CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 10, June 2007


No. 10, June 2007


In this issue we examine the cultural heritage of China's provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia (earlier part of Gansu). They are located on the north-western periphery, and were historically regarded as lying beyond China Proper. The Chinese language that is spoken throughout this area exhibits a regional if polyglot unity, while the region's strategic location on the Hexi Corridor, the Silk Road and the tea and horse roads that interconnect China, has underscored its distinctive ethnic and cultural mix.

In this issue Anthony Garnaut examines this ethnic diversity in 'The Muslim Nations of China's North-west', themes that are amplified through articles examining items of the area's intangible cultural heritage.

In this issue, we also provide an overview of the Capital Museum in Beijing that recently celebrated the first anniversary of its relocation to Muxidi, west Beijing, and Claire Roberts examines a controversial chapter in the history of the 80-year old Palace Museum, located in Beijing's Forbidden City, in 'Questions of Authenticity: Huang Binhong and the Palace Museum'.

The Cultural Uniqueness of the North-West: Qinghai, Gansu And Qinghai

Fig. 1
Fig.1 Tibetan gathering in Qinghai Source: Sichou zhi lu, 2006:12, p.47.

China's north-west provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia are traditionally regarded as being a distinct entity outside China Proper with an ethnic underlay of Tibetans and Hui Muslims. Much of this region is sometimes referred to as Heyou and Hexi, referring to its geographic location west of the Yellow River, or by the longer but similarly loosely defined appellation 'areas of China lying along the Silk Road', or the Hexi or Gansu Corridor. The landscapes found here include deserts, oases, pastures and river valleys; mountain ranges traverse its length from east to west along the Gansu Corridor, and the southern flank of Gansu and Qinghai rise into high altitude plateaux. (Fig.2)

Fig. 2
Fig.2 Tibetan mountain village of Langmusi in southern Gansu. Source: Ref: Sichou zhi lu, 2007:1, p.45.

The region was the original homeland of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), the first dynasty to unite China. Subsequently, during the periods of history when powerful Chinese dynasties ruled to its east, the region was a strategic prize fought over by rival Chinese and non-Chinese powers: the Han and the Xiongnu; the Tang and the Tibetans; the Ming and the Mongols. In the long intervening periods of political division in China, the region was ruled by various Liang dynasties, and at different times fell under the sway of Tuyuhun, Tangut, Turk, Mongol, Nüzhen (Jurchen) and Tubo (Tibetans) polities.

Marco Polo and the Great Province of Tangut

The Xixia dynasty of the Tangut people was once of the last dynasties from the north-west to take its place on the stage of Chinese history. After the Xixia was conquered by the Mongols, its borders were preserved as a province of the Mongol empire, and later as the borders of the province of Gansu in the Ming and Qing dynasties. When Marco Polo visited this 'Great Province of Tangut' in the late 13th century, he described at length the 'Idolaters' (Buddhists), Nestorian Christians and 'Saracens' (Muslims) that he found there:

The Idolaters have a peculiar language, and are no traders, but live by their agriculture. They have a great many abbeys and minsters full of idols of sundry fashions, to which they pay great honour and reverence, worshipping them and sacrificing to them with much ado... . In these [abbeys and minsters] they have an enormous number of idols, both small and great, certain of the latter being a good ten paces in stature; some of them being of wood, others of clay, and others yet of stone. They are all highly polished, and then covered with gold.[1]

The descendants of these Buddhists can now be found amongst the peoples of Qinghai and southern Gansu. However, as is the norm in this ethnically complex and dynamic region, it is hard to pinpoint any one community that is directly descended from any of the individual communities described by Marco Polo. The Nestorian Christians are gone, absorbed over time into the Buddhist, and in particular the Muslim, communities of the region.

Marco Polo had more to say about the Muslims with whom he became acquainted in the district of Ningxia:

The rule of the province is in the hands of the Christians, as I have told you; but there are also plenty of Idolaters and worshippers of Mahommet. And there is also here a class of people called Argons, which is as much as to say in French 'Guasmul', or, in other words, sprung from two different races: to wit, of the race of the Idolaters of Tenduc and of that of the worshippers of Mahommet. They are handsomer men than the other natives of the country, and having more ability, they come to have authority; and they are also capital merchants.[2]

This is one possible description of the origins of the Chinese Muslims who were the dominant ethnic group of the towns and trade routes of north-west China from a short time after Marco Polo's visit until the mid-20th century. Now defined as one of China's minority nationalities, the official account of the ethnogenesis of the Chinese Muslims or Hui nationality emphasises Arab and Persian ancestors over the theory of mixed racial origins put forward by Marco Polo.

