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Under the Heel of the Dragon | Book Review

April 6 | 24 Comments

Under the Heel of the Dragon book cover

Under the Heel of the Dragon
by Blaine Kaltman
Review by Josh Summers

More than four years before the deadly riots in Urumqi, an American named Blaine Kaltman working on his PhD thesis, traveled all over China interviewing Uyghur and Han alike to find out the answer to one simple question:

Are you guys ever going to get along?

In 2007, still two years before the mass protests, his thesis was revised and published by Ohio University Press as Under the Heel of the Dragon, an in-depth look at the mutual prejudice that continues to grip the Xinjiang region of China.

Although this book is a scholarly work, not intended for the casual reader, it provides an opportunity for those interested to get a behind-the-scenes look at the attitudes and underlying problems that led up to the 2009 riots.

The conclusions didn’t come as a shock to me and won’t to anybody else familiar with the situation in Xinjiang, but many of the opinions expressed in the interviews are unexpected and noteworthy.

The Prejudice is Mutual in China

The 217 interviews were conducted in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Urumqi without the knowledge or supervision of the government.

While the responses of most of the Han participants tended to be the same, Uyghur answers varied by location and social/economic status.

It is for this reason that it is easy to label Han as being prejudice because, as this survey shows and my experience corroborates, most of them responded as such:

“Wherever they [the Uighur] are, they cause trouble. They steal, they sell drugs – mostly they steal. I think that even if the Uighur had good jobs, they would still steal.”

But what about the Uyghur? For many, this overwhelmingly negative view of their people only serves to fuel their own prejudice, creating a destructive cycle documented by Kaltman’s interviews:

“China, the Han, they think they own all the land…they come to Xinjiang and disrespect the local people…Han come here and take our jobs.”

Another segment of the Uyghur population takes this prejudice as a challenge. With such a competitive job market it is undeniably difficult for a Uyghur who doesn’t speak perfect Mandarin to get a good job.

Any attempt by the government to make Mandarin mandatory in school is usually met with international criticism, but some Uyghur in Xinjiang feel this might be necessary:

“Uighur must be smarter than Han…they must work harder, too, because we have to learn the Han language and Han ways if we want to survive in Han society.”

Of course sometimes those Uyghur who do learn the Han ways and become an active part of society are looked down upon by other Uyghur and derisively nicknamed “Chinese Uyghur”.

“They [Chinese Uyghur] sell out their own culture to get ahead. Maybe it’s the only way, but they’re not real Uighur, and that’s worse than not having money.”

Throughout the interviews I gained a better perspective on just how complicated these issues really are. Blanket statements about Uyghur feelings are impossible to make because there is such a wide spectrum of thought. One thing shines out in Kaltman’s research above all else, though.

Uyghur and Han share a mutual prejudice for each other.

Criticisms of Under the Heel of the Dragon

Although I find Blaine Kaltman’s Under the Heel of the Dragon to be an interesting and accurate snapshot of the issues that plague Uyghur/Han relationships, his research is held back by two critical problems:

  • Language
  • Cultural understanding

Each one of Kaltman’s interviews is conducted in Mandarin, not the Uyghur language. While a majority of Uyghur can speak at least some Mandarin, this still leaves a large segment of the minority population out of the picture.

I would argue that on certain issues, those Uyghur who can’t speak Mandarin would differ slightly in attitude toward the Han due to lack of constant interaction with them.

Also apparent in Kaltman’s writing is a vague understanding of Uyghur culture as a whole. He seems surprised by the fact that many Uyghur aren’t strict Muslims (in my experience most Uyghur are Muslims by birth, not by conviction) and continually refers to Xinjiang’s famous lamb dishes as “goat meat”.

These drawbacks don’t seem to create any noticeable bias or slant in the writing, but I am left wondering how a Uyghur in, say, Hotan (a southern city with a Uyghur majority) might have responded to the same questions.

Next Steps for Xinjiang Prejudice

I found myself at the end of Under the Heel of the Dragon asking myself, “So, is there any possible way to end this prejudice?” Kaltman uses only two pages at the end of the book to explain his “Steps…to Improve Uighur-Han Relations”, and most of it revolves around the key issue of language.

