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Frontier atmosphere: observation and regret at Chinese weather stations in Tibet, 1939–1949

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 July 2021

Mark E. Frank*
History Faculty, Fulbright University Vietnam
*Corresponding author: Mark E. Frank, Email:


Across Tibet during the 1940s, young Han Chinese weather observers became stranded at their weather stations, where they faced illness, poverty and isolation as they pleaded with their superiors for relief. Building on the premise that China exercised ‘imperial nationalism’ in Tibet, and in light of scholarship that emphasizes the desirous ‘gaze’ of imperial observers toward the frontier, this essay considers how the meteorological archive might disrupt our understanding of the relationship between observation and empire. Meteorology presented a new way of viewing the landscape that deliberately disregarded the embodied experience of the observer in favour of instrument-mediated readings. The process produced a bifurcated archive, in which stations disseminated quantitative weather charts as a matter of public interest while privately recording the embodied and often miserable experiences of observational staff on the frontier. Unpublished letters between observers and supervisors offer a rare glimpse into the frontier as experienced by reluctant or unwilling agents of the state.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of British Society for the History of Science

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1 Twenty-two sui equates to either twenty or twenty-one years of age.

2 Sichuan Provincial Archives (henceforth SA), Min 19-1-11.

3 Hayes, Jack Patrick, A Change in Worlds on the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands: Politics, Economies, and Environments in Northern Sichuan, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013, p. 6Google Scholar.

4 On the relationship between empire and empirical observation in late imperial and modern China see Duara, Prasenjit, ‘Imperial nationalism and the frontier’, Chapter 5 of Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004, pp. 179208Google Scholar; also Teng, Emma, Taiwan's Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683–1895, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004Google Scholar; Hostetler, Laura, Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001Google Scholar; Hostetler, ‘Ethnography’, in Howard Chiang (ed.), The Making of the Human Sciences in China: Historical and Conceptual Foundations, Boston: Brill, 2019, pp. 70–85.

5 Teng, op. cit. (4), p. 82; Harrell, Stevan, ‘Introduction: civilizing projects and the reaction to them’, in Harrell (ed.), Cultural Encounters on China's Ethnic Frontiers, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995, pp. 336, 11Google Scholar.

6 Several scholars have employed the term ‘the cult of heroic fieldwork’ to describe the cultural valorization of certain kinds of field observation, generally among relatively elite or gentlemanly scientists. Henrika Kuklick and Robert Kohler write that the ‘cult of heroic fieldwork’ in Europe evolved in tandem with gentlemanly recreation, including mountain climbing and vacations at seaside resorts. See Kuklick, Henrika and Kohler, Robert, ‘Introduction’, in Kuklick and Kohler (eds.), Science in the Field, special issue of Osiris (1996) 11, pp. 114, 6Google Scholar. For a brief discussion of the ‘cult of heroic fieldwork’ in geography see Gade, Daniel W., ‘Paraguay 1975: thinking back on the fieldwork moment’, Journal of Latin American Geography (2006) 5(1), pp. 3149, 34, 36CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Somewhat departing from these authors, I use this term to include not only field science but other forms of empirical observation that are ‘afield’ from the observers’ place of origin, including travel writing.

7 Friedman, Marc, Appropriating the Weather: Vilhelm Bjerknes and the Construction of a Modern Meteorology, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018, pp. 34–5Google Scholar.

8 Coen, Deborah R., Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018, p. 335CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Immerwahr, Daniel, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019Google Scholar. For works in a similar vein see Go, Julian, Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Immerman, Richard H., Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012Google Scholar.

10 Duara, op. cit. (4), p. 199. More recently, Fernando Coronil has proposed the term ‘national imperialism’ to describe ‘the informal dominion of a nation-state over independent nations’. See Coronil, Fernando, ‘After empire: reflections on imperialism from the Americas’, in Stoler, Ann, McGranahan, Carole and Perdue, Peter (eds.), Imperial Formations, Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2004, pp. 241–71, 260Google Scholar. I adhere instead to Duara's notion of imperial nationalism, which entails the assertion of direct, formal control over peripheral or overseas territories by a nation state. See also Ann Stoler and Carole McGranahan, ‘Introduction: refiguring imperial terrains’, in Stoler, McGranahan and Perdue, op. cit., pp. 3–42, 25–9.

11 Hostetler, ‘Ethnography’, op. cit. (4).

12 Prasenjit Duara writes that China and Japan, as relative latecomers to imperialism, melded imperialism and nationalism into a hybrid ‘imperial nationalism’. See Duara, op. cit. (4).

13 Chinese sources often referred to Kangding as the ‘Lu Pass’ (Lu guan), treating everything west of the Lu Pass as guanwai. The term ‘Lu Pass’ was derived from an earlier Chinese name for Kangding, Dajianlu. In the Tibetan language, Kangding was and still is known as Dartsedo.

