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China's Anxious Frontier: Fieldworkers on China's Borders in the Early Twentieth Century

26 June 2023
China's territorial borders and the nation's 'destiny'.
Dr Andres Rodriguez from the Discipline of History reveals that mapping China’s territorial borders has a complex history going back generations.

In the 1930s a sense of crisis engulfed the Chinese nation. The Shenbao, one of Shanghai’s most popular newspapers, began publishing a map of China in weekly instalments as part of its sixtieth-anniversary celebrations. But its editors began to panic. Japan’s annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and ongoing border skirmishes began to raise alarming questions about China’s territorial existence, and rendered the map, hot off the press, obsolete. One of the owners, Shi Liangcai, exclaimed in desperation:

Where are Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang provinces? Where is Rehe province? Our Great Wall has been destroyed and the destiny of the nation hangs on a thread.

Shi Liangcai’s words show the anxiety that swept across the China as heated discussions raged in the press over China’s “frontier question” and the dilemma of dealing effectively with the presence of British and Japanese forces on borders such as Tibet and Manchuria.

China’s frontier question had earlier roots. In the eighteenth century the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) undertook military campaigns that encompassed large territories in Inner Asia, including Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Previously such territories were under the control of nomadic steppe societies who engaged in both trade and battle with imperial China. These territories (and their ethnically diverse inhabitants) were gradually incorporated into the maps and minds of the Qing elite as part of a larger and unified territorial unit.

However, the early twentieth century, saw old empires crumble and new nation-states emerge. In China, the shattered pieces of the Qing empire created problems for those seeking to build a new nation out of its ruins. The 1911 Xinhai Revolution, which brought down China’s last dynasty, introduced new ideas of Chinese identity that actually excluded remote territories and peoples on China’s borders.

Nevertheless, just as Tibet and Mongolia began to cut ties with the new Republic of China, exactly what China would look like on a map became a fiercely contested issue. Holding on to its former imperial borders became a major source of anxiety as Chinese diplomats faced humiliation at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, having already failed to secure the return of the Shandong Peninsula after Japanese forces seized German concessions – with the complicity of other powers – in 1914. Despite the return of these territories in 1922, the danger of a wider territorial dismemberment on all China’s borders appeared imminent.

A new generation of young Chinese scholars took it upon themselves to reintegrate the “frontier territories” into the new nation-state. Rather than seeing these territories as backwaters and sites of banishment, they argued for a different approach, undertaking “frontier fieldwork” to engage directly with China’s border areas and inhabitants.

Leaving behind the comforts of urban life in Beijing and Shanghai they ventured into China’s border areas: a vanguard force building a new relationship with China’s multi-ethnic population with a scientific approach grounded in both method and empathy with their objects of study.

Many were college students, photographers, travellers, social scientists, and agriculturalists: in their eyes, injustice and inequality could only be addressed by understanding the cultural and geographical differences between China’s modern cities and its frontier regions.

While rejecting foreign imperialism, many had been shaped by ideas of colonialism: agriculturalists working in areas of Eastern Tibet were inspired by French policies in Madagascar and Japanese practices in Hokkaido; Anthropologists in Tibetan and Yi in China’s southwest followed British administrators who applied anthropology to enforce colonial rule. A strong sense of empathy towards their subjects went hand in hand with older ideas of Han Chinese paternalism and new ideas of colonial development: contradictions that remain today.

Frontier fieldwork ramped up during World War II – for Chinese the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–45). People fled occupation on China’s eastern coast for the country’s interior. Defying all odds, in 1938 the ruling Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek set up its new capital city in Chongqing (Chungking) in China’s southwest, bringing new life to these frontier regions. Factories and universities were relocated, exposing workers and scholars to new landscapes and people. China’s frontier regions took on a new importance – critical to the survival of the Chinese nation.

College students would also play a crucial role in fulfilling its wartime mission. Many joined “Frontier Service” units inspired by Christian missionaries which were deployed to areas of Western China and lived among local communities, calling for unity to resist the onslaught of the Japanese invaders. Their legacies were also crucial in the short-term once the dust of China’s Civil War (1946-49) had settled. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, drew upon people who had been formed during this period. Many of them played an important role in the training of military personnel of the People’s Liberation Army as it began its occupation plans of Tibet in the early 1950s.

This Frontier fieldwork reflects the unique political circumstances of China’s early twentieth century. Anxiety over China’s survival helped fuel a new sense of unity, rewriting relations between Han Chinese and ethnic minorities. The absence of a strong political centre until the arrival of the CCP was crucial in allowing a multiplicity of projects to intervene and shape China’s frontier.

China’s borders continue to be cause anxiety in the 21st century. Fears of territorial dismemberment and national humiliation weigh heavily on the minds of the Communist Party. Sabre-rattling over Taiwan and ongoing repression in Xinjiang province have deep roots. Yet recent protests in China over zero-COVID lockdown policies point towards other parts of this story as well. Expressions of solidarity from Han Chinese citizens have erupted in multiple cities over the death of ten Uyghurs in a fire unable to escape their sealed building. Their words of anger and frustration seem to hint at a new chapter of inter-ethnic empathy that seemed to have long been forgotten.

Dr Andres Rodriguez teaches and researches in the Discipline of History. This article is based on his recently published book Frontier Fieldwork. Building a Nation on China’s Borderlands 1919-1945 (Vancouver: UBC Press 2022).

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