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China, Dzungars, and Uyghurs

Long-time readers of this blog know I’m quite interested in the history of Central Asia. This region of the world is “back in the news.” The Uyghurs of the Tarim basin are in the eye of the storm, with the Chinese government’s totalitarian apparatus zeroed in on them.

But is this so surprising? I would say no. The northern half of Xinjiang is “Dzungaria”, named after a collection of groups called “Dzungar Mongols.” But very few Mongols live in Dzungaria today. This is because 250 years ago they were ethnically cleansed by the Manchu Empire. The Qing dynasty.

History leaves us with few surprises, alas.

For more on this particular topic, I have a Substack essay (free), Made in China: Does it matter who writes history if no one reads it? Please feel free to read and share, and if you are a subscriber your comments are welcome.

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15 thoughts on “China, Dzungars, and Uyghurs

  1. Would the West have cared so much about the Uyghurs if the genocide happened in 1990s/2000s and the Uyghurs were Buddhist rather than Muslim?

    I don’t think so. Imo, Western(or rather Anglo) right wing only cares because they are threatened by the rise of China. Western left for whatever reason has a very soft spot for Islam. Islamo-leftism as the French call it now. A genocide of Buddhist Uyghurs in 2001 would not have garnered such a strong Western reaction.

  2. Dzungar guns were long jezail types of the common Central asian pattern, similar to the ones in Afghanistan that gave the contemporary Brits trouble

    It is ironic that the Dzungars actually relied on guns and lost to the (powerful) bows and arrows of the Qing horse archer cavalry. Qing did have advanced mobile field artillery

    This is the same situation as on the American frontier, where the dynamism of cavalry combat favored the old ways, especially since American troops were no longer wearing armor and so were vulnerable to even the primitive bows of the New World

    It would not be until repeater rifles that gunpowder could compete in the saddle, or even to repel a charge with small arms, something that the Song crossbow drill (and Han and Tang) could do, at least against non cataphracts.

    See the cavalry charges used all the way until ww1

  3. Aren’t the Buddhist Kalmyk’s in Kalmykia, in European Russia, Mongol refugees from Northern Xinjiang ? Apparently one of Vladimir Lenin’s grand parents or great grand parents was a Kalmyk trader.

  4. “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

    The term Genocide is undergoing semantic corruption in front of our eyes as part of the natural linguistic evolution of A or a-collection of languages.

    Human collective action is not Binary or Discrete enough, it exists on a curve/spectrum/range/degrees, meaning it hardly ever has a definitive & clear definition.
    A similar semantic-corruption happened with Terrorism post 9/11, all the while West having ignored places like India who cried themselves hoarse after being subjected to it for multiple decades preceding 9/11.

    Using the definition above of Genocide, it can be “Reasonably” argued that what has happened with the Black communities in US is also Genocide.

    May well be. But to use that term seriously on that is also a bit silly/extreme/un-nuanced.

    Meaning the term’s definition is the problem first, then the interpretation of the act itself.

    The comment by Eugene G on substack article is absolutely apt, nuanced and correct.
    Humans are more important, their memes (which is what tradition, culture, dogma, religion, ritual is) are not. They are not equivalent and yet Genocide currently applies to both equally, which makes a mockery of the actual Human life.

    Maslow’s Hierarchy is not hard science but the trendlines/patterns it tries to suggest is real. Nothing is more important than actual Life.

    Good article this overall, brief run-down of Qing-Dzungar conflict so informative for many who wouldn’t be aware and tying it with the historic-modern era narrative developments.

    Though I also don’t agree that Neighbor-on-Neighbor clash (of whatever scale & severity) is equivalent to what happened under European Colonialism.

    Not only was Western Colonialism unprovoked & unjustified (barely any Indian or African, etc had ever done anything to the Europeans since they literally didn’t interact for millennia) but even when this process ended there was no collective cathartic release. Europeans left, untarnished, undefeated and with all the spoils (upon which was build the modern international order).

    As mentioned in this article’s examples, Chinese settled populations had been at war with its Northern neighbors for thousands of years. There was cathartic collective-memory on both sides. Chinese were butchered many times and yet vice-versa also happened.

    No such thing happened with so called End of Colonialism. There wasn’t and has been no Closure.
    Individuals are not the only ones who require such psychological recourse after severe trauma, a Society is an Individual-Collective, it has its own collective memory and experience, trauma to it also requires some cathartic-Equivalent (this doesn’t exclusively mean war or violence alone but it has to elicit a profound psychological response as well).

