The Astor Lecture in Global History: Why Is China So Big? Rethinking the Realm and its Subjects Under the Qing

It is now well-known that the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) sharply altered their predecessors’ understandings of what it meant to rule “all under heaven”; meanwhile Qing conquests doubled the empire’s land area. Initially, much of the Chinese elite saw much of this new territory as mere buffer zones, to be occupied only insofar as this kept hostile nomads from doing so. A central reason for this skepticism was that many of the newly-acquired lands were ill-suited to agriculture, the “fundamental occupation” of “civilized” life.

By roughly 1850, however, many Han literati came to see many frontier regions as properly “Chinese” territory. More gradually, they also came to see certain previously despised groups of people – including such common frontier figures as miners and loggers — as potential “good subjects.” These transformations – influenced both by changes in official discourse and changes in who was actually migrating – set the stage for further changes later: ones which re-imagined China’s far west as resource-rich territories which had to be held and “developed,” even when the Chinese state was hard-pressed on other fronts. A still further shift occurred in the 20th century, in which the people involved in exploiting these remote territories, not only ceased to be denigrated as dangerous “drifters,” but came to be seen as part of the vanguard of the nation.