No doubt anyone visiting China could rustle up a selection of amusing manglings of the English language on signs and shop fronts, so I make no grand claim to originality here but just wish to celebrate the country’s touching faith in translation software and piss poor, old dictionaries someone found at a garage sale. People may concentrate on obvious errors but often they just have a special charm in expressing something in a way that a native English speaker never would. Some are just incomprehensible, such as the shop offering “zero mood leisure chat” (any suggestions anyone?), others delightful misjudgments, such as the In Convenience Store. To Chinglish speakers they may make some kind of sense but to the rest of us they are linguistic treasures to be savoured.
With free entrance, quality exhibits, largely comprehensible English information and staff out numbering visitors, the museums in Xinjiang offer, at first glance, a quality experience outstripping the majority of that of their Central Asian counterparts. Closer inspection of the exhibit explanations soon reveals the struggle of competing objectives: trying to represent an accurate portrayal of history and conforming to the government’s historical narrative which it uses to justify its policies in the region. The key part of this narrative is that the region has been an integral part of China since the rule of the Han dynasty from 206BC to 220AD. The validity of this statement can be succinctly summarised in the expression, “utter horse shit”.
Firstly, there is the basic problem that following the departure of the Han Dynasty to more recent times, many periods of centuries have happily come and gone with no sign of a Chinese Empire. Secondly there is the issue with the concept of saying you rule in a vast, often barren region where, until cars, trains and aeroplanes arrived on the scene it could be weeks before you learnt that say, your garrison had been massacred and another few weeks before you could get enough people there to do anything about it. At times “Chinese rule” meant little more than having the odd fort with a few soldiers dotted around the countryside. As with much so-called rule throughout Central Asian history it was more sustained thorough often short-lived treaties and mutual agreements between competing powers, where it suited a regional ruler to offer allegiance to a neighbouring or distant empire without submitting to direct rule. Finally we are left with the practical realities of creating policies based on spurious interpretations of two thousand-year old history, look what a splendid contribution to world peace the formation of the state of Israel has been.
Like all empires throughout history their claim to ownership has only ever been determined by military invasion after some bloke turned up and raised a flag in the name of a far off ruler, who was never going to dirty their slippers by actually going there. Even the supremely arrogant British Empire had realised by the end of WWII that this was hardly a tenable excuse to rule in the modern world. China conveniently ignores that it denies other countries the same logic: its own Yuan Dynasty was created by the Mongols after their invasion, hence giving modern Mongolia an equally legitimate claim to rule China. Tibet had also invaded parts of China and Xinjiang at various periods and the museum at Dunhuaang even refers to the Tibetan invasion, rather inconveniently demolishing that other Big Lie that Tibet is a part of China, after all you can hardly be invaded by yourself. Unless you have been living in a particularly remote cave for the last fifty years I scarcely need remind you that Tibetans are hardly in a position to reclaim their rightful territories in China.
The museums often skillfully tackle the underlying contradictions by hinting at things whilst neglecting the whole extent of the story. In Urumqi Museum a mummy from the ancient city of Niya is celebrated for its fine clothes of silk with Chinese characters, omitting to mention that the body it clothes is Caucasian and in all likelihood was displaying his ostentatious wealth by wearing exotic foreign clothes rather than any fealty to Chinese rule. It and most other exhibits are dated by which Chinese dynastic period they fall under, regardless of whether they had anything to do with the dynastic rule. Exhibits depicting the myriad of scripts which have existed in Xinjiang, particularly those of an official nature raise the question, why wasn’t any of this business being done in Chinese?
Perhaps the most loaded term used is, probably unsurprisingly, ethnic minorities. Often it actually means the indigenous ethnic majority, only demoted to minority status by Chinese invasion, or genocide in the case of the Jungars, in a convenient process of historical revisionism. In fact it has been continued to the present day by the government backed immigration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang. The official view is that all the minorities are part of the one big happy family of a united China, when in fact many forms of cultural expression are ruthlessly suppressed because it is seen as part of a “separatist” agenda. Museums perpetuate charming picture post card vignettes of these cultures: all happy natives singing and dancing in traditional dress; women doing embroidery and basket weaving, men herding goats and hunting. Uplifting adjectives abound in descriptions of minority life: joyous, proud, free, unique. Outside of museums, posters, murals and education reinforce this myth of compliant peoples with their quaint traditions.
Principal victims of this rebranding of culture are the Uighurs, now almost overtaken in numbers by Han Chinese, who by a large margin disproportionately benefit from government investment, jobs and political placement, creating huge resentment. Further exacerbated by violent state repression this resentment has tragically fuelled a terrorist response, which has only ratcheted up the state’s heavy-handed security measures and led to further infringement of cultural expression. Being predominately Muslim it is religious restrictions that have particularly inflamed tensions. To give only two of the many examples, beards have been effectively outlawed and demands to cease fasting during Ramadan have been made. Beards may only be good practice, as exemplified by the prophet Mohammed but fasting is one of the Five Pillars of Islam (http://www.islam101.com/dawah/pillars.html), mandatory for all Muslims, hence any restriction on it is seen as an attack that goes to the core of the faith. If anything, this has only hardened the resolve of Uighurs to defend their religion and pass it on to their children. The flourishing of religion in the countries of the former Soviet Union is ample evidence that religious suppression doesn’t work and can leave lingering bitterness, lasting generations.
