China Geography

Xinjiang Journey

China Geography

David Crook describes a journey into China's troubled north western frontier province of Xinjiang. It marks the end of the Silk Route and the transition from Asia to China. This article was first published in SACU's China Now magazine in 1981.

'This Chinese farmer worked with me on my wheat farm in Kansas for a year,' said the sinewy, sun tanned old American. We were on the plane heading for Urumqi in Xinjiang, 1,600 miles west of Beijing, flying over the Altay Mountains of Mongolia and the Tian Shan or Heavenly Mountains of Xinjiang. 'And now I'm going to this place Shihezi, a hundred and some miles west of Urumqi to see him on his home ground.'

We ourselves went to Shihezi later on a weekend trip from Xinjiang University in Urumqi. It was a leisurely 5-hour drive. 'It took us 13 days to walk it in the winter of 1950,' said the university vice-president, 'pulling our gear on sleds. I was one of 22 PLA men escorting 2,000 Guomingdang (KMT) soldiers who'd come over to our side. Practically all the KMT forces in Xinjiang, including their commanders, mutinied against Chiang Kaishek and came over to us at that time. We gave this lot a few weeks 'education' in Urumqi first, explaining that they'd been fighting on the wrong side in a war of liberation. Then we took them into our PLA and marched with them across the Gobi (the stony desert that Marco Polo described 700 years ago) to reclaim the wilderness and set up state farms.'

There are 18 big state farms in the Shihezi area of Xinjiang today, growing rice and corn and cotton, sugar-beet, grapes and melons (Xinjiang melons are famous all over China).

We visited one of the giant farms, which has a population of 22,000. It is headed by one of those former KMT soldiers who made the 13-day trek 30 years ago. 'I came from a poor peasant family and was press-ganged into the KMT army at the age of 14,' he said, 'It didn't take long for the communists to convince me which side I ought to be on. It was tough in those days, not like this' - pointing at a kilometre-long field of sugar-beet. 'Nothing to drink, at first, but melted snow and ice. What wasn't marshland was gobi. And after we'd transformed one expanse of wilderness and set up a state farm, we moved on to another stretch of sand and stones. In these last 30 years we've built ten reservoirs to trap the snow melt and dug thousands of irrigation channels. Enough to water 8,600 hectares of land for our crops and grazing for 400,000 sheep and cattle in this Shihezi area.'

This was part of the success story of Shihezi, which includes a model city of over half a million, with well laid-out tree-lined streets, an impressive woollen textile mill and other modern industry ranging from hydro-electric power and cement plants to paper mills and beet sugar factories. But Shihezi is only a tiny part of the vast Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, which covers 16 per cent of China's total area - though it has only 1 per cent of China's population.

Traditional teahouse, Kashi City, Xinjiang

Breaking a month-long fast

We were shyly approached one day by two Uzbek girl students. 'It's our festival of rozyet the day after tomorrow,' one said. 'It's to celebrate 'the end of Ramadan (the Muslims' month of daylight fasting). Would you like to visit our homes and those of other minority nationality students?'

Next day we received another invitation from our car-driver who was of Hui nationality and a Muslim. He too invited us to mark the festival by attending the service at a mosque. Later we were invited to visit the homes of the two (out of five) university vice-presidents who were of minority nationality - one Uygur, one Uzbek. We cheerfully accepted all the invitations.

Early on the festival morning a Sri Lankan colleague and I, both wearing brightly coloured Xinjiang skull caps were driven by our Hui driver to the mosque.

We were courteously ushered towards the front of the congregation, where we knelt as long as we could bear to, then gave in and squatted uncouthly on the carpeted floor. The intervals of standing were a relief. The service, we had been told, would be over in an hour and a half. Actually it lasted two hours and a half according to the old-fashioned pendulum clock on the wall behind the imam.

The prolongation of the service was due to the late arrival of a visiting Egyptian delegation. The delay caused some murmuring on the part of the faithful, but this was dispelled soon after the visitors' arrival by their melodious chanting from the Koran. I estimated that the congregation inside the mosque numbered about 700, mostly bearded old men, with perhaps 20 per cent middle aged and a sprinkling of young men in their teens and twenties. But the overflow, I was told, filled the entrance courtyard and stretched right across the street - one of Urumqi's main thoroughfares.

Was all this a sign of a religious revival in China? We had asked ourselves that question six months earlier in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, which we visited during the Lunar New Year holidays. There we saw crowds pouring into a temple to burn incense and kowtow as they made the circuit of the Buddhist shrines. More recently we raised the question with a Christian deputy to the National People's Congress. He felt that there may have been some turning to religion due to a lessening of confidence in communism and also because of the social work done by some churches (alms giving is a basic tenet of the Muslims who also incidentally run bath-houses). There had also been some upsurge of religion, he felt, in reaction to the government's attempts to suppress it (Mao had stated that religion should not and could not be suppressed but would disappear with the advance of science). Perhaps most important of all was that a number of religious believers had never given up their faith but merely kept quiet about it; and now, with the general relaxation of social pressure they felt free to practise it publicly. He added that the current religious trend was conservative, even fundamentalist and agreed that this did not accord with the drive for modernization. But all in all it would be a mistake to speak of a religious revival sweeping China. As a young Ugyur teacher said to me: 'I went to the mosque on the day of the festival, too. But of course I don't believe in that stuff. I just wanted to see what was going on.'

