Thursday, 16 June 2011

Nomads and empires

During the last year I have been doing some reading about China and its steppe neighbors (Xiongnu, Mongols, Uyghur...). My hope is that these brief jottings about what I thought while reading these books will help me put the various perspectives offered on the subject of empires and nomads into some kind of order.

The common association of steppe nomads with mobility and military power - think for instance of Deleuze and Guattari's "nomadic war machine" - seems partly rooted in the actual conduct of warfare. The inability of successive Chinese dynasties to ever defeat the nomads decisively before the Qing Dynasty stemmed from the fact that the nomads could almost withdraw into the interior of the steppe, retreating to a point where the bulky imperial armies could be ambushed or where their supply lines would be stretched too far. The empires' means of controlling the nomads were therefore limited, the best results usually being gained by playing out nomad clans against each other, domesticating part of them by selective rewards such as trade or political support in inter-clan struggles. When nothing else worked, the empire would have to buy peace by tribute, as the Han Dynasty did from the Xiongnu or the Tang Dynasty from the Uyghur, or attempt to wall itself in, as the Ming Dynasty did when it abandoned the steppe and erected the Great Wall.

Thomas Barfield

One influential theory about the relations between China and the steppe nomads is Thomas Barfield's. His 1989 book The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China (the main argument of which is recapitulated in a 2001 essay, "The Shadow Empires") argues that the nomadic empires of the Xiongnu, Mongols and Uyghurs were "shadow empires" or secondary formations, rising and falling in tandem with the primary empire, China. Unable to tax their own too mobile and pasturing population, they lived on extracting wealth from China. This idea that nomad societies were "non-autharcic" and hence dependent on trading with or raiding neighboring agricultural peoples is derived from A. M. Khazanov, who made this the central thesis of his 1984 book Nomads and the Outside World. Barfield develops this idea by arguing that the nomads' primary aim was almost never conquest (the Mongol empire was a rare exception). Instead, they simply sought to gain access to the resources which they lacked themselves - if not by trade, then by raiding. Regular wars would only break out as the Chinese tried to shut out or drive away the nomads, closing border markets or abrogating treaties. Barfield points out that the nomads' dependence on the "primary empire", China, explains why they often intervened to support tottering the Chinese dynasties against domestic turmoil, as the Xiongnu did during the Han and the Uyghurs during the Tang.

Barfield mainly discusses the steppe polities of Mongolia, people familiar with trade and caravans. The fact that they knew how to enrich themselves on the goods they got from the Chinese was one reason why they thrived on a strong China. The Manchu or the Jurchen further east belonged to another tradition, less concerned with trade and more prepared to prey on China in times of weakness and making several attempts to conquer it, the most succesful one being the Manchu conquest of the 17th century.

An interesting part of Barfield's argument concerns the uselessness and futility of the grand Chinese war campaigns against the nomads, who basically desired trade rather than war and posed no fundamental threat to the empire. The wasteful wars of the martial emperor Wu-di against the Xiongnu were a failure. What finally pacified the latter were not the wars, but allowing them to occupy a position along the border where they could trade.

Emerging from Barfield's book is the image of rather harmless nomads, far from the image of warlike barbarians Chinese historians like to conjure up. This image, true or not, is enough to put the simple opposition of nomads and empires in question. In Barfield's vision, there is hardly any essential conflict between the two. On the contrary, the steppe nomads usually tended to establish symbiotic relationships with the empire, whose real enemy was another kind of formation, another logic, associated with the Manchu and Jurchen further east.

Nicola Di Cosmo

Barfield's account is challenged by Nicola Di Cosmo, whose 2002 work Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History represents a completely different take on the steppe empires. Di Cosmo's ambition is to use archaeology as well as textual sources to escape the "claustrophobic narrowness of the Chinese classical tradition” (Di Cosmo 2002:3). He is also critical of the view that the steppe empires were dependent on or secondary to the Chinese empire or that they could only subsist by trading or raiding the Chinese.

Against the view that nomads raided or attacked because of desire for trade and need of cereals, he points out that nomads to a certain extent grew their own cereals, that they didn’t need much and that they also had access to other sources of wealth through their Central Asian trade network. He rejects the notion that the nomadic economy was dependent on Chinese production and that the nomads were therefore forced to trade or raid. Rather, it was the Chinese who needed economic exchange with the steppe - to obtain horses and exotic goods - and this, along with the desire to establish contact with allies in Central Asia, explains the Chinese aggressiveness and expansionism in regard to Central Asia (ibid. 155-8, 168-171, 248).