    To me Dzungar Genocide is a revisionist semantic corruption as well. It was an internal civil war, rebellion where the rebels lost, in totality. Them being of a Particular Ethnicity/Religion is immaterial, secondary or later order relevance since the Political domain held absolute primacy for the action.
    Dzungars threatened the existence of the political security of Qing State. Dzungars being of Religion X and Ethnicity Y is a side-show. Meaning even using the same definition it is still not a culture-cide since that wasn’t the intention or goal. The goal was removal of the Political-rival/entity from a strategic region through means of extermination of the humans for political purposes, since bribing/diplomacy/coercion(all political still) wasn’t working.

    Another way this definition is silly is, it basically means Christianity and Islam are inherently Genocidal memes since they actively caused culture-cide (where they expanded to violently/pronouncedly) as the primary objective, not the extermination of humans (hence different to the Dzungar situation).

    Maybe they were, but one can see how it can also appear to sound a bit absurd/silly/over-the-top/unnuanced.

  5. Yes, of course, the End of Colonialism requires Closure. The former colonies must conquer and kill the former colonizers. That’s what China did with the Dzungars and it was good.

  6. On a less sarcastic note, there is a contradiction in the comment. The extermination of the Dzungars is characterized as “psychological recourse after severe trauma, a Society is an Individual-Collective, it has its own collective memory and experience, trauma to it also requires some cathartic-Equivalent”. Because “Chinese settled populations had been at war with its Northern neighbors for thousands of years. There was cathartic collective-memory on both sides. Chinese were butchered many times and yet vice-versa also happened.” So it’s a psychological/sociological/cultural thing.

    But then we are told that the extermination was strictly political: “it is still not a culture-cide since that wasn’t the intention or goal.” The Chinese government felt the Dzungars, simply by being Dzungars, “threatened the existence of the political security of Qing State”. So exterminating them was just political and thus not genocide.

    A very convenient argument for any government. “Those Jews “threaten the existence of the political security of [the German] state’.” Therefore, we must wipe them out.

    Of course, one can ask, why is it worse to wipe people out because you hate them or think they are a cultural threat than to wipe them out because you think they are a political threat? Dead is dead. Extermination is extermination.

    And, of course, if you are a good Marxist, there is no essential difference between culture and politics.

  7. Roger, on that tangent, I could be wrong but I don’t see a huge desire for killing from ppl from former colonies, but more about money and prestige, and on a darker note, inflicting humiliation and shame (i.e. wealth and “status”). Very little actual desire for blood vengeance and there’s fairly little concern about the very colonial / colonising activities of unprestigous and poorer countries today, like Russia or Portugal (or even Spain), who were not so successfully leading economic development and not seen as wealthy or successful today. The rhetoric seems mostly aimed at transferring wealth and prestige away from colonising countries seen as wealthy or prestigious today (“taking them down a peg”, “getting respect”), and even wealthy non- or minimally colonising culturally close prestigious neighbours like Ireland and Sweden and Germany. It seems about changing perceptions of prestige and really about access to wealth and voice in powerful global culture institutions. Anything that edges into veiled threats of violence mostly a means to that ends, as a sort of vague threat about what will happen if we’re not “truthful”. Not that it couldn’t overflow into that, somehow, but not the real goal.

    The appeal to Western Marxists and that way leaning folk seems similar; unlike Marx who didn’t seem to think colonial accumulation was very important to explain industrialism as far as I know (which he seemed to see as really inevitable outcome of historical forces of Capitalist development within Europe, no special capital flows from outside required or important, no special relationship with the archaic, regressive slave based economic stage), many modern day ideological descendants are looking out for more or less anything going that can discredit and reduce prestige of the Capitalist class in their home countries (as dependent on plunder), to pave the way for shifts to their preferred centrally planned economic models, where they’re the temporarily embarrassed central planners… (Whether or not it’s really consistent with historical forces and stages of development in the original Marxist schema of history that supposedly provides their intellectual underpinning).

    Another plank are people who are lack material interest, but who are very the end product of a history of liberal thought (itself no clearly bad thing) and so idealise figures who reject loyalty to tradition for culturally liberal, free-thinking and individual reasons, and again have an inclination to see anything that condemns traditionalism as fair game and any act which rejects tradition as heroic and noble.