The destruction of Tibetan culture may have gained much international exposure but the assault on Uighur culture is no less insidious. With some having resorted to terrorism the international community has deliberately looked away for fear of jeopardising trade deals and the like with China.
You don’t have to spend long in the region to realise that violence sits uneasily with the average Uighur, the sincere welcome for foreign visitors is typical of Central Asian friendliness but there is little warmth for the Chinese and only limited interaction occurs between the two communities, government actions only continue to alienate them. Any journey on the roads of Xinjiang is interrupted by ID and bag checks. These and other “security” measures may well at times be justified in the short-term but will inevitably grate as time goes on further adding to the sense of injustice. With the government showing no inclination to ease its repressive practices and rewrite the Big Lie there is little hope for a peaceful future.
The Chinese have much to be proud of in their long history, with a continuity, perhaps unequalled anywhere, artistic treasures and scientific advances which at many times have put the West to shame. Any country has the right to use its museums to boast of its proud past and few countries will be entirely open about shameful exploits of past empires but when the past is manipulated to justify the present a museum ceases to be a museum and becomes a propaganda tool.
The niggling possibility of getting hacked to death by axe wielding terrorists has, for some strange reason deterred some tourists from coming to Xinjiang, so the streets of the region’s capital Urumqi were hardly awash with foreign faces. Locals are obviously made of stern enough stuff to not let such a trifling matter interfere with their daily routine and for many this means going to the park. In Urumqi the security concerns for patrons of the People’s Park were subtly addressed by the use of a perimeter wall and airport style security with machine gun-toting soldiers and armoured cars on street corners. And so life within the park remains untroubled by the world outside.
Parks in British cities at the start of the day may be more of a proving ground for super strength lagers or home to lonely dog walkers more in search of love than exercise for the dog but in China they are a town planner’s dream of an ideal world, where a throng of enthusiastic citizens communally participate in a range of civilised past times designed to improve their well-being. Scant chance of encountering popular UK sports such as collapsing unconscious in your own vomit or hurling stones at squirrels.
Most popular is group dancing, often characterised by the Chinese version of line dancing, which can be immediately recognised for its superior quality by the inherent lack of country and western. For the more sophisticated, Chinese ball room dancing is another popular style, although it should be noted that whilst I am an avid fan of dancing, I am a firm believer that it is something best practiced under states of extreme intoxication, guided only by the mantra, dance like no one’s watching. Hence my understanding of the subject’s technical terminology may be slightly limited. Fans of this invigorating start to the day tend more to the female and mature, which means that if only I had a modicum of aptitude for natural movement I would undoubtedly be hot property on the park scene. Undeterred by the sexual imbalance, women happily take each other as partners, at least as far as the dancing goes.
Musical accompaniment is not always limited to a simple amplifier and speakers, on occasion musicians or even a small traditional orchestra may be on hand, where a crowd clutching song sheets merrily belt out the classics of yesteryear. I suspect that my own personal preference for the thump of acid techno, through a 10K PA at 8 in the morning may take a little while to gain in popularity.
Physical activity is most certainly not limited to dancing, as parks everywhere are equipped with a range of exercise machines. Having proudly got to the age of fifty, defiantly having never seen the inside of a gym I have absolutely no idea if these devices differ in any way from those at home. Without fail, the local grannies will be straddling these contraptions with a vigour and suppleness rarely seen in their British counterparts, instead fuelled by gin and tonic and discount chocolate bars.
No park is complete without a pond and People’s Park in Urumqi boasts two, teeming with elegant schools of carp, delightfully counterpointed by dozens of men with fishing rods around the edge, enjoying a day of licensed poaching.
A pension is not however the only requirement for using the parks, as you will see young couples whose lips may touch for a moment not under the gaze of the family; parents and kids picnicking on the lawns and teenagers on skateboards practicing their ollies, dreaming of the day they finally make that nolly flip crooked grind ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lc3tvFLc8o0 – for those of you unfamiliar with the sport).
It is people who make parks what they are and even if they were just rubble strewn stretches of wasteland, rather than the well-appointed, arboreal treasures that they tend to be, I don’t doubt that they would still be busy with Chinese dancing away their cares.
I arrived late in Kashgar, about ten years late, to find two thousand years of history bulldozed and replaced by a sanitized, theme park vision of history, with generic, mass-produced, “antique” features, that even the stray dog that had stopped to piss on, could tell they were about as historical as the deposit he had left on the pavement that morning. Brown signposts with pretensions of antiquity direct visitors to imaginary realms of a bygone age: remains of the “old city wall”, in fact a pristine section of broken arch, lovingly made from modern materials with a set of moulded irregularities to wish its five years into five hundred; Vegetable Market Road, lacking only vegetables or someone to sell them to provide even the merest glimmer of its former function.
