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#asianow speaks with jonathan schlesinger

jonathan schlesinger is associate professor of history at indiana university and author of a world trimmed with fur: wild things, pristine places, and the natural fringes of qing rule, published by stanford university press and winner of the 2019 aas joseph levenson pre-1900 book prize.

to begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

the book examines the environmental history of qing manchuria and mongolia during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. using chinese-, manchu-, and mongolian-language archives, i show that unprecedented commercial expansion and a rush for natural resources not only transformed the qing empire’s frontiers in this period, but generated new anxieties at court about the environment. the book focuses in particular on the rushes for furs, freshwater pearls, and steppe mushrooms. in each case, the court responded to environmental pressures with attempts to repatriate undocumented migrants accused of destroying the land; investigate their manchu and mongol collaborators; harden territorial and ethnic boundaries; and recreate the original nature of manchu and mongol lands. through these “purification” policies, i argue, pristine nature was not simply destroyed under qing rule; it was invented.

what inspired you to research this topic?

one moment in particular stands out. as a graduate student, i became interested in the history of the fur trade; i thought a study of fur might help newly integrate the histories of manchuria, the russian far east, and the greater pacific in unexpected ways. one day in a seminar, mark elliott brought to class a copy of the daiqing i yooni bithe / daqing quanshu (1683), the earliest manchu-chinese dictionary. it is a fairly straightforward text to use: look up a manchu word, and you’ll find a chinese translation beneath it. when i happened to look up the manchu word for a type of marten, called a harsa, however, i found no chinese translation at all: only dictionaries from the mid-eighteenth century onward provide a chinese translation for the term. i later realized that martens were not so unique; roughly one hundred words were listed but left without a translation in this early dictionary—and all of them had standard translations by the mid eighteenth century. i was hooked. what made these words special? how and why did people standardize animal classifications? the questions stuck with me—and they came to animate the first chapter of the book.

what obstacles did you face in this project? what turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

i spent three consecutive years on the road researching the book, mostly living between ulaanbaatar, beijing, and taipei. because i had never been to mongolia’s national central archives, the prospect of a year in ulaanbaatar seemed daunting beforehand. looking back, it proved to be one of the most transformative and meaningful experiences of my life: my hosts at the american center for mongolian studies (acms) were generous and helpful from start to finish; i forged friendships and met inspiring scholars; and the volume and richness of the archives blew me away. here’s to mongolia’s national central archives!  

what is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

my favorite scrap of research might be a mushroom picker’s confession i found in these archives. i had been reading documents for a month on the qing state’s crackdown on mushroom picking, and a clear narrative had emerged: chinese migrants were crossing into mongol jurisdictions, picking mushrooms, disturbing local environments, and disrupting the mongol way of life. when local authorities attempted to remove the mushroom pickers, they resisted with axes and hoes, leading the state to escalate the crackdown still further. i was thrilled, then, to discover confessions from arrested mushroom pickers. what was their perspective on the conflict? 

answers were not entirely forthcoming, though the confession of one man, named zhang zhenglun, proved to be particularly galling and full of surprises. based on the document’s description, i expected to unfold a deposition in chinese or mongolian; i found instead one in manchu, with marks on it from a second brush that proofed for tone and phrasing. the content of the confession shocked me all the same. i had imagined the mushroom pickers to be hearty laborers; zhang zhenglun was seventy-six sui and frail. i thought the mushroom pickers would be recent arrivals to mongolia; zhang zhenglun had worked in the area for decades, had a local name (“haisandai”), and was known as a problem-solver within the community. the official narrative drew sharp contrasts between new and corrupting migrants on the one hand and an originally “pure” land on the other. haisandai’s confession pointed to an alternative reading of events. the land had never been so pristine. the state had only imagined it so amid the chaos of the boom years. 

what are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

i drew inspiration from mentors and colleagues throughout the book. works by mark elliott, pamela crossley, peter perdue, lai hui-min, and so many others have shaped my understanding of qing history profoundly. i’m also deeply inspired by the research of matthew mosca, loretta kim, max oidtmann, and other historians whose work has shed such a fresh light on qing frontiers. the same holds for colleagues who work on the histories of material things, such as rachel silberstein and wu yulian. david bello’s across forest, steppe, and mountain is an indispensable environmental history, and christopher atwood’s new work on yuan environmental history is as well. i’d be thrilled if my book were read in tandem with titles from any of these scholars. i’d also keep an eye out for forthcoming research from current phd candidates at indiana university, including sam bass (the history of slavery in qing mongolia), kenny linden (the environmental history of modern mongolia), hosung shim (dzungar history), and tenzin tsepak (early modern tibet). i suspect their research will be shifting debates for years to come.

what are you working on now?

i’m currently interested in exploring environmental microhistory. i realized in a world trimmed with fur that the great resource rushes that swept through mongolia and manchuria in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were not isolated events; the same booming markets in china that produced them inspired rushes for natural resources throughout the greater pacific, from alaska to borneo to baja california. rather than pursue a blanketing approach to this region’s history, i’m focusing instead on the peculiar story of five castaways that landed on jeju island in 1801: no one could identify them; the joseon court transferred them to manchuria; they were investigated by qing authorities in shenyang; the qing emperor ordered them back to jeju. the events produced a flurry of paperwork in multiple archives, and they even inspired one joseon scholar to compile a 103-word dictionary of the castaways’ unidentified language. using these archives and this dictionary, i’m reconstructing a cross-border history that connects their story to the era’s trade in rhinoceros horn, ivory, and other products and to networks that linked northeast asia, the south china sea, iberia, and even africa. my working title for the book is 103 words: five nineteenth-century castaways and a global age writ small. we’ll see where it goes!

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