27 June 2016

Professor Kenneth Pomeranz

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ABSTRACT: Wastelands, Heartlands, and El Dorados: Rethinking Territories on  China’s Western Frontiers Since 1760

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, 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.

Kenneth PomeranzKenneth Pomeranz is University Professor of Modern Chinese History and in the College at the University of Chicago. His field specialities are: Reciprocal influences of state, society and economy in late Imperial and twentieth-century China; the origins of a world economy as the outcome of mutual influences among various regions; and comparative studies of labor, family organization, and economic change in Europe and East Asia. His publications include award winning The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy and The Making of a Hinterland: State, Society and Economy in Inland North China, 1853–1937.