At noon I went with Isabel to call on the Uzbek vice-president of the university, together with the three Han vice-presidents. The flat which was on the campus had a distinctly national flavour. This was achieved by ornately designed coloured carpets and hangings, shining copper and brassware on the tables and carved wooden chests. We sat down to a holiday spread of local delicacies - melons, apricots preserved in syrup, the ceremonial san-za (unbroken braids of crisp fried noodles piled a foot high in the middle of the table) and lashings of roast mutton and fried rice. After lavish helpings of all this, washed down with strong drink and toasts to the unity of all the races and nations present, we were immediately invited to the nearby home of the Uygur vice-president. There we went through the whole procedure again. After that we staggered merrily to our flat, which was mercifully close by, for a siesta before doing the rounds with a group of Uygur and Uzbek students.

We did this, on our own insistence, on foot, walking right across Urumqi, often entering unpromising alleyways to end in attractive courtyards with cool arbours of grapes or hops adjoining the students' homes. There, after pressing on us melons and grapes and sanza the students sang and danced, while the guests, including some Hans, clapped an accompaniment to the castanets and guitars. We reached our last port of call late at night, but not too late for a midnight supper of mutton and rice.

xinjiang people
Bai minority people in Xinjiang, 1976

Languages and lifestyles of a multinational region

During our month in Xinjiang we lectured on the English language and American literature and history; and we ended up with a lecture entitled 'Tips to guides and interpreters'.

Interpreting in Xinjiang involves special problems. There are thirteen nationalities in the autonomous region, 40 per cent of the 10 million population being Hans, the other 60 per cent belong to a dozen minority nationalities - Uygurs, Kazaks, Mongols, Tartars, Uzbeks and others. The Uygurs are the vast majority, which is why Xinjiang is called officially the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

More and more foreign visitors are going to Xinjiang these days, attracted by the spectacular scenery ranging from snow-capped peaks to stony wilderness and lush desert oases, as well as by the historic Silk Route, already a thousand years old when Marco Polo described it seven centuries ago. Xinjiang, too, is a junction of ancient cultures - Indian, Arab, Chinese. Getting the most out of all this depends largely on competent interpreting between not only Han Chinese and foreign languages; the minority languages are also involved. Of these Uygur is most widely spoken. Interpreting from Uygur-into-Han-into-English (or, say, Japanese) and back is not only laborious and time-consuming. It takes much of the life out of human contacts. Sometimes even this cumbersome procedure is not available. Some recent Canadian visitors to Nanshan, a pasture region in the wooded mountains an hour's drive from Urumqi, were delighted at being invited to visit some herdsmen's yurts. But their Han interpreters knew no Uygur; so after smiles, handshakes, buttered-tea and sanza, social intercourse, to the visitors' disappointment, came to an awkward end. Yet on similar occasions we ourselves, with the aid of a Kazhak friend who knew both Han and Uygur, had a lively and interesting time. To solve such problems Xinjiang University is training minority interpreters who can go straight from their own language into English and back without going through Han.

Such training is not easy. Minority university students often have only a limited command of their own language. This may be because they have attended Han secondary schools or have been burdened with the extra task of learning Han in order to enter university. Meanwhile the Han students, free from this extra task (they do not, as a rule, learn more than a few phrases of Uygur) have had more time to study English. True, the minorities, with their traditional love of dancing and singing, have excellent rhythm and keen ears, which make for good pronunciation; and the structure of their languages is in some ways closer to that of Western languages. But these advantages have not, as a rule, enabled them to keep up with their Han fellow students as their language study proceeds.

Another reason for this is that the minorities believe strongly that life is to be enjoyed, while the Hans tend to bury themselves in their books. Since their lifestyles differ they have imposed a sort of segregation on themselves in the dormitories, choosing rooms on different floors or at opposite ends of the same floor. This enables the Hans to quietly burn their midnight oil and to study on Sundays, while the minorities, whenever the spirit moves them, late at night or over weekends, knock off for a song and a dance.

So while the university scrupulously carries out the Chinese Communist Party's policy towards national minorities and ensures that they constitute 60 per cent of the total student body, (which matches their proportion of Xinjiang's population), in the English Department the percentage is lower - or has been until now. The university administration is doing its best to set this right. It has for some time been admitting minority students with a lower passing mark on the entrance exam than is required of Hans; but this involves the danger of the 'minority' students not being up to par on graduation. So the plan is now to give them an extra preparatory year at the university during which they will improve not only their English but also their Han and their knowledge of their own languages. In addition, this semester the English Department is admitting an entire new class of 20 'minority' students. Such measures will pave the way for direct interpretation between English and Uygur.

