05/01/2020 No. 155
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Geo-relation and Civilization: Establishing China’s Common-Sense Understanding on Central Asia (I)
By Zan Tao Translator Sheng-Wei Wang
January 1, 2014

Editor’s Note: We thank Professor Tao Zan for giving us the permission to translate this article into English and to publish it on www.ChinaUSFriendship.com. The Chinese version was published by the Grand View Magazine, Vol. 5.



Northwest China is the frontier of the Central Plains while Central Asia is the boundary of China; but they are also at the same time the core of the Inner Asian Continent, the geo-hub meant by Halford J. Mackinder.


Concerning Central Asia, two issues are particularly important for China: First, what is Central Asia? Second, what does Central Asia mean to China? For the Chinese to answer these two questions, they must first break through the narrow "Central Plains view of history" and see Central Asia from the vantage point of "world history."


There are two important axes to understanding Central Asia: First, geopolitics (the horizontal space-axis) and second, civilization (the vertical time-axis). From the geopolitical point of view, Central Asia is not only the expansion limit and end of large peripheral or external politics/civilizations, but also the land of their mutual struggles; China is one such political power/civilization. From the civilization point of view, the Central Asian civilization has undergone several variations and transformations; Shamanism and Buddhism have accumulated a long history; Turkization, Islamization and Russinization together have shaped contemporary Central Asia.


For China, from a geostrategic point of view, Central Asia is mainly the issue of a "Westward War with a Westward Strategy" under the South-North confrontation in terms of land power. This was so during the traditional period of the confrontation between the farming-sedentary empires and the grassland-nomadic empires, and was still largely the case for the side-by-side co-existence of China and the Soviet Union during the modern to contemporary period. From the viewpoint of civilization, understanding the Islamic civilization is the key point for the Chinese to understand Central Asia; for Central Asia itself, history and geopolitical characteristics have resulted in its weak self-identity and strong dependence on other countries.


The west of China is, in the narrow sense, Central Asia; it is also what we now commonly refer to as Central Asia. For textual clarity, we need to define Central Asia geographically. In a broad sense, Central Asia consists of the Western Regions of China in ancient days; in a narrow sense, Central Asia comprises the present five Central Asian countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (all joined the Commonwealth of Independent States). Central Asia, in the broad sense bears significance in the history of civilization and in the narrow sense, is a composite of nation-states. The five Central Asian countries reach to the west the Caspian Sea and the Volga River, to the east the Chinese border, to the north the watershed of the Aral Sea and the Irtysh River, then extend to the South of the Siberian steppes, and to the south the Iran and Afghanistan boarders. The five countries have a total area of more than 4 million square kilometers and a population of nearly 60 million.


To understand an issue, we often tend to treat it as an object that is unrelated to us. If there is no reflection on the limitation of this process of understanding, then the knowledge derived from it is likely to turn into a barrier that blinds the person who acquires this knowledge. Therefore we can say that the process of understanding this "object" is in essence to a large degree the process of understanding and reflecting on the “self." From the Chinese people’s understanding of Central Asia, the question relevant to the “self" is: Why am I so ignorant about Central Asia? What is the major limitation of “my” understanding of Central Asia? We believe that the main limitation of our own is that our understanding of Central Asia always starts from the narrow "self" (the Central Plains view of history) without standing at the vantage point or taking into account the process of "world history.”


I. Introduction: Starting from the "Unprecedented Exploration of the Western Regions of China by Zhang Qian”


In the Western Han Dynasty, Zhang Qian (張騫) traveled twice, in 138 BC and 119 BC respectively, through the Western Regions of China.  After many hardships, he carried out detailed studies of the Western Regions. Before his thorough exploration of the Western Regions, the situation was: "Since the decline of the Zhou Dynasty, the Rong people and the Di people co-inhabited in the north of the Jing River and the Wei River. This lasted until Emperor Qin Shi Huang expelled the Rong and the Di and built the Great Wall to clearly set the China border; but to the West he did not go beyond Lintao." "The countries in the Western Regions were mostly inhabited by indigenous people. They had castles, fields, animals and different customs from the Huns and the Wusuns; but they all served the Huns. “