The truth is that there is no cut-and-dry answer to these problems, but this book has done an exceptional job foreshadowing the riots of July 2009 by examining the deep-rooted problems that Xinjiang’s ethnic groups face.  It’s the same problems that many people have when forming opinions about Xinjiang, one reason this book would be a beneficial read for them.

All the security forces in the world can’t fix the ignorance of those who have an opinion without an understanding.  This ignorance is exemplified by my favorite quote in the entire book:

“Xinjiang people don’t bathe,” interjected the young Han woman [a student in Shanghai who hadn’t ever visited Xinjiang]…
“They don’t?” I asked.
“No, because Xinjiang has no water.”

Final Thoughts | Book Review

In the years since the book and this review were originally published, a lot has happened in Xinjiang. China has imprisoned hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Uyghur in “re-education camps” better known as “concentration camps”.

Obviously, this hasn’t helped the hatred and prejudice that continues to spread between the Han Chinese and Uyghur.

For a better understanding of what’s happening, I recommend you visit Xinjiang for yourself. You can grab the FarWestChina Xinjiang travel guide to help you plan a trip to meet Uyghur and Han people in Xinjiang and formulate your own opinions.

And if Xinjiang and the Silk Road interests you, you may also want to check out other great Xinjiang and Silk Road books. These include books such as:

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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  1. Yes, hope that the relationship between the Han and the Uyghur will improve days by days and live in harmony as brothers and sisters… which I know some of these Han and Uyghur do presently.

    Meanwhile, I hope that “others” do not disrupt their harmony by spreading propaganda…

    Josh on April 6th, 2010 at 11:35 pm

    I also hope that things improve daily, but I think the current government line that everybody is living in a “harmonious society” was shattered last July.

    There’s no way you can disrupt harmony when there isn’t much to begin with. There’s tolerance, mainly, but very little harmony. The harmony that does exists is because of those Uyghurs who have learned to accept the dominant Han society, not because of any great government policy towards its minorities.

  2. Great review, Josh.

    Let’s not overlook the many other cases of prejudice and distrust in China. The residents of certain provinces are looked down upon as beggars and thieves, the south doesn’t like the north, city people look down upon rural dwellers, etc. The issues in Xinjiang are unique while not being unique, given prevalent attitudes. No, these problems haven’t resulted in riots, but it illustrates distrust.

    And there are the Chinese prejudices regarding other nationalities – Africans, Filipinos, etc. The entire problem, internal and external, goes beyond Xinjiang.

    Porfiriy on April 7th, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    While this isn’t *untrue*, I’d be wary of thinking it valuable for analyzing interethnic relations in Xinjiang. Yeah, you can point to other internal prejudices or stereotypes held by people elsewhere, but it’s really a whole different ball game when compared to Xinjiang, which I know you mentioned in “unique while not being unique.” Nevertheless, I think to put the contrast in perspective, in the 1950s the politicians, thinkers, and leaders in the American South had biases and prejudices against those holier-than-thou, high-fallutin’, meddling Yankees from the North; I’m sure anyone would have several unkind words to say about a New Yorker. However, those same individuals attitudes towards blacks were of an entirely different caliber. So while someone from Shanghai may have his or her disdain or contempt for someone from Heilongjiang, it ain’t anywhere near gathering into mobs of hundreds of people and beating each other with sticks.

  3. Hey, love the new layout, congratulations.

    I think it is important to understand that the mutual contempt and distrust runs both ways, and I admit as much in my writing frequently. But this admission also has to come alongside an understanding of the power relations in Xinjiang – and the mutual contempt doesn’t come with a similarly balanced distribution of power. That being said, contempt on the part of Chinese, be it the racist “Uyghurs are dirty” of the Han stallowner to the well-intentioned but still condescending “Uyghurs need our guidance to march into the first world” of party leaders, more easily gets translated into policy, and more easily gets expressed alongside the power to enforce. Contempt on the part of the Uyghurs, however, having no legitimate outlet, gets expressed in other ways – fleeing the country, widespread adoption of criminal lifestyles or drugs, and, of course, rioting. Neither of these are justified, but looking at things this way I believe highlights the role of “the system” so to speak in interethnic tensions of Xinjiang.

