Lost Province: China’s Xikang at 80, the province few know ever existed - SupChina

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Lost Province: China’s Xikang, now Tibet and Sichuan, is turning 80. But few people realize it ever existed

The people of Xikang’s central region were known as Khampas until the Chinese Communist Party officially recategorized them as Tibetans after 1949. But before Xikang would be relegated to the footnotes of history, it was a fascinating place, one of experimental programs, rapid development, and even a brief war between the Dalai Lama and a warlord of Sichuan.


Xikang province China

January 1, 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of a milestone that changed the map of China in perpetuity: On this day in 1939, the Republic of China declared the founding of a “Xikang Province” at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Its borders encircled a Tibetan-speaking region known locally as Kham, or 康 (kāng) in Chinese. Although few people alive today are aware that Xikang ever existed, it had an indelible impact on ethnic relations in the PRC. The emergence of Xikang Province is a fascinating story involving inter-ethnic warfare, warlord politics, and the Japanese invasion of China.

It began with an assassination. In 1905, an official of the Chinese empire named Fengquan was stationed deep within the Kham region when he raised the ire of indigenous residents, known as Khampas, by implementing a program of agricultural colonization in spite of their protests. After a mob ambushed and murdered him at a point known as the “Parrot’s Beak,” the Governor General of China’s neighboring Sichuan Province responded by sending in a conquering army under one Zhao Erfeng 赵尔丰. Zhao led a sweeping military campaign that overthrew indigenous rulers throughout the region and converted their domains into Chinese-style counties. In 1911, Zhao’s successor, Fu Songmu 傅嵩沐, sent the Qing court a detailed proposal for converting Kham into a Chinese province.

“The land of old Kham is in the west,” explained the proposal, “so its name is called Xikang Province” — 西康 (xīkāng), literally “West Kham.”

Then China had a revolution. The Revolution of 1911 saw Zhao beheaded and Fu imprisoned under the authority of the new governor of Sichuan Province. Their province-building project was effectively dead. At the request of his captor, Fu wrote a book about his failed endeavor. This book, titled Record of Establishing Xikang Province, went to press in serialized form in 1912. For a long time, that was that — warlords vied for control of Kham, but the central government in Nanjing, controlled by the Nationalist Party, paid little notice.

That all changed in the tumultuous 1930s. First, the dominant warlord in Sichuan, Liu Wenhui 刘文辉, found himself drawn into a war with the Dalai Lama of Tibet over control of Kham. When Liu returned victorious to the Sichuanese capital of Chengdu, he was ousted by his nephew and had little choice but to retreat with his army to the foothills of the Kham region. Having lost control of his home province, Liu pondered Fu Songmu’s old dream of turning Kham into a Chinese province: might Liu be the one to finally make it happen?

Liu Wenhui as governor of Sichuan Province, 1920

It would not be a simple undertaking. The central government consented to Liu’s aspirations but offered no real assistance. And there was resistance within Kham. Liu Wenhui’s presence in the region provoked a “Khampa rule for Kham” movement that ended in armed clashes between Khampa rebels and Han Chinese forces. Liu established himself as the supreme Chinese authority over the region, but not before he suppressed two major uprisings by dissidents within the Nationalist Party.

The final push to create Xikang Province came from forces beyond Liu’s control: When Japan invaded China’s eastern seaboard in 1937, the central government fled from Nanjing to a temporary base in Sichuan Province. With Kham practically next door, the Nationalist government was finally eager to negotiate with Liu over the establishment of his province.

In 1938, the Chinese press broke the news that the creation of a new Chinese province was imminent. So did the international press — for example, the Christian Science Monitor reported that “government heads at Chungking have decided that with the New Year, Sikang…will be a new province and given full recognition for its role as site of vast land-reclamation projects which are to be pushed by both Government and semiofficial circles.” On January 1, 1939, Liu Wenhui mounted a stage in the new provincial capital of Kangding to proclaim the founding of Xikang Province. “From this day forth,” he announced, “the process is complete, the borders are clear, and the status of [the province’s] governance, economy, and culture will increasingly be seen as on par with the provinces of the interior.”

For 10 years, Liu worked to develop his mountainous province while the Nationalists and the Communists battled the Japanese and each other. Liu oversaw the creation of boarding schools for Han and Khampa children. He implemented a program of experimental agriculture where scientists worked to improve the efficiency of yak herding and developed high-altitude wheat strains. He even installed a state-of-the-art hydroelectric plant in the provincial capital of Kangding at 9,000 feet above sea level.

After establishing Xikang Province, Liu Wenhui held monthly citizens’ assemblies like this one in the provincial capital of Kangding

By late 1948, word had reached Kangding that the Nationalists were losing badly to the Communists on the faraway battlefields of Manchuria. Liu Wenhui called a meeting of his top officials and told them that “the two provinces of Sichuan and Xikang will become the last battleground in this struggle.” To adapt to the changing situation in the southwest, Liu claimed he must “go to Chengdu and take charge.” Liu then traveled to Chengdu — and defected to the Communists.

Xikang was indeed the very last province to submit to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), months after Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The PLA carried out an extensive survey of Xikang as they entered, taking notes on the rural economy, religious institutions, local customs, and ethnic relations. They no longer referred to the people of Kham as Khampas, but as “Tibetans” (藏族人 zàngzú rén), officially sorting them into the same ethnic category as their neighbors in Tibet.

