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Multi-ethnic Hexi Corridor helps explain formation of Chinese nation

LI JIANZONG | 2018-12-13 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

In Southern Gansu, along the middle of the Hexi Corridor and north of Qilian Mountains, live the 11,000 people of the Yugur ethnic minority. The endangered Yugur culture has been the focus of preservation. Photo: CHINA DAILY


The Hexi Corridor is located at the junction of multiple geological plates. With its unique tectonic features, some fault lines appear inside and outside the corridor. These faults are not only geological boundaries, but also cultural and ethnic boundaries, and they signify the possibility and inevitability of multicultural integration and the formation of new communities.

The Hexi Corridor, which extends over 1,000 kilometers in Gansu Province, is at the junction of several major geological blocks, including the Tibetan, Mongolian and Huangtu plateaus. It is the junction of the surrounding regional cultures and a cornucopia of cultural diversity. This is the ethnological significance of Hexi Corridor and why it provides a new paradigm for regional studies.


Multiple boundaries
In China’s regional studies, regions are traditionally divided into southeast, southwest, northeast and northwest China according to geographical environment and corresponding cultural characteristics. On this basis, a number of scholars have explored ethnic corridors as a regional research paradigm. For example, study of the Tibetan-Yi Corridor is trending. Studies of the Nanling Corridor and the Northwest Corridor are following suit.

In cross-regional and cross-ethnic studies, a multi-factor paradigm has been formed. The Hexi Corridor is influenced by the Qinghai-Tibeten plateau culture, the Mongolian plateau culture, the Xinjiang oasis culture and the Huangtu plateau culture. Though these cultures interact in the Hexi Corridor, they all have their own boundaries, which makes this area the meeting point of multiple cultures.

Sometimes, the Hexi Corridor is classified as a Tibetan-border society, while other times it falls into the category of a Mongolian border society. In a multi-boundary area, multi-cultural integration and recombination have naturally appeared, and multi-culturalism often spreads in an irregular form, with a distribution pattern in line with the natural geographical environment. When ethnic groups settle down in the Hexi Corridor, it means that they have moved far away from the “center” of their own culture, yet they still tend to hang on to it.

Rivers not only nurture human beings, but also shape human civilization. Studying human civilization in regard to river basins is an important paradigm of regional research. The natural geological division within the Hexi Corridor is also an important factor in forming cultural divisions. The Hexi Corridor is dry with little rain, and the natural rainfall cannot support the oasis agriculture. Therefore, the inland river was the premise for the formation of the Hexi Corridor oasis society, and the size of the water system determines that of the oasis.

The oasis cluster along the Hexi Corridor has been built on the basis of three inland river systems. Like other agrarian societies, villages are the most basic community units in oasis societies. Due to the limited size of the oases in the Hexi Corridor, each oasis connects communities of different villages and towns together to form an oasis social trading system, thus forming an oasis social community. Naturally, different oasis social communities form different boundaries.


New center
From the perspective of the Central Plains culture, the Hexi Corridor is either a frontier or a marginal area, because it is far away from the center of China. From the perspective of the Mongolian plateau culture, the Qinghai-Tibet plateau culture and the Western Region culture, the Hexi Corridor is yet to become a key area.

Due to its unique geographic advantage, a new center formed in the Hexi Corridor. This center restrains the surrounding cultural circles, which is the most significant function of the Hexi Corridor and the main reason why the reigns of different dynasties throughout Chinese history in the Central Plains have always valued it strategically.

Whenever there was a social crisis or various internal dynamics in surrounding cultural circles, some people would migrate to the Hexi Corridor. In this way, this area serves as a crisis buffer zone for the surrounding societies, in other words, a pressure relief valve for the internal social stability mechanisms of the surrounding cultural circles.


Multi-ethnic community
In history, the Hexi Corridor was at the edge of nomadic societies and subject to tribal rule, which led to people-to-people exchange and cultural communication as well as the formation of a multi-ethnic community.

The diversity of cultures and ethnic groups has resulted in the fact that the heterogeneous elements are far greater than the homogeneous elements, which is contrary to what is typical in regional research.

The Hexi Corridor is at the junction of the Tibetan and Huangtu plateaus. In history, it was considered to be the boundary between the Fan domain and Yi region and key to maintaining their separation. Therefore, some places named after Fan and Yi appear in the Hexi Corridor, such as Zhen Fan, Zhen Yi and Ping Fan.

This shows that there has been interaction among different ethnic groups in the Hexi Corridor, even though a negative one. This interaction formed the concept and consciousness of a multi-ethnic community.

The interaction between the Tibetan and Huangtu plateaus was frequent in the Ming and Qing dynasties due to Tibetan Buddhism. In this historical context, the importance of the Hexi Corridor is evident. On a daily basis, the most common contact was trade in markets, which laid the foundation for the formation of a multi-ethnic community.

When I conducted a field survey on the oral history in Zhangye, home to China’s sole Yugur community, the elderly recalled frequent interactions between Yugur people and Han, Tibetan, Mongolian, Hui, Tu and Kazakh ethnicities. The middle section of the Hexi Corridor, where the fertile steppes unfurl towards the Qilian Mountains, is the traditional dwelling place of the Yugur ethnic group. The local population includes people from 38 of China’s 56 ethnic groups, the largest among them the Yugur, Mongolian, and Tibetan ethnicities. They have lived here in peace and harmony for generations.

Before the middle of the 20th century, some people in the border areas of agricultural and pastoral areas tended to engage in agricultural production in busy seasons and engage in some commercial activities in slack seasons. Therefore, in history, the majority of Han villagers would participate in commercial activities almost daily, and the proportion of businessmen in the society would have been higher than that at present. It is the activities of Han and some Hui people in agricultural society that have connected the different ethnic groups in the Hexi Corridor and surrounding areas, helping to form a multi-ethnic community.

In general, the primary task of regional research is to clarify the boundaries and highlight the overall characteristics of a region, so as to explore the fundamental differences between the region and other regions. With the popularity of regional studies, the Hexi Corridor has been in the spotlight.

However, when referring to the Hexi Corridor or the concept of “hexi,” meaning west of the Yellow River, the oasis agriculture of Han Chinese society is more often than not the focus, whereas quite a proportion of nomadic culture in the Hexi Corridor and its internal complexity is overlooked.

In my opinion, if the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society and the multi-ethnic community aspects of the Hexi Corridor were to be cast aside, the regional study would lose focus. In the study of the Hexi Corridor, multi-ethnic relationships are at the core. On this basis, we can see how pluralism in the corridor zone is integrated into a singular identity, and we can observe the mechanism by which pluralism is converted into integration. The transitional or intermediate characteristics of the corridor are an important way to understand the characteristics of the corridor in regional studies.

The multi-ethnic community of the Hexi Corridor is a microcosm of the Chinese nation, and the mechanism of its formation is of great significance to better understanding that of the country as a whole.


Li Jianzong is from the School of Ethnology and Sociology at Qinghai Nationalities University.

(edited by YANG XUE)