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  • Exiled Gods:Territory, History, Empire, and a Hunanese Deity in Xinjiang *
  • Eric Schluessel

In the mid-nineteenth century, in the city of Changsha, Hunan, a local deity burst onto the stage of Qing imperial history. That deity was Dingxiang Wang, and he was known as the city god (chenghuang ) of Shanhua county. Typically, a city god such as Dingxiang Wang was an object of veneration only within its limited domain, in this case a county that covered one half of the prefectural city of Changsha. However, in 1852, Dingxiang Wang received significant credit for breaking the city's three-month-long siege at the hands of the Taiping, the millennialist Christian sect that sought to topple the Qing and nearly did. Forty-five years later, Dingxiang Wang's power and fame reached from one end of the Qing Empire to the other, as he was worshipped from Kashgar to Fuzhou. This "king who pacifies the Xiang River," as we may translate his name, became known for calming more distant waters, in the oases of Chinese Central Asia.

The exceptional geographical reach of Dingxiang Wang's cult resulted from the involvement of his worshippers in a series of conflicts that raged across the Qing in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This city god became the common object of worship of the soldiers of the Xiang Army, the celebrated fighting force usually known in English as the Hunan [End Page 113] Army. What became the Xiang Army had likewise emerged in Hunan in the early 1850s, as activist gentry organized local militias (tuanlian) into larger and more sophisticated fighting forces meant to combat the Taiping. 1 The army's formation and maintenance thus depended on local social networks and collocal identity. In 1853, when Zeng Guofan (1811–72) reformed these militias as the Xiang Army ( Xiangjun), it was not only a fighting force, but a community rooted in common experiences and practices, among them the worship of this deity. The name "Xiang Army" also emphasized its specific association with Hunan, metonymized by the name of the river Xiang that ran through Changsha. After all, the army's members came overwhelmingly from a small area around Changsha and had grown up near the Xiang River. Moreover, the name carried a natural resonance with the name Dingxiang Wang, which included the same character "Xiang." Nevertheless, soldiers and deity roved far beyond those provincial boundaries: As the Xiang Army fought the Taiping (1850–64) and Nian (1851–68), marched northwest into Shaanxi, Gansu, and Xinjiang during the Muslim uprisings (1862–77), and fought foreign invaders in the Sino-French War (1884–85), its soldiers carried his statue with them.

Where Dingxiang Wang's Hunanese worshippers settled far from home, his story and identity changed along with the new community's estrangement from its homeland. This deity's story is thus one of war, memory, and reconstruction in late Qing China. In the following pages, I explore the case of Dingxiang Wang and his worshippers in Xinjiang. I argue that demobilized Xiang Army soldiers and their descendants retold this deity's story in ways that naturalized and justified their presence as settlers. Dingxiang Wang—in some places renamed "Fangshen"—marked Xinjiang as a Hunanese space. His legends demonstrated that common soldiers had transformed that space through self-sacrifice, both on the battlefield and through irreversible separation from their homeland. Dingxiang Wang became the deity that mediated across that [End Page 114] distance, making life in "exile" intelligible and creating a persistent link with the homeland that also served as a reminder of its unbridgeable distance.

Few have taken note of this storied protector, probably because the leadership of the Xiang Army itself wrote Dingxiang Wang out of history. His presence and story undermined the leadership's own heroic narrative of Xinjiang's reconquest by robbing them of some degree of agency. The way that his legends articulated the soldiers' claim to Xinjiang, as a horizontal movement of heroic commoners, threatened the leadership's project to transform this Inner Asian borderland into a Chinese province through the imposition of a top-down hierarchy of temples.

That tension surrounding Dingxiang Wang reflected the fact that he...