14 There is a robust literature on the history of Chinese state building in Tibet that is beyond the scope of this essay, but suggested readings include Shakya, Tsering, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since 1947, New York: Penguin Books, 2000Google Scholar; Goldstein, Melvyn and Rinpoche, Gelek, A History of Modern Tibet, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989Google Scholar. On Kham in particular see Gros, Stephane (ed.), Frontier Tibet: Patterns of Change in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wang, Xiuyu, China's Last Imperial Frontier: Late Qing Expansion in Sichuan's Tibetan Borderlands, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013Google Scholar.

15 Kham is a Tibetan toponym for southeastern Tibet, and the Chinese term Xikang derives partly from the Tibetan word. Chinese speakers also commonly used the term Chuanbian (the ‘Sichuan borderlands’) to refer to this region during the early twentieth century.

16 Liu Manqing, Kang Zang yao zheng, Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1933; Ren Naiqiang, Xikang tujing, Nanjing: Xin Yaxiya xuehui, 1934; Ke Xiangfeng, Xikang shehui zhi niaokan, Chongqing: Zheng Zhong shuju, 1944. Zhuang Xueben's photographs of Xikang were published in a number of articles during the 1940s; for a summary of his work see Yajun Mo, ‘The new frontier: Zhuang Xueben and Xikang Province’, in Jeff Kyong-McClain and Yongtao Du (eds.), Chinese History in Geographical Perspective, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013, pp. 121–40.

17 Tsomu, Yudru, ‘Taming the Khampas: the republican construction of eastern Tibet’, Modern China (2013) 39(3), pp. 319–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; esp. 323. See also Mo, op. cit. (16), pp. 121–40.

18 Here I define ‘meteorology’ narrowly as the practice of making scheduled observations at designated stations using standardized instruments. In Chinese, this science is known as qixiang guance or qixiang xue. Some might reasonably object that weather observation was in fact important to governance, including frontier governance, in dynastic China. Qin Dynasty law of the third century BCE already mandated that local administrators report on rainfall, drought and other phenomena; see A.F.P. Hulsewe, Remnants of Ch'in Law: An Annotated Translation of the Ch'in Legal and Administrative Rules of the 3rd Century B.C. Discovered in Yün-Meng Prefecture, Hu-Pei Province, in 1975, Amsterdam: Brill, 1985, p. 1. Most or all dynasties collected precipitation reports from the provinces; see Haibin, Ding and Jing, Leng, ‘Zhongguo gudai qixiang dang'an yicun ji qi keji wenhua jiazhi yanjiu’, Liaoning daxue xuebao (zhexue shehui kexue ban) (2009) 37(2), pp. 103–8Google Scholar. However, few records survive, and these premodern observations differ substantially from the continuous (daily or sub-daily) scientific observation that emerged in such places as Europe, the United States and Japan during the nineteenth century, generally under the supervision of military or civil meteorological bureaus.

19 On meteorological stations in late imperial China see Qixiang cebao, Nanjing: Xingzheng yuan xinwen ju, 1942, pp. 1–2; Clark Alejandrino, ‘Weathering history: storms, state, and society in south China since the fifth century CE’, PhD dissertation, Georgetown University, 2019, pp. 155–60. On late Qing attitudes toward frontier land reclamation see Bello, David, Across Forest, Steppe, and Mountain: Environment, Identity, and Empire in Qing China's Borderlands, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 40–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kinzley, Judd, Natural Resources and the New Frontier: Constructing Modern China's Borderlands, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017, pp. 2342Google Scholar; Mark Frank, ‘Wheat dreams: scientific interventions at Chinese model farms in Kham, 1937–1949’, in Gros, op. cit. (14), pp. 217–53.

20 Joseph Giacomelli writes that American climate scientists working with climate data from various observers ‘sought to answer a range of questions, especially the pressing, politically charged issue of whether Euro-American settlement could modify climatic conditions through agriculture, afforestation, deforestation, and other means’. See Giacomelli, Joseph, ‘Unsettling gilded-age science: vernacular climatology and meteorology on the “middle border”’, History of Meteorology (2017) 8, pp. 1534, 17Google Scholar; see also Vetter, Jeremy, ‘Knowing the Great Plains weather: field life and lay participation on the American frontier during the railroad era’, East Asian Science, Technology, and Society (2019) 13(2), pp. 195213CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Vetter, op. cit. (20), p. 199.

22 On the meteorology service of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service see Bickers, Robert, ‘Throwing light on natural laws: meteorology on the China coast, 1869–1912’, in Bickers, Robert and Jackson, Isabella (eds.), Treaty Ports in Modern China: Law, Land, and Power, London: Routledge, 2016, pp. 179200CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On Japanese meteorology in Taiwan see Zaiki, Masumi and Tsukahara, Togo, ‘Meteorology on the southern frontier of Japan's empire: Ogasawara Kazuo at Taihoku Imperial University’, East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal (2007) 1, pp. 183203Google Scholar.

