The adage states “two dogs strive for a bone and a third runs away with it”, but if the two dogs shall seek agreement, the third one loses. This appears to be one of the messages of a monumental, very interesting and beautiful book: China marches West The Qing conquest of Central Eurasia, written by Peter C. Perdue, professor of Chinese History at Yale University. The book has over 700 pages full of names, data and geographical locations. It’s a real reference for people willing to deal with the issue, but which issue? This isn’t an easy answer, due to the multilevel complexity emerging throughout the narration.
China marches West is markedly divided in two parts, so different that we can consider the work a split of two books. The first one is linked to the title, concerning campaigns that led the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912) to Central Asia, with a particular eye to the clash of Chinese armies against the nomad people of Dzungars, nowadays there is a region of Xinjiang with this name: the Dzungaria. Perdue tells the facts with utmost accuracy, but not being pedantic about it. However the reader could have the feeling to be overwhelmed from the “speed of events”, needing to read again some previous page to refresh the name of a commander or the place of a battle.
The ability of Perdue is to narrate with a charming almost epic writing, chapter after chapter we become relative to Chinese Emperors and Mongols Khans, ruled by a fast pace taking us to the tragic ending: the fall of Dzungars. Here the author’s opinions don’t appear and he is a humble reporter which makes room to history. Great value of Perdue is to handle each situation remembering that in the middle of events are people doing, struggling and dying. One of the highlights of the book is the human side, due to the Perdue’s historiographic categories as well, absolutely far from a purely chronological exposition.
The second part of the work is more linked to the author’s method, i.e. a stirring view that embraces every aspect of life. This part is really interesting and investigates the causes of the conflict between Chinese and Dzungars people groups. The major issue was the co-existence of two different state building projects. Perdue analyses the different possibilities that nomads and settlers had to develop their project: from the exploitation of raw materials to the creation of a commercial network, as well as the steps to be taken, in order to cope with famine and social disparity. Third player is the Tsarist Empire, another state building in progress.
China and Russia, two sedentary societies with expanding borders, signed a pact that it will reveal one of the main causes in the collapse of the Dzungar people, close between two giants, with no more rear to support the war against the Qing Dynasty. This reminds the case of contemporary Mongolia, with obvious differences. Things could have gone on in a different way, but Tsarist Empire decided to refuse the agreements proposed by the Dzungars. Maybe two forces of same nature can only to ally, although cautiously, against a third different force. Perdue moreover writes very interesting pages about the rewriting history which is necessary for the state building.
Dzungars, after the final defeat, are straight out of history. This one of the most important lesson of this book, enriched with a comparison of different state building models, including the European one. At the end of his work Perdue reveals some opinion: behind the struggle between powers there are not just different interests, there is even a different idea of the history.
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