Economies on the Edges of Empire: China and Inner Asia from the 18th to 20th Centuries

AHA Session 112
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Chelsea (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Madeleine Zelin, Columbia University

Session Abstract

In mid-eighteenth century, the Qing Dynasty eliminated the last of its rivals in Inner Asia and consolidated the largest empire in the history of China, expanding from the Manchurian forests to the Taklamakan Desert, from the Mongolian steppe to the Burmese border. This expansion created new centers of economic activity in these conquered regions where local actors in Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal and Xinjiang capitalized on the newly laid economic networks, institutions, and regulations, and negotiated their interests vis-à-vis the new Qing empire. Even after the collapse of the empire in 1912, these economic actors and new institutions not only maintained their momentum but, in some cases, also filled the economic power vacuum in the post-imperial space. This panel takes the Inner Asian borderlands of Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal and Xinjiang as the primary point of analysis, asking how economic actors and institutions on the borderlands negotiated with, built on, collaborated with or undermined the state during and after the Qing empire through joint-business ventures, legalized trade, and smuggling. By de-centering the Chinese imperial state, this panel offers new insight into the borderland economies of China.

George Zhijian Qiao begins at the high tide of Qing expansion in the eighteenth century. Introducing Dashengkui, one of the largest private trading firms in early modern China that specialized in Sino-Mongol trade, he demonstrates how the newly established Qing imperial apparatus and private business on the borderlands worked hand in hand in creating a new political economy on the edges of the empire. Yulian Wu examines the Qing attempts to monopolize jade mining and trade in the newly conquered region of Xinjiang. While analyzing court’s policies, Wu investigates how Han and Muslim merchants found ways to circumnavigate state regulations, and smuggled the lucrative merchandise from the peripheries to the centers. Lei Lin explores Qing’s shifting perspective of the economy’s role in borderland security. Focusing on one of the last military engagements along the Tibetan-Nepalese border, she shows the Qing army’s dire dependence on local supplies, and argues that this war tested the limits of the empire’s engagement with borderland economies. Elizabeth Reynolds’s work ties these themes together in the period immediately following the collapse of the Qing Empire, by examining the link between monastery wealth and the rise of the Tibetan trading family, the Pangdatsangs. With increased economic competition after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, she explains how the Pangdatsang family cornered the Tibetan market and even partnered with the Chinese-British Indian Chenghe Industrial Corporation, filling in the vacuum of economic networks and institutions of the Qing Dynasty.

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