[Review] 李楠《汉代西域行政制度与屯戍体制研究》(Li Nan: Research on the Military Colonies Settlements and General Frontier Administration of the Western Regions under the Han Dynasty)

Li Nan 李楠, Handai Xiyu xingzheng zhidu yu tunshu tizhi yanjiu 汉代西域行政制度与屯戍体制研究 (Research on the Military Colonies Settlements and General Frontier Administration of the Western Regions under the Han Dynasty), Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe 中国社会科学出版社, 2020. ISBN 978-7-520-3692-37, 226 pages, 88 RMB.

Reviewed by Arnaud Bertrand (ARscAN – Central Asia, UMR 7041; Catholic Institute of Paris)

Between the end of the second century and the early years of the first century BCE, the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE) expanded to the west and developed a complex administration to control the conquered territories. Prior to this expansion, the Korean peninsula, the Mongolian steppe, northern Vietnam, and the Western Regions were peripheral to what was “China” at that time. During Emperor Wu’s reign (141–87 BCE), these remote areas were no longer buffer zones with other Asian powers but became partly, or totally, integrated into this growing empire.

Li Nan’s work focuses on the administrative practices deployed by the Western Han, Xin (9–23 CE), and Eastern Han dynasties (25–220) in connection with the occupation of the northwest. More precisely, he focuses on the strategies used by the central administration to rule over the city-states of the Tarim Basin. The study deals with the Western Regions (Xiyu 西域) roughly corresponding to modern Xinjiang. Since the high Neolithic age, this region has constituted a space of constant interactions between the “Chinese” and the “Central Asian” worlds. It stretches from Loulan in the east to Kashgar in the west, though the latter never became an imperial commandery (jun 郡). During the period dealt with in this book, the region was governed by a General Protectorate (Xiyu duhufu 西域都護府), with the aim to control the local economy of the city-states in the form of an imperial colony. The book examines how the Chinese practically managed this Protectorate.

Li Nan has solid training in the textual history of the Qin and Han periods. He graduated from Nankai University with a PhD in ancient Chinese history in 2017. Li Nan then became a researcher at the Institute of History of the Shandong Academy of Social Sciences (山东社会科学院历史研究所). In his previous work, he focused on the administrative history of Shandong, preparing him well to study the Western frontiers of the Han Empire.

The author relies on two types of primary sources: (1) The “Dynastic Histories” or Zhengshi 正史, which offer the “official” perspective of the historical events; (2) Administrative documents discovered in the Gobi desert, between Zhangye and Dunhuang (Gansu), by successive archaeological missions conducted since the beginning of the 20th century. These documents (more than one hundred thousand have so far been discovered) were found in the close vicinity of fortifications. They are the remains of daily messages written by local commandery staff on various practical subjects. Studying these documents enables us to understand better the management of this area bordering the Chinese empire. The author uses all these available sources to identify an evolution, not so much in the relationships between two cultural spaces as in the local economic devices put in place to control the Western Regions by the Chinese.

The book is divided into four main chapters, with an introduction and concluding remarks. The first two chapters present a general historical overview of the economic, administrative, and political situation from the first century BCE to the second century CE. Chapters three and four use a different format, and they analyze, from a thematic perspective, the soft power techniques implemented by the Chinese to ensure control over these westernmost territories.

