WEAI Author Q&A: Benno Weiner’s “The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier”

June 11, 2020

We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book seriesThe Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier published by Cornell University Press. The book’s author, Benno Weiner is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University and co-editor of Contested Memories.

In The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier, Benno Weiner provides the first in-depth study of an ethnic minority region during the first decade of the People’s Republic of China: the Amdo region in the Sino-Tibetan borderland. Employing previously inaccessible local archives as well as other rare primary sources, he demonstrates that the Communist Party’s goal in 1950s Amdo was not just state building, but also nation building. Such an objective required the construction of narratives and policies capable of convincing Tibetans of their membership in a wider political community.

However, as Weiner shows, early efforts to “gradually” and “organically” transform a vast multiethnic empire into a singular nation-state lost out to a revolutionary impatience, demanding more immediate paths to national integration and socialist transformation. This led in 1958 to communization, then large-scale rebellion and its brutal pacification. Rather than a voluntary union, Amdo was integrated through the widespread, often indiscriminate use of violence, a violence that lingers in the living memory of Amdo Tibetans and others.

We thank Professor Weiner for taking the time to discuss his book with us.


Q: First could you introduce yourself, your research interests, and your journey to becoming a historian of Modern China, Tibet, and Inner Asia?

Sure, I am Associate Professor in the department of history at Carnegie Mellon University. I’m a bit of an accidental historian. While an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara, on somewhat of a whim I took an intensive summer class in Chinese. This was 1992, I think, and another student was going to study in Sichuan Province after the course ended, so I went with him and spent three months as a nineteen-year old with very little Chinese-language ability traveling by bus and train throughout mostly western China. And it changed my life. It was beautiful and befuddling. And it was there and then that I first realized that there were a lot of people in China who weren’t ethnically or culturally what I thought of as “Chinese”—Tibetans of course, but also Mongols, various Muslim people, Dai, Bai, Yi, Naxi, Zhuang and many others. And I remember wondering: Why are they here? What makes them Chinese? How do they fit in? Not particularly sophisticated questions, but they are fundamentally the same ones that have driven my research agenda since.

So, I returned to the US, graduated, and… moved to New York to work in the music industry. And I had a decent run, but the industry was going through changes, the Asian financial crisis hit us hard, and I eventually decided that it was time to get out. I happened upon Columbia University’s MA program in East Asian Languages and Cultures which led me to its PhD program in history. When I arrived, Columbia had just started what I think was the first Modern Tibetan Studies program under Robert Barnett. So, I followed the resources available to me and have no regrets.

To be clear, I consider myself foremost a historian of modern China. But modern China cannot be understood without examining its ethnocultural borderlands—lands that make up roughly sixty percent of the territory of the PRC—and the people who live in them, any more than US history can be understood without taking into account its own borderlands and the experiences of its so-called “minority” communities. Exploring the processes by which Chinese political elites have sought to incorporate frontier regions into the Chinese state while transforming non-Han people from disparate subjects of the Qing Empire into minorities within a Han-dominated nation should not be a peripheral concern to scholars. Nor can the experiences of over 100 million non-Han people be relegated to a niche corner of the field. Instead, these are among the central questions of modern Chinese and Inner Asian history.


Q: Your book, The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier, focuses on the Amdo region of Tibet. What is special about this region?

The majority of Amdo (sometimes imprecisely called Northeast Tibet) lies in present-day Qinghai province with the remainder spilling into southern Gansu and northern Sichuan. It is considered to be one of the three major ethnolinguistic regions of the Tibetan Plateau. But it also forms part of the frontier zone where the Tibetan, Chinese, Mongolian, and Central Asian worlds collide. Roughly the size of France, Amdo’s vast but sparsely populated southern and western grasslands are primarily populated by Tibetan and, to a lesser degree, Mongol and Kazakh pastoralists, while the more densely populated agricultural districts along Amdo’s eastern frontiers have long been home to a multi-confessional mix of Chinese, Tibetan, Mongol and Turkic-speaking communities.

In the 18th century, Amdo was incorporated into the expanding Qing Empire. However, as in most imperial borderlands, oversight was generally light and rule was exercised indirectly through local powerbrokers and religious leaders who were awarded honors, titles, and rewards in exchange for expressions of loyalty and their service as intermediaries between the imperial state and local society. After the fall of the Qing, Amdo came under the contested control of the Muslim “Ma family warlords.” While the Mas are remembered for acts of violence committed against Tibetans and other Amdo communities, more often than not they were forced to come to arrangements with Amdo elites, many of whom retained high degrees of autonomy. Quite a few officially joined the Ma regime and even the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kaishek.

It is this frontier nature of Amdo that makes it so fascinating to me, and why it’s such an ideal place to study the complex dynamics and problematics of nation building—well it would be more ideal if sources were more accessible and the political situation was not so hazardous for local people.


Q: Broadly speaking, what is your book, The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier, about? What is the titular revolution?

Broadly, the book explores a host of issues connected to the end of empire and the transition to nation-state. These are processes that require the adoption of new notions of sovereignty, territoriality, and identity, as political elites sought to reshape disparate and relatively disconnected subject populations into a new political community, one now divided into a single majority and multiple minority populations. It also explores the trauma that these encounters inflict on the populations being minoritized, because such transformations are almost always accompanied by violence, both epistemological and physical.

The “revolution” is the Communist Revolution which arrived in Amdo in late summer and fall of 1949 and was almost entirely imported by outside forces made up of the overwhelmingly Han Chinese CCP. But it also refers to the so-called “early Liberation period” that spanned much of the first decade of the People’s Republic when cadres sought to integrate Amdo into the new state and nation. The book, then, explores the central problem the Chinese Communist Party has faced in ethnocultural borderlands, and a perpetual problem that its predecessors failed to solve: how to transform what had been loosely governed imperial possessions into component parts of a unified, consolidated, and (in this case) socialist nation-state?

