CHINA’S FIRST FIVE-YEAR PLAN FOR TIBET
By Gabriel Lafitte March 2011
China’s 12th Five-Year Plan has been launched, covering the years 2011 through 2015. This twelfth plan continues a lineage of central plans originating in the revolutionary years when Stalin’s Soviet Union was the model for everything, including the dream of a single organised, coordinated, mobilised and supremely rational economy operating under a single central plan.
Do the math. The first Five-Year Plan covered 1953 through 1957, early in the life of the People’s Republic of new China. From the outset, Tibet was part of the Five-year Plan process, with explicit designation of Tibet as a site to be industrialised and quickly militarised, part of the western interior region designated as the Third Front, where heavy industries and military production could be developed as fast as possible, far from the reach of the US Navy.
That was officially the First Five-Year Plan for Tibet, but actually there is a much earlier one, going all the way back to 1724. It is a detailed Chinese blueprint for the political, economic, cultural and religious future of Tibet, covering 21 pages in the original Manchu text, and 16 in Chinese. That plan, and its author, Nian Gengyao, now long forgotten, cover all aspects of the social engineering of Tibet, just as those of the 20th and 21st centuries do. We could call it Tibet Five-Year Plan 001. In the words of a recent admirer, “Nian’s comprehensive plan included provisions for military security, economic development, and administrative reform.” (Perdue 2001, 290) It also pioneered the allocation of fixed grazing areas to Tibetan pastoralists.
How it was written, how it impacted on the lives of Tibetans, how it echoes in the 21st century present, are worth exploring. That in turn depends on whether one looks at such plans through the eyes of their Chinese authors, or on the ground through the eyes of the planners Tibetan objects.
Through Chinese eyes or Tibetan, whether viewed from above or below, some commonalities stand out. Not only does the 1724 plan announce the same disciplinary interventions as in recent plans, it is remarkably modern in its conception of how Tibetans and other ethnicities are to be conceptualised and categorised. Equally, we might discover that the most recent plans are quite ancient in their repetitive concern with imposing discipline and uniformity onto the unruly diversity of Tibet. But we must begin somewhere.
To begin, here is the first Five-Year Plan for Tibet, as seen through the eyes of China’s imperial records, and recent historians who rely on Chinese imperial viewpoints. The author of the 1724 Tibet Five-Year Plan 001 is Nian Gengyao, whose imperial title Fuyuan Dajiangjun can be translated as Generalissimo in Charge of Pacification of Remote Regions. Nian was a loyal, diligent and energetic servant of the Qing dynasty emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng. The Manchu Qing were still consolidating their hold on China, having conquered China in the mid 17th century. For the Manchu, not a numerous people but with strongly militarised social organisation, ruling the vast numbers of China was a great challenge. Maintaining control while also maintaining a separate Manchu identity by retaining aspects of nomadic gradation, such as a mobile court on horseback, were constant pressures. But the further challenge was the Mongolians and the Tibetans, the nomads beyond the walls and gates.
The Manchu were themselves nomads, from the far north, who found they had to deal with the chronic problems of other nomadic neighbours to the northwest and west. The Mongols still controlled huge areas, even though their empire had fragmented and in China been replaced by the Ming, and the Ming then by the Manchu Qing. The Mongols were still highly mobile and mobilised, still roved freely throughout what today is independent Mongolia, Chinese Inner Mongolia, Turkestan (today’s Chinese province of Xinjiang) and Tibet. This was a great crescent on China’s inland flanks, always a danger.
But the Mongols were no longer united. This was China’s imperial opportunity, to side with one Mongol faction or another, in the hope of eventually weakening and conquering all. The Tibetans too were under great pressure to choose this or that Mongolian faction as their protector. The stakes were high. Even though the Mongols were Buddhists, having been converted by the Tibetans, Tibetan factions allied to a losing Mongol faction faced death and destruction, including the killing of monks en masse and looting of monasteries. This had persisted for centuries.
It is anachronistic to speak of Mongols and Tibetans as familiar categories. The diverse clans aggregated under the term Mongol are a contemporary way of conceptualising that actually originates in the project of Nian Gengyao and his emperor to invent the Mongols, as a single, coherent identity, and separate them from the Tibetans, physically, culturally and linguistically.
The Chinese emperor Yongzheng, in 1717, decided on a military campaign to defeat the Mongols so convincingly that they would never again threaten China. This meant marching soldiers deep into Mongol lands and into Tibet, far beyond the outposts of Chinese peasant farm settlements that could feed troops on the march. It also meant relying less on Chinese soldiers than on elite Manchu soldiers brought from afar, with a warrior mentality of enduring hardship.
