Uradyn E. Bulag. The Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002. xi + 273 pp. $44.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7425-1144-6; $102.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-1143-9.
Reviewed by Alexander C. Diener (Pepperdine University.)
Published on H-HistGeog (March, 2005)
With The Mongols at China's Edge, Uradyn Bulag provides a shining example of the value of indigenous scholars and the unique "research lens" available to them. Where his first book Nationalism and Hybridity in Mongolia (1998) deftly analyzed the disjuncture between Inner Mongolian identity and that of the emerging, post-Marxist/Leninist, Mongolian state, this new book constitutes a poignant sequel that poses the questions: How does the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, which was founded as a demonstration of the communist spirit of national equality, configure in the two nationalisms that China embraces (i.e. ethnic Han nationalism and civic People's Republic of China [PRC] nationalism)?; How do Mongols, especially communist Mongols, explain their path until today to prove the resolution of their own "nationality question"?; How are the historical memories and cultural difference of Mongols and Chinese mediated in a socialist, but also nationalist, regime?; What is the future for the Mongols in China, when the nation increasingly abandons its socialist veneer and promotes a more virulent nationalism that centers on the discourse of minzu tuanjie (national unity) and minzu fenlie (national splitism)? (pp. 7-8; parenthetical in question one not in original)
As one capable of functioning within Chinese, Mongolian, and Western Academic circles, Bulag is uniquely qualified to offer answers to these questions. This penetrating study brings to bear, both constructively and critically, the latest literature in the field of political anthropology, Chinese history, and post-colonial criticism. Challenging simplistic characterizations of Inner Mongolia as a colony, as well as romantic constructions of historic minority resistance, he adeptly demonstrates how Inner Mongols have negotiated their identity within the changing discourses of class, nation, ethnicity, and race in the People's Republic of China. Using a variety of evidence to support his points, including rituals, historiography, poetry, sexuality, and folklore, the story of Inner Mongolian identity formation is presented in a manner that reveals shortcomings in some popular postcolonial theory.
The first section of this book examines the attempted construction of legitimacy relating to Chinese sovereignty over the Mongols. To explore this theme, Bulag employs a series of stories and poems relating to the heqin--"peace marriage"--between the Chinese princess Wang Zhaojun and a Xiongnu chieftain. While this story is shown to exemplify the Chinese use of sexual politics and the longstanding tradition of civilizing the "barbarian" through feminine influence, Bulag also outlines its alternative uses. These include twentieth-century nationalist writers promoting the unification of disparate peoples within China, as well as Guo Moruo's extolling the virtues of Wang Zhaojun's emancipation from the emperor's "hellish family" and freedom in the Xiongnu steppe. This story's utility in the formation of various nationalist mythologies demonstrates the Chinese communists' effort to both build on and transcend the ancient discourse and practice of heqin in their pursuit of minzu tuanjie (p. 98). This book provides a number of similarly enlightening examples of manipulated historical and cultural discourses that both reinforce and challenge the principles of national unity in China.
Part 2 of the book traces the evolving political and social landscape of Inner Mongolia from the Qing dynasty to the Communist era. Pre- and postrevolution concepts of class and nation are interrogated within the context of the demographic, social, and political changes that rendered the Mongols a minority in their own homeland. Bulag argues that "the historical formation of social class and ethnic relations defies any clear-cut dichotomy of colonizer and colonized" (p. 24). In the first half of the twentieth century, Mongols owned the majority of land in Inner Mongolia and leased it to poor Chinese peasants. However, in 1947, application of Leninist colonial liberation ideology defined the Mongols as a collective group that had been colonized by the Chinese. While many of the land owners were targeted as class enemies, "the Mongols are one of the few national minorities that participated significantly in the communist revolution that helped establish both the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and the People's Republic of China" (p. 24). In this section of the book, Bulag succeeds in illustrating the considerable tension between a particular ethno-national history and the larger universal history of China. Through his discussion of the subordinate position of the Mongol peoples in relation to the Han, as well as the dominant position the Mongols achieved in relation to the Daur, the politics of hyphenation are revealed to be couched in malleable conceptions of ethnogenesis and more recent cultural discourses. The interaction of these two approaches seemingly promoted rigid ethnic definitions with profound effects on these groups' respective senses of belonging within the PRC.
Part 3 of the book offers insightful analysis of several myths and heroes, including the morality tale of the "Little Heroic Sisters of the Grassland." In this story, two Mongol sisters risked their lives in a blizzard to find a lost sheep from their collective, only to be shunned by a Mongol herdsman and saved by a Chinese railway worker. The veracity of this story, which circulated widely after 1964, has been under assault since 1993. In chapter 6, Bulag suggests that a Mongol herdsman with a 1958 conviction for crimes against the state was the actual savior of the little girls. The herdsman was not, however, a suitable role model for Chinese society at the time, so Ulanhu, the preeminent figure in Inner Mongolian politics until 1966, opted (with the support of Mao) to recast the hero as ethnically Chinese. Bulag asserts that Ulanhu enacted a strategic compromise wherein ideals of Mongolian autonomy and inter-ethnic harmony could be simultaneously promoted. The role of Ulanhu in shaping Inner Mongolian culture and identity is a recurrent theme in this book.
Ulanhu is identified as a figure of paradoxical service to the Inner Mongols. Bulag points to Ulanhu's acceptance of the "need for class-struggle" within Inner Mongolian society, rather than pursuing oppressed class status, as being central to the formation of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Republic (p. 113). He also identifies Ulanhu's protection of Mongols from land-redistribution, class classification, and communization as relating to his representation of pastoralism as catalyzing a unique form of class struggle--different from that of the Han (p. 231). Ulanhu emerges in this book as a figure of profound complexity --walking the line between ethnic difference and socialist unity. He was, as Bulag puts it, an example of "resistance within collaboration" (p. 191).
Informed by both his personal experience as an Inner Mongol and by his extensive and deep understanding of the literature pertaining to place, power, and identity, Bulag offers a fascinating case study that will be of use to those interested in analyzing other minorities of China, as well as cases of ethno-nationalization versus civic-nationalization around the world. The book is written in a style that is more suitable for graduate students than undergraduates, with digressions that, at times, seem to take the reader away from the main focus of the book. Generally, however, Bulag offers a textured and sophisticated discussion of the Inner Mongols' efforts to affect their own degree of integration and distinction in the PRC. This book is a significant contribution not only to the field of Chinese Area Studies but also to the more general literature of political anthropology and cultural geography.
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Alexander C. Diener. Review of Bulag, Uradyn E., The Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity.
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