Xue Zhang

Assistant Professor, Reed College
Faculty Adviser: Benjamin Elman

Qing China’s Discovery of Central Eurasia: Geography and Statecraft, 1759-1881


This dissertation documents the evolution of geography as a scholarly field from the high point of the Qing dynasty to its last decades, and its enduring impacts on China and the world. Specifically, I examine how a paradigm shift in geographical scholarship contributed to the Qing’s reconquest of Xinjiang in the British-Russian Great Game and the establishment of the Xinjiang province in the 1870s and 1880s. My research reveals that in the wake of the sweeping socio-political transition at the turn of the eighteenth century, a policy-oriented geographical scholarship that connected the knowledge of archaic toponyms with that of present terrains and subjects took form. The fiscal and geopolitical lenses provided by the new scholarship shaped the ways the imperial state overhauled the Xinjiang society in the 1870s and 1880s. This dissertation is composed of five chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 investigate the burgeoning of geographical literature on Xinjiang from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century in conjunction with the expansion of resident bureaucrats and exiles’ efforts to make Xinjiang fiscally legible. Military governors and exiles were the pillars of the Qing administration. The two chapters respectively examine travel writings and gazetteers produced by the two groups and the transmission of these texts, which provided Chinese scholars with a fiscal perspective into the once-mystical “Western Regions.” Chapters 3 and 4 discuss how the changing domestic and international environment urged the Qing to reevaluate Xinjiang’s fiscal and geopolitical value, thereby providing geographical scholars in official and non-official capacities with the means to participate in national politics. Their studies of fresh water and other natural resources aimed to persuade statesmen that Xinjiang was a fertile borderland with enormous revenue potential: with proper management, the revenues generated by agricultural colonies were bound to meet control costs. The studies of Russia and Britain in the post-Opium War era urged policy makers to reassess the strategic importance of Xinjiang in the international order. Chapter 5 looks at how geographical knowledge played a critical role in the grand policy debate on the fate of Xinjiang in 1874 and the Qing’s negotiation with Russia on the return of the Ili region in 1880-1881. Through two cases, I demonstrate how scholarship was translated into policies, thereby influencing the empire’s grand strategy in Inner Asia.