By 1724 the emperor’s loyal servant Nian Gengyao had ruled China’s outermost province of Sichuan for several years. Sichuan, a hot and humid basin with air so thick visiting Tibetan traders longed for clean highland air, had suffered greatly in the wars between dynasties but also between various bandits, warlords and renegade generals. Sichuan was depopulated, poor and of little use to the Qing, except as a frontline defence against the Mongols and their Tibetan allies. Today’s Sichuan is mountainous, with 42 per cent of the province’s area thrusting north-westward into Tibet. But in 1724 Sichuan meant only the intensively arable basin of the upper middle Yangtze and its many tributaries that all originated in far obscurity up in the barbarian Tibetan mountains.
Nian Gengyao, before being appointed to subdue Tibetans and Mongols, had been in Sichuan some years, where he busied himself making plans to turn Sichuan into what Foucault would certainly call a disciplinary society, with the state firmly directing the masses. The Sichuanese would be disciplined to pay their taxes, conform to imperial norms of propriety and cultivate Sichuan’s farmland much more intensively. Nian was not just an improver; he was a harbinger of modernity in its statist, top-down, directive, and purposive, even teleological mode of fulfilling what destiny is foretold.
He was made governor of Sichuan by the Qing emperor Kangxi in 1709, chosen, as a recent historian, Dai Yingcong says, because “it became necessary to send another energetic and instrumental overseer there. Only a few months after he arrived in Chengdu, he submitted a five-point proposal to the throne in which he outlined several things he deemed urgent, mainly aimed at strengthening political control and weeding out corruption. In one year Nian sent another seven-point plan, attempting to further overhaul the administration and financial systems. Among the seven things he suggested, four were financial matters –namely to boost land registration, to set up granaries, to mint coins, and to legalise mining. Nian suggested using promotion as a way to lure the local officials away from blackmailing the farmers.” (Dai 69-70)
All this has a contemporary resonance. In 2011, as the 12th Five-Year Plan is rolled out, the central state is still deeply concerned about capturing sufficient revenue to finance its ambitious nation-building investments, and still trying to balance the need for tax revenue from remote areas with the payments needed to go to such areas to help them grow into the Chinese economy and become absorbed into the national flows. The state still struggles to regulate illegal mining, and to control greedy local officials who grab the land of peasants, invent new local taxes, and evade centralised attempts at imposing discipline and uniformity. Incentivising local officials to conform to national priorities, through bargaining, rewards and promotions remains a key way the centre tries to persuade wilful local cadres to get with the national program.
Nian Gengyao was what the emperor in distant Beijing needed, and more. Nian’s enthusiasms, expressed in his five-point, seven-point and five-year plans, often went further than what the emperor wanted. While Nian wanted uniformity, with all newly cleared and farmed land properly registered, so as to extract taxes, the emperor took a longer term view. He was less concerned administrative compliance, maximising extraction of surplus value, or uniform rule of law, than with the slow process of letting Sichuan recover from decades of strife and depopulation. He wanted a prosperous lowland Sichuan basin capable, if necessary, of supporting large numbers of troops. If the time came to decisively defeat the Mongols, requiring logistic backup, the emperor wanted Sichuan prosperous enough to sustain a difficult military campaign pushing up from the basin into the highlands and plateaus of Tibet, to the west. Several times the emperor had to ignore or restrain the enthusiasms of Nian Gengyao.
The Kangxi emperor saw the Tibetans as little trouble, more focused on their own squabbles and negotiations with their Mongol patrons. In his own words he saw Tibetans as people “pleased with any small benefit. They would praise us even though they get only a modicum of benefit. (Dai 71)”
Chinese immigrants poured into Sichuan, mostly from heavily-taxed Hunan and Hubei, to Sichuan’s east. “After the core area was filled, the new settlers gradually radiated to the peripheries of the province and lastly to Yunnan and Guizhou, where unclaimed land was also available in large quantities.” (Dai 74) This was a settler rush similar to the peopling of North America or Australia by immigrant Europeans decades later.
Nian was the model of a modernising risk manager and rational planner. One of Nian’s plans was to establish state-owned granaries, not only to insure against lean years but as a reserve available to the state, and its soldiers, in the event of a frontier emergency. That emergency in Tibet grew, as rival Mongol clans battled each other following the death of the great Fifth Dalai Lama, and much dispute over the legitimacy of the sensualist Sixth, and then the identity of the Seventh, after the sudden death of the Sixth, at Mongol hands.
