Birth of the Geopolitical Age
Global Frontiers and the Making of Modern China
Shellen Xiao Wu



Why Empires Matter in the Age of the Nation-State

At first glance the images appear interchangeable. Neatly tended and clearly demarcated fields stretch into the horizon; flat expanses dotted with tractors and bales of hay; contented cows and pigs; and, when they’re not mere dots in the distance, hale men and women who exude a healthful glow from laboring outdoors. Only the captions betray the specificity of time and place. These are not images of any one place or time, but rather Xing An, in northeastern China in 1928, Hokkaido in the 1870s, Eastern Europe in the 1930s, and Soviet Central Asia in the 1920s. The visual similarities dissolve upon closer examination of the individual political and historical contexts for these frontier settlements. Like small pieces of a much larger puzzle, together they tell a story of a significant global shift in state power, boundary making, and the way internationalism and nationalism became entwined and mutually reinforcing by the end of the nineteenth century. The rise of modern science and social sciences served as the connective thread in this global trend. A dense network of social scientists aided the global spread of ideas on the purpose and uses of inner colonization and frontier development. The fields of geography and agricultural science, in particular, evolved and maintained close relationships with state institutions invested in the concept of empire and the planned settlement of borderlands. This geopolitical reordering of the world took place in a global context with China as a central protagonist of the story.

Birth of the Geopolitical Age is the product of many journeys—actual travel to western China, Europe, and throughout the United States—and an intellectual journey that brought me to think deeply about how and why frontiers mattered to the modern state. This book is about how disciplines like geography and agricultural science, which straddle both premodern forms of knowledge and the rise of modern science, played essential roles in changing how states viewed frontiers. The adoption and adaption of these areas of knowledge, along with the need to adjust to an international order based on national sovereignty and fixed borders, ushered China and the rest of the world into geo-modernity. From the edges of empires, experimental stations in scientific governance and forced settlement of borderlands formed the modern state. The geopolitical remaking of the world took place from the outside in.

Geo-modernity, I argue, is the foundation for modern geopolitical concerns. Geo-modernity is defined by clearly demarcated borders and the use of the latest science and technology to develop borderlands through agriculture and the intensive exploitation of natural resources. The concept speaks to the central role of science in the reordering of the modern world order. The term is distinct from geopolitics, which was coined at the turn of the twentieth century by the Germanophile Swedish political scientist Rudolph Kjellén (1864–1922) and circulated broadly during the interwar period. While geopolitics focuses on the strategic goals of state actors, geo-modernity addresses the wider cultural, social, and scientific context that gave rise to geopolitics. The distinction is important because commentators and even historians often use the term geopolitics loosely and without providing the historical context of its emergence. Yet, geopolitics as a mode of analysis would not exist without the rise of modern science and a series of developments in new technologies and scientific disciplines like geology and agricultural science. The last great push to reach the North and South Poles in 1909 relied on dogs, Siberian ponies, and human labor. Since then, polar exploration, as well as frontier development in extreme environments around the world, has relied on new technologies to counter harsh conditions. In that sense, geo-modernity and the extension of the frontier occurred in tandem, with science and technology the essential tools to support human settlement of lands previously inhospitable to development and the intensive exploitation of natural resources.

In China, discussions of scientific settlement and frontier management frequently focused on resource extraction. For Qing officials and writers from the late nineteenth century, coal became an essential fuel of imperialism and the foundation of a new industrial economy.1 In the twentieth century, some of the same figures repeatedly returned to the question of how to exploit natural resources, secure energy sources for industries, and most effectively redistribute the population. Political leaders and social scientists described in sometimes exuberant detail how the open spaces and rich natural resources on the frontiers could absorb excess populations in the interior and provide the economic basis for the development of the entire country. These debates clearly drew from external influences even while grappling with specifically Chinese historical legacies and geographical conditions.

In 2013–2014, I spent the year in Shanghai and Taiwan, working my way through databases of Chinese journals and archives of government documents in the Republican period in the first half of the twentieth century. I discovered that the contemporary Chinese term for geopolitics, diyuan zhengzhi xue 地緣政治學, only began circulating in the 1930s, but the underlying ideas that connect geography, natural resources, and social Darwinian competition had circulated much earlier in late Qing translations from the Japanese.2 As I continued my research in Chinese archival sources, I realized that the documents revealed a historically and geographically specific story about how modern China came into existence that only made sense in a larger global context about frontiers, state formation, and the deployment of science and technology to those ends. By incorporating Japan and China, as well as Germany and the United States, into the story of how China retained the territorial extent of its last empire while assuming the political form of a nation-state, I illustrate the various ways that, from the nineteenth century, each of these countries engaged with new interpretations of empire to accommodate the rise of the nation-state. I demonstrate how frontier practices shaped the emergence of the modern Chinese state in a global context.3 China entered geo-modernity with a global cohort of other countries adjusting to the displacements and turmoil created by industrialization and the rise of modern science.

Much of the scholarship on frontiers focuses on the early modern period and the nineteenth century, operating under the assumption that by the end of the nineteenth century most of the open spaces around the world had been enclosed by national boundaries. My readings convinced me that frontier discourse not only continued to play an outsized role in China and in other parts of the world, but also took on new dynamics with changing technologies of communication and transportation. Over the next few years, in archives in Taipei and Nanjing, Berlin and Koblenz in Germany, Washington, DC, Lexington, Kentucky, Baltimore, and New Haven, I steadily read what seemed a vast and endless literature on frontiers around the world. I traced the steps of various figures through their diaries, correspondences, and their often voluminous and dense writings. From these scraps of a jigsaw puzzle, spread out in fifteen libraries and archives across three continents, emerged a larger global story about territory and power and the continued importance of empire in the modern age.

From the 1850s until the mid-twentieth century, a period marked by global conflicts and anxiety about dwindling resources and closing opportunities after decades of expansion, the frontier became a mirror for historically and geographically specific hopes and fears. Around the same time that the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner made the American West the defining feature of a new national history, the Prussian government undertook an inner colonization program in the East from 1886 to 1920. Japan took its first steps towards empire in the northern island of Hokkaido, followed by ventures in Korea, Taiwan, and finally, the Asian mainland. Russia (then the Soviet Union) sponsored efforts aimed to extract natural resources from the Arctic, Siberian, and Central Asian frontiers. The global circulation of concepts about science, race, territory, and modern statehood helped to shape the trajectory of colonial expansion into these borderlands as countries around the world struggled with industrialization and new technologies of transportation and communication. Of these countries, China is the only one to successfully navigate through the twentieth century with its imperial territorial expanse largely intact. How that came about is the subject of this book, which focuses on the global transformation of frontiers into colonial laboratories and the scientists and social scientists who made it possible, including many at great personal cost.

