China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia

By Peter C. Perdue | Go to book overview

8

Cannons on Camelback:
Ecological Structures and
Economic Conjunctures

As we have seen, logistical limits repeatedly tied the hands of the Qing generals. At Ulan Butong, for example, if Fiyanggû had not fortuitously run into Galdan's retreating army, his men would certainly have starved. The vast distances, barren deserts, and low-yielding lands of the frontier protected the nomads while blocking Chinese dynasties from projecting power into the region.1

Yet nomads also faced supply constraints. Although they, unlike Chinese armies, could support themselves on the grasslands, their herds died when severe winter storms covered the grasses with snow. The grasslands also limited the size and mobility of large nomad armies, which depended on quick forays and retreats, avoiding lengthy, static defense. As Galdan learned at Ulan Butong, battles near the Qing capital brought disaster, but he could still escape westward. Kangxi showed in his later campaigns, however, that he could lead troops all the way to the Selengge and Tula rivers, near the heartland of Mongol power. The nomads were no longer protected by distance. The millennia-long structural limits on Chinese power had begun to break down.

Strategic considerations drove both sides to alter the natural environment. Just as the Qing began to penetrate the northwest, the Zunghars, too, began to exploit their own territory. Most accounts of the development of Xinjiang ignore this crucial shift from a pastoral to a settled economy, but like so many of their predecessors, the Zunghars built their state by combining pastoral, agrarian, commercial, and mineral resources.

Batur Hongtaiji had founded a capital near Kibaksarai (Kobuk Saur),

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