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The Xibe ethnic minority (3)

(People's Daily)

10:10, August 12, 2011

The ancient Xibe people lived by fishing and hunting generation after generation. By the mid-16th century, the social organizations of the Xibe ethnic group had shifted from blood relationship to geographical relationship. The internal links in the paternal consanguineous groups became very loose. In each Xibe village lived members with different surnames. Because of the low productivity, collective efforts were required in hunting and fishing. Members of the same village maintained relatively close links in productive labor, and basically abided by the principle of joint labor and equal distribution. By the mid-17th century, the "eight-banner system" had not only brought the Xibe people under the reign of the Qing Court, but also caused drastic changes in their economic life and social structure.

The Xibes are a hard-working and courageous people. Although geographical isolation has given rise to certain differences between the Xibes in northeast and northwest China in the course of history, they have all made contributions to developing and defending China's border areas. The Xibes in Xinjiang in particular have made great contribution to the development of farming and water conservancy in the Ili and Tacheng areas. Since the Qing court stopped supplying provisions to the Xibes after they reached Xinjiang, they had to reclaim wasteland and cut irrigation ditches without the help of the government. They first repaired an old canal and reclaimed 667 hectares of land. With the increase of population, the land became insufficient. Despite such difficulties as lack of grain and seeds and repeated natural disasters, the Xibe people were determined to turn the wasteland on the south bank of the Ili River into farmland to support themselves and benefit future generations. After many failures and setbacks, they succeeded in 1802 after six years of hard work in cutting on mountain cliffs a 200-km irrigation channel to draw water from the Ili River. With the completion of this project, several Xibe communities settled along the channel.

Later, the Xibe people constructed another canal to draw water from the upper reaches of the Ili River in the mid-19th century. In the 1870s, they cut two more irrigation channels, obtaining enough water for large-scale reclamation and farming. The local Kazak and Mongolian people learned a lot of farming techniques from the Xibes.

While building irrigation channels and opening up wasteland, the Xibes also joined soldiers from other ethnic groups in guarding the northwestern border. In the 1820s, more than 800 Xibe officers and soldiers fought alongside Qing government troops on a punitive expedition against rebels backed by British colonialists. In a decisive battle they wiped out the enemy forces and captured the rebel chief.

In 1876, the Qing government decided to recover Xinjiang from the Tsarist Russian invaders. The Xibes stored up army provisions in preparation for the expedition despite difficulties in life and production inflicted by the marauders and cooperated with the Qing troops in mopping up the Russian colonialists south of the Tianshan Mountain and recapturing Ili.

The Xibe people in Xinjiang staged an uprising in support of the Revolution of 1911 soon after it broke out. Those in northeast China joined the Han and Manchu people in anti-Japanese activities after that part of the country fell under Japanese rule in 1931. Many Xibes joined such patriotic forces as the Anti-Japanese Allied Forces, the Army of Volunteers and the Broad Sword Society. Quite a few Xibes joined the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Youth League to fight for national liberation. In September 1944, struggle against Kuomintang rule broke out in the Ili, Tacheng, Altaic areas in Xinjiang. The Xibes there formed their own armed forces and fought along with other insurgents.

Before 1949, the feudal relations of production in Xibe society emerged and developed with the incorporation of the Xibes into the "Eight Banners" of the Manchus, under which the banner's land was owned "publicly" and managed by the banner office. Irrigated land was mostly distributed among Banner officers and soldiers in armor according to their ranks as their emolument. The rest was leased to peasants. This system of distribution from the very beginning deprived the Xibe people of the irrigated land which they had opened up with blood and sweat.

In the 1880s, the "banner land system" for the Xibe people in northeast China began to collapse, and the banner land quickly fell under the control of a few landlords. Although the banner system stipulated that the banner land could not be bought or sold, cruel feudal exploitation gradually reduced the Xibe people to dire poverty and deprived them of their land, and an increasing number of them became farmhands and tenants, leading a very miserable life.

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