To the Frontiers!

The frontier is a loaded and relational term—it assumes the presence of a core area for there to be a periphery. To talk about the frontier is to assume a hierarchy of space. Western China was exotic and strange to me because of my background as an ethnically Han Chinese American born in Shanghai. In the imperial era, crossing into borderlands was the unenviable fate of exiled officials, who often wrote tearful poems to mark the solemn occasion of leaving behind ordered civilization for the wilderness beyond. From the 1930s, however, Han Chinese writers began to describe the frontiers as filled with untapped treasures, in ways that often diverged significantly from the reality on the ground. The American West was only the frontier to the Anglo settlers who relentlessly pushed indigenous peoples from their lands through a series of wars, treaties, and removal efforts. Cherokees, among other tribes, found themselves forcibly marched from hilly, forested homelands in the southern Appalachian Mountains to the flat, arid stretches of Oklahoma. In the Southwest, Comanches adopted horses, an Old World species, to build their own empire based on raids and the exchange of goods with settlements. They had no concept of the “frontier.”4 From the mid-nineteenth century, German writers frequently compared Eastern Europe to the American West and Poles to the “primitive” Indians. The comparison was both intended and understood to be metaphorical. Russians attempted to carve agricultural productive landscapes out of the steppes of Central Asia in environmental conditions with marked similarities to the American Midwest, but also in a region where they encountered the Great Game interests of the British Empire and the Qing Empire in the nineteenth century. In the same period, the Japanese frontier shifted from islands to the south and north to the Americas, and finally, the Asian continent and the conflagration of its continental empire during World War II. The fascination with the frontier transcended geographical and environmental differences. These are not separate stories, but part of a connected global narrative.

The frontier is only the first of multiple terms I will introduce in this work with shifting meanings and significance in the period covered in the book, including a host of other related terms such as settlement, reclamation, geopolitics, and finally science. Despite various efforts by intellectuals and political leaders to embed these terms in a cloak of inevitability and immovability, these are shifting concepts created during a period of remarkable global flux. Particularly in Asia, these ideas underwent further transformation through processes of translation and a succession of actions and reactions in response to the arrival of Western imperial powers, the rise of the Japanese Empire from the late nineteenth century, and the political fracturing in China that followed the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1912.

Through translations beginning in the late nineteenth century, China adopted a number of neologisms coined in Japan, including kexue 科學, the kanji for “modern science.”5 In the post-Meiji period, Japanese students studied in the US and Europe and brought the latest agronomic theories back with them on their return to colonize the northern island of Hokkaido. 6 The Japanese agronomist Nitobe Inazo (1862–1933) helped to create a new vocabulary of colonization and empire and coined the term shokumin 植民, “planting people,” for these new efforts to extend the Japanese Empire.7 The botanical reference drew not only from Nitobe’s educational background but also exposed the undercurrents of the global circulation of concepts about race, territory, and modern statehood. Shokumin more directly corresponds to the German term Verpflanzung than the English word colonization.8 An etymological search for Verpflanzung in the Grimm’s dictionary shows that the word originated in the fifteenth century, strictly referring to the transplantation of floras.9 By the early nineteenth century its usage expanded to include the settlement of people. This broadening coincided with the Napoleonic invasions and efforts across the German-speaking lands to promote a sense of nationalism in the detritus of the Holy Roman Empire, including ridding the German language of foreign loan words. The term was also used in the context of inner colonization in East Prussia in the nineteenth century. Through translation and the works of geographers and historians, ideas about inner colonization traveled to imperial Russia.10 Terminology mattered for German, Japanese, and Chinese writers and political leaders because language was an essential part of becoming a nation.

In China, however, broad resistance against foreign imperialism imprinted an appeal to the country’s ancient imperial past with a modern twist. Twentieth-century Chinese writers rarely ever referred to Han settlement efforts using the Japanese neologism for colonialism, shokumin, preferring the classical Chinese terms for “frontier military settlements” and “land reclamation,” tuntian 屯田 and kaiken 開墾 respectively, or a newly coined word for “military colonies,” tunken 屯墾.11 Related to the terms tuntian and kaiken, both of which appear frequently in historical records dating from the Han dynasty, tunken did not come into vogue until the 1920s.12 The same writers who used tunken in their Chinese language works, employed inner colonization in English. The etymology of the term strongly suggests that tunken was popularized as a response to China’s perceived besiegement from imperialist powers. Translated works of literature aided the circulation of new language. As Japan expanded its presence in Northeast China in the 1930s, both Japanese colonial officials and Chinese writers and journalists began to use the term virgin lands (Ch. chunüdi 處女地) to refer to frontier territories. In the Chinese case, the use of “virgin lands” dates from the translation of the works of the Russian writer Mikhail Sholokhov (1905–1984).13 From the 1920s onward, journalists, writers, propagandists, and Nationalist or Guomindang (GMD) party bureaucrats alike crafted claims to the Northwest as the birthplace of Chinese civilization and argued that Han Chinese occupation of the region dated back several thousand years. The circular logic of the era declared the region both as a permanent part of Chinese civilization and an apparently depopulated virgin land awaiting conquest and settlement. The evolution of terminology, including neologisms and foreign loan words, point to the importance of the nation-state and fixed geographical boundaries as the definition of state sovereignty in the language of modernity in the twentieth century.14

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, global elites often presented one set of ideas to Western audiences in English or European languages and wholly different concepts in their native languages. These disparities make more difficult the global historian’s task. What may appear at first glance to be a flattening effect of globalization turns out not to be the case after all. To domestic audiences, these educated elites filtered and altered the ideas that they picked up over the course of their education and travels overseas. The underlying actions—the building of infrastructure and modern transportation, transforming areas previously seen as pasture or wastelands into agriculturally productive zones, and the aggressive exploitation of mineral resources—were the same. These same means underlay the geopolitical remaking of the world in the twentieth century. Carried out with new technologies of development, transportation, and sciences, geo-modernity enabled a global realignment. We’re still living in its fallout.

Time, Space, and the Global History Perspective

In addition to the multiple meanings brought about by the process of translation, this work also plays with concepts of space and time. In doing so, I am taking up Stefan Tanaka’s call for historians to “embrace the richness and variability of different times that exist throughout our lives,” and against what Michel de Certeau enjoined as a conflation of time and chronology, an unthinking surrender to the alibi of time.15 Most of the comparative literature on frontiers focuses on the early modern period and ends in the nineteenth century because of the perception that the most important settlement policies date to this earlier foundational period. Great frontiers around the world, in North and South America, South Africa, and Australia, had closed by nineteenth century’s end.16 Yet, the disciplines most important to globally circulating ideas about settlement, including geography and agricultural science, did not professionalize until the late nineteenth century, at the tail end of this first frontier rush. What happened in the German East, the American West and South, the Japanese Empire, and the Chinese Northeast and Northwest took place in different historical, environmental, and political contexts. Nevertheless, what happened in these borderlands was connected by people and ideas that crossed both national boundaries and historical eras.

