by Nick Holdstock
Review by Josh Summers
In February of 1997, a deadly protest known as the “Ghulja Incident” shook the core of a small city in China’s western province of Xinjiang. Depending on who you ask, this incident has been described as a peaceful demonstration, an act of terrorism, or a massacre. To this day, the truth behind these mysterious events remains largely unknown.
Four years later Nick Holdstock, a British writer who had already spent time teaching English in Hunan, decided to investigate. His book, entitled The Tree That Bleeds, chronicles the year he spent in Yining (site of the riots) and everything he learned about what really happened on February 5, 1997.
Diving into The Tree That Bleeds
In general, I have found that literature available for readers interested in Xinjiang tends to be either too political or too academic. This, I believe, has been a contributing factor to the limited understanding the world has about the region.
In The Tree That Bleeds, Holdstock has been able to humanize the ethnic conflict while painting a refreshing picture of Xinjiang that is both colorful and inviting.
With each witty description of new experiences in Xinjiang, I found myself nodding my head in agreement as if he had been describing me during my first years in the province. Uyghur weddings, games of snooker, long bike rides through the countryside – all shared memories between myself and Nick Holdstock.
I am also drawn to Nick’s humble approach to the unknown. He writes, “The longer I stayed in Yining, or Ghulja, the less I knew”. Nothing frustrates me more than an author or journalist who writes about Xinjiang in a matter-of-fact tone, as if the issues truly are black and white, and that wasn’t the case here.
The Tree That Bleeds offers a compelling explanation to the causes of the 1997 incident in Yining – some of the best that I’ve ever come across – yet Holdstock never claims to have the answer.
In a personal interview, Nick shared with me that “…the question of what happend and why is just a starting point for the book- not to be forgotten, but it shouldn’t occlude all the other fascinating things about the region“.
How Would You Describe Xinjiang?
Think about your first time visiting Xinjiang, or maybe just your first time in China. How exactly would you describe what you saw to people who have never left the borders of their own country?
While some may criticize Holdstock for indulging in the discussion of daily Xinjiang life in a book that is dedicated to the investigation of a riot, I thoroughly enjoyed his detours.
In a manner that reminded me of Peter Hessler, Holdstock uses interesting characters, revealing dialogue, and seemingly unrelated events to provide foundational understanding of Xinjiang that ultimately affects the reader’s interpretation of the facts presented.
Whether he is playing chess with a Uyghur master, eating lung soup for the first time, or accidentally running across a cock fight, all of these episodes guide readers one step deeper into Xinjiang.
Nick Holdstock Answers My Objections
A review isn’t complete without criticisms, and I do have a few of my own. Fortunately, when presented with my objections, Nick Holdstock was kind enough to provide his explanations.
It bothered me that throughout the book’s investigation of the ethnic conflict that fuels Xinjiang’s unrest, very little attention is paid to the Han Chinese. This is obviously due to the fact that most of Holdstock’s friends and acquaintances are ethnic minorities (Uyghur, Kazakh, Hui), but this still leaves out a very important half of the conflict.
In contrast to the glaring omission of Han Chinese from The Tree That Bleeds, I was struck by how much time Holdstock spends talking about his foreign counterparts – people who had absolutely nothing to do with his investigation of the riots.
Why make them part of the narrative? Because they are missionaries, a group of people he obviously despises.
“I can’t deny that there are moments in the book when my anger gets away from me” Nick told me in an email. He’s not joking. Not only does he burn their books, he literally approaches government officials in an attempt to get them kicked out of the country.
Once I got over the irony that Holdstock admits to arriving in Xinjiang with a secret agenda just like the missionaries, a thought struck me: what if my biggest criticism of this book was actually it’s greatest strength?
In a book that does a wonderful job exploring the ignorant and uniformed hatred by both Han and Uyghur, Nick Holdstock unintentionally reminds readers that this is not a problem found only in Xinjiang.
Even in the face of my criticism, Nick told me in his email, “I still have a problem with [missionaries] being there”. Despite his admission that they were the group of people he got to know the least, he still maintained an evident hatred for their presence in Xinjiang.
Sound similar to other groups of people in this province?
Bigotry is not an issue unique to Xinjiang – we all hold prejudices of our own that we desperately try to justify. Whether you’re Han, Uyghur, British or American – we’re all cut from the same cloth.
The Tree That Bleeds is an insightful, often entertaining look into the emotions that continue to divide the people of Xinjiang – the same kind of emotions that are causing riots across the globe. I believe that Nick Holdstock came to Xinjiang in search for the answers to what happened in Ghulja, but what he finds extends far beyond the provincial borders.
Additional Xinjiang Reading
Does this kind of book appeal to you? Then you might be interested to check out my review of other similar books such as:
- Foreign Devils on the Silk Road (Review): a gripping retelling of the Great Game story
- English by Wang Gang (Review): a translation of a popular Chinese novel written by a man who grew up in Xinjiang
- Horse That Leaps Through Clouds (Review): one foreigner retraces the steps of a famous early explorer
- Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (Review): by far the BEST book on Xinjiang history