Friday, January 2, 2009: 4:10 PM
Sutton Center (Hilton New York)
As it expanded into Central Asia and elsewhere, the Qing dynasty was heir to various ideas about how to rule diverse peoples. The best known to us are a set of universalist Confucian ideas, suggesting that potentially all people could be “civilized,” and should be to the extent that a dynasty’s virtue and resources permitted it. (In this discourse, the Manchus themselves had been “civilized” by contact with Han Chinese.) Recent scholarship has highlighted very different ideas, which emphasized the kinship of the Manchus in particular with Mongols and other Central Asian peoples, the ways in which they both presented themselves as fellow Central Asians (e.g. as the legitimate heirs of Genghis Khan), and their lack of interest in “transforming” such peoples along the lines imagined by Han Confucian intellectuals. We generally think of the Qing as having juggled these approaches, with the “civilizing mission” more often than not taking a back seat to the more cautious policies recommended by limited resources and the usefulness of a shared Altaic heritage.
But beginning around 1800, a third tendency became increasingly prominent: one promoted by Han Chinese “statecraft” thinkers, who rejected the idea that all border peoples could be assimilated, but nonetheless called for more aggressive assimilationist policies where this was possible (especially on the Southwest frontier). These ideas became increasingly influential during the rest of the dynasty, even though the Qing would be far more strapped for resources and far weaker vis a vis Britain and Russia (other participants in the Central Asian “Great Game”) than they had been before. This paper explores both the reasons for this shift in ideas, and some ways in which it contributed to China’s surprising success at holding on to most of its Inner Asian territories through the decline of the dynasty and beyond.