THE TREE THAT BLEEDS: AN UIGHUR TOWN ON THE EDGE
LUATH PRESS £9.99 256PP ISBN 978-1906817640
Until recently, Xinjiang – the northwestern-most province of China – was known more for the mysteries of its past than its present. This remote land is dominated by the Taklamakan Desert, a burning wilderness of dunes whose name is said to mean ‘you go in, you don’t come out’. The Silk Route skirted the fringes of the desert, and here in the early twentieth century, Aurel Stein pillaged vast stores of ancient manuscripts from sand-smothered libraries. But lately, news from Xinjiang has been of tension between local Uighur people and the Han Chinese.
Nick Holdstock first went to China as a VSO English teacher in Hunan. Hearing of the troubles of the Uighur and wishing to investigate, he obtained a new posting to Yining, a city of half a million near the Russian frontier.
Yining has seen Muslim rebellion in the 1860s, annexation by Russia soon after, further clashes with Russia in the 1960s, a wave of killings in 1997 and again in 2001. Today – as with nearby Tibet – Beijing policy is to push Han immigration, and to swamp the Uighur population, its culture and its Islamic faith. From time to time the Uighurs boil over with rage, as do the Tibetans next door. In 2009 there was a new outburst and many deaths in Urumqi, the regional capital.
In Yining for a year, Holdstock observed and recorded Uighur-Han relations, the Han patronising the Uighurs as good for singing and dancing, but little else. He has a sharp eye for tension and local colour. Much of his writing is clear, pithy, by turns grim and farcical. There are vignettes of coping with bowls of lung soup, of blundering into porn cinemas, of playing snooker. There are memorable characters, such as the Dean of the college where Holdstock teaches, who likes to take the faculty on team-building evenings at local brothels, and who finally drinks himself to death. He makes good friends among the Uighurs, in particular the chess players who thrash him routinely but who present him with a magnificent hand-crafted set on his departure. No close Han friends, though, nor among the other expatriate teachers. Why that antagonism? Because – the author realises – they are there under false pretences: they are all Christian missionaries. He declares war on their subtefuges.
There are problems with the book. Holdstock’s prose is fluent and often funny, but he indulges in some ill-advised literary devices, such as switching to a second-person narrative voice every time he makes a journey: ‘It is three days since you left Beijing.’ ‘A small woman you almost mistake for a child lets you into your flat.’ This is affectation.
The book is trumpeted as a ‘quest for an unreported massacre’. If earlier troubles were little known, that is hardly the case now: Googling ‘Xinjiang riots 2009’ produces 70,000 results. The reader seeking detailed reports of the conflict must rummage through the bulk of the travelogue; there is no index. The book is organised by season, not by theme; there are 123 numbered sections, some just a page long and in no very obvious arrangement. This makes for directionless reading.
For every page on the troubles, there’s a dozen on topics such as bread making, the spread of HIV and Holdstock’s efforts at sex education, restaurants and bars and excursions, wedding anecdotes and so on. Much of this is entertaining and interesting, but it is hardly in-depth discussion.
The book is also in some ways a tad naïve. In the intimate picture of Han-Uighur antipathy, there is little discussion of why the Han are so determined to absorb Xinjiang so thoroughly – the probable mineral wealth, for instance, that is key to Beijing’s policy in Tibet. Or the impulse felt by all empires to expand and secure their frontiers. Granted, the Han encountered in Yining were hardly forthcoming, but the account is very partisan. And Holdstock’s presentation of himself – cheerfully blundering feet-first into conversations, or rubbishing the missionaries’ library – muddies questions as to his own position: VSO teaching of English is a form of missionary activity too, while Holdstock had his own hidden agenda.
An entertaining, often disturbing, heartfelt but in some ways frustrating account.