    Thanks for the review, I’ve put the book on my to-read list.

    Josh on April 7th, 2010 at 1:14 am

    I appreciate your insight. You’re absolutely right about the balance of power and how that affects the mutual distrust. Kaltman actually hits on that toward the end in a short paragraph:

    “Even today China’s government has a paternalistic attitude toward its minorities. It desires to maintain (many Uighur would say, “showcase”) the Uighur as a national minority…but it also wants to solve the “Uighur problem” by having the Uighur wholeheartedly accept the goals of the dominant Han society and play an active role in China’s future development. These two aims may not be completely compatible.”

    The problem I have when I think about this, however, is that I recognize the problem easily, I just don’t see a viable solution that would satisfy both parties.

    kahraman on April 7th, 2010 at 5:29 am

    Given the path that the Chinese government has chosen and the resulting Uyghur responses as outlined in the book (drugs, crime, resentment etc.), there is no viable solution. The best anyone can hope for is a better and more truthful dialogue. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be a priority. Most incentives seem to discourage dialogue (ie. shutting down the internet). I liked the truthfulness of those interviewed in Kaltman’s book, but its sad for Xinjiang that an American phd student has to ask these questions….

    Josh on April 7th, 2010 at 9:09 am

    A better and more truthful dialogue…I like that. Pie in the sky, maybe, but good. I’m sure the authorities are well aware of the issues that are causing all the divisions in Xinjiang, but as the saying goes: ignorance is bliss.

    Porfiriy on April 7th, 2010 at 8:23 am

    My interest is seeing the autonomy laws already in place actually be implemented – that’s where I invest my hope, little though it be. Much of what generates discontent among Uyghurs actually is addressed by the existing legal framework that the PRC itself made – freedom to practice religion, control over education, decision-making over local resources. It’s just that in Xinjiang (as with most of the PRC) the law as written is simply flouted. Nevertheless, I advocate this kind of approach because it’s not laden with the whole “holier-than-thou” Western “human rights” baggage. The government and people sympathetic to the PRC love the whole “keep your Western morals off my country” argument but it’s much harder to shrug off “Please could you follow your own laws? You know, the ones you made? Please?”

    I think more respect for minorities could be achieved, as in many countries all over the world, through civic activism and peaceful civil disobedience on the part of the minorities. This is where things get stuck though. Jailing and sentencing murderous rioters is one thing, but whisking off a guy who writes a story about a caged dove because of its political connotations is just plain ridiculous. As long as people can’t even write allegory in Xinjiang then… yes, I guess it’s pretty hopeless.

    Josh on April 7th, 2010 at 9:19 am

    Peaceful civil disobedience is a tough act to implement, primarily because activists risk so much speaking out, even peaceably. Like you say, whisking off detractors like this writer only serves to repress any positive effects of autonomy laws.

    As I kind of touched on in my latest post about the Karamay fire, I think the government would do well to allow a platform for grievances to be made. It might look bad at first, but people need to air it out, to feel like they’re being heard.

    Justin on April 9th, 2010 at 11:14 am

    I think it would a little naive to think “peaceful civil disobedience” ala Ghandi would work in China. Ghandi and MLK was the except to the rule. Ghandi caught the British on the wane in the 50’s and the civil rights movement had non-black support as well as a government that isn’t willing escalate to real violence.

    In the China, no such conditions exist. The Chinese security organs are damned efficient and have very little qualms about using any method in making you shut up, bow down or disappear. It’s unfortunate but that’s what the government policy is right now. The only thing, minorities can do right now is cause “incidents” that are embarrassing.

    As for a platform for airing grievances? This might be in future but I have my doubts. China is a country under pressure, it is very difficult for the government to know the amount of dissent it can allow to give the appearance of sympathy without having it boil over to a challenge to the CCP.

    Josh on April 9th, 2010 at 11:46 am

    So if peaceful disobedience is out and an arena for airing grievances is difficult, what other options exist?

    I refuse to believe that its a hopeless situation.

    What are your thoughts?