What I was surprised to discover is that Party leaders initially understood this challenge. They realized that nation building could not be achieved through force alone. Instead, it required the construction of narratives and policies that would be capable of convincing Amdo Tibetans of their membership in a wider political community. In short, I argue that the CCP adapted imperial strategies of rule, collectively referred to as the United Front, as means to “gradually,” “voluntarily,” and “organically” bridge this gap between empire and nation.

At the onset of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, however, the United Front lost out to revolutionary impatience that required more immediate paths to national integration and socialist transformation. This led to rapid collectivization which triggered a massive uprising followed by a brutal pacification. Tens of thousands were arrested, many thousands were killed. In the end, Amdo was integrated into the Chinese nation-state through overwhelming and often indiscriminate use of state violence. In the book’s final chapter, I focus on the scale of this violence, which was absolutely staggering, and consider the impact on both the lives of Amdo Tibetans and the Chinese state’s nation-building ambitions.


Q: You note that the CCP adapted imperial strategies of rule in its state and nation building efforts in Amdo. Can you elaborate a bit on these strategies? What was the United Front and what, if anything, differentiates the CCP’s state building, which you explore in your book, from more traditional forms of imperialism/empire-building?

While there are of course exceptions and gradations, empires tend not to be transformative in nature. Instead, most successful empires rule over diverse populations indirectly through local elites who are given autonomy in exchange for providing the imperial center with order, honors, and perhaps fiscal or military support. Nation-states, on the other hand, even those with pluralistic aspirations, are prone to homogenize as they demand new types of expressions of loyalty and identity from their citizens, and who are expected to buy in through active participation in the body politic.

The United Front in Amdo maintained the trappings of traditional imperial relationships through the co-option of these same elites. However, as I show, it was self-consciously designed as a transformative mechanism of nation building and socialist transformation. By harnessing the charismatic authority of these elites in support of their programs that promised autonomy, equality, and material prosperity, Party leaders confidently predicted that both class awareness and patriotic consciousness would rise and eventually the masses themselves would indicate that they were ready for the peaceful, voluntary transition to socialism and to be fully integrated into the PRC.


Q: The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier does not seek to explore the question of whether Tibet should or should not be part of China, but (to add a bit of context) what does the CCP believe is to be gained from its incorporation of Tibet, and Amdo in particular?

Let me start by saying that everyone—especially Tibetans— has the right to make their own judgment over whether or not Tibet should be part of China. What I am suggesting is that this is not a historical question. The key questions scholars should ask concern how and why Chinese political elites have tried to include diverse ethnocultural borderlands into the modern Chinese state and nation, how people in these regions have responded, and, as evidence from Tibet, Xinjiang, and even Hong Kong suggests, why the state’s efforts have only been partially successful. I hope my book begins to answer some of those questions.

A host of geopolitical and economic explanations have been offered as reasons to why Chinese leaders since 1911—no matter their political stripes—have insisted with near unanimity that the boundaries of the Chinese nation-state must include (almost) all of the territories and people of the Qing Empire. However, I think there is also something more fundamental afoot. Simply put, it is nationalism. The Chinese state and many Chinese people today simply cannot imagine these areas being anything but “inseparable” parts of bounded, historical China. In this sense, it is not so much what China gains, but what the regime would lose in terms of its legitimacy should Tibet somehow gain independence.

Of course, Tibetans were not given a say over whether or not they wanted to be part of the PRC or under what terms. During the early years in Amdo, resistance to incorporation could be blamed on “backward” thinking and on animosity caused by the historical legacy of the exploitation of ethnic minorities by the Han majority. This changed in 1958. From then to the present day, any suggestion that Tibetans or others are anything but inalienable members of the Chinese nation meant being labeled a “reactionary” or a “counterrevolutionary,” and more recently a “separatist” or a “terrorist.”


Q: What preconceived or common notions about the history of CCP-Tibet relations do you hope readers might consider from a new perspective upon reading your book? And are there lessons we can take from it?

Previous books on the CCP-Tibet encounter, many of them quite good, focus almost exclusively on Central Tibet and the Dalai Lama and they tend to treat it somewhat in isolation from the wider events occurring in China. In focusing on Amdo, which had never been under the Dalai Lama’s rule, I hope to bring into focus the diversity of Tibetan experience and responses to the unprecedented demands of Maoist China.

And by revealing the vision the CCP had for creating a unitary, socialist, multinationality state out of the ashes of empire, I also hope to promote a more nuanced understanding of the CCP’s core interest in Amdo and by extension throughout its ethnocultural borderlands. The Party’s goal in these regions was not just to control, but, as elsewhere, to transform. Of course, this will be little comfort to Amdo Tibetans and others who were not given a voice or a choice, and then bore the brunt of the CCP’s hubris as victims of state violence, violence that continues to this day.

If there is a lesson, it lies therein. While ethnocultural violence can be an effective tool of state making, rarely is it a successful means of nation building. At one point, Party leaders understood and acknowledged this. The United Front had been designed to integrate Amdo Tibetans and others not just physically into the socialist state but also psychologically into the Chinese nation. As I note in the book, there are many reasons to doubt that the United Front ultimately could have succeeded. In its place, however, the Party has been unable to erase the memory of the violence committed in Amdo during its incorporation in 1958, nor articulate a narrative that effectively convinces Tibetans of their membership in a multiethnic Chinese nation.

Watching as the CCP applies coercive measures in restive border regions from Xinjiang to Hong Kong, it’s clear that the lessons from its own past have not been headed. Or even more worrisome, it appears that nation building, as it was once understood, may no longer be the Party’s goal.

Click here to get a copy of The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier, published by Cornell University Press.