Knowing My Jurisdiction: Compendiums and Frontier Administration in Early Modern China

In the summer of 1809, the imperial kinsman Jincang (?–1828) was appointed the general of Ili (Yili jiangjun) to supervise the entire Xinjiang.[1] Jinchang had mixed feelings about the promotion. Only distantly related to the ruling house, it was a great honor to assume such an important position, but he felt overwhelmed by the onerous duties it entailed. As head of the military government on the Qing empire’s Inner Asian frontier, the general of Ili was not only responsible for troop deployment and provisions but also had to address day-to-day administrative affairs such as the collection of taxes, budget-making, and land reclamation. Jincang’s anxiety about the new post was not alleviated until he received the Comprehensive Survey of Affairs in Ili (Yili zongtong shilue) from the current general Sungyūn (1754–1835) on his way to Ili. Finishing the twelve-volume text in his carriage, Jincang felt that he had become better informed about “mountains and rivers, cities, local customs, non-Han tribes, stationed troops, and agriculture reclamation,” and he had learned the strategies of “pacifying non-Han peoples and stabilizing the borderland.”[2]


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Good familiarity with the locale one governed was crucial to territorial administration. In the nineteenth century, European colonialists developed a variety of skills and technologies to gather information and generate knowledge on indigenous societies. In India, the British relied on the sophisticated intelligence networks developed by their Hindu and Mughal processors. In China, the Maritime Customs Service was established by the Western bureaucrats, who organized the enormous amount of financial information with report forms, registers, lists, and tables. In Southeast Asia, European census-takers employed diverse sets of categories to register local residents for a variety of purposes.[3]

In early modern China, it was not uncommon for officials to get to know their jurisdictions by reading gazetteers. Some popular bureaucratic handbooks explicitly advised nonlocal administrators to obtain a quick overview of their territories by such means upon their arrival.[4] However, for officials in Xinjiang, which was not annexed to the Qing empire until 1759, obtaining such knowledge was not easy. The sources they could consult were quite limited. There were contemporary travelogues, but their reliability was questionable. Although the Qing court sent the Jesuits to map Xinjiang and produced a comprehensive gazetteer in 1782, neither the atlas nor the gazetteer were accessible to ordinary bureaucrats. Moreover, the natural environment and the apparatus of local government in Xinjiang were distinctly different from China proper, meaning their previous experience was of little help.

Map of Xinjiang drawn by Gengning from the 1809 edition of Comprehensive Survey of Affairs in Ili (Yili zongtong shilue). Source: Harvard Library, https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:50983281$1i#no-op.

As early as the 1760s, officials in Xinjiang began to compile or commission gazetteer-like compendiums to guide themselves and their successors in everyday dealings. These compendiums were thematically arranged, as were the gazetteers. The compendium’s themes, to a great extent, overlapped with those of the gazetteers. For instance, Records of the Muslim Frontier (Huijiang zhi), finalized in the 1780s, manifested the most common themes of gazetteers with thematic headings such as climate, topography, cities, local customs, agriculture, bureaucracy, and households. At the same time, the compendium compilers adapted the genre to their practical needs. In comparison to gazetteers, the compendiums were more oriented toward the present, concentrating on matters of day-to-day administration. For example, the “Bureaucratic System” section in Records of the Muslim Frontier listed the titles and ranks of Muslim officials known as begs in Altishahr (today’s Tarim basin). The “Taxes and Corvée” section itemized the amount and percent of grains, plants, fresh and dried fruit, textiles, furs, and minerals that should be levied from the Han and Muslim households in different regions. The categories not directly related to administration, such as scenery and ancient ruins, were only briefly mentioned or omitted. With the popularity of sightseeing in the sixteenth century, gazetteers became indispensable travel guides for literati tourists to locate scenic and historical sites, and their writings on these places, in turn, were incorporated into later gazetteers.[5] Nevertheless, Records of the Muslim Frontier, which lacked the information on sightseeing sites and the literature associated with them, could hardly be read in that way.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Sungyūn commissioned Comprehensive Survey of Affairs in Ili, the first compendium to cover the entire Xinjiang region. From 1803 to 1806, the former county magistrate Wang Tingkai (1760–1831) was chief editor. After Wang left, Qi Yunshi (1751–1815), who used to be a mid-level official in the central government, took over his work. Since the conquest of the entire Xinjiang in 1759, the Qing government had began to send ordinary criminals as well as disgraced officials and scholars to Xinjiang. Wang and Qi, who were separately implicated in a civil examination scandal and a corruption case, were banished to Xinjiang in 1803 and 1805 respectively. In Xinjiang, banished officials and scholars were an integral component of the lower echelons of the frontier administration. For the Qing government, the hire of educated exiles, who received little or no remuneration, was an efficient and economical solution to the personnel shortage in the new territory.[6] As a clerk in the military government in Ili, Qi had access to all kinds of local records, such as the rosters of officers and soldiers, inventories of firearms, and lists of criminal cases for the autumn assize. Based on these archives, Qi finished the Comprehensive Survey around 1808. Pleased by the informative reference, Sungyūn not only brought a copy to his residence to read but also sent one to his colleague Jincang, who had been worrying about his new post in Ili.

Jincang’s concerns were shared by many contemporary officials in Xinjiang. Since the central government failed to provide sufficient resources they could exploit, they had to accumulate information and transmit their knowledge to their successors by reading and compiling compendiums. In this sense, these compendiums, which greatly facilitated bureaucrats’ self-training and knowledge-sharing, were key to the Qing empire’s maintaining its grip on Inner Asia before the mid-nineteenth century.

Xue Zhang is a PhD candidate in the Department of East Asian Studies, Princeton University.


  1. In this post, Xinjiang refers to the region between the western end of the Great Wall and the Pamirs, covering the Turfan basin, Zungharia, and the Tarim basin. For the history of this area, see James Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).  ↩
  2. Jincang, preface to Yili jiangjun (1809 edition).  ↩
  3. See C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Hans van de Ven, The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014); and Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1991), 164–70.  ↩
  4. See Joseph Dennis, Writing, Publishing, and Reading Local Gazetteers in Imperial China, 1100–1700 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015), 1–7, 288–300.  ↩
  5. See ibid., 300–309.  ↩
  6. See Joanna Waley-Cohen, Exile in Mid-Qing China: Banishment to Xinjiang, 1758–1820 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991).  ↩
Suggested citation: Xue Zhang, “Knowing My Jurisdiction: Compendiums and Frontier Administration in Early Modern China,” History of Knowledge, May 4, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/04/knowing-my-jurisdiction/.