Historian Ban Gu (班固) said: "The prosperity and strength of the Han Dynasty lasted until Emperor Xiaowu. The dynasty conquered the surrounding barbarians and widely spread its awesome virtue, while Zhang Qian was the one who started the exploration of the Western Regions." Zhang Qian was canonized by Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty as the Han “Bowang Marquis” because of his achievements. The Bowang Marquis greatly broadened the geographical horizon of the ancient Chinese people and changed the geographical concept of the pre-Han era, so that people began to know a new world." In Chinese history and Asian history, especially in the history of East-West transportation, Zhang Qian’s “breathtaking exploration” has far-reaching significance and impact.  Historian Jian Bozan (翦伯贊) even placed Zhang Qian on a par with Columbus who "discovered" America and said: "Zhang Qian in 127 BC discovered the Western Regions; the stimulus for the Chinese people at that time was the same as the stimulus for the Europeans due to Columbus’ discovery of America." (Translator’s note: The latest Zheng He researchers believe, however, that Zheng He and his fellow voyagers in the Ming Dynasty discovered America more than six decades before Columbus).


Without Zhang Qian, it is difficult to imagine how the Western Han Dynasty could successfully manage the Western Regions. In 102 BC, General Li Guangli of the Han Dynasty made an expedition to Dayuan (Great Yuan, today’s Turkmenistan) in the Ferghana Basin of Central Asia. In 60 BC, the Han emperor established a Frontier Command Headquarter (duhufu) of the Western Regions; its jurisdiction included today’s Xinjiang, the South of Lake Balkhash, the Pamirs and the Ferghana Basin. "The Commander inspected Wusun, Kangju and other foreign kingdoms in order to be mindful of their movements and changes; this enabled him to pacify those who could be pacified and hit those who should be hit." After the death of Zhang Qian, the messengers sent by the Han emperor “all had the title of Bowang Marquis.”  Between the Han Dynasty and the countries in the Western Regions, there were "messengers who busily undertook the transmission of orders on the roads day and night throughout the year; the businessmen from ethnic groups in the Western Regions, vendors and customers dined every day at the frontier pass." "At that time, the Han Dynasty sent envoys each year up to ten times and at least five or six times, which consisted each time of one hundred to a few hundred people; the distances ranged from needing eight or nine years to complete a round trip to at least three or five years for the shorter journeys. The envoys and merchants from the Western Regions also took arduous trips over land and water, and through night and day to gather at the Han frontier." Emperor Xuandi (73 BC-49 BC) of the Han Dynasty not only personally met them, but also entertained the Hun nobility and envoys. He also gathered almost one hundred Han officials and guards in the Shanglin Yuan for the specific purpose of learning the Wusun language!


Zhang Qian’s exploration of the Western Regions has significant meaning in world history. At the same time it also marks the beginning of the Chinese civilization operating in the continents of Central and Western Eurasia. Prior to the ocean crossings of the powerful modern Western European civilization, the exchanges between the Central Plains civilization and the outside world were mainly carried out by land through the Western Regions. This applies especially for Buddhism and Islam which have had significant impacts upon Chinese history, both of which followed this road. It will be mentioned later that the westward spread of the Central Plains civilization has a different meaning from the typical "tributary trade" system in East Asia.


After doing research work aimlessly for a long time, people tend to get lost. In order to clearly recognize ourselves, we must return to the starting point. Concerning the theme of Central Asia that we are going to discuss, our starting point should be Zhang Qian of two thousand years ago. Things have changed with the passage of time. We talk about Zhang Qian not for the sake of nostalgia, but because of the strength and charisma projected by him, which seem to have penetrated through history. This does not just refer to the personal charisma of Zhang Qian when he was in contact with the "barbarians;" historian Sima Qian (司馬遷) described Zhang Qian as "a strong man who was lenient to people, trusted people and was loved by the barbarians" ; but more importantly, he embodied the spirit of self-confidence, courage and capacity of the Chinese elite of that era.