23 Kezhen, Zhu and Zhiji, Li, ‘Qixiang yu nongye zhi guanxi’, Kexue (1922) 7(7), pp. 651–4, 651Google Scholar.

24 Qixiang yu mixin, Kunming: Yunnan shengli Kunming qixiang cehou suo, n.d., p. 1.

25 Jing Sou, ‘Da Han xin qixiang’, Shibao, 9 December 1911, p. 10.

26 Derun, Cui, ‘Chuanxi biandi zhi xin qixiang’, Bianjiang Fuwu (1944) 5, pp. 1417Google Scholar.

27 ‘Xikang xin qixiang’, Da Gongbao, 5 February 1939, p. 3.

28 Lü Pengxian, Qixiang yu mixin, Kunming: Yunnan sheng li Kunming qixiang cehousuo (1938).

29 More biographical information about Duan Tianjue can be found in Frank, op. cit. (19).

30 Duan's writings on frontier agriculture include the articles ‘Kang zhan yi huan zhi Xikang jingji jianshe’ (The building of Xikang's economy since the War of Resistance), Xikang jingji jikan (1942) 1, pp. 76–87, and ‘Xikang nongye jianshe zhi qianzhan’ (The future of building agriculture in Xikang), Xikang jingji jikan (1944) (8), pp. 16–20.

31 SA, Min 249-1-170, p. 138.

32 Sun Yibo, ‘Minguo zhongyang yanjiuyuan qixiang yanjiusuo yanjiu (1928–1949)’, MA thesis, Hebei Shifang Daxue, 2015, p. 15.

33 ‘Suowen’, Zhongyang ribao, 30 October 1938, p. 1.

34 ‘Xikang sheng ge ji qixiang cehou suo zanxing guicheng’, Xikang sheng zhengfu gongbao (1939) 3, pp. 69–70.

35 SA, Min 249-1-54.

36 SA, Min 249-01-102.

37 The Xikang Provincial Bureau of Agricultural Improvement copy of this document can be found at SA, Min 249-1-55.

38 In 1947 alone the Hanyuan station notified the bureau that it was without a wind vane or hygrometer, its rain gauge was leaking, and without a Six's thermometer for registering extremes it could only observe the present temperatures at 2 p.m. and 4 a.m. That same year, the Qianning (formerly Taining) Agricultural Station complained to the bureau that its Six's thermometer and other instruments had all been removed after administrative changes. Qianning's charts from those months record nothing but two daily temperatures as well as sunlight and other atmospheric conditions that were typically gauged with the naked eye. See SA, Min 249-1-56.

39 SA, Min 19-1-18, SA, p. 56.

40 SA, Min 19-1-18, p. 94.

41 Auerbach, Jeffrey A., Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 Anon., ‘Yanshuo: Bianwu dachen zhaoren kaiken baihua gaoshi’, Sichuan guanbao (1910) 19, pp. 91, 93.

43 Scott Relyea, ‘Settling authority: Sichuanese farmers in early twentieth-century eastern Tibet’, in Gros, op. cit. (14), pp. 194, 197.

44 Anon., ‘Xikang yimin zhi rongku’, Xibei pinglun (1935) 2(4), p. 254. The essay lists four reasons for the departure of settlers from Kham, of which I have listed the first two.

45 Anon., op. cit. (44), p. 254.

46 Xiangfeng, Ke, ‘Xikang jixing’, Bianzheng gonglun (1941) 1(3–4), pp. 177–98, 179Google Scholar.

47 Ke Xiangfeng, op. cit. (46), pp. 179–81.

48 Tingfang, Wang, ‘Qixiang xiaoxi yu tongxun’, Qixiang xuebao (1942) 16(1–2), p. 88Google Scholar.

49 SA, Min 249-1-170, p. 45. I was able to view Yi's photograph in this file but did not receive permission to reproduce it for this publication.

50 Dikötter, Frank, Sex, Culture, and Modernity in China: Medical Science and the Construction of Sexual Identities in the Early Republican Period, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995, p. 147Google Scholar.

51 Yunxian, Feng, ‘Funü yinggai dao bianjiang qu’, Funü yuekan (1947) 6(1), pp. 14Google Scholar.

52 Huang Fensheng, Bianjiang tunken yuan shouce, Chongqing: Qingnian chubanshe (1946), p. 186.

53 For a detailed description of the Taining experimental farm and its mission see Frank, Mark, ‘Hacking the yak: the Chinese effort to improve a Tibetan animal during the early twentieth century’, East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine (2018) 48, pp. 1748CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Frank, op. cit. (19), pp. 237–42.