Urban redevelopment has committed many sins in the name of progress, in western Europe in particular, with its post war architects and planners giddy with the dreams of Le Courbousier and Gropius. So why should we care about one more city in a distant land?
If ever there was a city which represented the Silk Road it was Kashgar. To traders and travellers going west it was blessed relief, having left the minimal traces of the Chinese Empire far to the east of the bandit ridden Taklamakan Desert. To those going east it was a vital staging point to prepare for the deadliest part of their journey yet, having already endured the rigours of the freezing passes over the Tien Shan or Pamir Mountains. Also, whether coming north from Pakistan or south from Mongolia it was here deals would be done and goods exchanged for other commodities that would bring greater reward further down the line. More mudanely the Silk Road was less concerned with great, long distance voyages and was, in reality more a network of regional routes, with Kashgar being a vital hub in the system.
From Scythians and Sogdians to Jews and Jungars and any number of ancestral, Asian alliterative amalgams you can think of, the ethnic mixing brought about by trade is still evident even today in the smorgasborg of facial features seen in its people.
One solitary island of dilapidated homes, many abandoned, sits surrounded by a sea of flattened, rubble and mud brick-dust, forlornly awaiting its inevitable demise. Some of its buildings bear tourist information signs, a reminder of an era when someone considered them worth keeping. Myself and two friends sheepishly shuffled through the doorway of one establishment, whose sign promised tea and edible treats. As we sipped tea it soon became apparent that we were an unnecessary intrusion into the daily life of their courtyard and the sign outside was a government imposition. The exorbitant sum asked for, which we were ill inclined to pay was at least an understandable demand for which I could hold no grudge.
Government statements of sanitary concerns and earthquake risks to justify the recreation of the old town may have a small measure of validity but cannot be considered as a credible excuse for such a crass, insensitive project that warrants the replacement of the term philistine with chinese. Besides, the largely Uighur inhabitants were never consulted and it is particularly galling for them, for whom the city enshrined over a thousand years of culture. In a supreme statement of idiotic hypocrisy a sign at the end of Wustanbay Street, for which I have generously corrected the appalling English, states that, “the government attaches great importance to the protection of the street”, talking of its millenia of history and how it sits harmoniously with the Id Kah mosque, the sole remaining historical structure. The appropriate, restrained and moderately toned response to this could only be, “rot in Hell you brain-dead, gormless, fascist fuckwits”.
Alas their historical carpet bombing approach has been inflicted on even their own remnants of Chinese culture elsewhere in the country. Surely future generations of Chinese will look back on this period, which makes the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan look like the height of civilised behaviour, as one of ludicrous, bovine iconoclasm, for which they will forever bemoan their loss. Even so I find it hard to believe that the average Chinese tourist is so imbecilic and infatuated with propaganda to believe that what they are seeing is a genuine piece of history.
Three hours to the south-east of Kashgar the town of Yarkan at least offered a glimpse of the region’s old town life. Its delightful and slightly shambolic jumble of buildings from many eras oversaw a chaotic, organically evolved street life, lacking from the sterilized Kashgar where traders are alloted numbered plots. Although no one could accuse Kashgar’s inhabitants of being unfriendly, the tourist in Yarkan is assured of near adulation from its inquisitive people and hordes of excitable children clamouring to have their photo taken.
I can only pray it is left that way.
Eschewing the conventional wisdom of issuing road users with a booklet describing good practice for drivers and pedestrians, the Chinese authorities prefer the medium of roadside murals to convey the more salient points of the subject. This has the additional benefit of providing employment for semi-skilled artists rendered unemployed by advances in creative computer software. I have provided a convenient translation of the images for those unfamiliar with Chinese, cultural, automotive norms.
1. Headbutting is a particularly ineffective means of alerting other road users of your presence.
2. When shopping with your child be sure to buy sufficient quantities of over processed, sugary products to inhibit the inevitable tantrums brought on by withdrawal symptoms in the precocious little brat, which may distract you when crossing the road.
3. The roadside is an unsuitable location to practice the 200m hurdles.
4. Mysterious dark figures and menacing robot cars dissuade foolish pedestrians from imagining that such road markings give them any priority over vehicles.
5. Do not let cyclopes lead you across busy roads as they are well known for their inability to judge the distance and speed of oncoming traffic.
6. Blocking a lane of the highway to take pictures of the scenery is only permitted in the case of the arrival of an ambulance at a fatal accident thus facilitating morbidly obsessive photography of victims.
7. Having a huge inflatable, smiley, character filling up your car is an unnecessary distraction from the imminent head on collision with an equally distracted man, who is attempting to combine a mobile phone conversation and an argument with his hysterical wife.