    Basically perhaps a status game, like much else today, and most of the “voices” in the globalised media and politics landscape have an interest in pushing the version that’s status enhancing for them. It may be in vain to try and dispel that sort of rhetoric, by building other stories that centre human universal tendencies and trajectories and the rise of science and rationalised government other Whiggish things (albeit while acknowledging their dark side), and work to defuse these issues in a more honest, and really more historically true, way. Worth a try though, still.

    (Which to actually be more firmly on topic, I think Razib’s essay does with clarity and subtlety, without dogmatism, with nuance and without false conflation, among other virtues.)

  8. Qing dynasty Manchu was very skillful in dealing with different ethnic groups (or nationalities). Dzungar Mongols were genocided as shown here. Regarding other mongols, emperor Qianlong said:“一座喇嘛庙,胜抵十万兵” (one tibetan buddhist monastery is better than ten-thousands soldiers army). Basically, the monastery absorbed so many mogol males that the male incentive and manpower for violence were wiped out. Qing dynasty successfully solved the thousands years problem of mongol steppe. Qing court did not need great wall for any defense anymore.

    Regarding Han people, Qing Manchu chose to appeasement policy by regarding Han people as official citizens (臣民)and their own Manchu people as slaves (奴才)。 Manchu people with slave status had no freedom of movement, no freedom to do business, no freedom to do anything except working for emperor. It was illegal for a Manchu to refer self as citizen instead of slave.

    This was quite contrary to any conquering ethnicity who would rank themselves as first in hierarchy. Well, as people with the largest brain volume, Manchu out thinks most people.

    Maybe Islamic monastery with a lot of male monks can solve the problem of violent jihadist. Peaceful life in monastery should be more attractive in terrorist groups.

  9. @ Roger Sweeney

    On a less sarcastic note, there is a contradiction in the comment

    Firstly your sarcastic tangent wasn’t even logically coherent given that as Matt also iterated in his follow-up, my comment explicitly stated this comeuppance need not be Violent or War. It is a psychological state, related to feeling, not necessarily How specifically that feeling is satiated.

    Second, There is no contradiction since you read the order of the comment wrongly.

    The extermination of the Dzungars is characterized as…

    It is NOT characterized as such. That quote you post-fixed to the above statement was regarding the Neighbor-On-Neighbor, Western Colonialism and its Ending-process sections.

    But then we are told that the extermination was strictly political…

    There is no But-Then because the 2 sections are separate.
    Dzungar-Qing event was Political. This is a matter of fact not subjective debate. Razib’s article itself recaps the fact that culturally/religiously Manchu’s didn’t care about Dzungar’s ritual practices. They cared about Dzungars sabotaging and undermining Manchu Political authority to the degree that Qing State itself was under threat.

    There is no need to invoke Cathartic dynamic here because Machu’s didn’t have some repressed Millenia old grudge against Dzungars outside of the normal Steppe competition, which again if applied here means already extant Cathartic balance among them since neither side held unidirectional dominance perpetually.

    Hence there is no contradiction because you misread the sections and about what they were talking about.

    So exterminating them was just political and thus not genocide.

    It’s not genocide because as mentioned, destruction wasn’t 100% complete, it was akin to a civil war and it pre-dates the modern usage-conditions of the term.
    Plus the fact that, IF the In Part section of the definition is invoked then by that logical consistency other examples mentioned in my comment (US Black populations in modern era, US Chinese exclusion end result in the past, Islam-Christianity proselytizing, etc) shall apply as well. But they don’t.

    Hence Dzungar-Qing war being categorized as Genocide is modern revisionism.

    “Those Jews “threaten the existence of the political security of [the German] state’.” Therefore, we must wipe them out.

    This is like the 4th instance where you seem to have a hard time understanding what is written and twisting it into something completely absurd.

    Jews were NOT a Political rebels/rivals entity in Germany undermining the German State. Furthermore German pogrom actions snared other minorities as well. And the core underpinning these actions were Racial/Ethno/Cultural reasons. Manchu’s and Dzungars had not such equation. War happened because Dzungars defied the Qing authority as a Political Rival threatening to upend the State, i.e. it was a normal War/Civil-War. On top of that minorities like Uyghurs were relocated to that area after this event, hardly an equivalent to Nazi Germany event.

    No one goes around categorizing Alexander genociding tribes as he made his way towards NW India. That is revisionism of the silly kind.