  4. Well, although I am not a Chinese citizen and I haven’t even been to Xinjiang but only to some other parts of China… and I do agree that China is not a perfect country, but still I try to look at the goodness and the positive side of them. And I just want to give some of my personal sharing about them, no matter its right or wrong.

    When the Manchurian took over the whole of China in 1644… initially, the Han reacted aggressively when they didn’t want other races to control them other than their Han. But as times went by, many began to accept this fact when they felt that being having a stable society is much more important in their life. So many Han also served loyally for the Qing court. In the end, they didn’t address themselves as Han, Manchu… anymore, but only as “Chinese”. Just put sentiment feeling aside… from the world history, we can’t deny that Xinjiang was already being a part of China since a very long times ago. And this is already a very good reason for the present Chinese to always stop any of the separatist’s activity like what happened last year.

    Though, some claimed that the present good economy in Xinjiang only benefits the Han… but I don’t believe that the CCP will stop any Uyghur from getting rich if they work hard for themselves like the Han. And we can’t deny that, if without the involvement of the Han in their society, what is the economy of Xinjiang will be like in these presently days? Will it be more advance or more backward? Personally I had been to some big cities and some poorer provinces of China… I believe at least Xinjiang has a much better living environment than these provinces. (Though I can’t 100% confirm this as I haven’t been to Xinjiang).
    None of us will know what will the present Xinjiang will be like if it’s not run by the CCP. And I think for the goodness and prosperity of a society is the responsibility of everyone including the citizen and not only depends on the government.

    Years ago in my country… there was a group of people who used wooden boat as their home and lived by the riverside for years (Boat people). But our government totally demolished their living environment and developed their whole area as a commercial zone. But of course our government compensated the boat people by giving them a new living environment elsewhere.
    This also applied to many of our country certain old towns or houses which are too old and dangerous for living… that our government demolished them and relocated the people in a much better and safer environment.
    At first most of them didn’t appreciate the government’s policy but accuse them of abusing Human Rights… but after a while, many understand the fact that we have to move on with time and make improvement for our society. I remember some times back… I met a European tourist told me that he was disappointed on my country that our government had demolished some of the old ancient houses in order to make development for that area. This tourist said that it had lost it charm and he won’t visit our country anymore. But I think to myself… “Doesn’t he think that we have to move on and make way for a better improvement?”
    Yes although I agree that it’s important to preserve certain of our ancient image… but personally I think that it will be more important to provide a safe and better environment for our nation.
    These are all the same which apply to Xinjiang, that the CCP cleared some of their ancient houses just in order to re-develop those areas…
    I think of course sentimentally those older one wouldn’t like the idea of relocating them… but I feel that in most of the cases, we have to view the whole situation and look at the bigger picture of it… before we pass on judgment.

    I realize even in certain countries that I came across… that most of their minorities people tend to complain about the unfairness of their government even though their government had given them better priority. They just always feel unbalance toward the more improve ones… Personally I think… for them instead of complaining and jealous about others, why don’t they buck up themselves and improve themselves… since chances are actually given to everyone. To me, Han Chinese are a very hard working race… when I also see many of the Han Chinese migrant in my country who always work extra hard for their living. Some of them are so hard working that they may seem to be unwelcome by some western countries because of many jobs are taken away from them. So I believes this is the same apply to those Han in Xinjiang…

    Yes, China may sometime bad in handling certain situations… but please gives them a chance since they are now still reforming and improving themselves after so many years of great humiliation from the western power during the end of Qing dynasty…
    Drug like opium openly trafficking into their land while the Qing dynasty court appointed the Han Chinese official Lin Ze Xu to confront the problem… British retaliated by conquering Hong Kong… in the end they also lost their Summer Palace which was built by the Emperor Qianlong… after that they started looting away most of the treasures there… China even has to purchase it back from them in the latter year. Just imagine when someone steals from you and expect you to buy it back from them… is that the kind of Human Rights to the western world…?

    Due to all these humiliations… China isolated herself from the outside world… till now after reopen, it’s trying their best to build thing back again while also facing with many problems…
    Some western historians said the reason for now a days China are partially caused by the western force during the early years…

    We should now give them chances and times for improvement rather than plainly talking bad on them.