On any modern map, the Tibetans and Mongols are physically far apart, separated by Muslim Xinjiang (Uighur East Turkestan) and by Muslim Ningxia, as well as the Chinese corridor of Gansu pushing out westwards into the arid lands of the trans-Eurasian silk route. Although the Tibetans and Mongols shared a common religion, and often shared Tibetan religious personal names, the connections were not only spiritual but also geographic. Mongols remained the dominant power in central Asia, as they had been for centuries, despite their many clan quarrels. They retained their mobile warrior traditions and could quickly mobilise many men to go to war. They roamed freely across what is today the Tibet Autonomous Region as well as the other major provinces of Tibet, Kham to the east and Amdo to the northeast. Many Muslim populations were also under their control. Of the Mongol clans, the strongest were the Dzungarwa, under the leadership of Tsewang Rabten, who attacked a Qing China outpost at Hami in 1715, which “forced the Qing to adopt a new tactic: to set up a number of permanent military colonies in Eastern Turkestan and to connect them to the heartland with a string of outposts. The Qing reinforced their urban base in Xining, and sealed the passes leading down from the Tibetan Plateau towards Xining”. (Dai 79) The Mongol Tsewang Rabten sought some way to strike out, “as he felt the urgent need to deter the Qing from digging-in in his sphere of influence.” (Dai 79)
But Tsewang Rabten chose instead to send an army of 6000 men, on a circuitous, secretive route, to invade Tibet. When, after a year on the march, they reached Lhasa late in 1717, they deposed the Sixth Dalai Lama. This deeply distressed Tibetans who found quite acceptable a Dalai Lama whose songs of enlightenment were a celebration of womanising. But an army of 6000 could take Lhasa, and the Dalai Lama, and be undetected as it took a year to arrive, via the Changtang alpine desert of upper Tibet. Not only did the Tibetans grieve the loss of their love songster, they began to fret at the absence of his reincarnation.
Although the Dzungarwa were deeply unpopular in Lhasa, the far distant emperor Kangxi was deeply shocked, fearing a new and threatening alliance of Mongol and Tibetan factions. Despite the vast distances, and the lack of logistic support en route, or even Chinese farms whose crops could be commandeered, he ordered a Chinese invasion of Tibet. It was to proceed from Kokonor, the outpost of Chinese power near the great lake of the Tibetan Plateau on its north-eastern edge, along the route later taken by the People’s liberation Army, highway makers, railway builders, oil pipeline layers, optical fibre cables and power pylons, these days known to Chinese as QTEC, the Qinghai-Tibet Engineering Corridor.
“F or the first time in Chinese history an invasion into Tibet was ordered. In 1717 and 1718 the Qing launched two expeditions to Tibet via Kokonor. Because of inadequate preparations, both expeditions failed. Unfamiliar with the conditions in the Tibetan Plateau, the Qing expeditions, which had fewer than four thousand men each, suffered from inclement weather, illness and food shortages. Without firewood to boil water, the troops had to sometimes eat fried flour, the only food they carried, with icy water. Most of the Qing troops were either killed or captured.” (Dai 80)
Basic ground truths of Tibet were unknown to China: that there are no trees in arid northern Tibet, that water boils at a low temperature in high altitude, that there are very few farms or villages en route to raid for food, that Tibetans and Dzungarwa Mongols, even if they dislike each other, will unite to fight an invading Chinese army.
But the emperor had learned from his mistakes, and began preparations for an invasion of Tibet that was better prepared and supported. More elite Manchu troops would be needed, new invasion routes would be considered. All this took time, six years, during which China did its best to seal its borders with Tibet, and tried to divide and divert the Dzungarwa by engaging them in battle elsewhere.
Finally, by 1720, two invasion forces were ready, one to approach Lhasa, as before from Kokonor to the northeast; but also another force to climb the steep mountains and plunging valleys of easternmost Tibet, bordering on Sichuan. The source of this bold plan was Nian Gengyao, who had taken every opportunity to make the terrain of eastern Tibet scrutable, even though his men could not enter. Just as the British, in the late 19th century, overcame their exclusion from Tibet and made preparations for invasion, by recruiting Indians pretending to be pilgrims and merchants, to pace out Tibetan topography, Nian Gengyao used spies. Nian “had in fact conducted active reconnaissance of Tibet ever since the crisis started. He interrogated Tibetan and Chinese merchants and Buddhist students from Tibet and sent into Tibet spies disguised as merchants. Nian particularly paid attention to the conditions of the roads from Dartsedo to Lhasa that had that had only been used by merchants and monks in the past.” (Dai 81) Although the terrain was steep, the entire route was, by Tibetan standards, well populated; in fact it was the best endowed, most temperate and fertile part of Tibet, well watered and with abundant forests as well as productive pasturelands and prosperous pastoralists. It was Nian Gengyao’s intelligence agency that persuaded the emperor to invade a third time, from a direction the Tibetans never expected. But they never expected it 220 years later, when the People’s Liberation Army did it again.
The emperor may have been shocked in 1717 at the thought of Dzungarwa Mongols and Tibetans constituting a combined threat, a weapon of mass destruction aimed at China. But three years later, by the time he was ready to invade, there was nothing to fear from the Tibetans, who wanted only to install the young Seventh Dalai Lama on his throne. By then, all the preparations for war had been made, so it proceeded. China made war, because it could. That has been a consistent pattern of Chinese military expansion over many centuries, notwithstanding the Art of War mythos. The story China tells itself is that, as in the Sun Tzu classic, war is the last resort, and the skilful emperor gets his way by appearing mighty and invincible; this being more skilful than war. In reality, China as a regional power has made war on its neighbours when it could.
