Thinking and Writing about Inner Asia: A Q&A with Rian Thum

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I recently caught up by email with New Orleans-based historian Rian Thum to ask him a variety of questions about topics he knows and cares a lot about, ranging from trends in publishing on Inner Asia to the curious ways that even seemingly arcane issues relating to the past can get intensely politicized in today’s China.  Thum’s name should be familiar to regular readers of this publication, since both an excerpt from and an effusive Nile Green review of his prize-winning first book, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, ran in LARB.

What trends have you noticed in the kinds of books on Inner Asia that have been coming to you as Journal of Asian Studies Book Review Editor for that part of the continent?   And since this is an interview for something called the “China Blog,” perhaps focus most on the works that deal with places that are now at least partly encompassed in the PRC, though if there has been a massive surge in English language studies of the Central and Inner Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union that would be interesting to know!

I’ll have to go region by region here, because there’s relatively little recent work that straddles the various Inner Asian cultures. There are exceptions, for example a new edited volume that looks at ethnic conflict in both Tibet and Xinjiang and a very important new book that examines reincarnation as a political phenomenon linking Tibet, China, and the Mongols, but most new work focuses on a single culture.

Of all the Inner Asian regions, Tibet has always received the most attention, which means that there are enough books on Tibet to really identify consistent trends. Lately scholars have taken an interest in Tibetan biography, analyzing both the genre in its particular Tibetan forms and its potential to open windows on the experiences of Tibetans of the last millennium or so. This is an exciting turn, because it injects very personal and human elements into the abstract institutions and ideologies that have featured so prominently in the study of Tibet.

For the Mongolic-speaking traditions, the last couple of years have seen some important books on religion, both Buddhism and shamanism, Mongol and Buryat. This is, I think, a reflection of the kinds of sources that are available, but also of an attention to the ways Mongolic-speakers frame their own experiences. However, there’s also a pair of books out that examine violence in Mongolia, reflecting a nascent tendency to mine Inner Asian materials for insights into universal social phenomena.

As for Xinjiang, what’s most striking is that we’re finally seeing more than one or two books per year. This is the culmination of a long process of developing linguistically competent scholars with experience living in Xinjiang, a slow process that only began with the reopening of the region in the late 1980s.

I’m also happy to see an ethnography of the Ewenki reindeer herders, a group that has not received much attention. Manchu books tend to work from the Qing imperial perspective, and so usually find their way to the China section of the book reviews, rather than Inner Asia.

Zeroing in on Xinjiang, the region that has been the main focus of your own work, what strikes you most about the style, range, and topical or chronological emphases of the works about it that have been coming across your desk?

Diversity, and that’s something new. When people started writing about Xinjiang again in the 1990s, a focus on ethnic identity or resistance to the Chinese state was de rigueur. But as the field has developed, authors have begun to explore a wider range of questions. 2016 is turning out to be the biggest year for Xinjiang books in a century, and coverage is all over the map. We have books on the contemporary experience of Han Chinese colonists in Xinjiang, on the development of the “Uyghur” idea across the Sino-Russian border, and on Republican-era politics in Xinjiang through the eyes of its Chinese rulers. Another forthcoming book re-imagines indigenous officials in the 18th and 19th centuries as capitalist entrepreneurs. These are all academic works, but they are also remarkably readable, which places them in a growing movement in the humanities away from tortuous prose and specialist jargon.

Largely for logistical reasons, the JAS, mostly reviews English language scholarly works, though it is certainly open to looking at works in other languages.  What are the most important languages other than English these days for scholarship on Inner Asia, and does it differ between, say, Tibet and Xinjiang?

You can get a sense of the history of Inner Asia scholarship from those kinds of linguistic divisions. Japan’s long tradition of research on Xinjiang, for example, and Soviet interest in the Central and Inner Asian cultures that fell under Russian rule are both reflected in publications in those languages. Tibet, on the other hand, tends to see more work in western European languages. There are of course important publications in Uyghur, Tibetan, and Chinese, but the Chinese state, through its academic system and through its censorship regime, presents some pretty daunting obstacles to effective humanistic scholarship. Inner Asian and Chinese authors who manage to overcome those obstacles often end up publishing in English.

Okay, a couple of final questions beyond books.  First, is there uniformity in how people define “Central Asia” or “Inner Asia,” as it’s sometimes called, as in the “China and Inner Asian Council” of the Association for Asian Studies?  If not, how do you think about this region, in terms of its contours and shape?

These area divisions are always messy and always disputed, but there’s a clear center of gravity in defining both Central and Inner Asia. The Turko-Persian areas of the former Soviet Union tend to get called Central Asia, with Afghanistan sometimes lumped in. Inner Asia is a term that, to my mind, accommodates a China-centered view of the Asian interior: the steppe region to China’s north (most recently dominated by Manchus and Mongols), “Xinjiang” or “Eastern Turkestan,” and Tibet all have histories that are intimately entangled with China. The major point of overlap is Xinjiang. Culturally it looks more like former-Soviet Central Asia, but historically it has important connections to China.
Finally, turning to something associated with both Chinese and Inner Asian history, have you been surprised to by how passionate some Beijing authors have been in their denunciations of the “New Qing History,” treating it as something with major political implications, rather than the topic of purely scholarly interest that it might seem to be to the non-initiated?

Working, as I do, in a field in which historians have been banned from China for their writing, I can’t say I was very surprised. The party has taken upon itself the task of justifying the borders of the Inner Asian Qing Empire, borders which the PRC has inherited, in the language of Chinese nationalism. To a certain extent, the insights of “New Qing history” were spurred by taking seriously the Qing rulers’ explanations of how and why they maintained such a massive empire. PRC nationalist historians have great difficulty weaving this material into their narratives of China – of a primordial and continuous China, one that “unifies” rather than conquers and divides rather than contracts – without leaving some frayed edges. Those frayed edges are particularly visible in Inner Asia.