In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section China’s West

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • History
  • Ancient Art, Antiquities, and Archaeology
  • Anthologies

Chinese Studies China’s West
Y.M. Yeung, Jianfa Shen, Gordon Kee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0117


China’s west, or the western region, constitutes about two-thirds of the land in the country and twelve provincial or equivalent units. It encompasses territory so vast that its constituent parts are sometimes given different names, such as “Far West” and “Near West.” However, such names lack precise geographical definitions. In ancient times Xiyu 西域 referred to the distant land centered on present-day Xinjiang, a region that drew military expeditions under the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE). The term “China’s west” is closely associated with the country’s history, trade and exchange, diplomacy, folk culture, frontier settlement, and other topics. The historical and cultural significance of China’s west is attested to in its serving as the home to ten of the twenty-eight World Heritage Sites in China designated by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These sites testify to the natural beauty and creativity of the people who have inhabited the region. They also represent the unparalleled range of historical relics and the many features of great geographical importance found here. The anthologies, ancient art, archaeology, and antiquities of China’s west are widely regarded as diverse and extremely rich, as represented by Dunhuangology, Turfanology, Terracotta Warriors, and Sanxingdui. About 80 percent of China’s borders with fourteen countries and 80 percent of its minority nationality groups are located in the western region. Xinjiang and Tibet have played roles of central importance for centuries, and efforts to strike a balance between issues of national security and ethnic identity have marked the region. Of late, issues of spatiality, poverty, and inequality within the western region have also come to the fore. Harmony, integration, and national sovereignty clash with colonialism and expansionism. Likewise, Sino (Han)-centric and state-centric views have to be complemented by opposite perspectives. Relations with neighboring states markedly improved when the legendary Silk Road reached a peak of activity in the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and have entered another period of importance with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1999 with the promulgation of a policy aimed at active development, China’s west entered a critical period. The long-term policy seeks to redress the region’s imbalance with the coastal region, and the past decade has witnessed rapid development across the region in the construction of infrastructure, sustainable growth, energy utilization, and cross-border cooperation. The latest Belt and Road Initiative, started in 2013, is another golden opportunity to peak the development of China’s west in terms of socioeconomic development, cross-border exchanges, and international relations. Expanding deserts and grassland degradation are counterbalanced by desert reclamation and ambitious west-to-east energy transfers. Balanced regional development with an emphasis to assist China’s west to catch up is a long-term goal sought by leaders across the national spectrum.

General Overviews

Given the national policy attention given to China’s west since the late 20th century, general overviews of the region tend to be limited. Two undertaken by well-known Western scholars are outstanding. Barnett 1993 stands as a singularly important book meticulously written that is based on the author’s long-term residency and extensive travel through the western region. His detailed description of change over four decades is unparalleled and revealing. Starr 2004, written by Frederick Starr and his colleagues, is a study of Xinjiang as the western heartland from ancient time and is a valuable source of information and insights. The other sources chosen are authored by Chinese scholars of diverse backgrounds. Basic information in Chinese on the economic and social development of the twelve provincial units is offered in Dai 2000, a series of books. While Che 1993 is an early collection of papers on the development of southwestern China, Tuijin “yidaiyilu” jianshe gongzuo lingdaoxiaozu bangongshi is the official website that provides information and data of local development and international cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, including those in and by the twelve provincial units in China’s west. Analytical examination and policy analysis of early-21st-century developments are offered in Yeung and Shen 2004. Zeng 2010 stands out as a personal account of the author’s experience with the Western Development Strategy (WDS), a policy of central important to China. Zheng 2011 centers on poverty reduction and sustainable development in rural China, with a focus on the western region.

  • Barnett, A. Doak. China’s Far West: Four Decades of Change. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993.

    This book offers a general overview and personal experience of the economic and political condition and development of each provincial unit of China’s west over the four decades from the 1940s to the 1980s.

  • Che Zhimin 车志敏, ed. Zhongguo xinan diqu jingji fazhan yu duiwai kaifang guoji huiyi wenxuan (中国西南地区经济发展与对外开放国际会议文选). Kunming, China: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 1993.

    The materials contained in this volume mark an effort in the early 1990s to collect papers on economic development and the foreign relations of southwestern China written by government officials, businessmen, scholars, and international experts, set against the background of globalization. Various topics such as interstate relationship, regional development, investment, and industrial development, are discussed.

  • Dai Xian 戴贤, ed. Zhongguo xibu gailan (中国西部概览). Beijing: Minzu chubanshe, 2000.

    This book series in twelve volumes covers all twelve western provincial or equivalent units and provides a general introduction to the economic and social development of each unit.

  • Starr, S. Frederick, ed. Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2004.

    This book provides a comprehensive introduction to Xinjiang in five parts. It covers its history, economic development, politics, ecology, demography, religion, and other topics. It is probably one of the best in-depth studies of the autonomous region.

  • Tuijin “yidaiyilu” jianshe gongzuo lingdaoxiaozu bangongshi 推进“一带一路”建设工作领导小组办公室. Zhongguo yidaiyilu wang (Belt and Road Portal, 中国一带一路网).

    This website offers general introduction, news, official documents, databases, and business information of the Belt and Road Initiative. Users can look for the updates on the involvement of China’s west and related policies by keyword search.

  • Yeung, Y. M., and Jianfa Shen, eds. Developing China’s West: A Critical Path to Balanced National Development. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2004.

    This volume offers a comprehensive and detailed review of the latest development of each provincial unit of western China to the date of publication and provides reasoned discussions in key thematic areas. It is arguably the most highly evaluated book on the subject in the English language.

  • Zeng Peiyan 曾培炎. Xibu dakaifa juece huigu (西部大开发决策回顾). Beijing: Zhonggong dangshi chubanshe, 2010.

    This book provides a valuable and personal account of China’s WDS after the first ten years. A key participant close to national leaders, the author recapitulates the impressive progress made in China across a broad front of social, economic, and environmental dimensions. The book offers a detailed account of many topics.

  • Zheng, Yisheng, ed. Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Development in Rural China. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    This book discusses a variety of topics, including the WDS as well as issues of hydropower, poverty reduction, women’s development, and environmental conservation.

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