Ethnic elites and the frontier order of modern China: a case study on Khampa elite Kalsang Tsering during the Republican Era

WANG Juan1

(1.Department of Sociology, Peking University)

【Abstract】The rebuilding of the frontier order is an important dimension during China’s transformation from an empire to a nation-state. The frontier integration project starting from the late Qing Dynasty initiated great changes of the authority systems in frontier societies and led to a new type of ethnic elites who were not nobles by birth but received modern education and were authorized by the central government. This paper focused on these new elites and took Kalsang Tsering, a Khampa elite, as an example. Through a thorough analysis of his political career and his views and perspectives on frontier issues, this paper intended to provide a thorough discussion on the structural features of modern China’s frontier order, which was manifested by the tension between the ideal for integration and the reality of diversity.

【Keywords】 frontier; ethnic elites; the Republican Era; Khampa; Kalsang Tsering;


【Funds】 The National Social Science Fund of China (14CSH066)

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(Translated by WEN Jianxin)


    [1]. (1) The so-called frontier integration is a broad concept, which includes a series of specific measures such as allowing or encouraging Han immigrants to enter the border areas inhabited by ethnic minority groups, and then garrisoning and cultivation, appointing officials by the government, schooling, and finally rebuilding provinces. This paper focuses on the relevant measures implemented in Xinjiang, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Tibetan areas and the northeastern region in the late Qing Dynasty, which had higher autonomous status and greater difficulty in integration, including the gradual opening of Inner and Outer Mongolia and the northeastern region to reclamation in the middle and late 19th century, the establishment of prefecture and county in some areas of Inner Mongolia, the establishment of Xinjiang Province in 1884, the gaitu guiliu policy (replacing the inheritance system of local tusi (chieftain) with a central direct appointment system) in 1905 along the Sichuan border, the implementation of the new policy in Tibet in 1906 and the establishment of the three northeastern provinces in 1907. This series of measures take the administrative system as the framework, including economic, cultural, educational, even identity definition and other aspects of the integration of reform. [^Back]

    [2]. (2) Mongolian and Tibetan schools were a series of special educational institutions set up by the Beiyang government or the national government in major cities in the inland during the Republican Era, which specially enrolled young people from Mongolian and Tibetan regions. The earliest Mongolian and Tibetan School was established in Beijing in 1913 and renamed National Beiping Mongolian and Tibetan School after 1928. In 1930, a special Mongolian and Tibetan class was attached to the Central Political School in Nanjing, which was directly affiliated to the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Committee. In 1933, the Mongolian and Tibetan classes were reorganized and expanded, which was taken over by the then Ministry of Education and renamed National Nanjing Mongolian and Tibetan School. During the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, the Mongolian and Tibetan School moved to Chongqing with the national government and was renamed Border School. [^Back]

    [3]. (3) Kham is one of the three cultural and humanistic areas of Tibetan civilization: Ü-Tsang, Amdo and Kham. The main part is today’s Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province and Changdu City in Tibet Autonomous Region. The local aborigines use Tibetan Kham dialect, believe in Tibetan Buddhism and call themselves Khampas, which is a sub-ethnic group within Tibetan. In the dual system of the inland-feudatory region in the Qing Dynasty, there was no separate administrative system in the humanistic sense of the Kham region. Its western part, which belongs to the feudatory region, constitutes the four Khutuktu territories under the jurisdiction of the Tibetan local government. The eastern part, which belongs to the inland, is located in the Dajianlu (present day’s Kangding County) of Yazhou Prefecture in Sichuan Province, under the governance of Dajianlu Subprefectural Magistrate. This part was run autonomously by 122 hereditary tusi families. During the Republican Era, the Xikang Province was established in the core area of Kham. Therefore, this area is often called the Xikang area. [^Back]

    [4]. (4) During the course of implementing gaitu guiliu policy, apart from the establishment of Mandarin School and Elementary School by Qing government officials, in 1908, American Christian missionaries established a church school in Batang, which remained open until 1932, becoming an important part of modern education in Kham. [^Back]

    [5]. (5) Batang area was renamed Ba’an after implementing the gaitu guiliu policy, and was changed back to Batang in 1951. For the sake of consistence, this paper adopts the term of Batang except for certain proper nouns (such as Ba’an County Primary School). [^Back]

    [6]. (6) The word border people here comes from the political commentary collection Brief Comments by Border People (边人刍言) published by Kalsang Tsering in 1945. [^Back]

    [7]. (7) From 1928 to 1932, Liu Wenhui was one of the big four of the Sichuan warlords. He was also the chairman of Sichuan Province and the commander of the 24th Army of the National Revolutionary Army. The defense area extended to cover more than 70 counties, and the Xikang area was only a relatively unimportant part. In 1933, Liu Wenhui suffered setbacks in the Sichuan war and lost most of its defense territory. His military and political careers were almost over. Xikang area became his only sphere of influence. [^Back]

    [8]. (8) The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Movement in the same period showed exactly this logic. From the late 1920s onwards, in the autonomy movement led by the old elites in Inner Mongolia, the idea of autonomy was diametrically antagonistic to the plan of building a province. It can even be said that the pressure to build a province was one of the factors leading to the autonomy movement. In the conception of Mongolian nobility who led the autonomous movement, the establishment of provinces in the three districts of Jehol, Chahar and Suiyuan was a fatal blow to the traditional Mongolian local administrative organization, that is, the league-banner system, and the political power of the old elites, and it was this traditional system and political power system that constitute the Mongolians as an important symbol of an ethnic group. [^Back]

    [9]. (9) Xikang area is called Kham in Tibetan, and Kamu is the transliterated word in the middle and early Qing Dynasty, which was translated into Kang in the late Qing Dynasty. And as the place was located on the western border, it was named Xikang by Zhao Erfeng, who was responsible for the implementation of the gaitu guiliu policy in Chuanbian in the late Qing Dynasty. [^Back]


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This Article


CN: 11-1100/C

Vol 34, No. 02, Pages 195-218+246

March 2019


Article Outline


  • 1 Academic context: the structural role of ethnic elites
  • 2 Analytical framework: differentiation and rebuilding of ethnic elites during the Republican Era
  • 3 Kalsang Tsering: a typical figure of the new ethnic elites
  • 4 Structural role: relations with other forces
  • 5 Ideological contradiction and identity dilemma: Kalsang Tsering’s frontier policy and its evolution
  • 6 Summary and discussion
  • Footnote