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Book Review: “The Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity” by Uradyn Bulag



“Central Eurasian Studies Review”
Volume 1, Number 3, pp 22-23 Fall 2002 ISSN 1538-5043

Uradyn Bulag, The Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity. Lanham, MD and London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing, 2002. xi + 273 pp., maps, illustrations, bibliography, index. ISBN: 0742511448. $34.95 paper.

Reviewed by: Timothy May, Department of History, the University of Wisconsin-Madison,

In his new book Uradyn Bulag has taken on a formidable task in examining ethnicity and national unity in the People's Republic of China (PRC). The focus of his study is the Mongol population of Inner Mongolia, their autonomous region in the PRC, in which the Mongols are a minority. Concepts of ethnicity and nationality are complicated, but Professor Bulag's book becomes more intricate due to the fact that he himself is a Mongol originally from Inner Mongolia.

As stated in the opening pages of The Mongols at China's Edge, the purpose of this study is "to understand the multifaceted Mongol experiences in China, past and present, and through it, to highlight broader issues pertaining to the Mongols and other peoples on China's vast border" (p. 1). In addition, Bulag, an anthropologist by training, attempts to study the development and the very concept of minorities in the PRC, particularly in the context of the minzu tuanjie or national unity (p. 1). Through this he explores relations between socialism and nationalism, as well as resistance to national unity and the moral dilemmas that arise.

The Mongols at China's Edge consists of seven chapters, divided into the introduction and 3 separate parts. In the first chapter or introduction to the problem at hand, Bulag sets forth the historiography of nationalism and ethnicity as well as a discussion of minzu tuanjie. Following this is Part One, entitled "Producing and Reproducing National Unity." Consisting of two chapters entitled "Ritualizing National Unity: Modernity at the Edge of China" and "Naturalizing National Unity: Political Romance and the Chinese Nation," this section examines the concept of minzu tuanjie from its origins and how concepts of nationality have changed over the course of time.

In the first chapter Uradyn Bulag states that his work asks several questions as he attempts to understand the role of ethnicity and national identity. He asks: what are the characteristics of Chinese minzu tuanjie and how do national groups, many of whom were enemies in the past, adjust to the harmonious atmosphere of minzu tuanjie in the People's Republic of China? Next he examines how Mongolian nationalism and socialism in Inner Mongolia function in China, which is also nationalistic and communist in its own right. This leads to a third problem, namely, how does a small minority in Inner Mongolia, the Mongols,
legitimately exercise autonomy as the "titular nationality of their historic homeland?" (p. 2). Finally, he asks to what extent the Mongols of China struggle to maintain or achieve cultural and historical integrity, while still maintaining the concept of minzu tuanjie.

The second and third chapters examine two case studies. In the second chapter Bulag undertakes a multi-disciplinary approach to the Mongols of Koko Nur and their relationships with the Manchus, Han, and Tibetans in that region or in the government. Chapter Three examines the modern perceptions as well as the change in interpretation of Wang Zhaojun, a Han princess who was sent to be the bride of a Hsiung-nu khan. Whereas the first case
study was grounded in history, the third chapter examines gender and sexuality.

The second part, entitled "Tensions of Empire," examines the conflict between various ethnicities within the PRC as well as ethnic tensions that originated in the Qing Empire. Two chapters comprise this section. The first, "From Inequality to Difference: Colonial Contradictions of Class and Ethnicity in 'Socialist' China," examines the contradictions between ethnicity and class in a socialist state. The second chapter, "Rewriting 'Inner Mongolian' History after the Revolution: Ethnicity, Nation and the Struggle for Recognition," is a study of the Mongolians' attempts to come to grips with their position within the PRC, as well as Han Chinese and the Communist government's own relationship with the Mongolians of Inner Mongolia.

The final part, entitled "Models and Morality," presents two case studies on ethnicity and
nationality. The sixth chapter of the book, "Models and Morality: The Parable of the 'Little Heroic Sisters of the Grassland,'" examines how two Mongolian girls are transformed into role models for all of Communist China, while their story is changed to accommodate the idea of minzu tuanjie. The final chapter, "The Cult of Ulanhu: History, Memory, and the Making of an Ethnic Hero" examines the life of Ulanhu, the most prominent Mongolian figure in Inner Mongolia, and indeed, the PRC. Ulanhu (1906-1988) was the founder of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and its leader until 1947. During the 1980s he served as vice president of China, becoming the highest-ranking minority in the PRC's government. A cult of ancestor/hero worship developed after his death out of the memory of what he accomplished for the Mongolian nation in China, a cult that was partially encouraged by the gevernment.

Bulag's study is a much-needed work on minorities in China, especially since the lion's share of attention given to this issue in the mass media is focused on Tibet and, to a lesser extent, the situation in Xinjiang. In spite of its many merits, this work suffers somewhat from poor organization. The chapters in The Mongols at China's Edge read as a series of articles rather than as coherent and interconnected chapters of a single book with a unifying theme. While it is certainly true that the theme is the relationship between the Mongols as a separate ethnic group and their position as part of China, there is little transition between the chapters. The major reason for this, as Uradyn Bulag states in his acknowledgments, is that chapters three, six, and seven appeared in earlier form as articles in academic journals (p. xi). However, these articles provide only the framework for later research that has been added as they form the chapters in The Mongols at China's Edge. Nevertheless, each chapter provides insight and they work wonderfully as separate case studies on various aspects of minority relations.

The other weakness of the book is the lack of a conclusion. Chapter seven deals with possibly the most important figure in modern Inner Mongolian history and politics: Ulanhu. Bulag's treatment of Ulanhu is thorough and admirable. While one may justifiably comment that Ulanhu represented the pinnacle of achievement in Inner Mongolia, a separate concluding chapter would have better tied all of the chapters together.

Nevertheless, Uradyn Bulag's The Mongols at China's Edge should be an essential read for anyone working on minorities in China, or for that matter in any region. Bulag's multi-disciplinary approach to the topic is balanced, as is his choice of subject matter in each chapter.





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