The broad time frame and disparate cultural histories and geographical conditions of these places appear to strain the comparative approach. The historian Marc Bloch argued for revealing the larger patterns of historical change through “a parallel study of societies that are at once neighboring and contemporary, exercising a constant mutual influence, exposed through their development to the action of the same broad causes just because they are close and contemporaneous, and owing their existence in part at least to a common origin.”17 The limitations of this approach are already apparent in his suggestion to examine neighboring societies from the same time period. The rise of global history in recent years offers a methodological alternative to comparative studies. Global history focuses on connections rather than parallels. The rise of science and the social sciences in the nineteenth century created the space for such connections. Instead of using the comparative methodology of quantitative and qualitive study of frontiers, I am taking a global history approach by tracing the network of connections between individuals whose ideas on frontiers and development crossed from academic debates to policy changes.18 Tracing the lives of individuals, however, means that I do not follow any standard periodization of national histories. As the following pages will show, lives and ideas do not follow neatly bounded geographies and time periods.

The combination of these two perspectives—global history and studies of individuals—places my work in conversation with two seemingly opposing trends in historical scholarship. On the one hand, the school of micro-histories and histories from below has traced the life of individuals and provided a much-needed human face to historical developments and given voice to women, working people, and others who have been left off the pages of history. The rise of global history, on the other hand, incorporated aspects of longue durée histories and expanded the lens to reveal global dynamics and shifts. The broader lens, however, raises other issues. Racism and sexism are inescapable in both the contemporary academic literature and the document trail of frontier settlements. Decisions about the fates of millions of people were made in rooms of men from elite backgrounds. While encouraging the poor and working class to take up the challenge of settling the borderlands, the academic and political elites in countries around the world did not see the need to experience conditions on the frontiers for themselves, other than on short research and fact-finding expeditions. Geopolitics, both in its first stages of development in the early twentieth century and its post–Cold War revival, positioned people like chess pieces across a global stage. Male agronomists, geographers, and bureaucrats often mentioned women in terms of their reproductive capacities and as the means to tie down male settlers in secure familial bonds. Although some bemoaned the gender imbalance on the frontiers, they did not go so far as to admit women to the decision-making process. Geopolitics, along with agronomy and geography, were all disciplines dominated by men who, through the social networks built over the course of their education and careers, promoted those with similar backgrounds. The few exceptions, including the American geographer Ellen Semple, benefited from family wealth and social class, which considerably blunted the constraints of gender.

These disparities cut directly to the heart of fundamental issues with global history. Global history has drawn criticism in recent years for its lack of diversity among its practicing ranks and the flattening effect of its materialist focus. I would like to propose a middle way: a global history that encompasses individual agency; an intellectual history that addresses the racism and misogyny built into much of frontier discourse from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; a history that acknowledges the exclusions built into archives and written records but also the way that these unpalatable pasts created the modern world in which we live. The use of multiple and intersecting biographies as a global history method breaks down the flattening effect of larger historical narratives into the individual trajectories of lived lives along with all their associated messiness, triumphs, and reversals of fortune. Individual lives give texture to broader concepts of empires, frontiers, and nations and cross the temporal and spatial boundaries we have created in the professionalization of modern history writing.19

The focus on specific individual social scientists emphasizes the way that ideas about empire, nation-state, and modern state-making crossed political divides and periodization of national histories. It is also my intentional choice to locate agency for historical change on a global scale with individuals. The concept of “national” history is itself a product of this formative age in the making of the modern state.20 Moreover, while certain events brought out global echoes—from the revolutions of 1848 to both World War I and II—the events covered in this book did not arise from any specific moment but as both the cause and effects of globalization, including industrialization, the rise of modern science and social science, and new technologies of communication and transportation.

The Resilience of Empire

Empires were the dominant state form for 2,000 years before the rise of the nation-state.21 In their magisterial overview of empires throughout world history, Burbank and Cooper argued that as a state form empires have been remarkably flexible in setting the political context of their transformation over time, both inspiring and constraining leaders and followers.22 As such, empires and imperial concerns continued to influence leading political thinkers and bureaucrats in their reimagining of the post-imperial state in the twentieth century. Despite growing popularity of nationalist movements around the world, on the ground the situation in borderlands was often far more complex than central governments would have liked to acknowledge. To assert control over contested territories and to consolidate borders, politicians, military leaders, and social scientists sought to deploy science and technology as the means to overcome adverse environmental conditions on one hand, and at the same time, to control recalcitrant nomadic populations. As the concepts of the nation and nationalism gained purchase in the nineteenth century, advocates for empire recalibrated their rhetoric and, in some instances, disguised imperial methods under a cloak of nationalism or avoided altogether using the term empire. Nevertheless, imperial structures conferred certain advantages.

I began this project with curiosity over why twentieth-century Chinese regimes have continued to lay claims over Qing territories while rejecting its flexible frontier policies. What was in the beginning a simple question about the continuity in territory between the last empire and the current Chinese state turned to an examination of the way that the sciences, particularly the fields of geography and agricultural science, as well as the social sciences, shaped this transitional period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, between the height of imperial reach and the rise of the nation-state. The transition was hardly a clean break—empire continued to influence the formation of the nation-state long after its supposed obsolescence. Geographers, anthropologists, economists, archaeologists, agronomists, and historians worked to craft the ideas that informed political and military leaders to adapt the best features of empire (and unintentionally, some of the worst) to the age of the nation-state. The years around World War I saw swept away not only the Qing, but no less than four other historically land-based empires, including the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, the German Empire (only formed in 1870), and Imperial Russia. By war’s end, the great age of empires appeared to wane. The age-old state form would be replaced by the rise of the nation-state and the principle of self-determination. Empire, however, continued to cast a long shadow after its alleged demise. Not coincidentally, all five empires mentioned above struggled over the course of the nineteenth century with the social and political disruptions of modernization.

In the twentieth century, Germany attempted to reconstitute empire under the National Socialists. The Nazi vision for Eastern Europe borrowed much from precedents in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Soviet Union adopted a minorities policy that drew from Leninist anti-imperialist rhetoric to establish a multinational federation of nationalities. The rhetoric of equality and a united front against imperialism, however, ran hollow and contrasted against the reality of sponsored efforts aimed to extract natural resources from the Arctic, Siberian, and Central Asian frontiers. The Soviet policy influenced the People’s Republic of China’s designation in the 1950s of fifty-six ethnic groups and regions like Tibet and Xinjiang as autonomous zones rather than provinces.23 China also drew from its own imperial tradition, dating to the first unification in 221 BCE.