There is a blind area in the knowledge of the Chinese mainstream intelligentsia, and that is the large region east of Greece and west of Xinjiang, namely, the Middle East and Central Asia. This state of "ignorance" is a lack of knowledge in historical, linguistic, cultural, geopolitical and other aspects and, more importantly, this ignorance has turned that region into an exotic romance in the sense of Orientalism. In terms of the mainstream intelligentsia, that region is not only a geographical frontier, but also a psychological-cultural border and periphery. On the one hand, the scholars worship Western Europe, and on the other hand, they do not have the power and personal will to break through that blind area in their knowledge. Under these conditions, it is difficult to produce valid knowledge about this region, let alone to build a cognitive structure for the general understanding of Central Asia. When unfamiliarity and barrier become the norm, the end result is a nation whose thinking lags behind reality; unfamiliarity leads to ignorance, and ignorance in turn leads to recklessness.


II. Geo-relations: Evolution of the East-West Order


In discussing the contemporary situation, we should not rigidly adhere to the present world alone; in particular, we should be aware of the historical trend over a few thousand years. To the dynasties in the Central Plains, the issue of the Western Regions had actually been the issue of the “Westward Strategy” that emerged from the long-term order of South-North confrontation/co-existence between the agriculture empires and the grassland empires. In modern times, the traditional South-North issue which resulted from the historical agriculture-grassland confrontation has been transformed into a situation of two continental countries, China and Russia, existing side-by-side; this is the new South-North problem. If we take a look at the long duration of this history, the problem of the Western Regions should be examined within the framework of Westward Strategy under the South-North confrontation. So far, there have been at least three types of East-West order in Chinese history, namely, the "Western Highlands-Eastern Plains," the "Western Regions-Central Plains" and "China-Central Asia." The step-by-step outward expansion of the “East-West order" reflected the growth and development of the Central Plains civilization/politics of China.


1. Western Highlands-Eastern Plains


From the three dynasties of the Xia, Shang and Zhou until the time when the Qin State exterminated the other six states, the change of dynasties in China/Central Plains belonged to the typical "Western Highlands and Eastern Plains confrontation." On this issue, the famous historian Fu Sinian (Fu Szu-nien, 傅斯年) had a very subtle discussion. In his famous article “East Yi West Xia” (“Yi Xia Dong Xi Shuo,” 《夷夏東西說》, 1933), Mr. Fu pointed out long ago that "The East-West confrontation for eliminating and competing with each other was China's history of the three dynasties (Xia, Shang and Zhou)." Fu Sinian also argued that the main line of the ancient Chinese history from the three dynasties to the Eastern Han Dynasty was the East-West confrontation. He said: "The Qin State extermination of the other six states was the victory of the West over the East; the Chu and Han extermination of the Qin was the victory of the East over the West…; Cao Cao’s (Cao Cao, 曹操) elimination of Yuan Shao (袁紹)was the victory of the West over the East. But until the Han Dynasty (the Western Han and the Eastern Han), the East-West intermingling was already very deep and the confrontational situation was far less serious than during the time of the three dynasties." "During the Eastern Han period, the Yangtze River was generally well developed. Until Sun Quan (孫权,222 AD-252 AD), a political organization emerged to the south of the Yangtze River. From then on, there were rarely East-West confrontations, whereas there were mostly South-North confrontations. "


The East and the West mentioned by Fu Sinian in "confrontation between the Western Highlands and Eastern Plains" were bounded by the Taihang Mountains and the groups of mountains of western Henan, which divided the territory of China into eastern and western parts. This division was mainly based on the differences of the topographies. The East had large alluvial plains and the West was highlands caught between the mountains. Fu called them "Eastern Plain Regions" and "Western Highland Ranges." The Eastern Plain Regions "were the perfect ranches but lacked advantageous geographic locations; they facilitated the expansion of political influence, but were not easy to defend." The Western Highland Ranges were the plateaus that had resulted from the confluence of several mountains and the rivers between them. The largest among them was the Guanzhong Plateau which is primarily today's Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces. Economically it was not as good as the Eastern Plains, but not too bad either. The key is that it had a geographic location which was "easy to launch attacks from but difficult to be attacked." In addition, although this region was not convenient for agriculture, its water and pasture were conducive to raising livestock. "The geographical situation favored developing powerful tribes." "The Western Highland Ranges had an advantageous feature that could also be said to be dangerous, namely they were very close to the West; if cultures were brought in from Central Asia or West Asia, the ranges would be in their proximity.” 


