Start searching »

History of the contested southern Chinese borderland

Reviewed item: 

This volume of research focuses on the history of Southern China border disputes, and the local and state agents influencing this mountainous territory, which had been fairly autonomous until the formation of modern states in the 19th century.
Brantly Womack: “One of the major contributions of this volume is the attention paid to non-state actors and the ambiguity of state control in southern China and Southeast Asia” (p.399).

This volume is a collection of works by major scholars that evolved from a panel at the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Conference in 2010 in the field of China’s frontier history. Inclusion in Brill’s Handbuch der Orientalistic (HdO) series establishes the collection as an authoritative reference source on the issues of the southern Chinese borderland over two millennia. While the world witnesses an escalation of tensions between China and other nations regarding borders in and around the South China Sea, this new publication may enhance readers’ understanding of the history of the region.
The contributors examine the history of the highland frontier from both sides of the border, describe bordering areas, discuss how different states tried to control the region, how geography affected colonization, and more importantly, document the perceived “state border”, an evolving term loaded with varying cultural implications at various times. The Editors’ Introduction provides a historical overview of the changes that took place in the borderland region and the responses of local societies to the Chinese policies of adaptation and absorption. The goal of this volume is “to demonstrate the variety of agents and their agendas acting on the shifting and re-forming frontier lying between the northern Sinic empires and the Southeast Asian realms and societies to the south” (p.5). Initially, interest towards this subject was marked by disagreement over borderland history in China, as “China’s modern South and Southwest became integrated parts of a larger Chinese empire as early as the third century BCE”(p.vii).
Prior to establishing clear border lines, it is important to define what political forms were characteristic of the highland area between China and Southeast Asia. The authors of the volume agree on the term “the Dong world”, inspired by J.C.Scott’s Zomia (2009).The term referred to the many mountain valley communities dong (洞,峝), a broad region stretching from the Gulf of Tonkin to the eastern edges of Tibet. Relief determined the methods and directions of the Chinese involvement in this area, as “Sinitic civilization worked its way along the river systems and in from the coasts and their river mouths” (p.viii). Unlike a more common Sinic-centered approach, viewing the area from a far away capital in the north, the chapters focus on the influences produced by northern and southern states on the dong world and indigenous inhabitants, who had to choose among the options of “adopting, adapting, absorbing or rejecting”(p.5)
The editors differentiate three periods in southern frontier history: 1) Theperiod when the Dong world and Yunnan (Nanzhao and Dali states) stood outside the Chinese influences, which lasted until the Mongol invasions of the8th century. From the Han to the Tang dynasty the imperial control stretched from the Yangzi valley to modern Chengdu in the west and down to central Vietnam in the south. After the fall of Tang, the Chinese south border ran through present-day Sichuan, Hunan, Guangdong and Guangxi provinces; 2) After defeating the Dali kingdom (937-1253) the Mongols established military control over Yunnan and expanded it further to Pagan state in modern Myanmar. The Chinese empire introduced the system of native officials Tusi (土司) and Pacification Commissions xuanweisi (宣慰司) as“negotiated alliances” granting local chieftains titles, trade privileges, gifts and seals in exchange for protecting the trading routes (rivers and roads). This system functioned between the 13th and 18th centuries. The Dong world became a buffer zone or “fence”(fanli 藩籬) where chieftains with civilian ranks ruled over closer areas and military ranks occupied its further outskirts. The latter included Sipsong Panna, Lan Ma (Chiang Mai) and Pagan. The Ming era saw a separation of the tax-paying population (min 民) and non-paying barbarians (man蠻) which split large Tusi territories into smaller units, requiring chieftains to present genealogies to the court thus attempting to “siniticize” ethnic leaders; 3) In the 18th century emperor Qianlong “made aggressive strikes all along the southern frontier” affecting Kham, Burmese, Vietnamese and Dong societies. The Qing state implemented a “setting borders” (gaituguiliu改土歸流) policy with increased direct state control via local Qing administrators. Formation of the Southeast Asian modern states with capitals in Aramapura, Bangkok, Huế and colonization of Indochina increased the pressure on the Dong world and brought states in closer contact with each other. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the remains of the Tusi system were replaced by systematic work of distinguishing ethnic groups and establishing their autonomies. Therefore, “the Dong world has led a fairly autonomous existence for over 1,500 years until the formation of modern type demarcation lines” (p.46).
The volume’s chapters are divided into two groups. Historical events are presented in chronological order: Part One “Shifting the Southern Frontier” (6 papers) emphasizes the expansionist policy of the Chinese dynasties from the Mongol invasions that swiftly enlarged the territories under more or less straight dynastic rule. Part Two “Shaping the Southern Frontier” (9 papers) tackles the specifics of the cross-border interaction, intermediary agents and powerbrokers, the tributary system and the formation of modern borderline between nation-states.
