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Border Regions

Border Regions


Tibet. Beyond China Proper are continental and insular border areas that had periodically been incorporated into Chinese empires from 617 to 1644. These areas include Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, and Manchuria. Derived from a Mongolian term, the name Tibet was used in Europe by the thirteenth century. A mountainous area, Tibet covers about 500,000 square miles, half of which is more than 15,000 feet in altitude. The source of the principal Chinese and Asian rivers, Tibet had a population of about two mil-lion during the period under consideration. Agricultural and mineral resources were insignificant. Chinese interest in Tibet began in 650 when a military expedition occupied Lhasa, the capital. In the thirteenth century the Mongols incorporated Tibet into their empire, and Kublai Khan established a regime in Tibet under the control of priest-kings. After the Mongols, Ming rulers from time to time tried to reincorporate Tibet into their domains.

Xinjiang. Called Chinese or Eastern Turkestan, Xinjiang has an average elevation lower than Tibet’s. The oasis Turfan is a little below sea level. With an area of 635,000 square miles Xinjiang had a population of about 5 million by Ming times(1368-1644), the majority of whom were Turkish-speaking Islamic peoples, mainly Uighurs. (The Uighurs had relations with the tribes of central Asian Russia.) Xinjiang is separated into two sections by the Tian Shan range with the Dzungarian Plain to the north and the Tarim Basin to the south. The main areas of settlement are the oases along the northern and southern borders of the Tarim Basin. Across Xinjiang, overland trade routes existed from the seventh to seventeenth centuries. One main route followed the northern side of the Tarim Basin to such cities as Kashgar and Yarkand at the eastern foot of the Pamirs, which was the barrier between China and India and the trans-Caspian regions. Another route started from north of the Tian Shan to Kuldja near the head of the IE River and then down the valley of the Ili to the grasslands east of the Aral Sea. The routes, known as the Silk Road, connected imperial China and the outside world in the West. These routes were used not only by the merchants and travelers but also by the Buddhist pilgrims during the time period.

Mongolia. The semiarid northern region of Mongolia, a plateau of 3,000-5,000 feet elevation, was an intermediary

between the Chinese and barbarian ways of life. The Gobi Desert and the adjacent Ordos are primarily rocky, gravelly, and sandy wastes crossed by low mountains and hills. The northern and western sections of Mongolia have adequate grazing lands, and some parts are well irrigated by rivers. The higher mountains in the northwest are forested. Because of their poor soil and limited resources, the Mongols had to expand their territories in order to gain more resources during the thirteenth century. Well-known conquerors, they created one of the largest empires in the history of the world. They dominated most of Eurasia, including Russia and Persia, and all of central Asia, China, and Korea. Mongol armies attacked as far as the Adriatic Sea in the West. In the East they sailed to attack Japan and Java. For a while communication between the East and the West was promoted by Mongolian domination and international trade. The territory, however, was too vast, and local cultures were too varied. The Mongol empire ultimately disinte-grated at the end of the fourteenth century.

Manchuria. Located to the northeast of China, Manchuria is bordered by Mongolia to the west and by mountains and the Amur River to the north. On the east, mountains separate Manchuria from the valley of the Ussuri River and the Sea of Japan. To the south the Gulf of Zhili and the Yellow Sea provide access to the Pacific. The only easy land route into China Proper from Manchuria lies along the coast. Extensive plains, valleys, and low hills largely make up the central portion of Manchuria. The valleys and plains are rich and quite well irrigated. Forests cover many of the mountains, and mineral deposits include coal and some gold. Severe winters and hot summers make the climate one of extremes. During the imperial era the Jurchen tribes of Manchuria were not well developed culturally. The Ming government, facing dangers from the North, often kept peace and order in Manchuria by careful diplomacy. As long as the Ming empire was powerful and the local Jurchen tribes were weak, the frontier area was relatively peaceful. In the early seventeenth century the descendants of the Jurchens founded the Manchu state and continued to send tributes to Beijing. When strong enough, however, they began to defy the Ming empire and finally occupied the capital in 1644.


Patricia B. Ebrey, ed., Chinese Civilization and Society: A Sourcebook (New York: Free Press, 1981).

John K. Fairbank and Merle Goldman, China: A New History (Cambridge, Mass. & London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992).

Paul S. Ropp, ed., Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

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