Christian Daniels : Upland leaders of the internal frontier and Ming governance of western Yunnan, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries


This chapter investigates internal frontiers, that is, spaces not controlled by the state directly, or administered indirectly through native officials. It examines why the Ming state failed to control the internal frontier of Iron Chain Gorge, a conglomeration of autonomous upland ethnic communities in western Yunnan, for almost 200 years. Focusing on the agency of these upland communities in maintaining their own autonomy, the author clarifies the nature of political organisation within the internal frontier, and shows how fierce opposition by upland leaders limited Ming control of surrounding lowland areas until the conquest of Iron Chain Gorge in 1574. The survival of an internal frontier compelled Ming bureaucrats to heavily rely on co-administration with hereditary native officials. Co-administration was not simply a product of the uneven coming together of regular bureaucrats and hereditary native officials, but can be interpreted as the Ming state’s recognition of the limited extent of their governance. The author concludes that this administrative infrastructure prolonged the existence of the Iron Chain Gorge internal frontier, and that it restricted the reach of social reconstruction. The concept of internal frontiers is reviewed in the context of James Scott’s Zomia, and the implications it has for the history of Southwest China are discussed.