Bradley Camp Davis's Imperial Bandits is a history of the complex dynamics between the Chinese and Vietnamese imperial states, the border populations and their local political leaders and, later in the story, the French colonial powers. It is a story of their shifting relationships, alliances, accommodations, and occasionally violent conflicts. Central to Davis's discussion is the Sino-Vietnamese border region and the ways in which it figures in the story of the relationship between the Vietnamese, Chinese, and French in the second half of the nineteenth century.

At some level, what Davis is describing here will be quite familiar to scholars of Chinese “border” history—tales of the endless negotiation of power relationships between imperial centers and the often autonomous peripheries. Davis uses the term “imperial bandits” to label the complicated figures that occupy these lands and to capture their uneasy linkages to the centers of official power. In this story, as...

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