Xinjiang: Gateway to Diversity




I met a girl yesterday. We both boarded a ferry taking us up the Bosphorus in Turkey, from Istanbul to the Black Sea. What a romantic journey it was – but that’s not what I’m here to write about. She was Chinese and her family came from Beijing. What made her different, though, is that she was a Muslim. Now, I don’t think I’ve ever met a Chinese Muslim during my many visits to Beijing, so this was a surprise for me. Did her family originally hail from Xinjiang, perhaps? No, she told me. Was she of an ethnic minority group, rather than Han? No, she assured me. So how did her family come to be Muslim? The answer to that was lost in the mists of time. Yet there we were, together on the Bosphorus, looking eastwards toward her home country, toward the Silk Road and the arid province through which it passed.


I should confess that I have yet to visit Xinjiang, but it is a land of fable to which I must surely pay my respects one day. As a foreigner, it says three things to me: the Gobi Desert; precious natural resources; and the Silk Road, the gateway to cultural and economic diversity in China. This latter point implies enormous responsibility toward the rest of China, and also by China in terms of ensuring the well-being of the Region – but I shall return to that later.


The desert is an endless source of fascination for those of us who live in green and sometimes icy lands. I was born in Uganda, source of the River Nile, which then flows north to Egypt, on the fringes of the great Sahara Desert. For many years, I was fortunate to fly over the Sahara as I traveled back and forth to England, witnessing the beauty of the rolling but brutal sands far below. The cultural influences of desert peoples could be felt clearly in my homeland, as, I imagine, is the case with China and the Gobi. Above all, there was a haunting quality to the songs of the nomadic peoples, which I now hear replicated in the music of Dao Lang whenever I visit Beijing. My car driver, the splendid Mr. Wang, has a great fondness for Dao Lang, so I am regularly treated to the mystical songs of love and regret that evoke the raw struggle for survival in the unforgiving desert lands of his homeland of Xinjiang. He is a cultural icon in modern-day China, and one that represents the potential of a blend of cultures.


Then there are those natural resources, one of the most precious of which must be the fine jade that lies hidden in Xinjiang. This year, Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum has been privileged to exhibit an exceptional collection of artifacts from two Chinese imperial tombs of the second century BC, Liu Zhu’s tomb at Xuzhou and Zhao Mo’s in Nanyue. The former of these included the most exquisite jade burial suit, manufactured from stone that has been identified as coming from deposits in Xinjiang. Only the best was good enough for the Emperor more than 2,000 years ago, and I suspect that the same may still be said of jade from that remote place.


In the minds of people in eastern China, however, Xinjiang became less remote as the centuries passed and traffic along the Silk Road developed and expanded. Originally, they were economic adventurers who trod that road, but they were soon to be followed by diplomatic emissaries and brave intellectuals who were curious about the strange lands to the east. The outcome of all this activity was a new cultural mobility which now serves China well. As we survey the nations of particular influence in today’s world, nearly all have the characteristics of cultural melting pots: South Africa, with its many African tribes and European settlers; Russia, with its ethnic influences stretching across thousands of kilometers to east, west, north and south; Great Britain, which displays the many skin tones and hair colors of its invaders over two millennia and its former empire of more recent times, all now fused into a community we dare to call British; India, with its plethora of sects, languages and cultural practices; and North America, a recent blend of immigrants from far and wide. And then there’s China, a vast land whose Han majority enjoy the many contributions of ethnic minorities that are part and parcel of today’s China. Foremost among these, I would argue, are the people of Xinjiang, who enabled the trailblazers between east and west to ply their trade, and who introduced the color, shades and dynamism of their art, dance and music into the mélange of Chinese cultural endeavors.


I have one residual concern about this agglomeration of China’s many national attributes, a concern which is born from the rising prevalence of the English language as a global language. What I see happening on a weekly basis is that, as we encourage people to speak a common language – Mandarin Chinese, Swahili and, above all, English – and as we promote uniformity in written languages and literature, minor languages begin to die out and oral traditions are lost. Let that not happen to the culture and languages of the minorities of Xinjiang and other Chinese regions. They are too valuable to all of us, both historically and in the present day. Let us rejoice in diversity!