Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China

Book Cover

Book Title

The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Cambridge, Mass.: B. Blackwell, 1989


Barfield, Thomas J.


"The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China" is part of a series "Studies in Social Discontinuity", which pursue one or more of four varieties of historical analysis: using evidence from the past to identify regularities in processes and structures that transcend the past, reconstruct critical episodes for the light they shed on that era, tracing the origins of significant social processes that continue into the present, as well as examining the ways that social action lays down residues that limit the possibilities of subsequent social action.

Barfield reanalyzes the interaction between successive Chinese mainland empires and the various nomadic empires that formed in the steppes to their north. He examined the surprising durability of imperial organization in the Eurasian steppe and investigated the possibility that the empires of Mongols and other predatory nomads thrived not because they were able to extract resources from their own people, but because of the tribute that they were able to extract from their neighbors. Hence, rather than examining ceremonies between Mongols and China as a submission to their overlords, it warrants to be seen as occasions of exchanges in which nomad chiefs profited handsomely.

"The Perilous Frontier" challenges the common presumption that empires build their strength on internal hierarchies ultimately dependent on the labor of subjugated peasants in a landlord-dominated agrarian economy.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The scope covered is large enough for a comparative study of the empires across the centuries - from the Hsiung-Nu empire, to that of the Hsien-Pi empire, to the Manchurian invasion of China as well as the relations between the Turkish empires and T'ang China. An entire chapter is dedicated to the conquests and policies of the Mongol empire. A comparative history is also drawn up to illustrate the differences and similarities among the method of rule of the Ming, Mongols and the Manchus. The decline of the Mongols provide an apt epilogue to the book.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The book unravels some of the history of Inner Asia by applying anthropological models of tribal and state development to the available historical date on the tribal peoples who bordered China's northern frontier. In this case, the perspective of the steppe was applied to define the sphere of interaction between Inner Asia and China. The work centers largely on the political development of the Nomadic tribes. For example, the study of the Mongol empire allows one to make observations if it represents the culmination of political development on the steppe or a deviation from it. This allows readers to examine the interaction between China and its neighbors from a different perspective, giving insight into alternative forms of empire-building; that of the nomads.

Deviating from current presumptions that the Mongols were the product of a 1,500-year rise, Barfield espouses that it was a progressive internal political development, beginnning from the Hsiung-Nu state that had developed the necessary structure and support for a nomadic empire in 200 B.C.E.

Annotated by Michelle Djong