The United States is usually not mentioned in the same category as the European empires. Nevertheless, a large and growing body of literature on US international relations has pointed to the rise of an American empire from the nineteenth century.24 The United States took the lead in the opening of Japan in the mid-nineteenth century. Within decades, the acquisition of territories like the Philippines in the 1898 Spanish-American War and the annexation of Hawai‘i in the same year brought American expansion across the Pacific. As the American empire expanded through overseas territorial acquisitions, geographers and agricultural scientists played key roles in informing the public and popularizing the newly acquired territories, all the while making a concerted effort to avoid using the word empire. In the twentieth century, geographers like Isaiah Bowman, director of the American Association of Geographers and the president of Johns Hopkins University from 1935 to 1948, took the lead in reconceptualizing the notion of empire and steering the US in the post–World War II period of Pax Americana to a de-territorialized empire led by corporate interests.

The complex politics of the era obscured the ways that both China and Japan reacted to global dynamics of power in the golden age of imperialism and the nation-state and structured their response using similar language. From the late nineteenth century, Japanese social scientists and geographers began to construct new disciplines of colonial science and to conduct extensive fieldwork and surveys on the Asian mainland. By the 1930s, the Japanese colonial empire had expanded from Hokkaido to Taiwan, Korea, and Northeast China. Japan’s continental ambitions entered a new phase with Manchuria, where the colonial administration established collective farms while the Japanese home government promoted the region as an industrial and modern Eden.25 Less successful in realizing their plans, the GMD government, as well as certain regional warlords, adopted similar measures to modernize the Chinese borderlands and bolster national defense.

As Japan extended its influence in Manchuria and eventually launched into an invasion of all of China in 1937, a new fervor for frontier settlement crossed the Japanese / Chinese divide. Indeed, the image of happy peasants turning apparently unpopulated wasteland into productive agricultural tracts turned up everywhere from the Nazi push into Eastern Europe, the Japanese controlled puppet state of Manchukuo, Soviet Siberia, to the largely unrealized GMD settlement plans for the frontiers.26 While Japan exercised its interpretation of imperialism on the Asian continent, Chinese intellectuals turned their colonial gaze upon their own frontier regions. As John Fitzgerald puts it, “The nationalist discovery of China mimicked the explorations of European adventurers because it was part of the dialogue with the civilizing mission of European imperialism.”27 In this internal imperial project, geography and mapping became an essential part of the ideological formation of the Republic. The territorial imaginary created during this period survived the Chinese civil war and the Communist victory in 1949. Global inspirations clearly influenced twentieth-century Chinese territoriality, even as historians and social scientists of the era self-consciously mined the Chinese past for relevant models. Various reformers, military leaders, and social scientists reinterpreted China’s own imperial past to accommodate new ideas about the nation-state to achieve scientific modernity. At the same time, they eagerly took note of parallel developments in other parts of the world. Geo-modernity in China emerged from this fundamental spatial reconceptualization of territoriality.

After the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1912, Han Chinese control over the border regions of Xinjiang, Tibet, Manchuria, and parts of the Southwest grew increasingly tenuous under combined pressures from powerful local warlords and foreign encroachment. Yet, a succession of regimes retained control, at times entirely fictive, over these borderlands. The ubiquity of a finely nuanced frontier discourse in the upper echelons of the GMD bureaucracy and military, in the Chinese Communist Party, and among the ranks of cosmopolitan and well-educated scientific circles, strongly indicates that these ideas echoed throughout the twentieth century, gained purchase across political divisions, and underlie China’s territorial claims today.

The growing prominence of a New Qing history in the last two decades placed China into a global spectrum of early modern empires while engaging with ways the Manchu-ruled dynasty both expanded and redefined a multiethnic imperial ideology.28 Qing historians like Peter Perdue and James Millward have examined the importance of the western frontiers for the Qing state.29 At the same time, mainland Chinese scholars, most prominently the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2015, have attacked New Qing history. The Marxist influence on Chinese historiography in the twentieth century has resulted in the almost complete elision of the influence of China’s own imperial past on its twentieth-century process of state-making. In this view, China is the victim of imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but never an active participant in the marginalization of its own minority populations. Birth of the Geopolitical Age aims to fill this lacuna and restore a narrative of continuity by examining Chinese history in a global context.

China, of course, was not the only country navigating the transition from empire to nation-state in the twentieth century. In an early work, Prasenjit Duara placed in tandem the impact of Western capitalism’s penetration into the Chinese countryside with the extension of state control into rural society as the two key historical processes of the twentieth century.30 Both processes connected China to global forces but remained tethered to specifically Chinese local dynamics from the late imperial period.31 The focus of this work on the US, China, Japan, and Germany makes clear that this transition was hardly a clear-cut one of displacement and replacement. Old imperial ideas remained, if only in the minds and memories of those who actively sought new ways to adapt empire to the modern age. After a quick spurt of overseas territorial expansion at the turn of the century, the US seemed to pull back. In the 1930s President Franklin Roosevelt reaffirmed the United States’ noninterventionist stance in Latin America with the Good Neighbors Policy, emphasizing economic cooperation and trade. By sending American expertise overseas to aid in mining and resource surveys, however, the United States simply expanded its influence through other means than territorial annexation.32

The downfall of the Third Reich brought a quick end to a central European empire dominated by Germany. The dream of a Mitteleuropa, and an economic and territorial bloc in the heart of Europe dominated by a German powerhouse, had circulated from the time of Friedrich List in the nineteenth century. The liberal German politician Friedrich Naumann proposed a Mitteleuropa plan in 1915.33 During World War II, research in the newly coined field of “East Research” or Ostforschung, helped the regime articulate a plan for the development of the East based on the promotion of settlement by ethnic Germans.34 The questionable political loyalty of these social scientists helped them to evade responsibility after the demise of the Third Reich. The long-held dream of a unified European economic bloc came to fruition with the formation of the European Union, still dominated by Germany as an economic anchor. Empire never disappeared; under different guises and in different forms, empire has come roaring back in the twenty-first century. The infrastructure created by empire, particularly the means to control, extract, and transport natural resources, has remained intact.

The rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century was entangled with empires and the pervasive impact of imperialism, distracting from the underlying global and transnational forces that linked the two.35 The tensions between these two seemingly conflicting trends, nationalism and empire-building, play out most trenchantly on the frontiers. Aided by elite intellectual and military discourse (often articulated by those with extremely cosmopolitan educational backgrounds, learned in the tools of empire and social sciences), policies on frontier settlement often appear deeply embedded in historical and nationally specific contexts and cloaked in ardently nationalistic rhetoric. Yet, the national specificity of these ideas on frontiers and settlements often turns out to be smoke and mirrors. Take away the bombastic nationalism and one is left with a certain framework of development and borders (as accepted under international law), which grew from the global expansion of European maritime empires and in turn informed the world order that took shape by the late nineteenth century and remains in place today. In that sense, the apparent end of free land—the closure of frontiers, including the iconic American West—did not merely signal the end of one era, but also the start of a new age, still hinged upon the frontiers.

Empires of Knowledge

Ideas about territory are deeply entrenched in the history and culture of a country. What made this global trend possible was the rise of science and social sciences and their adoption by a ruling and academic elite around the world. The members of this elite were not, for the most part, well-known nor necessarily politically powerful figures. The people I examine are not unknown—in fact, some figures have received a fair amount of attention from historians in specific fields. These accounts, however, offer only a brief and incomplete snapshot of these figures without a narrative that connects them in the making of new global norms—of agricultural development and frontier settlement, science, education, and boundary-making. This book is about the missionaries of improvement who drove these initiatives. They came not just from Western countries, but also from Japan, to other Asian peoples, and from China, to its own minority populations. In doing so, my approach not only decenters Europe, but also holds the United States, Japan, and China answerable for their roles in colonialism, both formal and informal, external and internal.

Geographers and agronomists were part of a global educated elite and active participants in international networks put in place by the professionalization of their disciplines. The successive collapse of formal empires in the early twentieth century appeared to herald the end of this era of transnational, professionalized experts on empire. Nevertheless, empire remained on the minds of social scientists and played into their reimagining of a post-imperial world. Hitler did not draw up schematics for farm communities in the East. Planning for the occupied East fell to geographers and agronomists. In China, Nationalist party leader Chiang Kai-shek’s famed 1943 political tract China’s Destiny, which laid out his territorial vision for modern China, was ghostwritten by the party historian Tao Xisheng. The details of Chiang’s ghostwritten vision were enacted by geographers and agronomists who continued to shape the country’s territorial expanse long after Chiang lost the civil war to communist forces and fled to Taiwan in 1949. The American Century, the term coined by Time publisher Henry Luce, was set in motion by the global reordering forged by two twentieth century world wars, with geographer Isaiah Bowman as its consigliere. Ideas about frontiers and development shaped the modern state and territoriality. They did not originate with political leaders but did help to mold their ideas about territory, power, and empire. In many instances the intellectuals who formulated these ideas were consumed by the very forces they helped to unleash.

Empires had long provided the infrastructure for the circulation of knowledge. In his work Green Imperialism, Richard Grove traces the rise of a global state environmentalism to the early modern period, in particular the rise of climate theories and conservationism from the European encounter with the tropics and the settlement of oceanic islands.36 As part of European territorial expansion, islands like St. Helena to Mauritius were integrated into global intellectual, economic, and trade networks, through which new scientific ideas and climate theories circulated. In the period between the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century and the Indian Mutiny in the mid-nineteenth century, the state became increasingly interventionist in shaping environmental policy through the institutional diffusion of professional science and the active engagement of the colonial peripheries with the metropoles.37 Far from marginal, the new species discovered and knowledge gained in the colonies proved essential for the formulation of new scientific theories.

The importance of the frontier was clear to early modern states around the world. John Richards’s environmental study of frontiers around the world pointed out broad similarities in the way that early modern states annexed frontier areas and dispossessed indigenous peoples. Lands occupied by nomadic peoples were emptied first on the map, marked as terra nullius. Settlers then moved in and, with plans of improvement, staked claims of ownership. In nearly every world region, technologically superior pioneer settlers invaded remote lands sparsely occupied by shifting groups of cultivators, hunter-gatherers, and pastoralists. Encouraged, directed, and subsidized by expansive states, surplus populations moved to new areas promising fertile land and opportunities for enrichment. In turn, expanding early modern states imposed new types of territoriality on frontier regions. Settlers and colonial regimes refused to recognize any existing property rights among indigenous peoples (or if they did so initially, these were soon abrogated). Instead, they viewed these lands as empty, to be claimed by the encroaching state.38

Richards demonstrates how various disparate states, including Russia, the New World colonies, Qing China, and Japan settled excess populations on the frontiers, as both part of internal colonization and migration to external territorial acquisitions. He, like Grove, emphasizes the environmental consequences of these frontier settlements. In all these cases, efforts to settle the frontiers involved extending cultivation of the newly settled lands and bringing water control and irrigation to facilitate the process. These efforts to change the ecologies of regions brought about long-term changes in settlement patterns and climate of these areas. The environmental approach notably differs from the way that Alfred Rieber has studied Eurasian borderlands as “shatter zones,” contested areas between the Habsburg, Russian, Ottoman, and Qing empires that witnessed significant conflict from their rise to their collapse around the time of World War I. Despite differences in how they approached the concept of empire, these works share a comparative approach and connect frontiers to the expansion of early modern empires. Little attention, however, is paid to the people who crossed empires and assisted in the circulation of knowledge.

By the mid-nineteenth century, European empires and the colonial governments they administered around the world had deployed a series of innovations to confer homogeneity and “improvement” to newly settled territories. These innovations included irrigation projects to bring agriculture to arid regions and survey, registration, and land reallocation policies that provided acreage, tax relief, and other forms of subsidies to these frontier settlements.39 In the twentieth century, the environmental imprint of empire took on new dynamics with changing technologies of communication and transportation. Global examples of frontier settlements in the twentieth century, from Germany to the Soviet Union and China, illustrate how authoritarian regimes particularly favored these frontier “experiments” as testing grounds for resource extraction and radical development plans. These plans looked good on paper, but in real life conditions exacted huge costs on the environment and the lives of those who took up the challenge of settling the frontiers. The long-term impact of twentieth century global frontier efforts is only now becoming apparent. What happened on the frontiers did not stay in the peripheries. The events covered in this book created the world we live in today, along with all the inequalities and disparities between and within countries and their populations.40

The infrastructural knowledge networks of empires were hardly one-way affairs. Empire also created an infrastructural network that served as a conduit for indigenous ideas. The French physiocrat Pierre Poivre was heavily influenced by Chinese works on the relationship between forests and soil erosion. The German counterpart to physiocracy, cameralism, was similarly shaped by the participation of Germans on global expeditions, some sponsored by other European states. In turn, the publications of well-known naturalists like Alexander von Humboldt, Georg Forster, and others guided the rise of a global environmental consciousness that took root in Europe based on knowledge and inspiration from across the world.

