BA East Asian Studies with International Study / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
China's Borderlands: Culture, Ethnicity and History

Course unit fact file
Unit code CHIN20061
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? No


This course introduces China’s borderland regions, the diverse peoples who live there (including members of the country’s Han majority), and how they help us understand China today. Although distant from major centres such as Beijing or Shanghai, China’s edges have long been key in shaping how the country is run. During the semester we will survey rural and urban life in several key regions, from the Siberia-like plains of the northeast, through deserts and mountains of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet, to the southeast Asian forests of Yunnan and Guangxi. While these areas have seen successive Chinese governments seek to exert political control, they have also been home to groups who have themselves ruled over China. Two of China’s last three dynasties were dominated by Manchus (the Qing) and Mongols (the Yuan). Relationships between the fringes and the centre have therefore always been two-way. Reading anthropological, historical and literary works by Chinese and non-Chinese writers, we will develop our appreciation of China’s ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity, and many different ways of being ‘Chinese’ over time. Life at the margins offers new perspectives on ‘China’ as an idea, and on the questions of identity, history, nationalism, and the state which lie at the heart of the country’s ongoing transformations.


  • Provide students with a sound understanding of China’s borderland regions, the people who live there, and how these came to be a part of the contemporary Chinese state
  • Foster greater awareness of ideas of ‘diversity’ in China, and of social, political and cultural issues arising from relations between the Chinese centre and its peripheries
  • Develop awareness of how China’s borderlands, their peoples and histories are seen from the perspective of the Chinese government and education system
  • Train students to adopt a balanced approach to potentially fraught political questions, weighing up and critiquing state ideology and policy against the perspectives of minority peoples
  • Improve students’ ability to express complex ideas in oral and written form

Knowledge and understanding

  • Show familiarity with borderland areas of China which are often overlooked, and the main ethnic groups who live in them
  • Understand the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity which are a feature of these regions
  • Illustrate how relations between the Chinese state and its borderlands have developed over the country’s recent history

Intellectual skills

  • Read, discuss, and critically analyse materials relating to China’s borderlands and minority peoples
  • Apply independent critical thinking skills when making use of academic materials, as well as more popular sources including media
  • Make connections between different regions and those who live in them, and between those people and the Chinese state at large
  • Express ideas about China’s borderlands in the form of well-structured and well-research written essays

Practical skills

  • Think independently and analytically about globally important ideas such as ‘state’, ‘nation’, ‘ethnicity’ and ‘culture’
  • Be well informed about much-debated but often misunderstood issues around China’s borderlands, while remaining sensitive to cross-cultural – particularly Chinese – perspectives on them
  • Express ideas clearly in speech and writing
  • Read effectively (both primary and secondary texts)

Employability skills

Students will develop the following skills which can usefully be transferred to many employment contexts: Time management, self-organisation and working towards deadlines Written communication skills, and the ability to present and organise arguments clearly Cultural sensitivity an ability to maintain attention to detail while also approaching large and potentially daunting topics

Assessment methods

Assessment Task 

Weighting within unit 

Essay plan 




Final Take-home Exam 



Resit Assessment

Assessment task  

1 Essay on agreed topic 

Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

In writing: written feedback on essay plan


In class: responses to contributions, questions asked, and any other participation.



In writing: written feedback on essay (via Blackboard/Turnitin)


In person: additional one-to-one feedback during consultation hours or by making an appointment.



Recommended reading

Bulag, U. E. 2010. Collaborative Nationalism: The Politics of Friendship on China’s Mongolian Frontier. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Harrell, S. (ed.) 1995. Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Lary, D. (ed.) 2007. The Chinese State at the Borders. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Millward, J. A. 2007. Eurasian Crossroads: a History of Xinjiang. London: C. Hurst.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 12
Seminars 24
Independent study hours
Independent study 164

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Edward Pulford Unit coordinator

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