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The Zunghar nation developed in the early seventeenth century from nomadic tribes of Western Mongols who had established a homeland beyond the Altai Mountains, astride the modern China-Kazakhstan border. By 1700, the Zunghars had created an empire that included the oasis towns of Eastern Turkestan, and were sufficiently strong to pose a threat to both their Russian and Chinese neighbors. Following several conflicts with the nomads, the Chinese emperor, Qianlong, grasped an opportunity to conquer Zungharia in 1755. He easily succeeded but, after Chinese forces withdrew, the Zunghars rose in revolt, prompting the Qing ruler to seek a final solution to his Zunghar problem. Acting at the behest of the emperor, Chinese armies intentionally exterminated at least 180,000 people during the ensuing campaign, representing some 30 percent of the Zunghar population. An outbreak of smallpox ravaged the remainder, leaving less than one-third of the Zunghars alive to face either slavery or exile. Having assailed the populace, the Chinese emperor subsequently arranged the eradication of the Zunghar culture. In intentionally destroying part of a national group in these ways, Qianlong was committing genocide, as defined by Article II of the current United Nations Genocide Convention.

The Qing descended from Manchuria during the seventeenth century and established control over the core of China by 1681. Although they incorporated cooperative foreigners into their system, the Qing dealt with their more unruly neighbors through a combination of diplomacy, tribute, and force, often setting one group against another. The principal aim of their efforts was to ensure that barbarians never presented a united front against the new dynasty. The Qing established control over Outer Mongolia in 1691 and invaded Tibet in 1720. By the mid-eighteenth century, they ruled over a massively expanded Chinese territory. Meanwhile, a new nation was developing farther west, beyond the Altai Mountains and the ever-expanding reach of Beijing.

In the early seventeenth century, the Choros, Dorbet, and Khoits, tribes of the Western Mongols (also referred to as Oirats), settled in the region of the Irtysh River, near the modern border between China and Kazakhstan, and united to form the embryonic Zunghar nation. From their capital at Kubakserai, on the banks of the Imil River, they developed agriculture and crafts, which brought an air of diversity and sedentary culture to their nomad society. The Zunghars embraced Buddhism, along with the majority of Mongols, established temples and monasteries in their lands, and maintained a body of literature in a modified Mongolian script that suited their phonetic system.

The power and influence of the Zunghars increased throughout the seventeenth century. Under the capable leadership of Galdan Boshughtu (r. 1671–1697), their homeland stretched from Lake Balkhash to the Altai and their empire incorporated the conquered oasis towns of Hami, Turfan, and Kashgar, in East Turkestan. They repeatedly attacked Russian settlements in Siberia and even invaded Outer Mongolia in 1688, forcing its populace to seek Qing protection. After Russia and China, each influenced by the perceived threat of the nomads, settled their differences in the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, the Zunghars became "the last real Inner Asian threat to [the] Qing" (Rossabi, 1975, p. 141). Over the coming decades, they repeatedly clashed with Chinese armies. Galdan Boshughtu fought the Qing in Mongolia during the 1690s and further battles occurred in 1720, when the Chinese ousted Zunghar invaders from Tibet, and in 1731, when the Zunghars again marched on Mongolia. Even though the Zunghars agreed a temporary accord with the Qing in 1739, trade disputes continued to plague relations between the two powers.

The death of Galdan Tsering, in 1745, marked the beginning of the end of the Zunghars, as disunity, then civil war, tore their nation apart. After losing the power struggle to a rival, Amursana fled to the open arms of the Chinese emperor in 1754. Qianlong (r. 1736–1795) immediately discerned an opportunity to conquer the Zunghars and secure his frontiers from what he perceived as a continuing threat. He formed an alliance with Amursana and dispatched an army of at least fifty thousand troops to Zungharia in the spring of 1755. The soldiers spread propaganda leaflets as they advanced, promising rewards and protection in return for Zunghar compliance. Disunited and weakened by years of civil war and confronted by such a large Chinese force, the Zunghars were unable to mount any effective opposition and their leaders fled. Those who remained readily capitulated and, in the summer of 1755, the Qing army withdrew.

Amursana expected to govern all of Zungharia, but was sadly disappointed. Instead, Qianlong sought to divide and rule, so he split the land into four territories, only one of which was reserved for Amursana. Angry and bitter, Amursana instigated an armed revolt and attacked a Chinese border force. When news reached Beijing, the emperor flew into a rage and immediately began to reassemble his army. In 1756, a Qing force, comprising more than 400,000 mostly Manchu and Mongolian troops, flooded into Zungharia. Amursana had already fled westwards. Encountering no organized resistance, the army "set about the universal destruction of the Oirat population" (Zlatkin, 1983, pp. 450–451).