    Dead is dead. Extermination is extermination.

    Culture-cide doesn’t require Deaths to begin with. 5th example of you not keeping up with what is written.
    That bit was mentioned in my comment in the Dzungar section to lay out of the fact that the Qing action was not based on Culture-cide because they had no major issues with Dzungar culture itself.

    And about Dead is Dead and Exterminations, then if its a fight or flight matter then Extermination is a potential outcome. Actual War is not a child’s game.

    And my comment had nothing to do with Marxism. 6th instance of you being completely detached.

  10. @Var

    You certainly did say, “this doesn’t exclusively mean war or violence alone”. You also said the Chinese extermination of the Dzungar was cathartic and that, “As mentioned in this article’s examples, Chinese settled populations had been at war with its Northern neighbors for thousands of years. There was cathartic collective-memory on both sides. Chinese were butchered many times and yet vice-versa also happened.” Since you thought the Qing’s destruction of the Dzungars was good and necessary, and since you said there needed to be some cathartic reaction to colonialism, it didn’t seem like much of a logical stretch to apply the same logic to the old colonizers. After all, your exact words were, “this doesn’t exclusively mean war or violence alone.” Hardly a ringing condemnation of war or violence. Of course, today the military correlation of forces makes such cathartic destruction impossible.

    The rest of your comment seems to be about differences of opinion. What does the official definition of genocide really mean? How much was the destruction of the Dzungars political and how much was cultural and how do you tell the difference?

  11. The Dzungarian genocide sounds similar enough to another widely accepted genocide, the Herero and Namaqua genocides in German Sudwestafrika; the imperial power encounters some ethnic groups that contest its authority, some of the members of these groups interrupt the functioning of the empire using non-violent and violent means, they resist assimilation to the norms of the imperial power, and eventually the imperial power unleashes its full power on the entire group as a means of deterrence and establishing political and economic domination and quashing cultural transmission of the norms and values of the resistant ethnicity.

    Maybe the Herero and Namaqua genocides shouldn’t be thought of as genocides, but given that they are widely accepted as such, its characteristics should provide some kind of guiderail.

  12. Off-topic:
    I would subscribe if you offered a cryptocurrency option (Bitcoin, Monero, whatever)*. You would probably have to manage the payments external to Stripe, so perhaps not worth it unless you get some other interest, but I wanted to float the idea.

    *Might still subscribe even if credit card is only option, but I’ll have to think about how it fits into my threat model. KYC is forever, and I’m hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

  13. @Kanatonian Kalmyks are mostly Torghuts who migrated to the Volga in the 1620’s. The Dzungar ruling council was made up of four principle tribes the Torghut, Durbut, Choros, and Khoshut. Torghuts are Keraits that descend from Jakha Khambu, the brother of Wang Khan of Keraits. The Durbut are formed tribes from eastern Mongolia from the 13th century. Khoshuts are Khorchin from Jirim in Inner Mongolia, two brothers had a succession dispute and one of the brother Urug Timur took his people and moved west and joined the Oirats. I can’t find anything significant on origins of the Choros, but I assume they formed from tribes near the Altai.

    The people who were killed in the Dzungar genocide were mostly the Choros. Torghuts had all but left for the Volga, the Khoshuts moved to Tibet or Qinghai, and the half of the Durbuts left with the Torghuts and the other half had joined Qing.

  14. I have read your article and I would like to say that the comparison of the Uighurs today with the Dzungars is not accurate.

    The correct historical analogy in China is the Gaitu guiliu (改土归流) policy in southwestern China (e.g. Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou), which is even more historically obscure amongst western audience. Gaitu guiliu was a policy of abolishing the rule of local chieftains, tusi (土司), with officials appointed from the capital, together with the imposing of Chinese language on the minority peoples. The main goal is assimilation, which is happen to the Uighurs now, not extermination, which is what happened to the Dzungars then.

    I would also want to add that the Dzungars were hardly an innocent party. Genocide is part and parcel of steppe warfare, and being descendants of the Mongols, they are quite familiar with its use. Hence, the Dzungar genocide should not be seen as a extermination of a helpless peoples like what the Turks did to the Armenians, and the Germans to the Jews, but a culmination of a centuries long struggle between the Jurchen peoples(who would later become the Manchu) and the Mongol peoples (the Mongols destroyed the Jurchen Jin dynasty 1230AD).

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