Go West

Fig. 3
Fig.3 Poverty: Prior to the year 2000, farmers in Dongtai village, Gonghe township, Huangzhong county, Qinghai province had to travel several km daily to fetch water. Source: Minzu huabao, 2005:6, p.86.

Sometimes the modern-day provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia are further bracketed with the Xinjiang region, widening the ethnicities of the areas to include more Mongol tribes and Turkic Muslim groups. From the perspective of the Central Plains region (Zhongyuan, also called China Proper or metropolitan China), the western regions conjure up images of an area technically lying 'beyond the passes' (saiwai), through the Great Wall that constituted the limits of Chinese culture and a region of poverty. Chinese writers also traditionally associated the north-west with vast distances, exile and isolation.

Since 1999, the central Chinese government has adopted a policy of encouraging wealthier enterprises from the eastern littoral to 'Go West', the so-called 'Western Development Strategy' (Xibu fazhan zhanlüe). This policy, aimed partly at addressing the inequalities in China's regional development, has wedded the north-west and Xinjiang with the south-west (Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces) and Tibet, thereby further blurring the country's region-based ethnic distinctions. This economic policy was intended to contribute towards the reduction of poverty in the west and even-out glaring base-income disparities. (Fig.3)

However, for China's 'westerners', the policy has also resulted in massive internal migration from the poorer ethnic Han areas in the east and the relocation to the north-west of old and polluting plant from Shanghai and other industrial centres along the seaboard.

Historically, ethnic tensions have often rent the north-west; many place names in Qinghai, for example, include the notion of 'harmony', 'accord' or 'transformation', thereby providing a toponomic indication of the conquests and suppressions of ethnic uprisings and wars by successive central Chinese governments. The most recent of these was the Tibetan uprising of 1959 that resulted in extensive rioting in various parts of Qinghai (formerly the Tibetan province of Amdo) and its capital, Xining. (Fig.4) However, the most devastating rebellions in the north-west were the 19th-century Muslim uprisings; these paralleled the Christian-inspired Taiping War that engulfed southern China in a dramatic fifteen-year long civil war from 1850 onwards. These rebellions and their ruthless suppression resulted in the destruction of major cultural centres, reduced the settled population by upwards of 80%, and transformed the ethnic settlement patterns of the region.

Fig. 4
Fig.4 Tibetan horsemen in Qinghai. Source: Sichou zhi lu,2006:12, p.47.

The Communist victory in the Civil War in 1949 saw the Stalinist model of 'ethnic autonomy' introduced to China, at the same time as the new central government issued residence permits (hukou) to its citizens, that were effectively internal passports used to reinforce the advantages of urban dwellers over rural residents, to manage population control policy, and to ensure that education remains selective and discriminatory. The hukou includes the mandatory category of 'ethnicity'; a simple ethnonym providing a cover-all identity for citizens often with very complex ethnic backgrounds. Yet the ethnic categories are often only bureaucratic and regulatory in function, even when sincere efforts were made to achieve scientific objectivity and introduce policies of affirmative action (see 'The Muslim Nations of the North-west', in the Features section of this issue.)

Fei Xiaotong's National Minorities

In 1956, the anthropologist Fei Xiaotong, a graduate of Tsinghua University and the London School of Economics, was placed in charge of studying the social development of China's ethnic minorities under the aegis of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress; he was charged with the task of providing an ethnological classification of minorities in China as 'minority nationalities' or 'national minorities'. But, in 1957, Fei was condemned as a 'rightist', and his work after that time was hampered, until he was rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution to regain his place as China's most influential ethnologist.

Like the Populists (Narodniks) in 19th-century Russia and the agrarian reformers of China, ranging from Liang Shuming to Mao Zedong, Fei Xiaotong was an idealist whose desire to raise rural areas from poverty found a more receptive political climate in the later era of Deng Xiaoping. In an interview with Burton Pasternak published in 1988, Fei outlined his ideas on the relationship between ethnology and development:

Fei: The feeling was quite strong that minority participation in government was very desirable. But who were they? Where did one group end and another begin?... We had to get some notion of their level of development, and the stage theory provided a good measure. So we classified groups with the result that we could apply different policies to them according to their actual situations. Some minorities didn't believe there were classes, so we had to manufacture classes for class struggle.

BP: Did you feel it was a good idea to do that?