Lhasa was the end point of a long march across and then beyond Tibet’s easternmost province, Kham, a land of long valleys, high mountain passes and sacred pilgrimage mountain peaks above all. It is Kham that is most difficult to decipher on any modern map that shows China’s provinces, and the 1720 invasion is why. Kham today is parcelled fourfold, fragmented by re-imagining, redrawing and re-inscribing a new logic onto what had been a coherent province of many small principalities, each with its king, owing as little loyalty to Lhasa as to China. Kham today can be pieced together from contemporary maps only by reassembling a balkanised jigsaw puzzle: take the southernmost portion of Qinghai, the north easternmost corner of Yunnan, the whole of western Sichuan, and the eastern third of Tibet Autonomous region, and only then does Kham come into view. That erasure was the primary purpose and main achievement of Nian Gengyao’s planning and emperor Kangxi’s Manchu invasion.
Kham today faces for ways, all pointing away from each other. The Qinghai portion of Kham is governed from Xining, the starting point 700 kms away of the Chinese invasions of 1717, 1718 and one of the successful armies of 1720. Its remoteness right up to the Yushu earthquake of 2010 meant it was left alone, to slide into poverty. The Yunnan portion of Kham now faces southeast to the lowland capital of distant Kunming, which has reinscribed Yunnan Kham, and officially renamed it, as the true original actual Shangri-la invented in the 1930s by the British novelist James Hilton. The Sichuan portion of Kham faces east, towards the lowland capital of Chengdu; and the TAR portion of Kham, with its rich mineral endowment, faces west towards distant Lhasa.
In 1720, and again in 1949, it was into Kham, to the towns of Dartsedo and Chamdo that Chinese armies marched. The Manchu troops sent from Sichuan were joined by more stationed in the Tibetan town of Gyelthang, a Chinese garrison in the mountains of Yunnan, an early Qing foothold in Tibet. This too had been planned by Nian Gengyao, the great pacifier of the barbarians of the west.
The march to Lhasa took four months, but the troops carried supplies for only two. They arrived as crops were almost ready for harvest, having marched through the lean spring months when Tibetan grain stores are depleted, nomads’ herds weakened after a long winter without feed. They survived the torrential monsoonal downpours and thunderstorms, but met little resistance from the unprepared Tibetans, even in taking Meldro Gongkar not far upstream from Lhasa, where the huge new copper and gold mine at Gyama now reaps China’s richest reward. It was only in Lhasa that Tibetan troops fought fiercely, but the Qing broke through, and were soon reinforced by the Qing army that had marched from the northeast, from Kokonor (Tso Ngonpo in Tibetan, Qinghai Hu in Chinese), defeating the Dzungarwa along the way. They brought with them their ace, the young Seventh Dalai Lama.
Qing dynasty China knew well that one can conquer on horseback, but not rule. In order to impose Qing rule an altogether new plan was needed, and Nian Gengyao was ready with a plan so detailed it can be considered Tibet’s first Five-Year Plan. The joy of the Tibetans at having the new Dalai Lama brought to them, and enthroned, gave the Qing great leverage. But their ambition was great. The highest priority was to separate Tibet from the Mongols, which had become militarily feasible, as Qing troops launched more attacks on Mongol Dzungarwa forces in Turkestan, to the north of Tibet. Having driven a wedge by force, it required a political strategy to cement the military successes, entrenching victories that could not be sustained solely by an overstretched expeditionary force.
Nian Gengyao’s plan went far beyond restructuring the governance of Lhasa; it involved the whole Tibetan Plateau. The geography and economy of Tibet were repurposed, repositioned, reoriented to face differing directions, all pointing towards China. Perhaps the boldest move was the invention of Qinghai, a new Chinese province which dramatically extended the Gansu finger pointing into the Eurasian heartland. Qinghai literally means blue lake, a translation of its Mongolian name, Kokonor. The lake and the nearby camel market town of Xining became the anchor of Qinghai, in a far corner of a vast region of 743,000 square kilometres, a land of nomads and wild herds of antelope mixing freely with domestic herds of yaks, sheep and goats, in an unfenced land. Qinghai was categorised, in Nian’s Five-Year Plan, as the homeland of the Tibetans, with the various Mongol clans given only marginal recognition.
Nian’s plans faced many obstacles, even though the Tibetans were glad have a new Dalai Lama brought to them from Kumbum, close to Xining, and were glad to see the end of Dzungarwa power, which meant the looting of the temples of Lhasa. Nian Gengyao found there were problems among his own, at the highest level. The 1720 Manchu invasion from Kokonor was led by the Kangxi emperor’s fourteenth son, Yinti. The emperor died in 1722 and Yinti was expected to take the throne, partly because of his display of military prowess, foreshadowing the rise of Hu Jintao over 250 years later, whose greatest achievement before becoming Secretary of the Communist Party of China was his violent suppression of Tibet in 1989.
