Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands
Written by: Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson
Published by: Chicago Review Press
Review by: Josh Summers
“We set off to the [Beijing] Chinese Ethnic Culture Park…the rest of the Muslim minority exhibits were packed in the far southern edge of the park. Our usually talkative guide tried to hurry through this part of the prescribed course without a word. We stopped her and asked about the giant mud brick recreation of a minaret from a famous Uyghur mosque. The minaret was one of the few Culture Park structures visible from the outside streets, and Beijing taxi drivers often referred to it as “Bin Laden’s Tower.
‘Oh, you want to see the Uyghur exhibit?’ She sounded surprised. ‘Most people aren’t interested.'”
China is quick to point out that they officially recognize 56 different ethnic groups, which includes the dominant Han. I’ve never met a single person who could name them all – Chinese or foreign – and most people including myself aren’t even aware of groups like the Mosuo, Kinh or Wa.
I’m particularly biased toward the ethnic groups that reside here in the Xinjiang province, obviously. Most you’ve probably heard of before: the Kazakh, Tajik, Kirgiz, Hui and of course the one “most people aren’t interested” in, theUyghur.
Back in the mid-2000’s, two gentlemen with a strong grasp of the Mandarin, Korean and Uyghur language set out to better understand many of these ethnic minority groups. The result is Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands by Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson.
Below is a quick review of my thoughts on this book as well as an interview with Colin Legerton, one of the authors.
Review of Invisible China
From the very beginning, Invisible China felt to me like an interesting cross between a travelogue, a social commentary and a piece of journalism. As odd as that may sound, it blended quite well into an entertaining, informative narrative.
Readers follow Legerton and Rawson as they travel from the border of North Korea in the east to the far western border with Pakistan in the west, intentionally spending time with 14 minority groups along the way.
The beauty of spending time with them on their journey is the opportunity to experience the unique stories of individual people within each ethnic community. Instead of falling into the popular trap of describing Xinjiang as a restive region full of ethnic conflict, Legerton and Rawson allow the characters to speak for themselves.
Characters like Muhammad Ali, a Uyghur barber who gave up farming in order to make better money in the city. His fee for almost an hour’s worth of labor is 5 RMB.
I personally enjoyed the story of Ahmetjan, a young man who was kicked out of school in Urumqi only to return to his hometown of Hotan to become a jade hunter.
Many of these characters express their frustration with the current system while others express their gratefulness for the increased wealth that has followed China’s rule. In both cases the issue of ethnic autonomy is hidden behind the responses of the characters more often than the commentary of the authors.
Within the province of Xinjiang, Invisible China offers descriptive scenes of Uyghur in Hotan and the Urumqi campus of Xinjiang University as well as a look at the Tajik who reside in and around Tashkorgan.
In an area of the world where residents often struggle to escape to bigger and better opportunities within China and abroad, it’s interesting to note that Legerton and Rawson were “nearly arrested twice merely for traveling into certain minority counties of Xinjiang.” The utopian idea of a harmonious society is certainly still a work in progress.
I realize I have focused my attention completely on the Xinjiang portions of this book, but I will add that each story of ethnic groups outside the border of Xinjiang is equally captivating.
There was only one thing I felt was missing in this book, specifically the Kindle version that I read: photos. I came to find out that the print version comes with 50+ photos, something I think would have improved my reading experience tremendously. If this book interests you and you have a choice, I would have personally preferred the print version with photos.
I’ll close by quoting one of my favorite lines in Invisible China, a line that I think most accurately describes China and its minorities:
We began to think that being Chinese is akin to being European. The connection between Koreans, Tibetans, and Uyghurs is no closer than that between Spaniards, Greeks, and Norwegians.”
Talking with the Author
Colin Legerton, one of the two authors of Invisible China, was kind enough to answer a few questions I had via email that I hoped might shed even more light on his journey across China, specifically here in Xinjiang.
The very last question is what I think my be of interest to anybody traveling to Xinjiang this year.
Josh: You lived here for some time in Urumqi. What differences did you notice (if any) between your dealings with Uyghur in the big city vs a place like Hotan?
Colin: Nothing in particular jumps to mind. In both places, and really throughout Xinjiang, we constantly encountered people who were unfailingly friendly.