Di Cosmo also argues that until the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese border walls were not so much a defense against increasing nomad aggression, but rather part of Chinese aggression and expansion, serving as a base for exercising hegemony over tribes living along the frontier (ibid. 139, 155f). He also notes the curious fact that the walls - for instance during the Ch'in Dynasty - were not located between the Chinese and nomad populations, but far out in relatively homogenous non-Chinese country, running through "an alien land inhabited by alien groups" (ibid. 152), "right in the middle of large stretches of grassland used for pastoral production" (ibid. 157) - something which he believes may have been linked to the Chinese need to acquire horses for its nascent cavalry.

All in all, this adds up to a firm rejection of the idea that state-formation among the nomads was subordinate to or dependent up the influence of the previously established Chinese empire. We can note, however, that just as little as Barfield does he portray the steppe nomads as inherent aggressors intent on conquering China. The big military campaigns were usually started by the Chinese.

Christopher Beckwith

Di Cosmo's arguments are supported by Christopher Beckwith, who in his 2009 Empires of the Silk Road - a polemical work that sometimes lends itself to what I suspect may be rather too broad generalizations - reiterates the criticism of Barfield's "needy nomad theory". Far from being poor, Beckwith argues, ”rank-and-file nomads were much better off in every way than their counterparts in the peripheral agricultural regions, who were slaves or treated little better than slaves” (Beckwith 2009:xxiii). They were also generally "bigger and healthier than the peripheral agricultural peoples” (ibid. 325). ”Moreover, if life on the steppe was so hard, and the people there were so poor, why should peasants from peripheral states want to defect to them? The reason is that most nomads might have been poor, but most peasants were much poorer” (ibid. 332).

What Beckwith is saying here may sound reminiscent of Marshall Sahlins' well-known argument about "stone age affluence": so-called primitive peoples generally lived a life of relative ease and abundance, while systematic impoverishment makes its appearance with so-called civilized, settled or agricultural life. However, Beckwith clearly parts way with Sahlins in his insistence that nomad empires were far from primitive. They were in fact highly advanced and complex, bringing together not only pastoral nomads, but also agricultural and urban peoples. ”The nomadic peoples and the settled urban peoples were mutually inseparable components of any successful Central Eurasian empire” (ibid. 258). The economic entity into which these peoples were brought together was the so-called "Silk Road", the highly intricate Inner Asian economy itself, which - contrary to popular prejudice - was no mere pipeline connecting east and west. The nomadic states were crucial to this economy, not only because they instituted a pax which provided security for travel, but also because of their demand for products such as silk, metals, and gems: ”what drove the economic engine of the Silk Road was first of all internal Central Eurasian trade, based on internal demand not only for the products of their own peoples but for those of neighboring Central Eurasian states and the peripheral states” (ibid. 321).

Like Barfield and Di Cosmo, Beckwith also attacks the stereotype of nomads as inherently warlike. The Great Wall was not built to protect the Chinese from the barbarians, he argues, but for offensive purposes, to hold territory conquered  from neighboring states and prevent loss of population to them (ibid. 27, 330, 333f). In an argument echoing James Scott's in The Art of not Being Governed, he argues that the life of peasants in the "civilized" agricultural empires was in fact such a burden that the rulers were always desperate to prevent the flight of population to the much freer "primitive" societies of the mountains, forests or steppes. ”The only was to avoid losing population, power, and wealth to Central Eurasia was to build walls, limit trading at frontier cities, and attack the steppe peoples as often as necessary” (ibid. 333f).

Arthur Waldron

Another illuminating work that goes even further in dispelling misperceptions about the Great Wall and which is probably bound to serve as an eye-opener to most readers is Arthur Waldron's 1990 The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. The introductory chapters are an amusing and eye-opening read about how mistaken the view is of a single “Great Wall” existing ever since Shi Huangdi. For most of China’s history, no wall existed. Before the Ming Dynasty, all walls eroded quickly since they were made of earth. Furthermore, they were constructed in various places according to the needs of the various dynasties. The invading Mongols don’t seem to have encountered any wall. The often discussed riddle why Marco Polo never mentions passing through any "Great Wall" is solved: there probably wasn’t any wall.

Waldron furthermore criticizes the stereotypical view of an ahistorical Chinese cultural essence somehow expressed in wall-building (as in the idea that the wall was a direct expression of the Chinese worldview, serving as a symbolic boundary between civilized, agricultural China and barbarian peoples of Central Asia). Wall-building was only one strategy among many others used in the course of the various dynasties towards the steppe, including trade, peaceful coexistence and outright conquest. Only the Ming Dynasty - and only from its middle period - seems to have relied primarily on wall building. The middle chapters deal with the question why this was so - the reason was military weakness and the inability to hold the Ordos region - and do a good job in illuminating the various debates that took place at the Ming court.