The end of the “confrontation between the Western Highlands and the Eastern Plains" marked the completion of integration of the ethnic groups of China in the Central Plains.


2. "Western Regions-Central Plains"


In the Western Han period, the range of the Western Regions included not only the present Xinjiang area, but also the west of Congling that connected with the mountains and rivers of this region, until it reached the vicinity of Lake Balkhash, and even the regions that were further west and further beyond. Therefore the Western Regions in the broad sense referred to the vast region west of China’s Yumen that included Xinjiang, Central Asia and other places. The reason that the Western Regions came into people’s mind had its origin in the confrontation between the Han people and the Huns. From the records of historical books, the terminology of "Western Regions" first appeared in the Biography of Sima Xiangru (《司馬相如列傳》) and the Treatise on the Dayuan (《大宛列傳》) of the Records of the Grand Historian (《史記》).


During the early and the late Han periods, the regions to the east and south of Lake Balkhash, the Mesopotamia of Central Asia to the Pamirs and the Tarim Basin, which included most parts of Xinjiang and the Hexi Corridor region, existed the “activities of four branches of the Cypriot people, the Da Yueshi people and the Wusun people, etc. They were all Indo-European people (Caucasians) and spoke Aryan."  They were considered the white people. Besides, there were nomadic Mongols who spoke different Altaic languages and were active in the vast prairies of the northern region. Both of these groups must have had exchanges and integration. However, the majority were still the Indo-European people. What the Qin State in the Warring States period had to defend against in the west were the Indo-Europeans.


Concerning the natural geographic characteristics of this large region, the expert on Asian history Rhodes Murphy said: "It is the world's largest semi-arid and desert region that covers the central part of the Eurasian Continent. It starts from today’s Ukraine and Turkey and crosses the south of the former Soviet Union, most of Iran, Afghanistan, present Pakistan, the People's Republic of Mongolia, and most of the Chinese territory that is between the north of the middle part of the Liaohe (Liao River) in Manchuria and approximately 75° longitude east. From the perspectives of climate and vegetation, Tibet also belongs to the same category of dry grassland-desert, although its natural environment is primarily determined by the high elevation. In most of this vast bulk of Eurasia, farming on permanent agricultural land is possible only at a few favorable regions where supplementary irrigation water can be used, for example, at oases that are scattered far apart. "


The background of intensified South-North confrontation ushered the arrival of the Western Regions-Central Plains era. Fu Sinian saw the South-North confrontation as an event that occurred after the Eastern Han Dynasty. But if the South-North problem was taken as a confrontation between the farming empires in the Central Plains and the steppe nomadic empires in the North, you can discover that from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD, the Huns’ Empire was active in the northern prairies and gave constant pressure to the southern farming-sedentary empires. This South-North confrontation between the farming-sedentary and the prairie-nomadic lifestyles was the main theme throughout the history of ancient China. Zhang Qian’s unprecedented exploration of the Western Regions was superficially an East-West issue, but in fact the most direct motivation was to solve the South-North problem. At that time, people of the Western Han Dynasty learned from the words of war prisoners the complex relationships that existed between the Huns and the countries of the Western Regions. As a result, there was the strategic consideration of uniting the countries in the Western Regions to counter the Huns in the North, namely, to “cut off the right arm of the Huns.” This was also the direct reason for dispatching Zhang Qian as an envoy for the first time to the Western Regions.


