CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 24, December 2010


Vast Land of Borders | China Heritage Quarterly

Vast Land of Borders

Carolyn Cartier and Tim Oakes
China Research Centre, University of Technology, Sydney

A research workshop on regionality, territorialization and the development of the state in China under the title 'Vast Land of Borders' held in Macao from 1-3 November 2010 was conceived by Carolyn Cartier and developed and co-convened with Tim Oakes. Invited participants from Australia, the US and the UK considered ideas about the reproduction of the periphery in China over the longue durée and the role of the state in territorialization of sub-national regions. For another research workshop proposal published by China Heritage Quarterly, see 'Chinese Visions: a Provocation', by Gloria Davies, Geremie R. Barmé and Timothy Cheek, in Issue 16 (December 2008). We believe that, like that earlier proposal, 'Vast Land of Borders' contributes to our understanding and articulation of New Sinology.—The Editor

In recent years, significant scholarship on China has addressed the conditions and meanings of frontier peripheries, including different historical-geographical explanations of territories and peoples at the focus of centre-periphery relations. In contrast to revisiting the idea of core and periphery, or re-instantiating the idea of the frontier, this project addresses the historic construct of the periphery and its role in constituting state ideology, governing systems, political economy and cultural symbolic production.[1]

In querying state perspectives on the periphery, the interest is to problematize the territorialization of border provinces and other sub-national territorial areas, including autonomous regions, special administrative regions and economic regions, and their constituent places and representations, whose geographical situations and politics of difference are co-constitutive of general and particular conditions of state formation. Rather than adopting the idea of the border province or region as a zone of marginality, the intellectual priority of this project is to address continuing state reproduction of peripheralization and the dependence of state ideological positions on binary formations of center and periphery and center and locality.

Fig.1 Ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral, early seventeenth century, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Historic Centre of Macau. Photograph: Mark Harrison

The project seeks to advance these perspectives with the interest to understand China's perduring quest for territorial unification. Several subjects are central to this reassessment. First, in an era of transnational and interdisciplinary thought, questions about territorialization and regionality remain significant because nation-states continually negotiate, police and re-instantiate regions, especially sub-national and trans-boundary regions whose territories and representations, historic and contemporary, do not stabilize within political boundaries. Among core interests of the project, contributions address the realities of places, provinces and regions relationally, so that a central geographical perspective incorporates the idea of the region, whether province or economic region, as a spatial construct interlinked (or not) through processes of social, political and economic change at different scales and with constituent cities or counties as well as with the imperial or national order and its provincializing interests.[2]

Thus, the province or region is not understood as simply a distinct or separate and homogeneous bounded space but as a territory whose delimitation or boundary, or indeed the absence of it, represents a history and a geographical process of state formation and territorialization. Provinces and regions may contain within them their own peripheries just as they may also be viewed as parts and wholes of other regions—'the West', 'the South', 'the North'—and imbued with enduring or staid perspectives, trailing positive or negative place stereotypes. However, rather than repeating such positions, the interest is to explore how such potential discourses, material realities and their contemporary forms may accomplish cultural and political work in setting forth positions suited to local, regional or national interests.

These discussions raise related questions about the realities of particular and uneven regional formation in China, including geographies of uneven development and consequent geographies of power.[3] The Chinese state, past and present, has evolved diverse regional strategies in order to propel and achieve particular political economic goals. Some of these map onto existing territorial formations while others cut across existing provinces and political economic regions. Military regions differ from economic regions, and so on. China's condition as a country of regions also arguably underscores regional frameworks for general research, while some of these endure as if 'natural' and unproblematic.[4]

Second, this project also considers changing models of state and empire through transformations in processes of territorialization across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the transition from the late modern period, imperial views of territoriality, sovereignty and governance gradually shifted with the emergence of new regimes and their adoption of nation-state models of national territory.[5] In turn, the understanding and configuration of national territory plays out at all scales, encompassing the establishment and representation of borders, the formation of citizenship (territoriality at the scale of the mobile body), and more general matters of governance and governmentality, especially Foucauldian state spatial practices and technologies and related perspectives of governing at a distance.[6] Thus, the overall approach opens up to scaled spatial perspectives as well as incorporates multiple historical layers and evolutionary spatialities of state formation.