The final chapters deals with the construction of various myths concerning the Great Wall (as being continuously in existence in the same place since Shi Huangdi, serving as a boundary between civilization and barbary, being visible from the moon etc) and their role in modern nation-building, a subject which Waldron also treats in an amusing essay from 1993, “Representing China: The Great Wall and Cultural Nationalism in the Twentieth Century”. While conceding that components of the myths originated in China, Waldron argues that ”the myth itself first grew to maturity in the Europe of the Enlightenment and was reimported into China in the twentieth century, at a time when that country faced an acute identity crisis” (Waldron 1993:40).

Speaking of the wall, it is hard not to recall Owen Lattimore's argument in "Origins of the Great Wall of China" (originally written in 1937). Although it operates much with the probably untenable idea of the wall serving as a boundary between civilization and barbary, it must have been one of the earliest attempts to debunk som of the common myths of the wall. Pointing out that the various Chinese walls existed not only along the northern frontier but also between several of the Chinese states of the "Warring States" period, he argues that they functioned not only to keep people out but also to keep them in, preventing the home population from dispersing or reverting to a nomad state (Lattimore 1962:7-118).Lattimore's old argument is still suggestive, since it points out that much state-building has involved not only providing protection against nomads, but also a suppression of nomadic lifestyles at home. Even in Lattimore's account, then, it turns out that the boundary between the civilized and the barbarian is fluid.

Peter Perdue

The fact that the nomads too engaged in state-building is a theme that is central to Peter Perdue's 2005 book China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Perdue criticizes Barfield for not allowing the nomads any agency of their own and adopts a perspective closer to Di Cosmo's. The book looks at three empires – the Manchu Qing, the Muscovite-Russian and the Mongolian Zunghar – as engaged in "competitive state-building" during the 17th and 18th centuries, a process which ends with the erasure of the Zunghar empire and the major part of its population in the latter half of the 18th century. Before being obliterated, however, the Zunghar had managed to travel quite a bit on the road of state building, creating their own capital, mapping the empire, adopting artillery, and so on.

There is much of interest in Perdue's thick book. It is packed with detail. Among the most horrifying pages are about the genocidal character of the final Qing campaigns against the Zunghars. This genocide - which appears to have been quite deliberate, judging from the prevalence of directives urging "massacre" emanating from emperor Qianlong - led to the disappearance of the Zunghars as a people and left much of present-day Xinjiang empty and ready to be populated by Han Chinese, other Mongols and Turkic peoples moving in from the southern oasis towns (Perdue 2005: 283-286).
Perdue argues that the crucial factor that enabled the Qing, unlike previous dynasties, to conclusively defeat and eliminate the Mongols as a threat was the closure of the steppe through the simultaneous advance of the Russian and Qing empires. This advance, along with the Sino-Russian treaties of Nerchinsk and Kiakhta in the early 18th century, deprived the Mongols of “breathing space” to consolidate their state.
All Qing efforts would have been in vain if the Zunghars had had unlimited space in which to retreat… Thus the Nerchinsk and Kiakhta treaties… made possible the closure of the steppe. The presence of the Russian empire in Siberia rendered Qing-steppe relations radically different from those in any earlier period. (ibid. 523).
Perdue believes that the "closing of this great frontier was more significant in world history than the renowned closing of the North American frontier” (ibid. 10).

He rejects two well-known old hypotheses about the decline of the steppe empires. Firstly, the idea that the nomads were vanquished by the diffusion of gunpowder is rejected, since the Mongols also adopted gunpowder (ibid. 11). Secondly, he also rejects the idea that the region was turned into an economic backwater as the Europeans penetrated the Indian Ocean and trans-Asian trade along the old "Silk road" dwindled. 
Even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the old Silk Route trade declined, the Russo-Chinese tea and fur trade remained important. Religious diversity, linguistic pluralism, and cosmopolitanism characterized the oasis cities. More than anything else, it was the conquest of the region by the ‘modern’ empires of China and Russia that relegated it to backwardness in the nineteenth century. (ibid. 10)
An idea that runs through Perdue's book is that of a basic similarity between European and Chinese processes of state-building, economic dynamism and expansionism up until the end of the eighteenth century. Thus he stresses the similarities between the settlement of Xinjiang and European colonization (ibid 335-339, 342ff) and points out that American, Russian and Chinese expansion represented a worldwide and almost simultaneous advance of settler-frontier and the obliteration of nomads (ibid 16).

James Millward

James Millward's 1999 Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia, 1759-1864 does not deal with nomads. I mention it here anyway since it does deal with the territory once inhabited by the Zunghars - modern Xinjiang - and how it fared after the Qing conquest.