Josh: You speak of the Hui people and recognize that they are the 3rd largest minority group, and yet you don’t seem to dive deeper into this group (at least there’s not a dedicated chapter). What are your thoughts on the Hui?
Really what we wanted to do was just give a taste of how diverse China is…
Colin: Well, our original thought was to visit areas belonging to all 55 official minorities, plus some other unrecognized groups (Mosuo, Jews, etc.), but we quickly realized that we didn’t have the dollars or the years that it would require. So, we we had to limit ourselves, but we tried to come up with a list that would represent the breadth of diversity in China, from the borders of North Korea to Myanmar and on to Pakistan, displaying the great diversity in geography, religion, culture, cuisine, and so on. There’s no way that we could give a comprehensive, or even representative, look at China’s diversity. Really what we wanted to do was just give a taste of how diverse China is, especially for people who may think of China as homogenous, and ideally even inspire some people to explore deeper just as we had been inspired by some of the books we had read to travel, research, and explore China.
For the Hui specifically, what we found especially interesting was what their ethnic designation said about the whole ethnic classification project: that the name “Hui” referred to so many different communities in so many different areas of China, with seemingly nothing in common other than the fact that they (or in some cases, their ancestors) practiced Islam. We touched on this in the introduction, but to really investigate it would be difficult within the constraints we had. For anyone interested in the Hui, Dru Gladney’s Muslim Chinese is a very enlightening read. To make a long story short–though it seems too late for that–it was nothing against the Hui people. We just couldn’t visit all groups, so we had to make some tough decisions to come up with an itinerary that made sense.
Josh: How did your travel to Hotan, Tashkorgan and other parts of Xinjiang influence how you interacted with the minorities?
Colin: In general, as you probably noticed, we tried to stay out of the major cities for a number of reasons. We chose Hotan because we wanted a city big enough to have a really interesting and vibrant weekly market, but not as used to tourists as Kashgar. Hotan’s not as small as many of the places we visited, but both there and in Tashkorgan, as well as other places, people were exceedingly friendly and kind to us.
Josh: What would be your advice to anybody seeking to better understand or make friends with somebody in China who is considered a “minority”?
You can’t say “The Uyghurs are this” or “The Tajiks are that” any more than you can for Americans or Canadians or anyone.
Colin: My advise would be the same as making friends with anyone, especially someone from a culture different than your own. If you’re genuine and kind and interested in what other people have to say, you’ll usually do fine. The list you posted recently of basic etiquette for guests and hosts in Uyghur culture is the kind of thing that is very helpful to study before going to Xinjiang, just as similar lists would be for other places.
Knowing how to properly greet people and how to avoid inadvertently upsetting them certainly goes a long way. Of course, no one can be expected to know everything in advance, but I found that people are generally very forgiving if you make a genuine effort and stay observant to realize when you’ve done something wrong and work to correct it. It’s important to have those kind of cultural sensitivities, but it’s also very important to remember that each person is their own individual.
You can’t say “The Uyghurs are this” or “The Tajiks are that” any more than you can for Americans or Canadians or anyone. For Xinjiang specifically, I think it’s important to understand what some of the “flashpoints” are there, but it would certainly be wrong to assume that you can know what a person’s thinking or how a person will act just based on their ethnicity.
When we wrote, we tried to keep that balance. Hopefully we were successful
Grab a Copy of Invisible China
For those interested to read Invisible China, I would be grateful if you use the links below to check out pricing and additional reviews on Amazon for both the Kindle version and the paperback version.
- Top 10 Uyghur Foods to Eat in Xinjiang - March 20, 2019
- Best VPNs for China 2019 (that still work despite the ban) - March 4, 2019
- How I Use Gmail in China (despite it being blocked) - February 14, 2019
- Do I Need a Special Visa or Permit for Xinjiang? - February 11, 2019
- How to Use Facebook in China in 2019 - February 7, 2019
- How to Teach English in Xinjiang, China (Updated 2019) - February 4, 2019
- How I Access Instagram in China in 2019 - February 1, 2019
- How to Fly as an Air Courier in 2019 - January 15, 2019
- Is Xinjiang Safe for Travelers? Security & Threats in 2019 - January 14, 2019
- Is the Internet Accessible in Xinjiang? XJ Q&A #3 - January 2, 2019