Catherine Churchmann’s chapter “Where to Draw the Line? The Chinese Southern Frontier in the Fifth to Sixth Centuries” examines the earliest stage of the Chinese penetration into the Dong world north eastwards from the coastal area marked by establishment of the new Yuezhou (越州) province in 470 (southern end of modern Guangxi). Extant written and archeological sources prove that  “during two centuries inhabitants of Yuezhou continued to live under the rule of bronze-drum owning chiefs in small polities” (p.60) unlike the Sinified society of the lowland Red River plain. “Chinese conquest of the area was uphill and upriver” (p.60), resorting to regulations such as registration of tax-paying households. Mapped political units among the territories of the independent dong with non-registered (li俚 or liao獠) populations preserved an impressive number of Heger type II bronze drums, represented by blank spots on the map. Answering the question “What was the frontier?” the author concludes, “lands under Chinese control can only be determined by the location of county seats and commandeers, records of tax-paying people, while non-controlled territories could be marked by bronze drums” (p.74).
Liam C.Kelley examines how patterns for constructing local narratives about spirits and prophetic dreams were borrowed from China and appropriated by the rulers of medieval Vietnam from the 8th or 9th century until the end of the 15th century. These tales showed that “the spirits have declared their support in order to convince local people that they too should support the ruler” (p.78). The author scrutinizes two sets of tales citing earlier sources that had not been preserved, whichfeature two Chinese historical figures. The first is Qin dynasty general Zhao Tuo (趙佗), who consolidated north of Vietnam into Nan Yue state in present Guangdong. And the second is Tang general Gao Pian (高駢), who controlled Đại Việt in the 860s, who actively dealt with local spirits and was subsequently deified.
Contributions by James A. Anderson, Michael C. Brose and Sun Laichen address the impact of the Mongol invasions in late 13th century on the Dong world and Đại Việt. James Anderson draws similarities between responses of Dali and Đại Việt rulers to the invasion. His work theorizes different outcomes in the geographical positions of the two realms: Dali, a highland state, could hardly expand and did not go through a reform. Đại Việt, a lowland state, managed to implement political reform, adopting astrong primogeniture and patrilineal clan system to incorporate outlying territories. After the conquest of Dali in 1255, Khubilai put a Mongol overseer to supervise the Dali court. As for Đại Việt, tai chieftains from the frontier chose to offer support to Trần dynasty officials, so that Yuan had to send considerable military forces to crack down on them. Therefore, “the Dali chiefs saw their advantage with the Mongols, while Đại Việt’s northern chiefs remained firm with the Trần” (p.131).
Michael Brose discusses another important aspect of the Mongols’ policy in Yunnan: installing Muslim administrators from the conquered Central Asian states to govern the ethnically complex region. Yunnan was regarded by Mongols as a foothold for the conquest of the Song dynasty and Southeast Asia, and Muslims were trusted as capable in both trade and military operations. Sayyid‘Ajall Shams al-Din (Saidianchishan siding賽典赤贍思丁) is the most renown Muslim administrator of Yunnan (1274-1279), who managed to improve agriculture, set up the native chieftains system, began extracting minerals (mainly silver) in the area, increased the tax-paying population and established a permanent military garrison consisting of Muslim soldiers. His descendants continued to occupy high positions in Yunnan. In short, Yunnan Muslims were “as luminal subjects who understood the needs and view of other luminal subjects” (p.151) and acted as exemplary Confucians.
Sun Laichen’s paper questions “historical Sinocentrism” and looks at the relations between states from a non-Chinese perspective. He examines cases of Đại Việt and Pagan. These two states, unlike Korea and Ryukyu, hardly followed the protocol of the tributary system imposed by the Mongols. As for the realms “south of Yunnan, into Tai/Shan and Burmese realms, the Mongols chose to keep them as tributary kingdoms, in contrast with what they attempted with Đại Việt” (p.206), which was apparently treated as a part of the Sinitic world. This chapter provides a detailed account of the relations between Khubilai and emperor Trần Anh Tông, who was demanded to arrive to the Yuan court in person for kowtow ceremony, but managed to avoid such a trip. The work concludes that “the Yuan demands were countered, argued against, and even totally rejected” by many borderland realms in their pursuit of autonomy (p.227).