A major aim of the book is to study the transformation of the Qing empire into the entity known today as ”China”. Being a product of Qing conquests, this entity is of course far bigger than what might be referred to as China proper or the entity that, for instance, a Ming official would have recognized as "China". Today, however, the idea of China possessing natural borders that are coextensive with those of the Qing empire has become firmly rooted. This is reflected in the changed significance of the Jiayuguan, the old border outpost in Gansu which once, to literary Chinese, had signified the end of civilization in the West but which in the late 19th century could be described by journalists as a toll gate absurdly located in the midst of China.
Jiayuguan as reconstructed today
Millward traces this transformation back to the shift in Qing policy that started with the Kokandi invasion of 1830 and the mid-19th century rebellions in Xinjiang. Previous to these events, Qing rulers had conceived of their empire as consisting of discrete parts, united only in the celestial person of the emperor himself. In this conception, China was simply one of the parts, next to the Manchu, the Mongols, and other peoples. Based on this pluralist conception, the Qing government ”rarely placed Han Chinese... in positions of authority of Inner Asians”, instead checking their movements with a road-pass system and prohibiting them from settling permanently in the Muslim south. This, of course, was nothing like the Sinocentric world order posited by John K. Fairbank and other researchers as dominating the Qing conception of the world (Millward 1999:234).

Shaken by the invasion in 1830, however, the dynasty shifted stance and started to accommodate the Han Chinese. While local Chinese in Xinjiang fought off invaders, massacred native Muslims and clamoured for permission to make permanent settlements there, elite scholars like Wei Yuan and Gong Zizhen started to advocate a policy of assimilation, hoping to displace Xinjiang people with massive Han immigration and thus to create a Chinese empire in the Western regions (ibid. 244-250). The result, as Chinese-style administration was implemented the immigration of Han Chinese promoted, was a "Hanization" of the Qing empire:

It is a well-known aspect of China’s modern history that Han Chinese officials, commanding new provincial armies, successfully repressed the Taiping and other rebellions in China proper and thereafter exercised increasing influence on Qing domestic and foreign affairs. There was a less well known but parallel process underway on the peripheries of the Qing empire, however. Han colonization and implementation of Chinese-style administration of frontier regions, from Xinjiang, Mongolia, and Manchuria to Taiwan, became standard dynastic policy as foreign pressures mounted int he latter half of the latter century. (ibid. 250)
The transformation of the Qing empire into "China" was completed after the fall of the Qing dynasty. While the Han activists who had opposed the Qing were inspired by the legacy of the geographically far smaller Ming empire, they were not willing to let go of the Qing conquests. Leaders of the Republic as well as of the People’s Republic thus tried to ”retain – and justify retention of – the Manchu empire while renouncing the Manchus” (ibid 13). The empire was recast as a Chinese nation-state. ”Like any modern nation-state, China has assumed its current sense and shape only after a process of invention, a process Benedict Anderson has memorably called ’stretching the short, tight, skin of the nation over the gigantic body of the empire’” (ibid. 18).

What emerges from the discussions of nomad state building in Barfield, Di Cosmo, Beckwith and Perdue is a multifaceted picture of the steppe nomads that does not lend itself very easily into classifications in terms of deterritorialization versus reterritorialization, or "the nomadic war-machine" versus "the apparatus of capture". Despite this, each of the books - along with Millward's - in its own fashion opens up for the possibility of critical scrutiny of Chinese empire building


Barfield, Thomas J. (1989) The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Barfield, Thomas J. (2001) “The Shadow Empires: Imperial State Formations along the Chinese-Nomad Frontier”, pp 10-41, in Susan E. Alcock et al (eds) Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Beckwith, Christopher I. (2009) Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Di Cosmo, Nicola (2002) Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Khazanov, A. M. (1984) Nomads and the Outside World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lattimore (1962) Studies in Frontier History: Collected Papers 1928-1958, Paris and La Haye: Mouton & Co.

Millward, James A. (1998) Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia, 1759-1864, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Perdue, Peter (2005) China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: Harvard University Press.

Waldron, Arthur (1990) The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Waldron, Arthur (1993) “Representing China: The Great Wall and Cultural Nationalism in the Twentieth Century”, pp 36-60, in Harumi Befu (ed) Cultural Nationalism in East Asia: Representation and Identity, Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California.


  1. i am studying chinese dynasties in world history class. i was wondering what the role of nomads against Chinese Dynaties was?

    1. Hate/Love marriage of convenience :)

  2. Just came across this - thank you Carl. It's a really great way into some very big debates. Thank you!

  3. Thank you Carl, that's a brilliant summary of some hugely important issues. Much appreciated!


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.