But instead it was the fourth son who took the throne, naming himself the Yongzheng emperor, enthroned in 1723. Would he be as keen on Nian Gengyao’s plans to subdue, by statecraft as well as garrisons, by rewards and punishments, titles and patronage, bluff and imperial pomp, the newly conquered Tibetans?
Nian’s plan was clear and precise. It began, as Mao always did, by clearly labelling friend and foe, taking care to isolate for punishment only a few at the top, excusing others who had fought against the Qing invaders, by classifying them as xiecong, or coerced followers. They were only following orders, but were not black hands. But the eight Mongol leaders were dragged before a public assembly, denounced and had their heads cut off, in a display of victor’s justice, to “rectify the laws of the nation,” to use the classic Confucian phrase used for the beheading. Mao’s class warfare used a similar strategy of isolating a small number of “class enemies” in each village, excusing the majority who had been part of the old system, publicly rallying the population to denounce the enemies before liquidating them.
Having thus declared who was in charge, Nian’s plan quickly moved to its second task, “the fixing of the territories of the Mongolian tribes. Nian thought that the autonomy of the hereditary lineages of Mongols and Tibetans in Qinghai led to continued plundering and conflict. Now that the rebels had been rooted out, the Mongols would be organised into banner companies, modelled on the military-administrative units that had been the basis of the Manchu state’s formation. Their pastureland boundaries would be fixed, and the Mongol leaders would be named jasaks; commanders of the banners subject to confirmation by the Qing. Each tribe would be allocated to a separate grazing ground. No tribe could interfere with another tribe’s pastureland.” (Perdue 291)
The imposition of a higher order, with the Qing as ultimate authority, required separating Mongols from Tibetans, a radical simplification of Tibetan identity, and a coercive reorientation of Tibetan loyalties. The Qing were few; nothing much could be achieved by force. Tibet must be governed by Tibetans, and Mongols by Mongols willing to accept being restructured along Qing militarised lines. All this could be justified by the disorderliness of Tibetan and Mongol society, their indiscriminate mixing of religion, raiding, piety, pilgrimage and plunder. This was not the first or last time a new coloniser found the natives riotously complex and chaotic, in urgent need of order imposed from above.
China’s emperors had declared themselves to be the successive reincarnations of the mighty Chinggis Khan, urging all Mongols to worship them. But the Mongols refused to see themselves simply, or primarily, as “Mongols.” Even the great conqueror Chinggis had not attempted to impose a single identity on his federation of tribes whose multilingual and multicultural empire was remarkably diverse. However, the Qing emperors were determined to not only defeat their competitors but to erase the name of Dzungarwa, through energetically rewriting history and imposing new definitions. “By the Qianlong period the impulse to historicise and taxonomies had been applied to ‘Mongols’ as to the ‘Manchus’ and to ‘Chinese.’ The combined effect of the documentary literature, regulations for language learning, and banner assignments were to generate a ‘Mongol’ constituency of the emperorship. The Qianlong emperor was convinced that military suppression of the Dzungarwas was insufficient; their name had to be literally destroyed, their peoples dispersed, and any possibility of a new leader finding legitimation for himself obliterated. The current name Dzunghar was banned absolutely. The overwriting of Dzunghar identity with a Mongol label was very literally enacted. The two-vector plan of extreme political fragmentation combined with extreme taxonomic unity worked: At the end of the Qing period, ‘Mongolia’ and ‘Mongols’ were found to be credible identities and continue today, among peoples who once fought rather determinedly not to have the names, religion, or even standardised language that the Qing prescribed for them applied.”( Crossley 312, 321, 324)
As with the state-driven 1954 project to categorise all of the China’s ethnicities, it was urgently necessary to simplify indigenous, emic complexities, overlapping, shifting and ambiguous loyalties, establishing instead an unambiguous line of command, with the Qing at the top. This involved ethno genesis, the declaring of communities as new tribes, especially those who became the Khalkha Mongols. As Nian explicitly stated, ‘thus we will divide the strength of the Kokonor princes, and the Khalkha princes will no longer suffer the shame of being slaves; they will become their own tribes.’
This decisive intervention is a radical simplification from above, of identity, territory, hierarchy, loyalty and ethnicity. Henceforth, ethnicity and territory are demarcated and equated, with mobility restricted, in the name of preventing conflict and chaos. Previous histories, competing claims, multiple and shifting identities are all erased, so as to make the remaining few categories readable, fixed, and amenable to imperial amendment as necessary. The empire demanded, as the price of conquest, that it start with a clean slate, all prior memories and identities reduced to simple, static, mutually exclusive categories.
Nian’s vision has a familiar, contemporary, recognisable way of doing reality. The old order was messy, chaotic, unscientific, and impossibly complex, with far too many competing and contradictory claims to spaces, land uses, control and fealty. The slate must be cleaned, so the state can inscribe on it a new agenda, of governmental rationality.