In his introduction, Li Nan states that China has focused for more than half a century on the historical relations between the Han dynasty and Central Asian city-state, although he notes there have been few studies on the Han governance practice in these territories. This observation seems correct, as the author aims at a completeness not found in Japanese, Western and previous Chinese works. He is of course influenced by foundational studies by Chinese scholars such as Zhang Defang 張德芳, Hu Pingsheng 胡平生, Lao Gan 勞幹 and Li Bingquan 李炳泉. Li Nan also uses English-language publications by Chang Chun-Shu 張春樹 and Yu Taishan 余太山 on the history of Western Regions. In general, though, the author makes little use of Western academic works, with the exception of those by Paul Pelliot and Aurel Stein. He does not take into account the comprehensive analysis of the Hanshu 漢書 chapter on the Western Regions by Anthony F. P. Hulsewé.[1] Much of the research in Hulsewé’s study concerns problems dealt with by Li Nan and could have given him more extensive insight. An article from Eric Trombert should also have been noted, for it directly addresses the failure of the Han colonies in the Lop-Nor region between 108–80 BCE.[2] Curiously the author also makes only limited use of Japanese works (in particular the studies of Okushi Atsuhiro 大榔敦弘 and Ōba Osamu 大庭脩).

Most of the previous research, apart from a few general Chinese overviews published after the late 1980s, are microanalyses of specific places. To date, there is no good synthesis available. For that reason alone, it is imperative to praise Li Nan’s contribution for its comprehensiveness.

The first chapter is an overview of the General Protectorate’s evolution. It begins during the Western Han with Zhang Qian 張騫 (ca. 164–114 BCE), Emperor Wu and their roles in the development of diplomatic ties with the city-states in the Western Regions. According to official historiography, the year 108 BCE marks the beginning of political and military interference with the local kingdoms of Loulan and Turfan. However, the “General Protectorate of the Western Regions” did not come into completion until the time of the final capitulation of the Xiongnu 匈奴 in 60–59 BCE, or perhaps as early as 68 BCE, according to a slip discovered in Juyan (Zhangye commandery), which the author presents as a way to push back the chronology. The Protectorate headquarters, which can also be understood as a temporary commandery, managed the city-states, collected taxes, and maintained smooth diplomatic relations with local elites. It was located in Quli, northwest of the Lop-Nor region, on the axis connecting Qarashahr to Kashgar and Tuyin to Dunhuang; this was the site of the former regional capital of the Xiongnu when they controlled the Western Regions. As an imperial colony, the Protectorate was obviously not organized in the same pattern as the imperial commanderies along the Hexi corridor (Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan, Dunhuang).

The Han did not have the human means to control a territory so large and with uncertain boundaries. Many administrative documents from Xuanquan, quoted by Li Nan, clearly show how the Chinese governed through the establishment of small Han colonies. In these colonies, the Han tended fields fed by an extensive water supply technology (canals). This process of creating arable lands through hydrological improvements accelerated the migration of Han settlers, especially to areas around major cities. The Han never had direct control over the cities, though. The cities were left with a certain autonomy so long as they acknowledged Chinese rule, paid taxes and continued to secure trade routes between Central Asia and China. In exchange, the Han provided protection against the Xiongnu threat and installed a strong military defence system that would not disrupt local trade.

One of Li Nan’s main arguments is that beyond the westernmost imperial commandery in Dunhuang, the imperial power had no other choice but to decentralize the managing of those lands and adapt government measures for local Indo-Aryan populations had little or nothing in common with Chinese culture.

Chapter one also extensively discusses the policies of the Xin dynasty, well documented by both transmitted texts and local administrative documents. The Xin dynasty is often not treated individually, but it marks an absolute break in Han foreign policy, especially regarding Central Asia. Li Nan emphasizes the main reasons which led to the general collapse of Chinese control over the Western Regions and even over the westernmost commandery units (including Dunhuang). Wang Mang 王莽 (reigned 9– 23 CE) decided on a change in strategy. Li Nan points out three significant consequences: change of local administrative names (especially for the frontier commandery units), reduction of human forces controlling the frontier system, and a decrease in the migratory population resettled from the Western Regions to the Chinese heartland. In his work about the formation of the defensive lines west of Dunhuang, Aurel Stein estimated that these lines were abandoned by the early first century CE, a statement that indeed corresponds with Li Nan’s findings. The loss of political influence over the Western Regions eventually led to a return of the Xiongnu’s interference in the region.

