Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
As a would-be writer, I am often filled with self-loathing. It’s okay; it’s an occupational hazard. But today, a very specific failure weighs on me, the failure so far to keep a promise.
Three years ago, I traveled through Xinjiang, China’s massive northwestern “autonomous region” (of course it’s not actually autonomous) that is the historical homeland of the Uyghur minority, a Muslim Turkic population that prefers to call the area “East Turkestan.”
I traveled there to research the book I was trying to write. While there, in the old center of traditional Uyghur life, Kashgar, a kindly man whom I call “Yusup” in the manuscript asked me to make him a promise. “Tell our story,” he said. “Write about us. Let the outside world know what is happening in Xinjiang.”
And so far, as I have failed as yet to publish the book, I have failed to keep my promise.
Even then, the Beijing government was already imposing draconian policies on the Uyghurs. Parents were forbidden to bring their children to mosques under a policy clearly designed to undermine Uyghur cultural identity. A large section of the charmingly decrepit old town of Kashgar had been demolished and rebuilt as a Disney version of itself for the edification of tourists. Yusup told me about his own experiences and the experiences of his friends and neighbors of being searched and detained without cause. Riding on a bus across the province, I found myself along with every other passenger passing through police checkpoints and handing over my passport to armed police every hour or two.
Three years on, things have only gotten worse. Reports have trickled out of the tightly-controlled province in recent months that by now perhaps as many as half a million Uyghurs have been imprisoned, and once bustling streets and markets are now eerily empty. Accusations circulate now that what the People’s Republic is doing in Xinjiang may well amount to ethnic cleansing. My friend Ally recently traveled through Xinjiang and reported a suffocating degree of oppression.
Tell our story, Yusup asked me. And so far I have failed him.
The Chinese, I have often said, are a people who would have salvation for themselves but who often deprive others of the same.
In this connection I am reminded today of The Book and the Sword, the debut novel by revered author Louis Cha or Jin Yong. I wrote about Jin Yong before on the occasion of the new English translation of his magnum opus, The Condor Heroes. Lest you think I am suddenly trivializing the very serious topic of ethnic cleansing, literature from Solzhenitsyn to Orwell to Baldwin has functioned as the keeper of a people’s conscience. Fiction often tells a higher truth than mere facts.
And Jin Yong’s enormous popularity — hundreds of millions of copies sold over a long career that began in the early 1950s — grants his work a special status. Everyone in the Chinese-speaking world reads his books or watches the film and television adaptations. The most recent adaptation of The Book and the Sword in Mainland China was shown on television there in 2008.
They’d have to be morally blind not to see the parallels. The Book and the Sword is set in the mid-18th century, when the Qianlong Emperor launched a series of wars into present-day Xinjiang to subjugate the Uyghurs and to incorporate their lands into the Qing Empire. Before that time, Xinjiang could not be considered a part of China despite the present government’s protests to the contrary. Indeed, the protests are rather comical, given that Xinjiang literally means “new territory.” The novel’s dashing young hero is the leader of a Han Chinese secret society dedicated to overthrowing the empire. He goes to Xinjiang to fight with the Uyghurs as part of resistance against the government. There he falls in love with a Uyghur princess, based on the real life “Fragrant Consort,” whom Qianlong forces into his bed. In the end the Chinese hero so dedicates himself to his love and her people that he converts to Islam.
The novel is admittedly not historically accurate and rather unfair to the historical Qianlong, whose overall performance was reasonably competent. But as protest fiction written sixty years ahead of its time, the novel was never meant to be accurate. Its depiction of an overweening and venal central government, led by one absolutist ruler who cares for nothing but his own interests, trampling on the rights of a minority people who only want to preserve their cultural identity and independence, is almost too on-the-nose as an analogy for today. Indeed, if the book were not already considered a classic and widely read, it would surely be banned if it were published today.
And yet somehow millions of Chinese can go on reading The Book and the Sword and not see that they’re on the wrong side.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."