Fig.2 Lou Kau Mansion, late-nineteenth century, a conserved two-story courtyard house, Travessa da Sé. Photograph: Mark Harrison

Problematizing the idea of territorial unification in China over the longue durée, and under the contemporary government of the People's Republic, prioritizes understanding the state through processes of geographical formation, and the rationalization of practices and discourses at the juncture between the idea of the state assumed as given and the reality of the state as constantly under formation and as realized through its practices of sovereignty. The latter position, by extension, recognizes how the state does not correspond to a singular and fixed territory but that the exercise of sovereignty is commonly engaged in creative processes of territorialization. In the Foucauldian sense, practices of governing at a distance and forms of spatial disciplining work to circumscribe territorial space and their constituent and representative populations or resources, and as a basis for reinstantiating center-periphery relations. Thus, the workshop does not treat the periphery as a metaphorical space but as a material construct whose positionings hold possibilities for alternatively confirming and challenging the state's engagement in continuing processes of definition and articulation. The new Foucault studies, spatially positioned at the meso-scale of regional formation, especially supports these perspectives.[7]

The agenda also incorporates core questions regarding essential ideas of geographical 'Chineseness' and the notion that some places and regions are 'China' while others are somehow less so. This line of inquiry problematizes the historic geographical idea of 'inner' and 'outer' China, including the notion of 'China Proper', as well as it raises questions about associated populations, especially the historically constructed concept of 'Han' Chinese and officially designated minority groups and relatively less 'civilized' regions. Thus, the project engages the New Han Studies from contemporary perspectives in human geography and is interested to explore relations between people and places in the context of state-defined population groups as well as through their identity formations and how the state may usefully mobilize representations of local and regional identities.[8] In this way, the intellectual agenda does not only explore the perspective of change from the periphery, or the social constructedness of some among its many realities, but moves forward the general issue of the increasing centrality of historical-geographical change from the (so-called) margins and the importance of recognizing a geographical dialectic of dynamic state relations. Similarly, the discussion queries the idea of centrality itself from varied standpoints, including the growing recognition that diverse archaeological finds fundamentally call into question the acceptance of a singular originating center of China in a northern heartland.

Among contemporary geographical perspectives on regionality, the workshop draws on both cultural and political economic perspectives, that is, post-structural understandings about ideas and representations of regional formation as well as material analyses of political power and uneven geographical development.[9] This cultural political economy works to transcend singular causal (or environmentally deterministic) explanations and by focusing inquiry at junctures of how the state understands and reproduces itself in both material and symbolic forms and in space and time. Thus, contributions to the project move beyond previous scholarship that has treated space as either fixed or static, or merely discursively. Similarly, contributions draw on earlier advances in interdisciplinary scholarship, such as those generated through the Ford Foundation Crossing Boundaries project and as advanced by Social Science Research Council standards for theoretically informed, comparative area research.[10]

Individual contributors are motivated by one or more of several questions about the idea of the periphery: In what ways does the periphery work as a geographical imaginary? How does the state's understanding of the periphery incorporate land and maritime frontiers? In what ways has the state deployed ideas or discourses about the periphery that effectively work to maintain its significance in official narratives of Chinese state and society? What state interests perpetuate the myth of China as an inward and territorial-based civilization in the context of historic maritime-linked geographies and contemporary South China Sea claims? How does the reproduction of the periphery give rise to particular governing systems? How does the central state continue to instantiate and justify different governing systems for 'central' and 'peripheral' provinces and regions? How do such differential governing systems compare, and do they operate to sustain a binary state formation?

Fig.3 Macau Central Library, late-nineteenth century, on the cobblestone Praca do Tap Seac. Photograph: Mark Harrison

The project views the space or regions of the periphery as realized through state processes of territorialization. In what ways does the state's interest in territorialization emerge in the reproduction and re-instantiation of a 'border project'? What are state practices of border territorialization, and at different scales, i.e. international borders as well as domestic inter-provincial and county borders? Under what circumstances and how does the state seek fix, debate, and change or redraw borders? How does the state understand the significance of historical-geographical change from the margins? How should we account for the increasing significance and dynamics of (once) peripheral regions? Or, if the 'periphery' has worked trans-historically to constitute formation of the Chinese territory and empire, in what ways have modern state models and practices changed to incorporate such interests in contemporary forms? What aspects of these shifts explain the understanding that research on borderlands has become more politically sensitive?