    And lastly, regarding for the 2009 riot in Xinjiang, personally I believe it’s an organized riot by the separatists… which was headed by that particular leader oversea which also most in the world believe she was behind it. Everything happened just so coincidence… that it’s seems so well planned.

    Many like to address those who speak for China as the CCP agents or a brainwash man… I just hope that we should be more open-minded while looking at any situation.

  5. I also read the book, but several years ago now. I think your criticism are more than fair. It’s a shame though, that quantitative studies in Xinjiang are sadly lacking. Fortunately, through Kaltman’s interviews of both Han Chinese and the the Uighur, the reader is privy to a dialogue presently hard to come by amidst a region heavily censored and a people fearful of heavy-handed anti-national policy; albeit only in hand and albeit conducted elsewhere other than Xinjiang. His findings are interesting and offered an alternative view on Uighur discontent. There is more to it, however, than teaching a kid another language – the Brits tried that in India, Hong Kong and Singapore

    Josh on April 10th, 2010 at 12:15 am

    I never thought about comparing it with what happened in India, Hong Kong and Singapore, although the situations don’t match up completely.

    Was their method a complete failure? It couldn’t have been worse than what’s going on in Xinjiang.

  6. Basically, I am not against any Ugyhur or Han… and I really hope that people in Xinjiang can live peacefully like brothers and sisters (also with the other remaining 54 ethnic groups of Chinese citizen)

    But if I am not wrong, personally I feel that throughout most of the articles written and comments given here are quite biased against CCP or the Han. As what I agree with Mother Teresa who ever said, “if someone refuse to believe in something, nothing is possible to convince them”…

    And I can said most people have already quoted China as “evil” from the very beginning… so it’s very obviously that biased will definitely show in them in whatever they write or read about China. As I also said, nothing is possible to convince/please them about China. So naturally, Han Chinese are the one who many would like to pin point at… because they are always see as the only so-call Chinese in China… (Though actually the rest of the ethnic are also considered Chinese). Maybe it’s due to Han Chinese is being the majority ethnic group in China, although other ethnic group of Chinese do also involves in many different governmental sectors in China.

    As I had mention before that I am very please to see ethnic groups like Uyghur, Tibetan… who went with a very big troupe of artist performers to Beijing for the 2006 China 56 ethnic culture performing event. I was touch to see a duo dance performance by a 74 years old Uyghur man and a 4 years old Uyghur boy… which was one of the program. Those Uyghur performers look so proud of their own culture throughout the whole show… which I really feel very please for them. Its goes the same for the big group of Tibetan performers there also. If the culture of the Uyghur is dying… so what is all these effort of the CCP to maintain and promote for the Uyghur culture? Just because CCP demolished some of the old Uyghur town in order to develop into a better environment for them?

    Whenever there is problems happened in Xinjiang (example 2009 riot)… many would definitely pinpoint their finger at the Han and CCP. But we cannot forget the fact that, everything that happened needs 2 hands to clap.
    As I mention before, though discrimination is not a right way, but it’s happened in Xinjiang for reasons… when I mentioned about the different of culture and attitude of certain Uyghur workers toward the Han. So it really needs both hands to clap. Language maybe a problem to some of these Uyghur… but isn’t the CCP provide both Mandarin and Uyghur language learning in Xinjiang?
    My country emphasize a lot about English language though none of our ethnic race got English… and some of us couldn’t get a job when we can’t speak English. But we never blame the government at all for that… we rather blame ourselves. Because we know that having a common language is a very strong tool for our nation’s unity.

    If the CCP will to follow as what some the Uyghur wishes that…“to get all the Han out of Xinjiang”… how about the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Mongol, Dongxiang, Pamiris, Xibe, Salar, Tatar, Russian, Uzbek, Tajik, Evenki, Hui…? who all these ethnic races called Xinjiang as home also.
    Without the involvement of the Han, I don’t think Xinjiang won’t be a modern society like today. It’s a matter of “give and take”…

    I saw a western documentary film about a group of young Uyghurs from Xinjiang who denounced their religious faith and proudly joined the CCP officially. Though I did not know about the full details of their stories. But what I can only understand is that, though CCP may not be a perfect government for some who always accuse on them… but I believe there is really many good value on CCP that some many young people (beside Han Chinese) throughout the whole China joined them yearly.