While Nian did not hesitate to denounce the quarrelsome Mongols as disorderly and violent, his Five-Year Plan did not announce a grand strategy or ideology. What he proposed to the new emperor was the imposition of order, good governance, putting the will to improve into practice. “To render a set of processes technical and improvable an arena of intervention must be bounded, mapped, characterised, and documented; the relevant forces and relations must be identified; and a narrative must be devised connecting the proposed interventions to the problem it will solve.” (Li 126)
The core problematic was the mobility of the Mongols, because it threatened China. The rule of a small nomadic people over China was threatened by the remembrance, present mobility and possible future danger of a much larger nomadic people who fought their wars with each other across a huge area adjacent to China, to the north and west. They must be pacified. In keeping with the traditions of Chinese annalists, this must be done not because China was fearful, but to improve the nomads themselves, to make honest, civilised citizens of the roaming tribes. They must be saved, from themselves, and their unruly inveterate tendencies. This too has a modern ring. Modern governmentality invariably explains itself as acting to achieve objectives beneficial to those most impacted: those who must move to make way for a dam will end up with a higher income; those displaced for a biodiversity protection zone will have new employment opportunities.
Nian’s plans, especially in Qinghai, begin with unmistakably imposing a Qing definition of justice. This meant public denunciation and then beheading of eight men condemned for rebelling against Qing power; while other rebels were excused by classifying them as “coerced followers” who were deemed to have no ill will towards the newly proclaimed imperial sovereign.
Nian drove a great wedge physically between Tibetans and Mongols by inventing Qinghai as a mixed zone that belonged to neither, nor to the increasing population of Chinese Muslims. Xinjiang –the “new territories”- was invented in a similar way, not as the homeland of the Dzungarwa or other Mongols, but as the locus of Turkic peoples, Muslims with their connections further to the west.
In the absence of significant numbers of Chinese settlers, Nian nominated certain ethnicities as the true and original inhabitants, none of them Mongols. Immigration of Han and Manchu to these new territories was to be encouraged, but it would be a slow process, and the urgent task was to not only allocate territories to ethnicities, but to ensure they had no abiding loyalties that transcended these fixed categories. This was the biggest challenge to the imperial project. While the Mongols and Tibetans had different languages, histories and traditions, they shared a common language, with deep roots in both cultures. The interdependence of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism with the Mongol clans as protectors was deeply entrenched, over several centuries. The fourth Dalai Lama was a Mongol, and the title of Dalai Lama is Mongolian. It was not only Mongols who regarded Tibetan teachers as their spiritual masters, the reverse was often true.
This interpenetration of faith, transcending apparent differences of nationality, was no obstacle to Nian Gengyao, who invoked the Ming dynasty Confucian practice of castigating Buddhist monasteries as inauthentic, rebellious and a threat to the state because of their organisational capacity. “From Nian’s point of view, the lamaseries could not be authentic religious institutions, because they gave refuge to ‘criminals’, stored weapons, and supported the rebellion. It was perfectly proper to burn them down and massacre their residents. Afterwards the lamaseries would be limited in size to three hundred monks, all of whom had to register with local officials and undergo twice-yearly investigations. Rent payment could not go directly to the lamaseries but had to be submitted to the government for distribution to them.” (Perdue 312)
None of this seemed outrageous in China, where the founder of the Ming dynasty not only had similar policies, but implemented them. But among devout Tibetans and Mongols, appalled at such an approach, the key question was whether the overstretched Qing had the means to rule, and impose such disciplinary punishments. A major further complication was that the advancing Qing armies had presented themselves, especially in Lhasa, as liberators from Mongol rulers who destroyed monasteries associated with losing factions, and as deliverers of the next Dalai Lama to his rightful place on the throne in Lhasa.
If we now turn from Chinese sources to the Tibetan histories, the Qing armies’ arrival in Lhasa in 1724 is passed over as a minor and temporary event, with the restoration of the Dalai Lama the prime issue. Tsepon Shakabpa’s One Hundred Thousand Moons sums up the attitude of earlier historians, who emphasise how the Dzungarwa lost popular support by failing to bring the Dalai Lama from Kumbum to Lhasa, so the Qing troops were initially welcome. “The Manchu Emperor Kangxi sent four thousand troops and his personal representative to protect the Dalai Lama against a potential resurgence of the Dzungar forces. There is no reason to think that even the court regarded this as anything more than temporary assistance to Tibet, a view that is buttressed by the fact that most of the troops were withdrawn in 1724 when their continuing presence came to be regarded by Tibetans as burdensome.” (Shakabpa 431) It is as if Nian Gengyao and his Five-Year Plan never existed, and remains utterly unknown.
That may have been possible to believe in Lhasa, but not in Qinghai. Nian had divided the Tibetan Plateau into two domains, which have remained so ever since. Not only was Amdo reoriented away from the rest of Tibet, and made to look to distant and peripheral Xining and Lanzhou, but Qinghai is officially part of northwest China, while Tibet is part of the southwest China cluster of provinces, linked to interior China along a completely different axis.
