Borderline behaviour

Wild West China
July 9, 2004

Xinjiang, or Sinkiang as it was known in the days before the current Hanyu pinyin romanisation of Chinese, is in the far northwestern corner of China and borders on the former Soviet Central Asian states, as well as Mongolia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The majority of the population are Muslim Uighurs who speak a Turkic language closely related to Uzbek.

For decades it was out of the public consciousness, but its importance has once again been recognised: as the region of the People's Republic of China closest to the Muslim world and, particularly, as a close neighbour of Kyrgyzstan, which acquired both US and Russian military bases as a result of strategic manoeuvring during the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The existence of a long-standing separatist tendency in Xinjiang, which is motivated by a potent combination of Uighur nationalism and political Islam, suggests that it deserves far greater attention than has been the case to date.

Surprisingly few books have been published about Xinjiang since the 1950s.

In part, this was undoubtedly due to the sheer inaccessibility of the place. Moreover, for many years the authorities did not welcome visitors, but since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, travel from western Central Asia to Xinjiang has once again become commonplace and access has improved enormously.

Christian Tyler's lively and lucid account of Xinjiang is a welcome addition to the small corpus of books on the region. It is written in an unashamedly journalistic style that reads very easily and is likely to be popular with readers who respond to the "Wild West" approach to the region.

Wild West is by no means inappropriate as a description of Xinjiang. A Chinese colleague accompanying me to Xinjiang on my first visit to the region many years ago went to great lengths to warn me that Xinjiang was not like other parts of China, that it was quite unsafe and that the rules of behaviour that could be relied on in China Proper did not apply there.

Xinjiang does have a Wild West, or frontier, feel to it, with its wide-open spaces, long-haul transport, seedy truck stops, stunning landscapes and an occasionally turbulent ethnic mix, and all of this is vividly conveyed in Tyler's account, which benefits from his extensive travels in the region.

However, the book is based on very few primary source materials and they are not used critically. What is presented as history in the first four chapters is often myth and legend, and it relies heavily on old warhorses such as Aitchen Wu's Turkistan Tumult and The Gobi Desert by the redoubtable Mildred Cable and Francesca French, although a few more up-to-date sources have also been consulted. The account of Uighur resistance to Chinese rule since 1949 is sound, although it is based on anecdotal evidence and personal accounts, many provided by emigre organisations, rather than on a systematic study of the movement.

There is a large body of material in Chinese on the history and society of Xinjiang that has not been consulted, and no material in the Uighur language has been used. There are also some inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the use of Chinese terms in the text. For example, it is simply not true to say that the characters in the modern Chinese name for Muslims includes the "dog" element.

In spite of these criticisms, Wild West China conveys a vivid picture of this fascinating but troubled region. It is well illustrated and the writing is informed by genuine sympathy for the land and the people of Xinjiang.

Michael Dillon is senior lecturer in modern Chinese history, Durham University.

Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang

Author - Christian Tyler
Publisher - John Murray
Pages - 314
Price - £20.00 and £8.99
ISBN - 0 7195 5735 6. and 6341 0

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