Qianlong repeatedly called for the extermination of the Zunghars, but was inconsistent when speaking of who should be spared. He ordered, "Show no mercy at all to these rebels. Only the old and weak should be saved" (Qianlong, quoted in Perdue, 2003a). In another edict, however, he commanded the massacre of all the followers of any rebel leader who refused to prostrate himself before the Chinese and beg the right to surrender. Later, he demanded the destruction of all able Zunghar males and reserved female survivors as slaves for his troops. Following the repeated issue of such callous yet inconsistent edicts, confusion reigned. Nevertheless, as the emperor continued to reward commanders who carried out massacres and to punish those who captured only territory, it became prudent to err on the side of slaughter: Russian officials in Siberia reported that "Manchu troops massacred men, women, and children, sparing no one" (Perdue, 2003a).

Between the summer of 1756 and January 1757, the Khalkha Mongols of Outer Mongolia rose in rebellion against the Qing. In spite of the temporary distraction, which forced Qianlong to withdraw his Mongol troops from Zungharia, the remaining soldiers continued to massacre the Zunghar population. During this period, Amursana returned to his homeland and attempted to organize resistance against the Chinese. However, he was unable to raise more than 10,000 troops and, despite bravely engaging his enemy, was forced to flee in the summer of 1757. Qianlong spared 50,000 soldiers to send in hot pursuit of Amursana, betraying a personal loathing of the Zunghar leader. Nevertheless, the fugitive escaped to Russia, where he died of smallpox in September that same year.

Scholars differ in their opinions as to Qing policy after the flight of Amursana. Fred Bergholz, whose work is based mostly on Russian secondary sources, argues that, until 1759, "Qianlong's armies carried out the killing of every Oirat they could find" (Bergholz, 1993, p. 402). In contrast, Peter C. Perdue, who bases his findings largely on Chinese primary sources, contends that Qing policy became more lenient as the immediate perceived threat had disappeared, and the emperor wished to avoid driving the few remaining Zunghars southward to join an imminent rebellion in Turkestan. Nevertheless, he notes that, in the fall of 1757, Qianlong criticized two of his leading generals as they "shrank back from wholesale slaughter, despite continual prodding" (Perdue, 2003a). The overall result of Qing policy, however, was the intentional extermination of a substantial part of the Zunghar population.

The estimated total Zunghar population was 600,000. Of these, Owen Lattimore estimates that 50 percent were exterminated, 20 percent died of smallpox, and 30 percent survived in exile or slavery. Peter C. Perdue, however, suggests that 30 percent were exterminated, 40 percent died of smallpox, and 30 percent survived in exile or slavery. Both Lattimore and Perdue base their estimates on Chinese sources. Ilya Zlatkin, who bases his work mostly on Russian sources, suggests that only 7 percent survived, but makes no distinction between exterminations and smallpox-related deaths.

The academics, Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, have identified strong, centralized authority and dehumanization as two preconditions that facilitate the majority of genocidal actions. In eighteenth-century China, the emperor wielded absolute power under a heavenly mandate and ruled through his generals and elite Confucian officials, who implemented his designs. As unruly neighbors, the Zunghars were considered barbarians. Moreover, the inscription on a 1758 victory tablet, describing the Zunghars as evil and fierce demons who "made men their food" (Krueger, 1972, p. 68), suggests an attempt by Chinese authorities to place the nomads far outside the bounds of human obligation.

For over half a century, the Zunghars had repeatedly clashed with the Chinese, who perceived the nomads as a constant threat to their frontiers and, when Amursana personally betrayed Qianlong, he embarrassed and infuriated the emperor, who sought a terrible revenge. The Qing had not previously employed massacre in managing nomad relations but, as Qianlong noted, "It was only because they repeatedly submitted and then rebelled that we had to wipe them out" (Qianlong, quoted in Perdue, 2003a). The Son of Heaven needed to send a powerful message throughout his empire to terrorize anyone who might dare question his imperial authority. Such motives translated into intent as the emperor issued a series of edicts that explicitly called for the extermination of at least part of the Zunghar nation, and encouraged the slaughter by rewarding those of his commanders who complied, while punishing those who did not. In the face of overwhelming odds, the Zunghars, weakened and disunited by years of civil war, were effectively defenseless. During the campaign, their ability to resist declined still further when a smallpox epidemic claimed between 20 and 40 percent of their original population.

Not content with destroying the populace, the Chinese emperor subsequently arranged the eradication of the Zunghar culture. Qianlong confiscated the Mongol genealogies, which no longer survive, and commissioned Chinese archivists and historians to record a one-sided history of his actions. Most Zunghar documents were burned during the campaign of extermination. The Qing destroyed the equipment and herds of the Zunghars, erased their settlements, and repopulated Zungharia with nomads from Manchuria and Mongolia. Qianlong's actions were so successful that the Zunghar nation and culture effectively disappeared.



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Chalk, Frank, and Kurt Jonassohn (1990). The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

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Richard Pilkington

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