The sundering of the Tibetan Plateau was seen, in Nian’s plan, purely as a political question, with no heed paid to geography, ecology, climate or other natural factors underlying the coherence of the plateau as a distinctive, massive island in the sky. Nian was concerned to provide a rationale for dismembering the plateau and removing nearly all of Kham and Amdo from any claim by the Dalai Lama’s Ganden Phodrang centralised government to sovereignty. The rationale was that Kham and Amdo had been ruled by the Mongol Gusri Khan, and that the Dalai lama would be given some compensation for the commercial loss of over half of the Tibetan plateau, by offering trade concessions.
Nian Gengyao’s masterstroke, in place ever since, was to fragment Kham. He redefined Sichuan by annexing to it much of the eastern portions of the Tibetan Plateau, which today constitutes 42% of Sichuan’s area, with less than two per cent of its total population. The huge chunks of Kham (and Amdo) incorporated into the redrawn map of Sichuan speared north-westward, up the valleys of major tributaries of the Yangtze, effectively intersecting the major trading routes across the plateau, turning most of Kham to gaze downriver to the east, to the lowlands of the Chengdu Basin, also towards Kunming in Yunnan, a province which also incorporated a prefecture of Kham. To complete the fracture, the well endowed pastoral lands of Kham Yushu were made part of Qinghai, which itself remained a hinterland of Gansu province until 1928. (Stevenson 157)
Nian’s fracturings are today sedimented, naturalised, taken for granted; yet remain costly. Neither Republican, Kuomintang nor revolutionary China changed the boundaries Nian drew, except for minor alterations. Thus the Ma Chu, or Yellow River, rises in an arid, glacial, remote portion of Qinghai, traverses gradually greener pastures, then spreads out across the lush pastures of Dzoge, a massive wetland etched in Chinese minds as the most horrific section of the 1935 Long March. A river supposedly in urgent need of remedial intervention, so urgent that the nomads must be removed altogether, wanders between provincial jurisdictions, in and out of official view, losing and regaining its status as a prioritised object of planning and discipline. This is a direct consequence of Nian Gengyao’s dissection of the Tibetan Plateau, one of its many unintended consequences. For all the talk of the need to persist with Nian Gengyao’s pedagogy of pacifying and civilising the barbarians, the nomads of Dzoge and their productive wetlands are beyond the official Three River Source designated area, because they are in Sichuan, alongside the border with Gansu, before the river eventually meanders back into Qinghai and is once again subject to strict governance.
His primary purpose, of driving the Tibetans and Mongols apart, was achieved. The Tibetans resisted to his plans, as Nian himself reports, saying “they knew only of the existence of the Mongols, and knew nothing of Chinese civil administration or garrisons.” (Perdue 311) Nonetheless they were declared subjects of the Qing court and designated as “our common people [baixing]… their lands are our lands; how can they serve the Kokonor princes?” Peter Perdue, professor of Asian Civilisations at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has done much to rescue Nian Gengyao from obscurity, comments: “These native Tibetans had to cut their ties to lamaseries and Mongolian lords in order to become loyal subjects owing duties directly to the imperial administration. They became another defined population within the territory. Enforcing control over the local Tibetans also meant challenging the Dalai Lama’s suzerainty by splitting up the territorial boundaries of Tibet. Nian did not regard this reorganisation as taking territory away from the Dalai Lama; his ‘lands of incense and fire’[xianghuo] in the west remained under his control, but the Qing would ‘save several hundred thousand Tibetans from water and fire’ by detaching them from the dalai lama’s jurisdiction. In return for the loss of revenue, the Qing would make annual payments to the Dalai Lama and allow him to conduct trade at Dajianlu on the Sichuan border. This division of the Tibetan cultural region by the Qing corresponds closely to its current administrative boundaries under the PRC.” (Perdue 311-2)
The Dalai Lama was assumed to be a sovereign ruler whose sole interest in his subjects was tax farming; who would be satisfactorily recompensed for the loss of half of Tibet by a promise of payment by the Qing treasury. The deep religious bond between Tibetans and the precious victorious one, meaningful to behold, the presence of enlightened mind incarnate, was just one of the minor complications swept aside in Nian’s radical simplification of Tibetan and Mongol realities. The Dalai Lama was something more than a rent seeking tax farmer.
Simplification and categorisation were aspects of a reductive generalisation which required Tibetan to think and behave in new ways, as subjects of “our great Qing.” No longer would the generalised Tibetans be unruly, nor would they compete for Mongol patrons, nor would Mongols maraud at will. Each clan’s pastureland was designated, based on the locus of winter residence on the plateau floor, with little attention paid to the summer alpine meadow pastures, so essential to pastoral productivity and sustainable use of the grasslands.
All this set the implicit ground for subsequent Five-Year Plans, which have intensified state scrutiny and command, the fixing of pastoral boundaries not only at nationality and clan level but down to family level; right up to the current sedentarisation campaign to relocate nomads into colonial line villages. The lineage of current authoritarian interventions takes us back to 1724, even if little of the 1724 agenda was actually implemented in central Tibet, the domain of the Dalai Lamas.
