Unruly Mountains: Competing Visions for China’s Inner Asian Highland, 1368-1600

Unruly Mountains: Competing Visions for China’s Inner Asian Highland, 1368-1600


This dissertation uses the analytical tool of “competing visions” to examine the historical development of China’s Inner Asian highland from 1368 to 1600. Straddling the Chinese heartland, Tibetan plateau, and the Mongol steppe, the highland region was a convergence zone that facilitated a constant flow of people, goods, and knowledge. Competing visions over the highland, as both historical phenomena and research perspective, highlight the dynamic nature of the region and its function as a bridge for cross-cultural encounters and transregional geopolitical interactions. By investigating how and why different social groups understood the highland differently, this dissertation scrutinizes the operating mechanism of a borderland society and its role in macroregional geopolitics. Focusing on material exchanges, knowledge circulations, border-crossings, and contestations over territoriality through the lens of Ming emperors, highland regime lords, Tibetan Buddhist monks, Ming military deserters, and Mongol nomads, this dissertation highlights the formation of a borderland space as the outcome of constant compromise and negotiation. This dissertation argues that the conflict of ideas and agendas in the highland provided the driving force not only for the formation of its political-economic landscape, social structure, and human-environment relations, but also the transformation of the highland from a middle ground where multiple territorial perceptions co-existed into a demarcating frontier between Ming China and the Inner Asian world.

In addition to the Introduction and Conclusion (Chapters 1 and 7), the main body of this dissertation has five chapters. Organized chronologically, each of these chapters focuses on one specific type of vision for the highland. By investigating how different groups of people or individuals understood the highland, this dissertation charts the historical evolution of the highland from 1368 to 1600.
Chapter 2, “Emperors,” charts how the Ming emperor’s understanding of the highland was the driving force for the region’s tremendous change between the 1370s and 1390s. The highland during the Mongol era was the strategic gate through which the Yuan dynasty administrated many Tibet-related affairs. Its geopolitical relevance did not change much after the Yuan-Ming dynastic transition. To protect the Ming’s communications with Tibet and to prevent the Mongol’s continuing interaction with its Inner Asian allies, the Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang mounted a series of military campaigns against Mongol remnants in the area and eventually subordinated the highland non-Han secular and religious leaders. At the same time, the Ming emperoralso extensively changed the ethnic make-up of the highland population by promoting large-scale military migration. Many Han soldiers flocked to the region, settled down in Han-exclusive military towns, and hence marked the change of the highland’s political and social landscape in the ensuring centuries. Chapter 3, “Lords,” takes the lens of certain highland figureheads to examine how they perceived the power structure of the highland society. In the early 15th century, these power dynamics were based on an exclusive social structure in which highland inhabitants grouped themselves in a dichotomous manner. Meanwhile, religion functioned as another source of legitimacy for highland rulership. When the Ming’s tributary system was recognized as one way to incorporate the highland into its imperial orbit, the highland regime leaders also mimicked this system and created a highland version of a tributary system in the mountains. With their strong military powers and religious authority, it was these regional leaders, not the Ming, that determined the social norms of the highland society.

Chapter 4, “Monks,” adopts the perspective of Tibetan Buddhist monks in the highland and examines how they reshaped the region’s religious landscape from the mid to late 15th century. Although Tibetan Buddhism was not intrinsic to many highland communities, many Tibetan Buddhists made full use of the preferential treatment they received from the Ming court to facilitate the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the region. Relying on lineage networks or taking advantage of institutional loopholes, Tibetan Buddhists actively engaged with highland society in the mid-15th century, and thus accomplished the rapid dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism that reconfigured the local social structure. Chapter 5, “Soldiers,” explores the significance of the highland through the eyes of Ming soldiers in the late 15th and mid-16th century. In the late 15th century, the highland was a place where indigenes overpowered Ming soldiers. Many Ming soldiers were bullied, killed, and captured by the highland inhabitants and thus forced to enter the highland in a passive way. In the early 16th century, as a response to the rising Mongol threat, the Ming implemented large-scale reforms in its highland military. However, treating these new programs as opportunities to escape from heavy military duties, many Ming soldiers simply deserted into the highland, thus proactively de-Sinicizing themselves and altering the ethnic make-up of the highland society.
The last chapter, Chapter 6, “Nomads,” traces how the Mongols changed their perception of the highland from time to time in the late 16th century. Treating the highland as a military shelter, a religious bridge for Tibetan Buddhism, and a new settlement with abundant subjects and resources, the Mongols gradually transformed a half-controlled, half-autonomous military buffer zone to a new piece of territory with strategic importance. Such geopolitical changes stimulated the Ming to change its policies and perceptions of the highland in turn, which eventually resulted in the incorporation of the highland into the Ming’s imperial realm. By the late 16th century, the highland transformed from a borderland into a border.



Defended in


PhD defended at

University of Pennsylvania, Department of History, Committee members: Siyen Fei, Christopher Atwood, Frederick Dickinson




Central Asia
East Asia