The Sedan Chair vs the Steamboat: The Sichuan Route and the Maritime Route in the making of modern Sino-Tibetan relations

Huasha Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


This article tells the intertwined tales of two historical routes that testify to the extensive geographical distance and profound political connections between Tibet and China throughout the modern era. In much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Sichuan Route operated as the transportation artery upon which the Qing empire depended to maintain authority in Kham and Tibet. It was also the site of a rite of passage for frontier functionaries and a meeting ground between imperial agents and the indigenous population. Despite its destruction after the implosion of the Qing in 1911, the histories and memories of the Sichuan Route continued to influence decision-makers in both China and Tibet in the following decades. The Maritime Route, which emerged in the late nineteenth century with the proliferation of steam transportation in Asia, revolutionized the way in which Tibet connected to China and the rest of the world. It also competed with the Sichuan Route and encouraged the Qing to reconfigure its presence in its non-Chinese territories in the southwest. After the empire fell, political tensions continued to evolve around the Maritime Route, which functioned simultaneously as the reluctant choice of Chinese emissaries and a strategic tool that the Lhasa government wielded to curtail China's influence. Through an exploration of the Sichuan Route and the Maritime Route on the levels of experience and representation, this article sketches the two routes' troubled interconnections with each other and with every twist and turn in Sino-Tibetan relations from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)269-308
Number of pages40
JournalModern Asian Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2022 Jan 10

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press.

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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