The second chapter deals with the Eastern Han period and the restoration of the Chinese control over the Western Regions. Li Nan emphasizes that the General Protectorate regained its footing in the West following the military campaigns led by General Ban Chao 班超 from 64 CE onwards, resulting in renewed control over the Tarim Basin city-states, which lasted until the end of the first century CE. In this aspect, the book brings few new insights on the structure of the Eastern Han’s control over the Western Regions. There are fewer administrative documents on wooden slips from Zhangye (Juyan) and Dunhuang, dating from the first and second century CE than for earlier periods. Li Nan, therefore, relies mainly on transmitted sources to present the general strategy developed at that time. Indeed, official history provides ample information on Ban Chao’s military conquest and diplomatic endeavours, such as diplomatic ties made with the Kushan Empire to prevent the King of Shule (Kashgar) from rebelling and the subjugation of Jiaohe and Gaochang, the two main cities of the Jushi kingdom (modern Turfan oasis). The author would have benefited from referencing the work of Yu Taishan, who has studied this subject and particular period in much depth.[3] Nonetheless, the chapter presents a helpful description of the policy patterns employed by the Eastern Han.

The Eastern Han did not follow the Western Han in establishing colonies in the Western Regions. In terms of administrative structure, the “Protector-general” was replaced by a “Chief Clerk for the Western Regions” (Xiyu zhangshi 西域長史), who was subordinate to the Governor of the Dunhuang commandery. This structure was in place from 75 to 175 CE and later was continued under the Wei (220–280) and Jin dynasties (266–422). As Li Nan points out, Ban Chao’s military campaign had dramatic consequences for Chinese legitimacy in ruling over the city-states of the Tarim Basin. The Eastern Han tried to maintain a more aggressive grip on the region and, as a result, some kingdoms (in particular Shanshan, Qiemo, Kucha, Khotan) cooperated to resist and overcome Chinese occupation. By comparison, the Western Han had made greater use of diplomacy and non-military strategies to maintain control. In Li Nan’s view, aggressive expansion was less successful, and he stresses the instability it brought to the Chinese administration in the region. The Chief Clerk for the Western Regions changed location several times during this period.

In the third chapter, undoubtedly the heart of the book, Li Nan interrogates the same sources he has used so far to show how the General Protectorate Office relied on military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) to maintain decentralized “control” over the Western Regions. Han soldiers cultivated newly occupied areas and developed local production, leading to more extensive plans to colonize these lands.

The many administrative documents provide rich information on this system as well as on the evolution of the administration hierarchy from the first century BCE to the first century CE. In general, Li Nan’s observations on the administrative structure are correct, particularly those on titles and functions. His observations are based on the period from 68 BCE to the end of the first century CE, during which written sources are the most numerous.

The governance during the Western Han was characterized by the expansionist policy of Emperor Wu, which went along with a somewhat “idealized” projection of control over the Western Regions. The Western Han tried to establish complete control during the first century BCE. They progressively understood the geopolitical issues of the region and therefore associated with local powers in an attempt to stabilize relations with the many kingdoms in the Western Regions. Diplomacy and political patronage over the local kings was the general strategy. Li Nan describes the many layers of the relations between these kingdoms and the Western Han Dynasty. Royal family members, aristocrats and officials from the kingdoms in the Tarim Basin were invited to come to the Han capital, Chang’an. They entered China through the “Pass of the Jade Gate” (Yumen guan 玉門關) or the “Pass of the Sun Gate” (Yang guan 陽關), and travelled through the Hexi corridor to Chang’an, stopping at relay stations and county capitals along their way. The Xuanquan documents, which were discovered at one of these relay stations, attest to the precise hosting organization put in place to welcome foreign delegations.