Owen Lattimore proposed a key viewpoint point for understanding the relationship between the grassland people and the farming people, namely, their competition and control of the oases in the Western Regions. He pointed out that the Han people were not trying to "conquer for the sake of conquest" towards Central Asia, rather it was a policy consideration: They "either controlled the oases and the tribes of Central Asia in order to establish an alliance against the steppe nomads or they undertook defensive occupation of the oases to avoid them being used as nomadic bases.” Lattimore thought that neither policy consideration suited the general meaning of "conquest;" "What the Chinese politicians really needed ... was to create a situation to make the kings of the smaller oasis states believe that the nomads’ dependence on China would do better than dependence on the nomadic people." Accordingly, "understanding the political independence of the oases and the interrupted rule by the Han people and the steppe nomads, and understanding the particularities of the isolated oases and the transportation possibilities between China and the grasslands, it is no longer difficult to describe the condition that the general history of this Central Asian world was in."


The East-West and the South-North interaction models, which were formed after the unprecedented exploration of the Western Regions by Zhang Qian, were applied through the later dynasties: the South-North confrontation was always inseparable from the Western Regions. Both the North and the South regarded fighting to grab the Western Regions (especially the oasis zones) as an important strategic objective; Western Regions were often the key to the resolution of the South-North problem. For the dynasties on the Central Plains, the strategic significance of occupying and governing the Western Regions rested on the other’s circumvention and one's own avoidance of circumvention, a life or death matter.


The Tang Dynasty first solved the problem of East Turkestan in the North, incorporated the north and the south of the desert into its territory, and established the Anbei Protectorate. In 640, Tang defeated the Khocho (Qara-hoja) kingdom and established the Anxi Protectorate in Jiaohe City of the Western Regions. In 659, Tang defeated the Western Turks, which enabled the Tang Dynasty to occupy the Western Regions under the governance of the Anxi Protectorate. In 702, Tang also set up the Beiting Protectorate in charge of matters arising from the northern Tianshan area. From the mid-Tang period, the Western Turks became strong and seriously threatened the rule of the Tang Dynasty in the Western Regions. At this time, the Arab Empire was expanding eastward towards Central Asia and its relationship with the Tang Dynasty became increasingly tense. In 751, the troops of General Gao Xianzhi (高仙芝) of Tang faced the troops of the Arab Empire near Sri Lanka. The Tang troops were defeated and large areas of Central Asia were taken by the Arab Empire. In 755, the An Shi rebellion broke out and the military power of the Tang Dynasty for controlling the Western Regions weakened. Later, many areas in the Western Regions fell into the hands of the Tubos (old name for Tibetans). The Song Dynasty was weaker and nomadic empires existed throughout its western and northern lands. The Mongol Empire had a vast territory; most of the Western Regions were under the jurisdiction of the Chagatai Khanate. The Yuan Dynasty respected the Muslims who came from the Western Regions; Islamic civilization gained unprecedented growth and prosperity in China. The national strength of the Ming Dynasty was again weak. Its national prestige did not reach north of the Great Wall and to the west it could reach only a portion of the eastern part of the Western Regions. At that time, the Chagatai Khanate had already split into the Eastern and the Western Empires; the Western Empire later evolved into the Timurid Empire (1370-1507); and the Eastern Empire became the East Chagatai Khanate, later called the Yarkand Khanate.


The Qing Dynasty was a typical case. It first solved the South-North (Mongolia) issue and later the problem of the West (Xinjiang). In nearly five decades after establishing Beijing as the capital and until the mid-Kangxi period, the Qing Court pacified the revolt of the Three Feudatories, restored peace in the Central Plains and later sent troops north to curb Czarist Russia, but had no time to take action westward. In 1696, the Qing army defeated Galdan troops in the north of the Mongolian desert. In 1757, Emperor Qianlong sent troops to recover the north of Xinjiang; strengthened by victory they moved southward, put down the revolt in the south of Xinjiang, and completed the unification of the regions north and south of the Tianshan Mountains. "Since the 13th century, the land from Xian to Ili for the first time was managed by a single government." At this time the Qing Dynasty felt the Islamic "holy war" threat, mainly led by the Durrani Dynasty of Afghanistan in the west of the Tianshan Mountains and decided to stop moving westward; in the late 19th century, Zuo Zongtang (左宗棠) expelled the Yaqub force from the Khanate of Kokand in Central Asia and recovered Xinjiang. Xinjiang was established as a province in 1884.