54 SA, Min 249-1-170, p. 107.

55 SA, Min 249-1-170, p. 96.

56 SA, Min 249-1-170, p. 96.

57 SA, Min 249-1-170, p. 126.

58 SA, Min 249-1-170, p. 126.

59 SA, Min 249-1-54.

60 SA, Min 249-1-54, p. 4.

61 SA, Min 249-01-170, pp. 136–7.

62 SA, Min 249-01-170, p. 55.

63 SA, Min 19-1-18, p. 31.

64 SA, Min 19-1-18, p. 29.

65 SA, Min 249-1-170, p. 138.

66 SA, Min 249-01-170, p. 134.

67 The title of ‘acting chief’ (dai zhuren) meant little given that Ba'an was classified as a fourth tier station, so that by definition it was a one-person operation.

68 SA, Min 19-1-18, p. 19.

69 A postal slip accompanying the returned letter bears a check mark next to the option ‘this office or school is closed or not in business’. SA, Min 19-1-18, p. 21.

70 SA, Min 19-1-18.

71 SA, Min 19-1-11.

72 SA, Min 19-1-19.

73 SA, Min 19-1-9. By this point the CMB had formally approved a transfer out of Lhasa, but Deng complained that the bureau had failed to provide adequate funding for his travel out of Tibet.

74 SA, Min 19-1-9. It is possible that Deng truly did not receive the order to transfer to Kangding.

75 SA, Min 19-1-19.

76 On French meteorology in colonial Mauritius see Mahony, Martin, ‘The “genie of the storm”: cyclonic reasoning and the spaces of weather observation in the southern Indian Ocean, 1851–1925’, BJHS (2018) 51(4), pp. 607–33CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. On Japanese meteorology in colonial Taiwan see Zaiki, Masumi and Tsukahara, Togo, ‘Meteorology on the southern frontier of Japan's empire: Ogasawara Kazuo at Taihoku Imperial University’, East Asian Science, Technology, and Society: An International Journal (2017) 1, pp. 183203Google Scholar.

77 In 1947 the national Department of Agriculture and Forestry notified the Xikang provincial government by telegram that its meteorological organ should send in monthly weather readings because ‘recordings of meteorological observations are intimately related to agricultural and forestry production and farm field water management’. SA, Min 249-01-56, p. 102. The provincial establishment office responded by issuing an instruction to each county government, affixed with the seal of Governor Liu Wenhui, to ‘assign specialized personnel to begin work, make detailed recordings and submit monthly reports’. Liu qualified his order by asking counties to carry it out ‘to the extent possible’. SA, Min 234-1-101.

78 For instance, a 1943 report in the journal Dushu tongxun (Newsletter on Reading) articulated that the latitude and longitude of Kangding were similar to those of Ya'an, a nearby county considered to part of the neidi, but that their altitudes differ by over 1,900 meters. Expressly drawing on 1940 temperature records for the two sites, ‘taken by the day and by the hour’, the author outlines the relationship between climates, noting that the temperature difference was greatest in the summer and least in the winter, that Kangding's lower temperatures were most intimately related to the differences in snowfall, and that ordinarily the temperature differences between sites were greatest in the mornings and evenings and smallest at noon, except that in summer they were most similar in the evenings. See Jianchu, Yang, ‘Zhongguo Qixiang Xuehui lunwen tiyao: liushi, Ya'an Kangding er di zhi wendu cha’, Dushu tongxun (1943) 79–80, p. 14Google Scholar.

79 Ren's and Ke's serialized field notes were eventually compiled in book form as Xikang zhaji (Notes on Xikang) and Xikang jixing (Travels in Xikang) respectively.

80 Pratt writes that travel books by Europeans about non-European places have ‘engaged metropolitan reading publics with (or to) expansionist enterprises whose material benefits accrued mainly to the very few’. See Pratt, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, New York: Routledge, 2003, p. 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Although Pratt explicitly ties this trend to European travel writing, China historians have observed a similar trend regarding Chinese travel writings about the frontier.

81 Here I refer to Carole McGranahan, ‘Afterword. Chinese settler colonialism: empire and life in the Tibetan borderlands’, in Gros, op. cit. (14), pp. 517–40. To clarify, I agree with McGranahan's nuanced treatment of Khampa Tibetans (p. 527) but object that she, like many other critics of colonialism/imperialism, does not make a similar effort to disaggregate the Chinese state and its settlers.

82 On Japanese imperial mobilization of Japanese citizens to colonize Manchukuo see also Young, Louise, Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, esp. p. 9Google Scholar. On the suffering and starvation of Japanese settlers in Manchuria (Manchukuo) see Collingham, Lizzie, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food, London: Penguin, 2013, pp. 5864Google Scholar. Collingham writes (p. 61) that ‘for the majority of settlers life in Manchuria was unhappy and alienated’, and that ‘farming was hard and life was brutal’.