In the Shadow of the Han
Nathan Nelson
An eyewitness account from Xinjiang

At the most unexpected moments, something is revealed that breeches the iron grip of life in China’s far-Western Xinjiang province. I find myself in a train carriage which is almost entirely Uyghur. A few are keen to practice their English and have translation exercises to show me from their English textbooks. One reads, ‘Senior leaders of the Communist Party of China attended a ceremony on Sunday morning to pay tribute and lay wreathes at the Monument to the People’s Heroes, at Tianamen Square’. They look at me, searching for any expression that might betray a deeper doubt.

I wonder if they, too, sense their historical moment unravelling in the pages of two separate histories. I wonder it they, too, register revolution and conformity as two shades in their own Tianamen moment. As the carriages roll through territories of endless desert which Chinese surveillance has yet to master, they slowly scribble other questions: ‘Do you know about Uyghur culture?’ ‘Do you know what’s happening here?’ ‘Are you Muslim?’ The weight of all I have felt and wanted to express during my time here collides with their daily lived existence, one of deep injustice and untold trauma. A nightmare to be lived in stunned passivity.

They are keen for me to know of other tales in Xinjiang, of a people who have yet to vanish in the arena of endless revisionism. They tell me of role models they dream of emulating, names such as Rebiya Kadeer and Ilham Tohti. Dissidents and political prisoners. But these are only brief chapters, in volumes of their lives otherwise confessing to some new horror.

They speak of curbs on religious freedoms, the use of Islamic greetings and saying prayers at their mosques. Of attempts to purge Uyghur language of all functional use by prohibiting it as a medium of instruction for children, making it redundant within education, curbing its literature and limiting is value in future employment. I ask when they last learnt about Uyghur history and culture. They laugh in unison as if such a fantastical thought could only exist in the rhythms of a season long extinct.

They visit their loved ones less, speak to each other less, confess their emotions less – even love less. Traditional wedding ceremonies, once joyous celebrations lasting days, attract unwanted scrutiny. Instead they have been become quieter, less communal, or in some cases easier to abandon altogether in the maze of travel permits, communications surveillance and national harmony. Love songs, like all other forms of artistic output, must pass through Chinese censorship. Poetic songs of love likened to the motherland have disappeared. Lands self-identified as sites of cultural expression over centuries, stand barren and unreachable now.

It all feels like a pantomime of reality, and yet government policy in Xinjiang excels in this zone where the totalising reach of a police state combines with farcical shows of national myth-making. It is strange that Xinjiang often feels like a war zone, despite totems to co-existence leering all around. I walk past mock security drills on an almost daily basis involving ordinary citizens; a dozen shopkeepers run out of adjoining units carrying clubs and surround a lone female. She is the only Uyghur present, accused of some crime – the symbolism resonating with the force of a thousand gunshots. I cannot fathom which scenarios they imagine might warrant such depth of preparation given how deep the security state is here.

There are police stations every few hundred metres in Xinjiang, with patrols occurring at all hours. In certain parts of Kashgar, there are emergency security points located every two shops. Cutlery is almost impossible to purchase, sharp objects are not for general sale, flammable aerosol cans and compressed gases are similarly banned – or in the case of cigarette lighters, confiscated at every checkpoint. The control is disturbing in its monotony.

The Old Town of Kashgar once housed hundreds of mosques within its winding alleyways alone, but following China’s destruction of the Old Town over the past decade, it is the enduring and iconic Id Kah mosque that stands defiantly, more restrained against the iconoclasm seen all around. The great glory of buildings, as expressed by the Victorian art critic John Ruskin in ‘The Lamp of Memory’, lay in ‘their lasting witness against men… their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things (…) which, through the lapse of seasons and times, and the decline and birth of dynasties (…) connects forgotten and following ages with each other’. I recall his ode to cultural memory whilst stood within the grand shadow of Id Kah, wondering what testimony it might have offered in recent years, as its calls to prayer fall silent and a Chinese flag looms, unfurled over its dome.

