The Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity

By Hillman, Ben | The China Journal, January 2005 | Go to article overview

The Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity


Hillman, Ben, The China Journal


The Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity, by Uradyn E. Bulag. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. xi + 271 pp. US$80.00 (hardcover), US$36.95 (paperback).

This is an insightful detailed study of ethnic identity and nationalism in China. Combining analyses of a wide range of topics, ranging through poetry, sexuality, children's stories and historiography, Uradyn Bulag takes the reader on a journey through the evolution of Mongolian identity in China and shows how such identities are woven into the fabric of Chinese national identity. Bulag also explains how China's contemporary nationalities policy is a product of "the debris of conflict between class and ethnicity" (p. 132) over the last half century.

Part 1 of the book tackles the government's notion of a unity of ethnic peoples (minzu tuanjie). Bulag does so in part by tracing the history of a ritual dedicated to the god of Lake Kokonuur and by examining the various historical reincarnations of Wang Zhaojun, the Chinese princess offered to the Xiongnu ruler in a 'peace marriage' over 2000 years ago. Emphasizing the significance of ritual in Chinese politics, Bulag shows how the lake ritual was manipulated to serve different political interests under the Qing dynasty and the Republic, and later emerged as a symbol of the unity of the nationalities under the leadership of the Communist Party. Similarly, while Princess Wang Zhaojun has been represented as princess, loyal wife and civilizer of the barbarians, today her ancient marriage serves as evidence (rather farcically, thinks Bulag) of Chinese sovereignty over the Mongols.

In Part II, the most insightful section of the book, Bulag discusses the tensions between the politics of class and ethnic equality. After a century of Chinese migration, Mongols had become a minority on their own soil and, as the original masters of the grasslands, many had become the landlords of later arriving Chinese farmers. Although the Mongols were designated an official national minority deserving of preferential treatment by the Communist Party-state, up to a quarter of the Mongol population were struggled against in the name of revolutionary justice. Chapter 4 introduces Ulanhu, the leader of Inner Mongolia until 1966, and the strategies he employed to protect Mongols from the worst consequences of land reform and class politics. Chapter 5 explores the role of "ethno-histories" in terms of power relations and as a rationale for the political status of nationalities in a "universal" socialist state.

Part III offers an interesting and creative analysis of the use of myths and heroes in the construction of ethnic and national identities. …

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