Fei: It was a good idea. At that time the only way we could know anything about the minorities was by doing it that way. ...The problem has to do with the meaning of 'ethnos'. What is the real nature of what we Chinese call a 'national minority'? It's different from the concept of 'nation'. ...The definition of our national minorities constitutes a question we have not yet answered. But we had to begin somewhere, so we adopted and imposed Western concepts and tried to place these people in terms of stages of development.[3]

In the same interview with Pasternak, Fei addressed the ethnic and economic problems of the Muslims of the north-west:

Fei: ...They speak Chinese and do other things like Chinese, but they aren't farmers. Nor are they pastoral people. But they are very fine traders. Now we must discover the special potentials and abilities of such national groups and use those talents in a modern context. Why don't we help the Muslims in that area develop their commercial capabilities to help us improve the connection between these two great economic systems? ...They already have nearly 1,000 tractors which they use to transport things as far as Lhasa, but most of these machines are very old and in very poor condition; they are actually quite dangerous.[4]

The 'two great economic systems' to which Fei referred were agriculture and pastoralism. Ethnology in China was often reductionist or unsubtle, and the intellectual pursuit of ethnic criteria was temporarily exhausted with the creation in 1957 of 54 national minorities.

Cultural Heritage

China's intra-ethnic boundaries, already somewhat loosely defined, were further blurred by the listing, in 2006, of more than 500 items of intangible cultural heritage (see ' Intangible Cultural Heritage Items of the North-west ', in this issue). The list includes more than 30 intangible cultural heritage properties from the north-west, and reveals how many cultural properties are shared by different 'ethnic' communities. However, it must be stressed that the list could be greatly extended; the nominating local authorities cited on the central government's list often do not encompass the full geographic spread and acceptance of an intangible cultural heritage item.

Fig. 5
Fig.5 Tibetan girl band Aja: Red Plateau. Source: Minzu huabao, 2006:10, p.61.
Fig. 6
Fig.6 Xinjiang Uyghur performer Askar. From: Concert program, Beijing Juyuan, 2002.

In fact, many young people in the north-west seem more intent on creating new tribes than in acting out old ethnic identities. (Fig.5) The pop charts in China over recent years have been dominated for periods by the Tibetan Han Hong, the Mongol Tengger and the Uyghur Askar. (Fig.6) In turn, Chinese singers have emulated non-Han musical traditions; for example, there is a Sichuan singer who lives in Urumqi in Xinjiang and styles himself Daolang (in reverence for the Dolan Muqam of Maikit in Xinjiang).

Fig. 7
Fig.7 'The Camel Bell Dance of the Gobi'. Source: Minzu huabao, 2006:8, p.86.

The north-west had great exotic appeal for Han Chinese during the early post-Maoist period, but the new exoticism is much more propelled by New Western images developed for the advertising and fashion worlds, worlds which seem so alien to the bureaucratic regularity epitomised by the fixed ethnicity and place of residence that is still stamped in the residency permit of every Chinese citizen. The Maoist folk dance troupe shows have now given way to ethnic cultural heritage performances that owe more to Cirque du Soleil and River Dance than they do to Sinified Broadway extravaganzas. (Fig.7)

Fig. 8
Fig.8 Sustainable heritage innovation: Mongol performer shows her 'electronic' harmonium. Source: Minzu huabao, 2006:12, p.71.

A Chinese type of 'world music' is emerging, and the Norwegian foundation T C/G Nordica has organised some remarkable music exchanges bringing together Norwegian jazz and folk musicians and musicians from ethnic groups in Yunnan. Chinese television stations search constantly for more dynamic programming, so entertainment and variety programmes now also inevitably include 'ethnic' acts. Purist ethno-musicologists might be alarmed by some of the hybrid ethnic cultural forms being generated (Fig.8), but the innovations brought about by T C/G Nordica also demonstrate that the creation of new forms is one of the guarantees of cultural and ethnic sustainability. [BGD and AHG, ©Bruce Gordon Doar and Anthony Garnaut]


[1] Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa et al, The Travels of Marco Polo, 2 vols, ed. Henry Yule and Henri Cordier (New York: Dover, 1993), vol.1, pp.203 & 219.

[2] Ibid., p.284. This passage describes Marco Polo's 'Tenduc', derived from the Mongol term for an area on the Ordos bend of the Yellow River, rendered here as 'Ningxia'.

[3] Burton Pasternak, 'Interview with Fei Xiaotong', Current Anthropology, vol.29, no.4, August-October 1988, p. 650.

[4] Ibid., p.657.