Under an entry for policy recommendations, one surveyor wrote that “we must smash the mindsets of Han chauvinism and narrow-mindedness to ‘unite and help one another.’” This statement was an obvious criticism of Nationalist rule, which had prioritized the interests of Han Chinese settlers over Khampa natives, but it was also an implicit criticism of the “Khampa rule for Kham” uprisings, which Chinese leaders had long condemned as “narrow ethnic nationalism.” That same year, in an apparent bid to reduce ethnic tensions, the Communists designated Xikang as the PRC’s first “Tibetan Autonomous Region.”

The name “Xikang” would soon disappear entirely from the political map of China. Now that the Communist Party had reassigned Liu Wenhui away from Kham, the First National People’s Congress in 1955 moved to dissolve his province. Its eastern portion, which had served as the seat of Liu’s government, became the “Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture” (甘孜藏族自治州 gānzī zàngzú zìzhìzhōu) of Sichuan Province, adopting the name Ganzi from one of its counties.

Xikang may be long gone, but its legacy persists in China’s administrative divisions. It was the first “Tibetan autonomous region,” predating the much larger Tibet Autonomous Region (or TAR) by some 15 years. Depending on how you figure it, Ganzi was also the first “ethnic autonomous prefecture,” since it developed out of the 1950 Xikang Tibetan Autonomous Region. Now there are 30 such prefectures.

Today, thousands of Chinese tourists visit Kangding, usually without realizing that it was once the capital of a province. But that may be changing. In 2005, CCTV-1 aired a documentary episode called “A Lost Province” based on found footage of Xikang Province from 1939 and 1944. More recently, Chinese historians have been recovering and publishing huge troves of Xikang-related documents, including a 54-volume set that went to press last May. So it seems unlikely, but worth contemplating: Could Xikang reappear on the map of China some day?

Mark Frank

Mark Frank is a PhD candidate in Chinese history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Apart from his academic work, he has written for various outlets including Modern Art Asia, China.org.cn, and the Asian Educational Media Service.


  1. Propaganda Buster Reply

    This is a poor attempt at revisionist history that would delight the current Chinese authorities because it aligns with their argument of rejecting the Tibetan proposal for granting genuine autonomy to all three traditional provinces of Tibet namely Kham, Amdo, and U-tsang. (Since China’s invasion of Tibet in 1949, Tibet has been divided between five regions of the present day People’s Republic of China (PRC). U-Tsang and parts of Amdo and Kham lay within the present day Tibet Autonomous Region, which has the greatest concentration of Tibetans of any region and makes up over half of the Tibetan population in the PRC. The remainder of Amdo makes up much of Qinghai Province and the western flank of Gansu Province. The remainder of Kham accounts for much of western Sichuan Province and portions of northwestern Yunnan Province and Qinghai.) I doubt if the author had referred to any historical sources available in Tibetan language. I am also intrigued by the fact that the author is also a contributor to the Chinese government owned website china.org.cn.

    1. Mark Frank Reply

      Hi Propaganda Buster: I’m not sure what you mean, since the article fits with everything you have written here as far as I can tell. I am not interested in supporting or vindicating the claims of the PRC or any other political regime. In fact, Chinese accounts of Xikang Province typically omit the “Khampa rule for Kham” resistance movements that I brought up, probably because they are problematic for the idea that Liu Wenhui was a benevolent force in Kham.

      I do use Tibetan sources in some of my writings, but I’m afraid that the vast majority of the available primary sources on this topic are in Chinese.

  2. Patrick Dowdey Reply

    Wow! That’s history as thin as it gets. Did the Khampas ever do anything? Did they have leaders? Was there any other reason Zhao Erfung fought his way through Kham to Lhasa? Did the Communists ever visit Kham? What was Liu Wenhui’s actual power base (opium)? The idea in the header that Khampa no longer see that as an identity, or that the CCP cadres there in the fifties worked hard to erase it is ridiculous. At the very least it would be nice to have some links to know more. More than a few China historians read Sup China, this is pretty embarrassing.

  3. Mark Frank Reply

    Hi Patrick. Yes, this is thin history and was only meant as a very basic introduction to the Chinese project in Xikang. I couldn’t have covered all of those bases in this space. But here are some great books and articles that address some of your questions:

    On Zhao Erfeng, I recommend China’s Last Imperial Frontier by Xiuyu Wang, and the article “Yokes of Gold and Threads of Silk” by Scott Relyea.
    On the history of Khampas themselves, I recommend the book Khams Pa Histories, edited by Lawrence Epstein, as well as The Rise of Gönpo Namgyel in Kham: The Blind Warrior of Nyarong by Yudru Tsomu.

    I don’t think the article implies that Khampas no longer see themselves as Khampas–I have Khampa friends and I’m well aware that they do. What the article says is that in the official classification scheme of the PRC, Khampas are considered “Tibetans”. Before 1949, the term “Tibetan” (Zangren or Zangzuren) in Chinese was more likely to exclude Khampas.

  4. Byron Hauck Reply

    Most histories start off with a bookmark, a point at which all else is treated as prehistory, for contemporary China that is the 1979 reform, for Tibet it is the CCP’s 1950s invasion. This article helps to complicate that history by providing insights on the relations in the decades leading up. As brief as this rush through many decades and points of government decision making may be, it is a good touchstone for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the history of the region.
    While the author spells out the importance of the story for CCP history I am left with hanging questions about what policy legacies (beyond organizational form) arise from Xikang. How might have local consultation informed the set up of the ethnic autonomous prefecture? How did policy experimentation here inform later practices? What are the internal relations between Khampas and those who otherwise identify as Tibetians?
    Of course there is is no space to address these inquiries, but it is a good piece that helps to highlight the deeper complications of history rather than iron over them into space-saving simplification.
    Importantly I think that the reflection on the early resistance to Han chauvinism as a means of challenging past Nationalist rule might be an interesting place to address current trends of Han chauvinism in reform China.

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