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Cultivating Torghuts: Converting Steppe Herders to Steppe Farmers without Water Control

Sat, June 25, 10:30am to 12:20pm, Shikokan (SK), Floor: 1F, 102


The paper explores some implications of the climatic and hydrological limits of Qing borderland empire. During the 1770’s, the Qing state made an extended effort to convert Torghut Mongol refugees fleeing Russia from pastoralists to agriculturalists central to its resettlement project. Dynastic officials were motivated by security concerns that included both an immediate food crisis and longer term anxieties about controlling dispersed hunter-herders over a vast terrain of randomly spaced grasslands and water sources. The state implemented a crash program to educate the Torghuts for steppe farming. Ecological and cultural (understood together as “environmental”) obstacles substantially blocked this attempt to “cultivate” the Torghuts, which compelled the dynasty to adapt its expectations to the fragile steppe ecology and the Mongol identity most suited to it. Agrarian supervision was an administrative tool used to reform Mongol identity from a dependency on animals that required too much unsupervised space, to one on plants whose distribution was much easier to regulate. Both Xinjiang’s political and ecological situation influenced resettlement, but the throne had the least control over climate in general and water in particular. The lack of conventional water control (shuili) to stabilize steppe agriculture undermined Torghut conversion. This absence of a traditional hydrological infrastructure, the basis for intensive agriculture in China proper, critically conditioned the nature and extent of borderland incorporation into the Qing imperial agricultural regime. This suggests “water control” should be redefined for a wider imperial context.