The professionalization of the sciences played an integral role in creating global views on the environment and in defining the relationship between scientists and the state. Organizations such as the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and academies of sciences across the European continent allowed for the circulation of ideas within and between empires. From its founding, the newly independent United States joined these circles. Thomas Jefferson’s well-known interest in natural history, for example, connected him to the leading scientific minds of his time, including Comte de Buffon at the Jardin du Roi in Paris, the leading naturalist of his age.41 By the mid-nineteenth century, the United States was striking out on its own, sending its own expeditions around the world with joint diplomatic, economic, and scientific goals. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Asian countries like Japan and China followed suit and established their own academies of sciences as the means to achieve parity with the West.

The disciplines of geography and agronomy bridged the divide between premodern categories of knowledge and modern science. These fields internationalized as they adjusted to fulfill the universalist claims of modern science. The importance of agriculture to premodern states made it an essential area of knowledge. The prominence of agricultural texts among the works the Jesuits brought to China from the sixteenth century onward makes clear the topic’s importance in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.42 By the nineteenth century, natural scientists on global scientific expeditions regularly collected seeds and potentially economically valuable plants at every stop; in the twentieth century, professional plant hunters and agronomists in government institutions like agriculture departments filled the same role. As a discipline, geography helped to create a hierarchy of space central to the reordering of the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Concepts such as central place theory provided an explanatory model for how we understand the rise of megacities like New York, Chicago, Tokyo, and Shanghai, as well as the spatial organization of rural hinterlands in an ascending hierarchy. Central place theory originated in Germany in the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, German economists and geographers were among its earliest proponents to theorize the spatial organization of industrial development. In time, American historians like William Cronon used central place theory in the analysis of Chicago’s development, and Sinologist G. William Skinner employed it to study the rural organization of the Chinese countryside.43 Among its most important theorists was the German geographer Walter Christaller, who spent World War II as a Nazi researcher in the field of Ostforschung, the study of Eastern Europe.44 At the same time, geographers themselves were embedded in internationalized professional networks during a period when the field began to assume its current boundaries and navigated the tricky boundaries between natural and social science.

These global trends were not solely limited to the European empires. As the effects of capital-intensive globalization spread, so did science and the globalizing influence of educational networks, which brought elites from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas to a select number of institutions of higher learning and conversely brought professionalized scientific disciplines and their applications in geography, agriculture, and economic development to various corners of the world. Geography and agriculture are both widely recognized as areas of knowledge foundational to the function of the premodern state and had long been the focus of state support or regulation in different parts of the world.

In China, these global examples of frontier settlements refracted through its unique history to form a new territoriality that informed the process of modern Chinese state formation. A politically charged discussion of the frontier became deeply entangled with the impetus for modernization and development. These ideas about the frontier survived the political transition to the People’s Republic of China and are still evident today. I argue that geo-modernity emerged from this fundamental spatial reconceptualization of Chinese territoriality and drew from the unique dynamics during a turbulent transitional period from empire to nation-state. The subsequent reshaping of Chinese geopolitical ambitions in the twentieth century continues to reorder the power dynamics in East Asia and the world in the twenty-first century.

The epistemological change and incorporation of traditional areas of knowledge into the categories of modern science are central to this transition to geo-modernity. The imperial Chinese state staffed its bureaucracy based on a vaunted civil examination system, which privileged knowledge of the classics over areas of practical application. Nevertheless, members of the literati class that peopled the civil bureaucracy viewed geography and agriculture as appropriate areas to cultivate learning and knowledge. In the nineteenth century, these interest circles came into contact with global networks. Translations of geography and agricultural works from the West introduced these topics as sciences but would not have elicited much surprise or resistance because of their long-standing acceptance as part of the practical knowledge necessary to the successful administration of empire. There are broad similarities to the transmission of the new science of geology in China. These similarities to existing knowledge opened the way to broad assimilation of modern science.

In my earlier work I have argued that the familiarity with mining of large segments of the Chinese population, from scholar-officials, to merchants, to peasants, helped to usher in acceptance of geology and new conceptions of natural resources foundational to industrialization. China similarly has a long history of innovations in geography and agriculture. For scholar-officials, interests in these areas were not only accepted but encouraged as essential knowledge for the proper administration of the state. This broad acceptance can be seen in the inclusion of these new sciences in local gazetteers, a form of knowledge compilation that had been in place since at least the Tang dynasty in the tenth century, flourished during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and continued throughout the twentieth century. These gazetteers frequently featured administrative maps, lists of local products, schools, and temples. From the late nineteenth century, new features like agricultural experimental zones, new types of schools, including for girls, and new cartographic innovations imported from the West showed up in these local gazetteers across the country and often in places far from the coastal treaty port cities. The inclusion of these changes in a traditional medium illustrates how existing networks of scholars and officials quickly adopted and adapted new knowledge. These changes carried over from the last decades of the Qing dynasty to the Republican period in the early twentieth century and the communist era after 1949.

In the twentieth century, influences from abroad, including the importation of scientific disciplines and ideas about race and nationalism, combined with long-running domestic concerns to form a potent new justification for territorial control over peripheral regions. There is no question that the twentieth century and modern period brought momentous change to China. Classical Chinese gave way to vernacular; the nation replaced empire; science became the savior of a nation in decline. Yet, some of these dynamics of change were also deceptive. The language changed, but the territorial expanse of empire did not. This work draws out some of the underlying continuities between “traditional” Chinese geography and twentieth-century developments, when Chinese geographers attempted to remake geography into a science, to make the argument that geo-modernity emerged from this fundamental spatial reconceptualization of Chinese territoriality.

There were new names given to these new disciplines—agricultural science, agricultural economics, and the study of Earth (dixue 地學)—alongside the old designations of geography (dili 地理) but with a “new” appended to indicate its newly acquired scientific bona fides. These works on “new” geography employed empirical study and statistical methods versus the kind of historical geography that literati with allegedly stultifying and rigid classical training had engaged in previous eras. Yet, upon closer examination, one couldn’t help but notice the superficialities of these designations of newness and some underlying continuities. At the heart of the discussion is the issue of semantics—and the varying gray areas between classical Chinese, neologisms from Japan, and the various translations of ideas from international law to the language of science which so occupied missionaries and Chinese translators alike in the late nineteenth century.

Chinese scientists of the early twentieth century, who proudly viewed themselves as part of a New Culture movement that rejected tradition, often discovered modernity in the close reading of Chinese classics, in medicine, and in the traditional compilations of local information, the gazetteer. They dusted off these findings and, using adopted new methods from the West, repurposed this knowledge to craft the sciences necessary to build a modern nation.45 Early twentieth-century Chinese scientists and intellectuals used the phrase kexue jiuguo 科學救國, “science saves the nation,” to appeal to nationalism and promote science.46 The very success of these efforts laid the foundations for some of the current conflict between the United States and China, each vying for dominance in science and technology and neither acknowledging the more unpalatable history of dispossession and violence on the frontiers. The histories of these two continental powers have been entangled from the nineteenth century, as one rose and the other declined in the international order. In the twenty-first century, they appear headed for collision as each laid claim to great power status. From conflict to collaboration, both the US and China share in the reluctance to discuss the common influences of their respective frontier experiences.