If contemporary conditions of regionality—empirical realities of sub-national and trans-boundary regions whose territorial processes of formation and representations, are not contained within political boundaries—are understood as scaled processes of regional formation—theoretically understood to operate though multiple scales of political, economic and social activity—in what ways does the Chinese political administrative system accommodate, propel, or constrain scaled processes? Such regions include the Pearl River Delta economic region in south China, as well as 'the West' of the Western development strategy. Is the Chinese state particularly regional, i.e. by comparison to other nation-states, has it established distinctively more and different regional formations and in order to propel particular political and economic goals? How does the state react to, position, and accommodate new histories and claims about the multiple regional origins of 'Chinese civilization'? How do the interests of provincial and regional governments defend or utilize such discoveries and information? What are the similarities and differences between central state strategies of engagement for relatively less economically developed autonomous regions and highly developed special administrative regions? How are state policies directed at Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau to be evaluated in relation to state policy positions on Tibet and Xinjiang?

How do critical interrogations of the 'sinicization' of frontier peoples and state constructs of minority ethnic groups interrogate the geographies of 'peripheral' regional formations? In what ways has the state discourse of ethnicity co-constructed the spatialities of autonomous regions, zones, and counties? What strategies do 'Han' migrant/settlers adopt to mix and adapt in relatively peripheral places? How does the problematization of 'Chineseness' from perspectives of diaspora unsettle ideas about territorial China? What are the state's diverse, targeted, and continuing strategies of engaging overseas Chinese (citizens), or ethnic Chinese abroad (non-citizens)? In what ways are such strategies unique to China or understood in the context of the rise of China?

This range of questions calls for new perspectives on the role of the state in recreating geographies of the periphery through practices and strategies of territorialization as well as through perduring discourses of centre and periphery. Consequently, it also calls for reassessment of the meanings of periphery in Chinese historiography and historical geography. Results of the project are currently under revision for publication as an edited collection, Vast Land of Borders.

Carolyn Cartier, a geographer in the China Research Centre at the University of Technology Sydney, currently works on state ideology in the cultural political economy of urban and regional change. Tim Oakes is a cultural geographer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His research, based on long-term fieldwork in Guizhou, focuses on identity politics in regional governance and the uses of culture in development.

Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:


[1] The background literature includes: Uradyn E. Bulag, The Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002; Pamela Kyle Crossley, Helen Siu and Donald Sutton, eds, Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006; C. Patrick Giersch, Asian Borderlands: The Transformation of Qing China's Yunnan Frontier, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006; David S. G. Goodman, 'Centre and Periphery after Twenty Years of Reform: Redefining the Chinese Polity', in W. Draguhn and D.S.G. Goodman, eds, China's Communist Revolutions: Fifty Years of the People's Republic of China, London: Routledge, 2002, pp. 250-276; Diana Lary, 'Regions and Nation: The Present Situation in China in Historical Context', Pacific Affairs, vol.70 (1997):181-194; Owen Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, New York: American Geographical Society, 1951; James A. Millward, 'New Perspectives on the Qing Frontier', in G. Hershatter, E. Honig, J. Lipman and R. Stross, eds, Remapping China: Fissures in Historical Terrain, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996, pp.113-129; Peter C. Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005; and, Emma J. Teng, Taiwan's Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683-1895, Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006.

[2] For example, see Prasenjit Duara, 'Provincial Narratives of the Nation: Centralism and Federalism in Republican China', in H. Befu, ed., Cultural Nationalism in East Asia, Berkeley: University of California Institute for East Asian Studies, 1993; Stevan Harrell, 'The Role of the Periphery in Chinese Nationalism', in Shu-min Huang and Cheng-Kuang Hsu, eds, Imagining China: Regional Division and National Unity, Taipei: Academia Sinica, 2000, pp.133-160; Carolyn Cartier, Globalizing South China, Oxford: Blackwell, 2001; and, Robert Kaiser and Elena Nikiforova, 'Borderland Spaces of Identification and Dis/location: Multiscalar Narratives and Enactments of Seto Identity and Place in the Estonian-Russian Borderlands', Ethnic and Racial Studies 29 (2006):928-958.

