Shifting sands tell the tale of the Chinese west

LETTER FROM CHINA
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
June 12, 2008
DUNHUANG, China: There has never been a marker on the ground in this area, and had there been, it would have been long ago removed, but through much of its long history, the country we know today as China has largely petered out somewhere in the vicinity of this Silk Road outpost.
A visitor today can imagine that spot as towering dunes with their shifting sands that sit at the edge of this sleepy town. You could just as easily place it somewhere in the forbidding badlands that lie within a few hours’ drive from here.
I visited them recently to get a taste of the history in this desolate corner of the country, wandering into gigantic sandstone formations cut and shaped over the ages by the wind into a sight as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon.
Intrigued by the travel stories of the exiled Chinese author, Ma Jian, along the way, I had my driver wander off the simple, two-lane road that winds through the region in search of western end of the Great Wall. Throughout the morning, my mind had raced with images of what I might find. I had imagined myself climbing atop the structure, as every visitor who travels to the wall near Beijing surely does.
When I mentioned this to my driver, he shot me a look that suggested I was crazy. He was having trouble enough finding this section of the Great Wall, which was built during the Han Dynasty two millennia ago. There would be no climbing, he informed me. What remains of the wall is scarcely high enough, and rather brittle.
When we finally caught sight of it, I was chastened but not disappointed. The voyage had been all about understanding China’s definition of itself over time, and its relationship with the “other.”
Quite rightfully, the recent earthquake in Sichuan Province has captivated the world’s attention and drawn unprecedented sympathy and support for China from countries all over the world. From the perspective of Beijing, it has also conveniently pushed out news from beyond the Great Wall of unrest that had roiled Tibet and Xinjiang – provinces that are known as “autonomous regions,” in an administrative fiction that Orwell would have appreciated.
Xinjiang alone comprises one-sixth of the land of the People’s Republic of China, and Tibet, such as it is defined today, is only marginally smaller. At various times in its history, including recently, Tibet has been much larger, comprising parts of several other provinces.
On the surface, Tibetans and the indigenous Uighur population of Xinjiang would seem to have little in common. The Tibetans are Buddhist and the Uighurs are largely Muslim. But they are united in their sense of oppression, as native people of distinctive cultural spheres with a history of autonomy and even independence, all of which has been recently snuffed out by China.
The point here is not to revisit the protests that swept Tibet in March, or the murmurs in Xinjiang that followed, but rather to think about the fragile, changeable thing that is China and to revisit the way sands have shifted dramatically in this part of the world over the ages.
Most nations have founding myths, and China is no different. Beyond the central narrative about the liberation of the country by Mao’s Red Army lie other legends, more distant in time, but equally essential to this nation’s idea of self. One of them is the notion of Chinese as being fundamentally nonhegemonic, as opposed to the violent and greedy expansionists of the West.
The warm and fuzzy story that Chinese have adopted is of a country that grew organically, gradually embracing closely related neighboring peoples, seducing them with the allure of a superior culture and sealing the deal with marriages between royal lines and other courtly statecraft.
The use and threat of force are consistently played down, leading most people to remember only the most convenient facts, and one summary conclusion, that places like Tibet and Xinjiang have been Chinese for a very long time.
The facts are stubborn, though, and that is part of the reason why history seems unlikely to go away in this part of the world. Few places have seen more to-ing and fro-ing by rival armies, contending empires, competing religions and languages than western China. It is an area that, despite the simplifying myth, has rarely remained securely in China’s grasp and has indeed often outright eluded it.
For roughly 1,000 years, until the 18th century, Xinjiang lived under a succession of names – Qarluq, Chaghatayid, Moghulistan and Yarkan, to name a few. For much of this time, a Tibetan empire was a leading power in the region, leaving its mark clearly on the Buddhist cave frescoes of Dunhuang.
Turks and Mongols, Arabs and yes, Han Chinese, were all part of it, all contending in an extremely complex mix, where flux was constant, and nothing certain beyond the now crumbling wall.
One doesn’t recall all of this history to wish China ill, much less to split it, as Beijing says its enemies are wont to attempt. Rather it is to say that as game as China’s current attempt to freeze what it holds in place, the past may offer useful alternative lessons, chief among which may be a more worldly flexibility, such as practiced by the Tang.
“Tang music was played on the lutes, viols and percussion instruments of Central Asia and India; Tang poets sang of infatuation with western dancing girls,” wrote James Millward in his exhaustively researched “Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang,” who added that some in the Tang court spoke Turkic in preference to Chinese. “For these and other reasons the Tang period was one of imperial China’s most open and cosmopolitan.”
Compare that to western China today, where locals cannot practice their religion freely, and where Tibetans and Uighurs are badly underrepresented in their own “autonomous” governments, never mind Beijing, and one’s appreciation is renewed for why history beyond the old wall may not yet be finished.
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