The Qing Dynasty solved the traditional problem of South-North confrontation. A Mongolian Banner System was established politically for dealing with the northern prairie tribes in order to "develop a tribal coalition" to join the regions south and north of the Great Wall and to make the Qing emperor the leader who held the highest position. As a result, the Great Wall began to gradually lose its meaning as a border. In the Qing Dynasty, trades between south and north of the Great Wall grew even more closely and the economy of these regions became increasingly integrated; more Han people moved outside the Pass to settle in South and Central Inner Mongolia. Some of the pastoralists also began to settle and to engage in agriculture, industry and business. They gradually lost mobility. But in essence, instead of claiming that the Manchu ethnic group that had the experience of dealing simultaneously with the nomadic life, forest and farming had solved the traditional South-North issue, it is better to claim that it was the modern technological changes that almost solved the "nomadic" problem once and for all.


The Western Regions were always intertwined with the South-North confrontation issue. Zuo Zongtang said: "When China was strong, its territory always covered the Northwest." But before the industrial era, it was costly to manage the Western Regions; it was almost like burning "cash." The natural and geographical conditions there determined that they had little economic value in the traditional society, but only strategic value. Therefore, it is understandable that since the Han and Tang Dynasties, the Chinese strategy in managing the Western Regions was typically "using foreigners to subdue foreigners." To the traditional Chinese Empire, the Western Regions were “burdens” that could be given up at any time: "In order to obtain the help from the Huige people (now the Uighur people) and later the Abbasid Dynasty, Emperor Suzong of the Tang Dynasty gave up the Central Asian region of the Chinese Empire because of local objections of consuming the imperial treasury to manage the Western Regions. In general, the Western Regions were burdens, rather than providing any benefit to the Central Government." It is clear that the management of the Western Regions by traditional China was not an "imperial expansion" for breaking major new ground but a rational consideration of integrated geo-strategy and economic factors.


Only after the Qing Dynasty basically solved the South-North issue were the Chinese people able for the first time to seriously deal with the Northwest (Western Regions) problem.  Namely, these regions were no longer treated just as strategic frontiers, but as China’s own land to do business. However, history did not give too many opportunities to the Chinese Empire. After pacifying the Hezhuo riot of two Islam brothers, despite the fact that the Qing Court in Xinjiang had maintained peace for 60 years between 1759 and 1820, it was Central Asia that brought the scourge to the Qing Court for as long as 60 years. After the 1820s, the internal rebellions of the Qing Dynasty kept increasing and military power faced shortages. Jahanghir Khoja took the opportunity to revolt. After pacifying Jahanghir Khoja, the Qing Court encountered a direct threat from the Khanate of Kokand. As the national strength worsened, the Qing Court took the defensive trying to win over the Khanate of Kokand with Central Asian trade. Unfortunately this met with little success. After the establishment of the Xinjiang province, the Qing Dynasty was able to gradually restore order. But this time, what China faced was a new South-North problem: Russia had moved south and taken Central Asia.

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Zan Tao is a History Lecturer at Peking University (Beijing University). He finished his undergraduate studies in History and postdoctoral work in World Modern History at the Department of History of Peking University. In 2008, he completed in Brazil the Advanced Seminar of International Perspectives on Nations and Races, which was initiated and funded by the Ford Foundation, the South-South Exchange Program for Research on the History of Development (SEPHIS) by the Netherlands and others. His academic expertise and teaching experience are Modern and Contemporary World History, Modern and Contemporary Ottoman-Turkey History, Middle East-Islamic Studies, and International Relations of Central Asia. He was in 2008 a visiting fellow in the Department of History of the Bosphorus University in Turkey and in 2005-2006 a visiting scholar in the Center for Black Sea and Central Asia (KORA) of the Middle East Technical University in Turkey. In 2008, he started to teach courses in the Department of History of Peking University, including Islam and Modern Politics, Islam and the Modern World, and Introduction to Turkish History, Language and Culture. His websites are http://zantao.blshe.com/ and http://www.chinavalue.net/
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