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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Opening Up the Northwest: Reimagining Xi'an and the Modern Chinese Frontier

  • Author(s): Tai, Jeremy
  • Advisor(s): Hershatter, Gail
  • et al.

This study examines how different ideological regimes in modern China have all responded to crises, whether economic, territorial, or spiritual, by extending state power and accumulation strategies into the northwestern corner of the country. Histories of modern China have typically turned to eastern centers of state and colonial power, especially Beijing and Shanghai, for an index of economic development and modernity. I show how Northwest China, a seemingly remote backwater, has figured prominently in political economy over the long twentieth century. The dissertation demonstrates how economic planning in China was born not in the People’s Republic, but during the Great Depression when the Northwest became the first of a series of focal regions created to transfer capital and population from the coast. “Opening Up the Northwest” was followed by three campaigns launched in the name of correcting regional inequality in the People’s Republic of China: the First Five Year Plan (1953-1957), the Third Front (1964-1980), and, most recently, “Open Up the West” (2000-present). My dissertation contributes a cultural and historical perspective to conversations among geographers and political scientists about the growing importance of regional economies as subnational scales of territorial organization. Through a panorama of state campaigns in the Northwest representing fascist, communist, and neoliberal ideologies, my project shows how Chinese leaders have garnered national support by constructing fantasies that speak to the cultural and environmental particularities of the region. State-builders have often inspired a nation to head to the Northwest by likening this region to “virgin land” in the American West or reminding their audiences of past glory along the ancient Silk Road. Beyond the gaze of state authorities, my work delves into complex experiences inflected by gender, class, and ethnicity in the regional center of Xi’an. A closer look at these historical moments reveals the realities of underdevelopment, the dispossession of ethnic minorities and agricultural communities, orphans forcibly recruited for settler colonialism, traditional virtues imposed on “Modern Girls,” the criminalization of refugees and migrants, and accelerated environmental degradation. My work contributes to the growing literature on everyday life in China, using the local histories of Xi’an and its environs to show how the material instantiations of modernity always fall short of the desires they engender no matter where they take place.

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