Network Science as Structure

This work operates on several registers: as a history of multiple lives whose arcs crossed and crisscrossed through time, and at the level of discourse about empire and frontiers. We live in a world created from the outside in, where state-making processes took place on the frontiers. The peripheries became the testing places for the expansion of interventionist state policies. Network theories have gained favor in recent years with the rise of social media. What Facebook and Twitter make visible, however, are the connections that were always present, just as global travel existed long before the invention of trains and airplanes and the adoption of fossil fuel–based economies and trade connected far corners of the world well before people came up with the concept of globalization. Around the year 2000, in the first wave of research on the internet, researchers discovered something interesting and unexpected about the World Wide Web and its connections: it was not spread out evenly but rather clustered around a few nodes.47 The internet apparently worked in the same fashion as the underground connections between trees in the whimsically dubbed “world wood web.” The underground fungal connections, a means of communication between trees, are not evenly spread out. Instead, a few old-growth anchor trees function as important hubs for an entire forested area.48 The mysteries of human history and the circulation of knowledge mimic the ways of subterranean mycelial networks.

I have adapted these insights from network and mushroom science to a historical narrative to break away from a purely chronological narrative of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each chapter is based on the concept of a hub—points in time and space, both physical and conceptual, at which an entangled web of individual lives and events intersected and then diverged. Chapter 1, for example, begins with the year 1852, a date that does not seem to occupy any place of prominence for historians but was a point of intersection for a variety of figures from Commodore Perry and Horace Capron in the United States to Zuo Zongtang in China. By the mid-nineteenth century, the forces of capitalism had penetrated to the far corners of the world and underlay growing global turmoil. Chapter 2 examines the proliferation of agricultural experimental stations across Asia from the late nineteenth century. Chapter 3 moves on to the development of modern geography as a discipline and its contributions to the understanding of the ideal spatial organization of the modern state. Chapter 4 begins at Versailles, France, at the post–World War I peace negotiations and from this physical hub, analyzes the subsequent flourishing of geopolitics in the interwar years through global intellectual networks. Chapter 5 begins with the efforts by the big American philanthropical institutions to promote the global spread of democracy and the scientific modernization of countries like China, Mexico, and India. On the other side of the political spectrum, regional warlords in China also led rural reconstruction efforts. With different goals in mind, both the American NGOs and Chinese warlords sought to deploy science to achieve their ends. Chapter 6 scrutinizes settlement plans during World War II proposed by both the Nazi planning offices for the conquered Eastern Europe and besieged wartime Chinese government for the Northwest and Southwest. Finally,chapter 7 explores geographers’ and agronomists’ contributions to the making of the Cold War world order.

Dozens of figures appear in these chapters, mostly geographers and agronomists. Many of these people met tragic ends, used by their regimes and those in power and then consumed by the very forces they helped to unleash. What endured were imperial structures and aims repackaged as uniquely national and with their historical and global contexts erased. What follows is a narrative that moves through time and space, the lives of individuals, and empires’ rise and downfall and rebirth.


1. Shellen Wu, Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860–1920 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015); Shellen Wu, “The Search for Coal in the Age of Empires: Ferdinand von Richthofen’s Odyssey in China, 18601920,” American Historical Review 119, no. 2 (April 2014): 33962.

2. For a broader discussion on translation, see Lydia Liu, Translingual Practices: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity—China, 1900–1937 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).

3. Benjamin Hopkins termed this “frontier governmentality” in the peripheries of the British Empire. Benjamin D. Hopkins, Ruling the Savage Periphery: Frontier Governance and the Making of the Modern State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 6.

4. John Mack Faragher, “Introduction,” Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: The Significance of the Frontier in American History and Other Essays, ed. John Mack Faragher (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), 2; Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Turnerians All: The Dream of a Helpful History in an Intelligible World,” American Historical Review 100, no. 3 (1995), 697–716; also Patricia Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987); Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009); Elliot West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Elliot West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998); Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, “On Borderlands,” Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (Sept. 2011), 338–61.

5. Scott Montgomery, Science in Translation: Movements of Knowledge through Cultures and Time (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Federico Masini, The Formation of Modern Chinese Lexicon and Its Evolution toward a National Language: The Period from 1840 to 1898 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Michael Lackner, Iwo Amelung, and Joachim Kurtz, eds., New Terms for New Ideas: Western Knowledge and Lexical Change in Late Imperial China (Leiden: Brill, 2001).

6. Kumao Takaoka, Die inner Kolonisation Japans (Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker & Humblot, 1904). For discussion of the political alignments in German colonial circles, see Dörte Lerp, “Farmers to the Frontier: Settler Colonialism in the Eastern Prussian Provinces and German Southwest Africa,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41, no. 4 (2013): 567–83; Dörte Lerp, Imperiale Grenzräume: Bevölkerungspolitiken in Duetsch-Südwestafrika und den östlichen Provinzen Preußens 1884–1914 (Frankfurt a. M: Campus Verlag, 2016).

7. For a discussion on Nitobe and his colonial views, see Alexis Dudden, Japan’s Colonization of Korea: Discourse and Power (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005), 133–38; Kären Wigen, A Malleable Map: Geographies of Restoration in Central Japan, 1600–1912 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 171; David Howell, Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 131.

8. It’s not a coincidence that Nibote received his PhD in Germany. Robert Eskildsen, “Of Civilization and Savages: The Mimetic Imperialism of Japan’s 1874 Expedition to Taiwan,” American Historical Review 107, no. 2 (April 2002), 388–418.

9. Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm, 16 Bde. In Teilbänden (Leipzig: 1854–1961). Online version:

10. Alexander Etkind, Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 21; Mark Bassin, “Turner, Solov’ev, and the ‘Frontier Hypothesis’: The Nationalist Signification of Open Spaces,” Journal of Modern History 65, no. 3 (September 1993), 473–511.

11. The August 1912 document, Mongol Treatment Provisions, issued by President Yuan Shikai, specifically enjoined the Central Government from using terms like “dependent” (lifan) or “colonial” (zhimin) to refer to Mongolia. Justin Tighe, Constructing Suiyuan: The Politics of Northwestern Territory and Development in Early Twentieth-Century China (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 193.

