China's West

Y.M. Yeung, Jianfa Shen and Gordon Kee

in Chinese Studies

Published online August 2015 | | DOI:

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China’s west, or the western region, constitutes about two-thirds of the land in the country and twelve provincial or equivalent units. It encompasses territory so vast that its constituent parts are sometimes given different names, such as “Far West” and “Near West.” However, such names lack precise geographical definitions. In ancient times Xiyu 西域 referred to the distant land centered on present-day Xinjiang, a region that drew military expeditions under the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE). The term “China’s west” is closely associated with the country’s history, trade and exchange, diplomacy, folk culture, frontier settlement, and other topics. The historical and cultural significance of China’s west is attested to in its serving as the home to ten of the twenty-eight World Heritage Sites in China designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These sites testify to the natural beauty and creativity of the people who have inhabited the region. They also represent the unparalleled range of historical relics and the many features of great geographical importance found here. The anthologies, ancient art, archaeology, and antiquities of China’s west are widely regarded as diverse and extremely rich, as represented by Dunhuangology, Turfanology, Terracotta Warriors, and Sanxingdui. About 80 percent of China’s borders with fourteen countries and 80 percent of its minority nationality groups are located in the western region. Xinjiang and Tibet have played roles of central importance for centuries, and efforts to strike a balance between issues of national security and ethnic identity have marked the region. Of late, issues of spatiality, poverty, and inequality within the western region have also come to the fore. Harmony, integration, and national sovereignty clash with colonialism and expansionism. Likewise, Sino (Han)-centric and state-centric views have to be complemented by opposite perspectives. Relations with neighboring states markedly improved when the legendary Silk Road reached a peak of activity in the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and have entered another period of importance with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1999 with the promulgation of a policy aimed at active development, China’s west entered a critical period. The long-term policy seeks to redress the region’s imbalance with the coastal region, and the past decade has witnessed rapid development across the region in the construction of infrastructure, sustainable growth, energy utilization, and cross-border cooperation. Expanding deserts and grassland degradation are counterbalanced by desert reclamation and ambitious west-to-east energy transfers. Balanced regional development with an emphasis to assist China’s west to catch up is a long-term goal sought by leaders across the national spectrum.

Article.  16600 words. 

Subjects: East Asian Studies ; Asian History ; East Asian Philosophy ; East Asian Religions

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