Papers by Kenneth M.Swope, Kathlene Baldanza, John K. Whitmore, Joseph Dennis and Alexander Ong address the history of the Ming period southern frontier based on rich written sources mainly originating from China and Đại Việt. Kenneth Swope explores how gunpowder and firearms guaranteed the Mind dynasty’s successful conquest of Đại Việt. But firearms were later turned against the Chinese when the Vietnamese learned how to produce more technologically-advanced weaponry. Swope asserts, “Firearms played a critical role in state, frontier formation and consolidation in Asia in the 15th and 16th centuries” (p.166). Kathlene Baldanza discusses how the territory of “the four dong” was lost to the Ming dynasty in 1427 and became integrated into the Chinese empire from 1481 to 1565 by efforts of the magistrate of Qinzhou Lin Xiyuan (林希元), who impelled the Vietnamese Mạc dynasty (1527-1592) to return their land to the Ming. Without resorting to warfare Lin Xiyuan pursued the policy of actively promoting Chinese culture among the natives, built schools and encouraged trade, yet failed to control this mountainous area with floating its nùng population and their frequent raids. Vietnamese histories written during the Later Lê have bitterly accused the Mạc of losing this land to the Ming. The author argues, “The state expansion was not always continuous progress towards increasing control” (p.188).
Alexander Ong continues to examine the fate of the Mạc dynasty, who became political refugees after abandoning the Cao Bằng and forming a political base in the Guangxi-Yunnan borderland in late 16th century. They fostered ties with tusi chieftains of Guangxi and begot support of a popular Chinese sectarian religious syndicate, but establishment of Qing rule in the region hampered further possibility for such refuge. J.K. Whitmore examines the policy of emperor Lê Thánh Tông, who ruled from 1460 to 1497, to find out to what extent the southern courts rejected or accepted Ming cultural assumptions. Vietnamese emperor Lê Thánh Tông adopted the Ming enculturation policy for neighboring ethnic groups, he maintained a tributary system by attacking the tai and muang tribes along the Middle Mekong and at the border with the Ming, Thánh Tông integrated the country by blending the highland military nobles and lowland Confucian literati. The Lê ruler stressed the dividing boundary line with China, but also expressed his country’s “filiality” hiếu (孝) towards the domain. J. Dennis studies the case of a Ming local chieftain who compiled a local gazetteer to prove his genealogical claims on power.
Articles by Jaymin Kim and Bradley C. Davis illustrate different aspects of Qing-Đại Việt relations. J. Kim analyses legal cases of the Qianlong era, when Qing subjects committed crimes in Đại Việt and vice versa, and draws comparisons with Chosŏn dynasty Korea, displaying “asymmetric legal processes involving a hegemonic empire and its tributary state” (p.289). Official boundaries were clearly established by this period, and the Qing took border security seriously, punishing violators from both sides of the border. Qianlong viewed Đại Việt as an obedient and important tributary state and respected its territoriality, yet did not hesitate to enter the territory to quell unrest that could influence China. Respectively, Đại Việtwas not allowed to do the same. Jaymin Kim concludes that “tributary sovereignty” suggested “fluctuating degrees of sovereignty ranging from full to partial” (p.319). Bradley C. Davis advocates a more nuanced approach to borderland politics of Vietnam and China in the 19th century by looking at the case of borderland chieftain maintaining an independent and even hostile agenda. His cases illustrate the difficulty of imposing straight control over the highland area inhabited by tai, nùng and mán. Davis describes a second case of a corrupt Chinese army leader, Liang Sanqi, occupying an area of Thái Nguyên province and controlling it during the Sino-French war (1883-1885).
A paper by Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa stands apart, as it addresses the Eastern Tibetan region of Kham in its interaction with the Republic of China (1911-1949) reflected in the works of renowned photographer and ethnographer Zhuang Xueben (莊學本, 1909-1984). The author argues that despite claims about Zhuang’s photographs being sheer propaganda of the modernization policy implemented by the militarist leader Liu Wenhui (刘文辉, 1895-1976), the photographs reflect hybridity inflicted by the growing presence of foreign cultures, stress the importance of regional history, and memorialize the state intervention in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands (p.366). The concluding paper by Brantly Womack characterizes cross-border relations with the term “asymmetric relationship” that witnessed both success and failure in preserving mutual respect for autonomy.
As with any compendium of research, this volume is multi-layered since its contributors address particular aspects or case studies to elucidate cultural specifics of China’s borderland history, but they also place them into a larger context of political history. Without a doubt, the value of this collection is in the details of events that highlight nuances while avoiding generalizations and oversimplifications. Nevertheless, details of the political activity of the Dong world remained marginal in the chronicles produced by lowland states like China and Vietnam. The subject of the borderland only came to light during revolts, skirmishes or violations. The contributors of this volume successfully extracted and analyzed records concerning highland peoples, who have no written history of their own. Though fragmentary, their history is preserved in the words of state officials.

Reviewed by Ekaterina Zavidovskaya, National Tsinghua University (Taiwan) (

Zavidovskaya, E. 2016. A review of Anderson, J.A. & J.K. Whitmore (eds.) 2014. China's Encounters on the South and Southwest. Reforging the Fiery Frontier Over Two Millennia, posted online on 7 June 2016:

Scott, J.C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia,New Haven: Yale University Press

Facebook icon    twitter icon    RSS icon is an initiative of the International Insitute for Asian Studies