Even direct interpretation will not in itself satisfy the needs of foreign visitors to Xinjiang. What is needed are competent interpreters and knowledgeable guides - preferably rolled into one. We felt this when, at the end of our course, we drove for a full day across the stony Gobi to Turpan (Turfan) on the ancient Silk Route.

The Turpan depression is a 5,000 square mile oasis 500 feet below sea level - the lowest point in all China. As we approached it in the mid-afternoon we closed the windows of our (non-air-conditioned) minibus, the breeze blowing in being hotter than the air inside. We soon had to slow down and finally to stop: the water in the radiator was boiling. It gushed up like a geyser when the driver removed the radiator-cap to pour in cooler water from a 'kares' - one of the underground irrigation channels originally devised in ancient Persia to limit evaporation. Midsummer temperatures can go up to 49°C in this area.

Turpan was influenced by Indo-Iranian civilization nearly 2,000 years ago and later by Arabian culture. The blending of these ancient civilizations with that of the Hans, and Turpan's location on the Silk Route make it a place of exceptional historical interest. It contains fascinating ruined cities, remarkably preserved by the dry climate; picturesque mosques with towering minarets and Buddhist cave temples, richly decorated with brightly coloured murals and sculptures - until they were plundered by Western academic kleptomaniacs at the beginning of this century. To do justice to the remaining cultural relics one needed a guide with a knowledge of history and preferably of Uygur, Han and English. Unfortunately our visit coincided with that of other groups of tourists; so on our first day we were provided with a charming 22-year-old Uygur woman, who had married at 15 and had three children (regulations on late marriage and family planning do not apply to minority nationalities). She had a good command of the Han language, but not surprisingly she had not managed to become a competent guide. She was, however, an excellent singer - as we discovered at the folk song and dance concert in which she performed that evening. Next day we were fortunate in having a young historian from the local museum, who brought the dead cities to life for us.

xinjiang falconry
An old Tajik hunter with an eagle

Minority-majority nation relations

The 78-hour train journey back to Beijing, through deserts, beside rivers, over mountains and at last across the great North China Plain, gave us time to ponder the problems of Xinjiang.

The proportion of Hans in this vast but sparsely populated region has grown greatly since its liberation 30 years ago. "The Hans don't want to be here and the “minorities” don't want them here", one person told us. That is a dangerous half-truth. True, life styles differ and conditions are in some ways harder - especially for Hans accustomed to big city life in other parts of China. And between a dozen different peoples, all understandably proud of their own history and culture, some friction is hard to avoid. The Western media and China-watchers have recently reported skirmishes between Hans and minority nationalities. We ourselves saw none during our month in Xinjiang.

But sometimes tension could be sensed, even in Urumqi. This had not surprised us. For with the end of 'gang-of-four' repressiveness, the minority nationalities feel more free to express their thoughts and feelings. These include dissatisfaction with the failure for many years to fully implement the Chinese Communist Party's policy and constitutional guarantees of equality-plus for the minorities. 'It was in this context that last year the Uygur leader Seypidin (Saifuddin) was recalled from his native Xinjiang to Beijing. There he still holds his posts in the National People's Congress and the People's Political Consultative Conference. But in Beijing, so far, he remains (though some people speak of his impending return to Xinjiang). Some attribute his honourable exile to his having had links with the 'gang of four'; others to his favouring a degree of regional autonomy which would have amounted to secession.

The historical background of these events is that the minority nations of China are on the whole at a less advanced stage of social and economic development than the Han majority. This has produced on the part of many Han officials (cadres), at best a paternalistic attitude to the 'minorities', at worst a sense of superiority towards them - in Marxist terms 'Han chauvinism'. On the other hand many Hans are dedicated to strengthening national-racial unity and put their ideas into practice by helping to build up minority-populated border regions. The Xinjiang University party secretary who as a young PLA man trekked 13 days across the frozen gobi leading 2,000 KMT mutineers to change the desert into state farms is one of these. Many other Hans responded to the Communist Party's call to go west and build up the border regions in the '50s. We found over a dozen of our former graduates of the Foreign Languages Institute in Beijing holding responsible posts teaching English in Urumqi, where they have been since 1955.

More recently, Communist Party leaders, determined to deal with the long-neglected problem of majority-minority nationality relations, sent a Central Committee Secretariat delegation, headed by Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, to Tibet. Its report, which acknowledged the failure to implement the nationalities policy and the prevalence of Han chauvinism among cadres, had a dual effect. It convinced the minorities, not only in Tibet, but throughout the country, that the Party and government were really set on solving the longstanding problem. At the same time it brought to the surface deep-lying resentments felt in all of China's minority nationality areas - including Xinjiang.

Can China solve her nationalities problem? Our month in Xinjiang convinced us that vigorous steps are being taken to overcome Han chauvinism and to replace Han cadres with cadres of minority nationalities. This seems to be the trend all over the People's Republic. Such steps are vital to making China a truly multinational state.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 95, Page 9, March 1981.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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