Qinghai was different. It was literally more approachable from the Chinese lowlands, the passes on the ascent far more manageable than the multiple rugged climbs (and multiple descents) en route from the Chinese lowlands of Sichuan and Yunnan into Tibet. Qinghai was better known, its mineral wealth was known much earlier, it was basically adjacent to well established outposts of China’s reach, at the western end of the Great Wall. Amdo (Qinghai) was largely open pastoral country; Kham was a rugged land of forests, raging mountain rivers, high pastures, farmed hill slopes and fierce warriors loyal only to local principalities and lamas.
All that was required in order to expand Gansu enormously to the west was to come up with an ideology, beyond “saving” Tibetans from the predations of the Dalai Lama. An ideology of colonial rule that at least satisfies the rulers of their civilising mission is also a global necessity of modernity, whether early or late. Like the civilising missions of the British or French, the natives had to be saved from themselves, from their tendency towards anarchy, violence or lassitude. The self-evidently uncivilised lives of the nomads, whose mobility and capacity to coalesce into a military threat had prompted the invasion from the start, were an obvious basis for an ideology of colonisation.
Ideology requires ideas about a better future, a new direction which can be achieved only if everyone contributes to realising the new goal. For Nian Gengyao the obvious ideological turn, sure to appeal to the far emperor, was to sedentarised Qinghai and Tibet, and the Mongols, and to overrun them, if possible, with sedentary immigrant peasants. “Nian promoted immigration in order to forge links with the interior and create a more peaceful, settled society. He proposed to send ten thousand Manchu and Han settlers into Kokonor to ‘dilute’ the strength of the Mongols and turn them toward stable cultivation. Nian proposed to construct a huge fortified border along Kokonor’s northern frontier. He envisaged a connected series of fortresses that would in effect extend the Great Wall of defence, cutting off Kokonor from contact with the Zunghars (Dzungarwa) to the north. He would clear out all Mongols from this area and bring in large numbers of settlers to populate the garrison towns. As Nian noted, and as the Qing later found in Xinjiang, criminals sentenced to military exile would make ideal cultivators of the soil.” (Perdue 312-3
Not Nian Gengyao’s entire plan for Tibet was implemented, despite imperial approval. Central planning in China, even at the height of revolutionary enthusiasm, was never a matter of Beijing issuing commands, and they were done. Neither in Nian’s time nor ours do plans result in action in direct fulfilment of the central planner’s vision. Central plans at most are indicative, sketching a direction, a theme that expresses the dominant political ideas of the time. Central plans are wish lists which may or may not translate into infrastructure, immigrant flows, and reoriented identities on the ground.
Although Nian Gengyao’s vision of Tibet, forcibly separated from the Mongols, had all the elements of a modern central plan, Qing dynasty China had no effective means for implementing it in what is now Tibet Autonomous region. “The unnecessary fortress line was never built, and migration to Kokonor was slow. Yet his proposals uncannily forecast the primary measures of frontier control of the Qing, Nationalist, and PRC governments. Repression, settlement, state simplification, migration, and commercial integration sum up the policies of all three regimes.” (Perdue 313-4)
The failure of Nian Gengyao’s five-year plan for Tibet was not just because the emperor’s reach exceeded his grasp of Tibet. China had no interest in the daily lives of Tibetans, or in actual governance. Tibet served an altogether different purpose, as an idea, an abstraction, as “an ideological resource”, in the words of the influential historian Pamela Crossley. Since the Mongols remained devoted to Tibetan Buddhism, the emperor “intended to make his imperial capital at Peking the spiritual; capital of the lamaist realm. Tibet was an odd constituency among the Qing collection, in that it appeared primarily as an idea, a set of cultic practices, and a language.” (Crossley 328)
It was not enough that the emperor’s armies had divided Mongols against each other, had inflicted defeat after defeat on those who held out against Qing dominance, and that China had redefined the Mongols as a single people, with defined territories. It was not enough that the emperor of China was the reborn Chinggis Khan; he had to be the great patron of Tibetan Buddhism as well, an incarnation of Mahakala. “Tibet was the source of supernatural aid to the ruler and the source of an established code of dominion over the ‘Mongols.’”, Crossley says. Since Mongols accepted the Dalai Lama as their guru, if the Chinese emperor could make himself the patron, protector and even the selector of the Dalai Lama, the Mongols would obey the code and worship him.
So the emperor had no need of Nian Gengyao’s Five-Year Plan for Tibet. “No project narrating the ‘pacification’ of Tibet seems to have been welcomed by the court. There is no conventional conquest narrative of Tibet and no formal compilations of administrative documents.” (Crossley 328, 331)
Qinghai, because it was Mongol, had to be transformed and re-oriented, but central Tibet remained, to the Qing, an idea, not a unit of imperial administration.