12. Qing documents referred to tuntian for military agricultural colonies on the frontiers, for example, in the Northeast. James Rearon-Anderson, Reluctant Pioneers: China’s Expansion Northward, 1644–1937 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 78–79; James Millward, Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central China, 1759–1864 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 40–41; Peter Perdue, China Marches West: Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005), 345; Yuxin Peng, Qingdai tudi kaiken shi (Beijing: Nongye chuban she, 1990).

13. Siberia in the Russian imagination similarly underwent significant change in the nineteenth century as a result of translations from the American literature on frontiers. See Mark Bassin, “Inventing Siberia: Visions of the Russian East in the Early Nineteenth Century,” American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (June 1991): 763–94.

14. Bendict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991), 19; Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “The Frontiers of Japanese Identity,” in Asian Forms of the Nation, ed. Stein Tonnesson and Hans Antlöv (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1996).

15. Stefan Tanaka, History without Chronology (Lever Press, 2019), 1.

16. Richard H. Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Alfred Rieber, The Struggle for the Eurasian Borderlands: From the Rise of Early Modern Empires to the End of the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); John F. Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); John C. Weaver, The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650–1900 (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003); Howard R. Lamar and Leonard M. Thompson, eds., The Frontier in History: North America and Southern Africa Compared (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981).

17. Marc Bloch, “A Contribution towards a Comparative History of European Societies,” in Land and Law in Medieval Europe: Selected Papers, trans. J. E. Anderson (London: Routledge, 1967).

18. For an overview of this relatively new field of global history, see Sebastian Conrad, What Is Global History? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016); Dominic Sachsenmaier, Global Perspectives on Global History: Theories and Approaches in a Connected World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

19. Martin W. Lewis and Kären Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

20. Christopher L. Hill, National History and the World of Nations: Capital, State, and the Rhetoric of History in Japan, France, and the United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

21. For an overview history of empires, see Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

22. Ibid., 11.

23. Thomas Mullaney, Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

24. For a good overview of the invention of an American national history, see Ian Tyrrell, “Making Nations / Making States: American Historians in the Context of Empire,” Journal of American History 86, no. 3 (December 1999), 1015–44; on the periodic use and disuse of empire in American historical discourse, see Paul A. Kramer, “Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World,” American Historical Review 116, no. 5 (2011): 1348–91.

25. Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka, The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904–1932 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001); Louise Young, Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of the Wartime Imperialism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Peter Duus, Ramon H. Myers, and Mark R. Peattie, eds., The Japanese Informal Empire in China, 1895–1937 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); Mariko Asano Tamanoi, “Knowledge, Power, and Racial Classifications: The ‘Japanese’ in ‘Manchuria,’Journal of Asian Studies 59, no. 2 (May 2000), 248–76; Jun Unchida, Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea, 1876–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011).

26. David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), 282–84; Shelley Baranowski, Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 270; Vejas Liulevicious, The German Myth of the East: 1800 to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 114–23.

27. John Fitzgerald, Awakening China: Politics, Culture, and Class in the Nationalist Revolution (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 128.

28. Evelyn Rawski first coined the term New Qing History in a 1996 presidential address to the Association of Asian Studies. Evelyn Rawski, “Re-envisioning the Qing: The Significance of the Qing Period in Chinese History,” Journal of Asian Studies 55, no. 4 (1996): 829–50; Laura Hostetler’s work, for example, juxtaposed Qing gazetteers and Miao albums with European engravings of the New World. See Laura Hostetler, “Qing Connections to the Early Modern World: Ethnography and Cartography in Eighteenth-Century China,” Modern Asian Studies 32, no. 3 (2000): 623–62; Laura Hostetler, Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Pamela Crossley, A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.); Mark Elliot, The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001). William Rowe’s recent book provides a fine synthesis of the latest scholarship on Qing history in China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009). Emma Teng, Taiwan’s Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683–1895 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2004); John Shepherd, Statecraft and Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier 1600–1800 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993); Millward, Beyond the Pass; James Millward, “‘Coming onto the Map’: Western Regions’ Geography and Cartographic Nomenclature in the Making of Chinese Empire in Xinjiang,” Late Imperial China 20, no. 2 (December 1999), 61–98; Mark Elliot, “The Limits of Tartary: Manchuria in Imperial and National Geographies,” Journal of Asian Studies 59, no. 3 (August 2000), 603–46.

29. Perdue, China Marches West; James A. Millward, New Qing Imperial History: The Making of Inner Asian Empire at Qing Chengde (London: Routledge, 2004).

30. Prasenjit Duara, Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900–1942 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), 3–4.

31. Philip Kuhn, “The Development of Local Government,” in Cambridge History of China, Vol. 13: Republican China 1912–1949, Part 2, ed. John King Fairbank and Albert Feuerwerker (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978).

32. Megan Black, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

33. Rainer Eisfeld, “Mitteleuropa in Historical and Contemporary Perspective,” German Politics and Society, no. 28 (1993): 39–52,

34. Michael Burleigh, Germany Turns Eastwards: A Study of Ostforschung in the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.)

35. Historians have examined the complex interactions between imperialism and nationalism in Manchuria. See Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.)

36. Grove, Green Imperialism.

37. Ibid., 309.

38. Richards, The Unending Frontier, 4.

39. Weaver, The Great Land Rush, 347.

40. Charles Maier, “Consigning the Twentieth Century to History: Alternative Narratives for the Modern Era,” American Historical Review 51, no. 1 (2000): 807–30, 825; for a broader discussion of modern territorial ideas, see Charles Maier, Once within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging since 1500 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016); Emily S. Rosenberg, A World Connecting, 1870–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012).

41. Lee Alan Dugatkin, Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

42. Benjamin Elman, On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550–1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 90.

43. William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, 1st ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991); G. William Skinner, “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China, Part I,” Journal of Asian Studies 24, no. 1 (1964): 3–43; “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China Part II,” Journal of Asian Studies 24, no. 2 (1965): 195–228; “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China, Part III,” Journal of Asian Studies 24, no. 3 (1965): 363–99.

44. Walter Christaller, Die zentralen Orte in Süddeutschland: eine ökonomisch-geographische Untersuchung über die Gesetz mässigkeit der Verbreitung und Entwicklung der Siedlungen mit städtischen Funktionen (Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1933).

45. Lijing Jiang, “Retouching the Past with Living Things,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 46, no. 2 (2016): 154–206.

46. Zuoyue Wang, “Science and the State in Modern China,” Isis 98, no. 3 (2007): 558–70,; Fa-ti Fan, “Redrawing the Map: Science in Twentieth-Century China,” Isis 98, no. 3 (2007), 524–38.

47. The key points of this research are explained for general readers in Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2004). Network scientists and sociologists before them have posited that network nodes are not randomly distributed but that new nodes prefer to link to more connected nodes, a concept called preferential attachment. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Network Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), chapter 5.

48. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015); Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life (New York: Random House, 2020).