    Yes, I strongly agree that the Cultural Revolution, which happened years ago, was really a great mishap to China, which hurt many innocent people (including many Han)… and Chairman Mao Zedong really brought full of unhappiness for the people in China during those years.
    But isn’t China had already admitted and feel sorry for that great mistake done…? Isn’t the CCP had already started rebuilding those lost properties since some years ago?
    I am a Christian (Roman Catholic)… and I felt very sad that many of the Chinese Christians were attacked during the Cultural Revolution period, and many Churches were destroyed badly. But till now, the CCP had already rebuilt and compensated for many of the lost churches in the whole China… they even now put in effort and pour in cashes to maintained these churches in China.
    Though I really felt very sad and angry for what the Chinese had done to the Christian in China before, but after seeing what they had done now… I have already forgiven them long ago…
    And all these are the same, which applied to most of the mosques in whole China… that China is rebuilding and maintaining the lost mosques done during Cultural Revolution period.
    But why do I still always come across written articles and comments which still keep on going emphasizing and accusing that mistake done by China before…?
    There is a saying that “whenever an mistake done, people tend to always remembering and emphasizing… But when a good deed is done, people tend prefer not to mention much on it.” Is it fair for China?

    I came across an article here mentioning sadly about the Uyghur who were being targeted and attacked during the Cultural Revolution period, but it didn’t touch on the fact that Han Chinese were also suffered as badly as the Uyghur… and that goes the same for the other ethnic groups. Cultural Revolution was actually a national problem for the whole of China… but if I am not wrong, some articles here really give me the impression that it only happened to the Uyghur in Xinjiang… and the Han are the only culprit.
    And please remember that other ethnic groups beside the Han Chinese, example the “Tibetan” did also involved as the Red Guard during Cultural Revolution.

    Everyone here tends like to speak for the Uyghur… but then who will speak for the Han and the others ethnic people where they have full of unpleased to voice out toward the Uyghur also?
    I really hope that every one of us should stop pinpointing finger at each other… a prosperous and harmony society for Xinjiang need every of the ethnic groups to build it up.

    It’s impossible for Xinjiang to gain independence since it has already being a part of China since many years ago… when the Han Chinese were also started being settled there for many years during the dynasties period. Personally I feel that, in sake of complaining and rejecting the Han… why don’t they just accept the facts and live in harmony with the Han… like those Uyghur who are doing, but are being accused by others as being a “Chinese Uyghur”…
    Personally I feel that, is that any wrong for being a “Chinese Uyghur”…? They are just trying to live in harmony within the whole China and create a peaceful world.

    And while the people in Xinjiang are trying their best to create harmony… we foreigner should help and encourage rather than creating more “one-sided” news for them. By doing that, I believe it will actually causing more unhappiness for the Uyghur… as I said that we couldn’t expect them to be independence. Even if the Uyghur do gain independence now… I believe it maybe as worse as the present Iraq, when the US will happily involve also.

    China has already got full of propaganda news in all these years due to political reason, let not worsen their problem.

    Create peace… not hatred.

    Josh on April 12th, 2010 at 4:53 am

    I know for certain that I have never paired the word “evil” with anything having to do with China. I write about Xinjiang only because I love it. I just want to set the record straight, here.

    I’m sorry if you feel that things are one-sided on FWC. I make every effort to present both sides of the coin. Please read my articles on the Destruction of Kashgar’s Old City or the book review of Wang Gang’s English.

    The primary reason the Han seem to come across as the oppressors is because 1) history and 2) they are the dominant race. Such is the case in many, many other countries. I think it’s just part of the “David vs. Goliath” mentality.

    Thanks again for your well thought out comment and I hope you continue to come back here to balance out what you find to be improper.

    Akihiro on April 12th, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    And you are most welcome…

  7. Is there a way to get this book in China?

    I can only read a limited preview on Google books now

    Josh on April 12th, 2010 at 4:36 am

    I wish I knew a way, but I don’t. Usually I had these types of books (the ones that were too sensitive to distribute within China) mailed from the U.S.

    Anybody else have any other experience doing this?