With the withdrawal of the Chinese under the Xin Dynasty, the General Protectorate was also abandoned. The relationship between Central Asia and China became increasingly complicated with the rise of the Kushan Empire, one of the external powers that are overlooked in this study. In fact, there is a noticeable lack of understanding by Li Nan of how the political forces in the Western Regions worked at this time. Unlike the Hexi region (about which little is known before the arrival of the Han), the populations in the Western Regions were firmly anchored in their own long-standing culture, with fortified towns and an economy based on agriculture and trade. The cities were inhabited by people with various linguistic backgrounds who could still communicate through a generally accepted lingua franca (Tocharian). The arrival of the Chinese in the region was as complicated as when the Han conquered territories in what is today North Korea and Vietnam. In the Western Regions, the Han had to deal with local communities, could not speak the local languages, and contended with rival  political and cultural influences coming from west of the Pamirs, the Steppe to the north Himalaya to the south. Therefore, the Han preferred to adopt a policy of decentralization to govern the region.

Li Nan’s thesis would have benefited from taking into account these geopolitical aspects. If he had given as much thought to the administrative system of the local kingdoms as he does to the system implemented by the Han, his study would have brought a more innovative and less “Sino-centric” perspective. Moreover, his use of the term Xiyu (Western Regions) encompasses only the modern autonomous region of Xinjiang, while in the understanding of the Han, it included a much wider area. A simple reading of the article by Leslie and Gardiner would have helped to expand his own understanding of the term.[4]

Another problem is that Li Nan does not take any field data into account, nor does he show any particular interest in the local contexts of the individual documents of which he makes ample use in his study. The wooden slips that the author exploits originate from Gansu, which is several hundred kilometres east of Lop-Nor and therefore already far from the reality of events taking place beyond the Lop-nor region. In contrast, the study of daily life objects (ceramics, coins, textiles etc.), tombs and fortifications discovered within the Tarim Basin would have offered a more concrete view of the relationships between the Chinese and the local people. There is no shortage of archaeological surveys on Niya, Miran, Loulan, Khotan, Turfan, Jimsa, Kucha, Tashkurgan and others. Studies have been conducted for over a century and have given many details about the functioning of these city-states. Certainly, this would require a more extensive and detailed study. For instance, it is still difficult to pinpoint the exact seat of the General Protectorate, which was placed at different locations at different times. Mark E. Byington’s study on the Chinese commanderies in Korea, based on both written sources and archaeological materials, is the perfect demonstration of what should be done for the Western Regions.[5]

Finally, the tuntian system, so central to Li Nan’s study, has been repeatedly targeted by archaeological prospecting operations in Xinjiang. The data published by Lei Luo, together with his Chinese and Italian colleagues, demonstrate that such a system could indeed have had its place in the development of ancient oases such as in Ruoqiang (close to modern Miran). However, implementing such an agricultural management system required a sizeable number of troops in the field. Therefore, archaeologists have argued that the tuntian system had very little chance of success, especially in a territory with geomorphology very different from that between the Yellow River and the Gobi with which the Han were familiar.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, Li Nan has presented a very useful study, which correctly approaches the question about the evolution of the Chinese colonization in the Western Regions and should be read by anyone wishing to delve deeper into this subject.


[1] A. F. P. Hulsewé, China in Central Asia: the early stage, 125 B.C–A.D. 23: an annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of The History of the Former Han Dynasty, with an introduction by M. A. N. Loewe, Leiden: Brill, 1979.

[2] Eric Trombert, “Note pour une évaluation nouvelle de la colonisation des contrées d’Occident au temps des Han”, Journal Asiatique, no. 1 (2011), pp. 67–123.

[3] Yu Taishan, “A History of the Relationship Between the Chinese Dynasties and the Western Regions”, Sino-Platonic Papers, no. 131 (March 2004).

[4] D. D. Leslie & K. H. J. Gardiner, “Chinese Knowledge of Western Asia during the Han”, T’oung Pao, vol. LXVIII (1986), pp. 254–308.

[5] Mark E. Byington (ed.), The Han Commanderies in Early Korean History, Cambridge: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013 (Early Korea Project Occasional Series).


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