The western migration of the Xibe people: protecting the western frontier for the sake of the emperor

The western migration of the Xibe people: protecting the western frontier for the sake of the emperor

On the 18th day of the fourth lunar month in 2015, Tong Liya, an actress from Xinjiang Province who is noted for her performances in shows such as An Ordinary World and Beijing Love Story, posed for a photograph in which she wears ethnic garb and holds a bow and arrow on the back of a horse (shown in Image 76). While one could be forgiven for thinking this photo was part of the promotional material for a new acting role, Ms. Tong — a woman of Xibe descent — was actually commemorating her people's courageous western migration during the Qing Dynasty.

Tong Liya's native home is in Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County — the only autonomous county of the Xibe people in China — in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. On the national census from 2000, 190,000 people throughout China identified as Xibe. They are primarily spread throughout Liaoning and Jilin, to the northeast; and in Xinjiang, to the northwest. Residents of Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County accounted for more than 20,000 of all Xibe people in China.

The Xibe people of Xinjiang originally comprised over 30 clans. From the mid- to late-Qing Dynasty to the beginning of the post-imperial era, these clans gradually adopted Han surnames. For example, Heyer was rendered as "He", Ujara became "Wu", and Huhihar became "Hu". Tong Liya's surname was derived from the clan name Tohercin (to which many people of Manchu descent also belonged).

Image 76: Tong Liya mounted on a horse's back with a bow and arrow

At the end of the Ming Dynasty and beginning of the Qing Dynasty, the Xibe people lived in tight-knit communities in the basins of the Nen and Songhua rivers, in northeastern China. In 1692 (the 31st year of Emperor Kangxi's reign), they were officially enrolled into the Eight Banner army. Subsequently, they were garrisoned throughout Liaoning Province and Beijing. The Xibe people living in Xinjiang today are descendants of Xibe soldiers who were transferred from the northeast to the garrisons of Ili Prefecture during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. In 1759, just after the unification of Xinjiang under Emperor Qianlong, Ili Prefecture was a wilderness with few inhabitants and virtually no border defense forces. In 1762, though the Qing court had began to garrison Manchu, Han, Mongolian and Ewenki soldiers throughout Ili, they still feared that these forces would be insufficient in the event of an uprising. To consolidate their garrisons, they decided to transfer a number of Xibe soldiers and officers from the northeast.

In the spring of 1764, the Qing court sent to Xinjiang two separate groups of 1020 Xibe soldiers and their family members (making a total of 3275 people) from 17 cities, including Shengjing (today Shenyang), Liaoyang and Kaiyuan. The first group embarked on their westward journey on the 10th day of the fourth lunar month, while the second group left on the 19th. The Qing court supplied each Xibe family with a tent, a pot, a cart, three oxes and two horses.

On the 18th day, the second group of Xibe soldiers and officials gathered in an ancestral temple in Shengjing — Taiping Temple — for a great farewell feast. This day would later come to be commemorated as "Western Migration Day" (xiqianjie) by the Xibe people of Xinjiang. It is for this reason that Tong Liya chose this day for her photoshoot in spectacular traditional garb.

Image 77: The western migration of the Xibe people to Xinjiang during the Qing Dynasty

As shown in Image 77, the western migration departed from Shenyang and passed through places such as Tongliao as it made its way to the Mongolian highlands. From there, the soldiers headed west, passing through the Setsen Khanate and Ulaanbaatar. The Setsen Khanate was the name for what is today known as the city of Öndörkhaan. It was here that the plane carrying Lin Biao, a pivotal figure of the Communist Revolution, crashed on 13 September 1971. By the time the Xibe people cleared the Khangai mountains and arrived in Uliastai, it was already the second half of the eighth lunar month and the highlands had welcomed their first snow of the season. Owing to chilly weather, exhaustion from the long trek, and illnesses, the herd of oxes had decreased from 3000 to fewer than 400, while the 300-or-so horses that remained (down from 2000) were looking feeble and malnourished. The Xibe people therefore decided to wait out the winter and recuperate in Uliastai.

