Neat title (我的西域，你的东土) for a 473-page tome about the far west of China by a gutsy, if sometimes over-heated Han Chinese who certainly did his fieldwork. The “West Land” of the title conjures up images of the Silk Road, the Taklamakan Desert and Turkic tribes, all part of the Chinese empire. “East Country,” however, is a taboo term in today’s PRC, a homophone for the abbreviation of the short-lived East Turkestan Republic, whose legacy still gives Beijing splittist migraines. Both of these terms refer, of course, to what is known in the PRC as Xinjiang.
The title implies an even-handed, and therefore very politically incorrect stance on the “Xinjiang question.” To the best of my knowledge, the book is available only in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and has not been translated out of the Chinese.
“No one has ever. . .deciphered Xinjiang and the Uyghurs like this,” shouts the cover blurb. Author Wang Lixiong (王力雄) did travel widely in Xinjiang on several long sojourns during 1999-2007, often in the company of local Uyghurs, but that is hardly impressive. Arguably, it is the time he spent in jail—being interrogated for photocopying secret government documents about Xinjiang, and the friendship he strikes up with his cellmate, a Uyghur political detainee—that sensitized him to the plight of the Turkic minorities in Xinjiang.
After a tough time in detention during which he almost killed himself and at one point agreed to work as an informer in exchange for his freedom, Wang left jail and resolved to research Xinjiang and write a book about what he saw on the ground, as well as record his political discussions with Mokhtar, his former cellmate and an articulate spokesperson for Uyghur intellectuals.
Rather than write a book review, I’ve translated two brief excerpts. Mind you, it’s not illegal to be a practicing Muslim in Xinjiang. Well, not exactly. Check out Mosque Etiquette Primer and The 23 Illegals just so you understand the challenges involved. . .