptualizing the Qing dynasty as a “colonial power” like France or England, Hostetler echoes the strategy of Kenneth Pomeranz, whose radical juxtaposition of the histories of Western Europe and Qing China as different kinds of colonial regimes has raised new questions about the role of the colonies in the making of Europe’s nineteenth-century hegemony. 2 Hostetler wants us to see all of these world powers, including China, as engaged in “a common response to global conditions” in which national boundaries were erasing the multiple sovereignties of the past. Here she particularly invites the reader to resist the temptation to see scientific mapping as a “Western” technology borrowed by China, preferring to view the 18th-century early modern world as one in which technologies moved freely around the globe, with the strongest states grabbing eagerly at whatever promised to enhance their power. That China’s rulers bent their attention on their landlocked and resource-rich western borderlands, while Europe’s turned to the seas, is the telling “great divergence” in Pomeranz’s book.
Among the many gems in Hostetler’s richly illustrated study (which includes 16 full color plates) are reproductions from the so-called Miao albums. Each portrays the minority peoples of Guizhou province by pairing a man and woman in full costume with appropriate accoutrements such as musical instruments or farm tools, or by depicting groups of men engaged in sports or hunting, the better to underscore their difference from (or assimilation to) the norms of the Han majority. The albums have a long pictorial history in Chinese encyclopedic writings about exotic places, many...