It is never worshippers entering the mosque nowadays, rather tourists lured to the fringes of Empire. Nowhere is this concentration of Han Chinese assimilation felt more oppressively than in Kashgar, where the relentless effort to remove localism and shared custom has produced a garish and sentimental theme park for domestic entertainment. They come and leave bearing their own testimonies of loyalty in an exotic land, of China in its moment of divine ascension.

In so many ways Xinjiang is where the dream of unified, one-nation Chinese renewal has reached full effect. A place where efforts to erase both the physical and emotional embodiment of Uyghur identity are codified into everyday interaction, or reformulated into entirely new experiences. I am reminded of this when an official in Kashgar readily explains away the absence of calls to prayer, or sites of prayer for the public: “These things cannot be asked. They don’t exist, as you can discover for yourself. We have brought development here.”

The Chinese are not the first to cast their attentions on this land, dismissing its people and culture with a weary and suspicious gaze. When disparaging the ‘vagrant tribes of hunters and shepherds, whose indolence refuses to cultivate the earth’, the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon was echoing much of European thought across the centuries. What is remarkable about China’s efforts in Xinjiang however, is the overwhelming will to infiltrate every nook and corner of Uyghur identity, and once there, to mark this infiltration as a site of perfect order.

These conquests to ‘harmony’ appear in ways both trivial and sinister, yet always oppressive in their reach. Chinese lanterns and flags, buffeted by an endless array of billboards and posters adorn virtually every Uyghur home, food stand, mosque, monument and civic building. When they are not physically gazing over the population, they appear etched on walls, embedded in clothes and carried at all times on ID cards. The reach even extends to graveyards, reminding both the living and the dead that this era of historical memory will be decidedly rewritten, emerging altered in a show of magnificence, or likewise falling into blank forgetfulness.

The centuries-old labyrinthine streets of Kashgar have been razed to make way for a new order re-imagined during the frisson of a Sino-Orientalist orgy, climaxing in the seduction of domestic tourists by the new god of commercialism. A pastiche of imperial order reigns proudly to render older forms of memory redundant. It appears the function in destroying Old Kashgar was never simply to deprive Uyghurs of one of their most treasured forms of cultural memorialisation, but also to make the community more policeable. Larger streets, streamlined shop units, population transfers to areas outside of the old town, all combine to reshape history into something more manageable, less complex, less indigenous.

At times, the cultural devastation is quite literally embodied in the very stones that run through the city. Extracts from one of the most important works of Turkic literature, the Kutadgu Bilig, are imprinted onto the walls in Kashgar, removed of all context and Islamic wisdom. The effect is to strip the text of its original meaning and lyricism, replacing it with the obscenely menacing overtones of the Chinese state: ‘The bad is remembered for a curse, the good for praise. Decide for yourself which one you want’; or ‘Righteous conduct is a necessary condition for a man to rise in fortune’. One senses that it is not so much a celebration of Uyghur culture, rather a celebration of its absence; monuments intricately woven into the conception of a people and their place in history are targeted, confronted and razed as sites of political power.

It is a cruel irony that a culture rich in welcoming visitors over the centuries, has been destroyed to facilitate a frisson of sensationalism for the new wave of decadent traveller. A world where the artificial Arabesques and lurid refurbishments are violently reimagined, taunting any collective psyche that suggests something else once existed here. I am reminded of the words of Catherine Macartney, wife of the British consul in Kashgar in the early 1900s when noting the impressive diversity of the city: “One could hardly say what the real Kashgar type was.” I, too, am unsure of what the Kashgar type is, but I know for certain this is not it.

I think back to Id Kah and wonder again, what testimony would it bear in these times. What would it say about the hallowed deeds of men; what prayers half-expressed and unexpressed have kissed the shadows of its walls; and what hope would it give from the vast expanse of its own witnessed memory, to her people submerged in the shadow of the Han.