[3] For perspectives on power relations in geographical perspective, see John Allen, Lost Geographies of Power, Oxford: Blackwell, 2003; David S.G. Goodman, 'Guizhou and the People's Republic of China: The Development of an Internal Colony', in D. Drakakis‑Smith and S. William, eds, Internal Colonialism: Essays Around a Theme, IBG Development Areas Research Group Monograph No.3, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 1983, pp.107-124; David S.G. Goodman, 'Sixty Years of the People's Republic: Local Perspectives on the Evolution of the State in China', The Pacific Review, 22 (2009):429-450; Allan L. Kjeld, Regional Policy of China, 1949-85, Manila: Journal of Contemporary Asia Publishers, 1992; Pierre Landry, Decentralised Authoritarianism in China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008; Doreen B. Massey, Spatial Divisions of Labor: Social Structures and the Geography of Production, 2nd ed., New York: Routledge, 1995; Stephen R. Platt, Provincial Patriots: The Hunanese and Modern China, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007; Louisa Schein, Minority Rules: The Miao and the Feminine in China's Cultural Politics, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003; and Dorothy Solinger, Regional Government and Political Integration in Southwest China, 1949-1954, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

[4] See Carolyn Cartier, 'Origins and Evolution of a Geographical Idea: The Macroregion in China', Modern China, 28 (2002):79-143, for a review of the role of the macroregion concept in China Studies and its development in relation to the topography of natural watersheds.

[5] Compare Leslie H.D. Chen, Chen Jiongming and the Federalist Movement: Regional Leadership and Nation Building in Early Republican China, Ann Arbor: Michigan Monographs in Chinese Studies, 1999; Neil Brenner, Bob Jessop, Martin Jones and Gordon MacCleod, eds, State/Space: A Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 2003; William A. Callahan, 'The Cartography of National Humiliation and the Emergence of China's Geobody', Public Culture 21 (2009):141-173; and Jae Ho Chung and Tao-chiu Lam, eds, China's Local Administration: Traditions and Changes in the Sub-National Hierarchy, London: Routledge, 2009.

[6] The recent translation of Foucault's larger series of governmentality lectures opens up new horizons in studies of political economy and the geography of regions: Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, trans. by G. Burchell, Houndmills, Basingstroke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; and, Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, trans. by G. Burchell, Houndmills, Basingstroke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. On governmentality and state space see, for example, Thomas Lemke, 'An Indigestiable Meal? Foucault, Governmentality and State Theory', Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, 15 (2007): 43-64.

[7] Ulrich Bröckling, Susanne Krasmann and Thomas Lemke, eds, Governmentality: Current Issues and Future Challenges, London: Routledge, 2011.

[8] Louisa Schein, Minority Rules: The Miao and the Feminine in China's Cultural Politics, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003; Thomas Mullaney, 'Ethnic Classification Writ Large: The 1954 Yunnan Province Ethnic Classification Project and its Foundations in Republican-Era Taxonomic Thought', China Information, 18 (2004):207-241; Thomas Mullaney, Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. Mette Halskov Hansen, Frontier People: Han Settlers in Minority Areas of China, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005; Arif Dirlik, 'Timespace, Social Space, and the Question of Chinese Culture', Monumenta Serica 54 (2006):417-433; and James Leibold, Reconfiguring Chinese Nationalism: How the Qing Frontier and its Indigenes Became Chinese, London: Palgrave, 2007.

[9] Key critical expositions in geography include John Allen, Doreen B. Massey, and Allan Cochrane, Rethinking the Region, New York: Routledge, 1998; and Jonathan Crush, ed., Power of Development, London: Routledge, 1995.

[10] See Ford Foundation, Crossing Borders: Revitalizing Area Studies, New York: The Ford Foundation, 1999, and for a critical review, David Nugent, 'Knowledge and Empire: The Social Sciences and United States Imperial Expansion', Identities, 17(2010): 2-44.