In March 1765, as spring reared its head, the General of Öndörkhaan gifted 500 horses and 500 camels to the Xibe migrants, who shortly after returned to the road. They entered Xinjiang via the city of Khovd and the Altai mountains. After passing through Tarbagatai and Bortala, they finally arrived in Ili Prefecture on the 20th and 22nd days of the 7th lunar month.

Throughout this year-long westward journey, women and children sat in carts pulled by oxes, while the soldiers rode horses or walked. When they ran low on provisions, they would gather black tree-ear fungus and wild vegetables to eat. When they lacked blankets, mothers would wrap their newborns in wild grasses. The Xibe people were able to complete this massive exodus thanks to their determination and strong will.

Image 78: Ili as shown on the Map of the Western Territories

Curiously, while it is written in official records that 3275 Xibe people left from Shengjing, the number of people to arrive in Ili was 4030. In addition to an extra group of 405 people (comprising soldiers, officials and their family members) who joined at the moment of departure, a startling 350 babies were born on this arduous, 1-year-and-three-month trek.

After a period of recuperation and training in Ili Prefecture, at the orders of the Ili General, the Xibe soldiers traversed the still-frozen Ili River and settled on its southern bank, in what is today known as Qapqal County. In 1767, these soldiers were officially enrolled in the Eight Banner army. Armed with "1080 quivers, 23,770 arrows, 1082 bows and 1018 side-swords", they occupied 18 karun (border sentinel posts) on the southern shore of the Ili River.

Image 78 is an ancient map reflecting the garrisons of Ili Prefecture during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing. This map has a "south-up, north-down, east-left, west-right" orientation. The river in the top-left corner is labelled "Xibe Bridge", while the southern bank of Ili River is labelled "Xibe Eight Banner Settlement". Surrounding the label are symbols of houses denoting the settlements of different divisions of the Eight Banners, labelled as follows: "Bordered Yellow Banners", "Plain White Banners", "Plain Red Banners", "Plain Yellow Banners" and "Bordered White Banners". This is a true reflection of the Xibe soldiers' distribution in 1767 (during Emperor Qianlong's reign). In the mid-Qing Dynasty, thousands of Xibe soldiers and their family members lived in the settlements labelled on this map.

In addition to those that stood guard at the 18 karun, there were also a number of Xibe soldiers who would rotate between garrisons in Kashgar, to the south; and Tarbagatai, to the north. In the mid-Qing Dynasty, during military campaigns such as the pacification of the rebellions staged by Jahangir and seven other Khojas, the Xibe soldiers fearlessly fought on the frontlines out of devotion to the Qing Empire, contributing enormously to the defense of the Western frontier.

From the 7th to the 13th year of Emperor Jiaqing's reign (1802-1808), the Xibe people dug the Qapqal Channel, which draws water south from the Ili River and thus increased the area of arable land in Ili Prefecture by more than 78,600 mu. Qap is from Tibetan Buddhist scripture and refers to offerings or delicious food, while qal is a colloquial Xibe term for a warehouse. The name is therefore a poetic way of referring to a granary that was adopted as a means of commemorating the excavation of this channel and expressing gratitude for the life it nourished. In 17 March 1954, with the approval of the State Council, Ningxi County's name was changed to "Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County".

Today, Qapqal is the only autonomous county in China that is predominantly inhabited by the Xibe people. As the Xibe language bears similarities with the Manchu language, Qapqal also has the highest concentration of Manchu language experts in China. A myriad of ethnicities, cultures, beliefs and languages are woven into the tapestry of Xinjiang. This tapestry would not be nearly as vibrant were it not for the Xibe people.

Main references

Ying Lin: The historical evolution and current state of Qapqal. Historical Accounts of Ili, Vol. 6: The Sibe People. Internal publication of the Chinese government, 1990.

Ying Lin: Xibe soldiers in the Eight Banner army during the Qing Dynasty. Idem.

Xie Shanzhi: Simple recount of the Xibe people's westward migration. Idem.

Zhang Yan, Wang Youwen: An attempt to expound upon the relationship between the Ili General and Xibe soldiers during the Qing Dynasty. Manchurian Research. No. 2, 2012.