November 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
There was an explosion in Tiananmen Square last week. On the LRB Blog I write about why it wasn’t terrorism.
October 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My first dispatch from Kyrgyzstan is now up on the London Review of Books Blog
Here are some other photos of the town:
October 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
September 26, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Verbally, that is. My Q and A with the director of this wonderful documentary about Uyghur music is now up at China File
September 23, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My new essay on knowing a Chinese James Bond is in the new issue of The Dublin Review
This is how it starts:
Everyone in Shaoyang Teachers’ College said Mr Ma had been a spy. If this was supposed to be a secret, it was badly kept. When I first met him, in 1999, Mr Ma was in his mid thirties. He wore black glasses with thick lenses; his hair was in retreat; there was frequently a look of astonishment on his face. He was bashful, polite, prone to excessive laughter. But the fact that he didn’t look or act like a spy only made the rumours more plausible. It meant that he had been a good spy.
September 5, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My take on the Bo Xilai trial, the biggest political trial in China for decades, now up at the LRB blog
July 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My piece on cheating in Chinese education is on the LRB blog.
July 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My piece for the 4th anniversary of the Urumqi riots is at Dissent magazine.
June 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My review of Liao Yiwu’s prison memoir is now up at The LA Review of Books.
May 16, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My interview with Lisa Ross on Uyghur shrines in the desert is at the Los Angeles Review of Books- thanks again to her for answering my questions in such a thoughtful manner.
April 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
April 16, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Isobel Yeung, who works for CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, recently wrote a piece for The Independent in which she argued that the Western media are misrepresenting China’s policies towards ethnic minorities in Inner Mongolia. She argued that the government aren’t trying to destroy the culture of nomadic herders by moving them into cities- they just want to improve their ‘medieval lifestyle’. Here’s my response to this in The Independent.
March 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I have a review of Sven Lindqvist’s The Myth of Wu Tao Tzu up at the Los Angeles Review of Books
February 27, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My Dublin Review piece on corruption and factories in China is now online.
January 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I have a short piece on the LRB Blog about the Tibetan self-immolations, of which there have been almost 100 since 2011. Click here to read.
October 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
September 11, 2012 § Leave a Comment
September 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My essay on Chinese factories and corruption is in the latest issue of The Dublin Review, along with an interesting piece about being a fake priest in Japan. I originally wrote this as the middle section of my LARB piece, but it ended up breaking free from that and hopefully works fine on its own.
The DR is one of the few magazines still interested in publishing longform pieces about foreign countries that aren’t based around conflict or suffering. As such, it deserves our support. A 4 issue subscription costs £36.
I’d also like to thank the gone, but not forgotten, and very much missed Scottish Arts Council for helping to fund the trip to China that led to the LARB piece, the DR piece, and the afterword of The Tree That Bleeds.
August 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My piece on two of my former students is now up at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and features kidnapping, a cow’s vagina,’Peter Burger’ and the house of wasps. I may, perhaps, have burnt some bridges by writing this piece- in which case, dear bridges, I’m sorry. There was so much kindling I could not resist.
You can see accompanying photos here.
August 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
There’s a short video of me speaking about The Tree That Bleeds now up at China File, where there’s a lot of other great content. Thanks to Maura Cunningham for doing the interview and for editing my rambling into coherent form.
August 3, 2012 § Leave a Comment
My post on Chinese environmental protests is now up at the LRB Blog.
July 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I have a new piece on the LRB Blog on Chinese propaganda comics from 1950 that some have used to critique modern China. The only thing I’d add to what I say there is that to argue that China has gone back in time is overlook the many achievements made by the PRC, albeit sometimes at catastrophic cost to its people. Despite the apparent similarities, the problems of contemporary China are those of a very different kind of society and system.
April 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I’ll be having two kinds of fun in NYC this month. I’ll be giving a paper at the Association for the Study of Nationalities conference at Columbia University on 19th April. The paper is titled ‘Post-Conflict Identities in Xinjiang: Good, Bad and Non Muslims’ and is basically about the mean things that Uighurs I knew said about Han Chinese, Hui and other Uighurs in Yining. For example, this exchange that I had with a Uighur girl in a small village near Yining.
‘Are there any Chinese here?’
‘No, you would be able to smell them.’
‘What do they smell of?’
‘Spices, mostly chilli.’
‘What do they say you smell of?’
‘Lamb. Many Chinese, they can’t stand this smell. When they come here for the first time, they will –’ (she mimed retching) ‘when they smell this.’
Were this not fun enough, I’ll also be doing a book reading at Bluestockings in Manhattan on the 22nd. For the love of God, if you know anyone in NYC, please tell them to come.
March 18, 2012 § Leave a Comment
These, and other friendly slogans are considered in my piece for The Times of India on China’s new approach to the one-child policy.
February 25, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Barry Moore, the Chairman of the Scotland China Association, Glasgow Branch, was kind enough to write a review of my book for their magazine:
Book Review: Nick Holdstock, The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur town on the edge. Luath Press, 2011 (£12.99)
The Glasgow Branch of the SCA had the pleasure of meeting Nick Holdstock at our June 2011 monthly meeting when his publishers had arranged with us to launch The Tree That Bleeds. The author gave an illustrated presentation in a commanding, energetic and enthusiastic manner and these personality characteristics are reflected throughout his dramatic story.
The account of Holdstock’s time when revisiting China in 2010 opens with the reporting of the noise of soldiers marching and chanting as they progress through the city of Urumqi, the capital of the largest Chinese province, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. This image provides the background to a fascinating story of the year the author had spent living and teaching in the province earlier in the decade and to his underlying reason for revisiting the province: to learn about the riots which had taken place there and the associated ethnic discrimination.
Useful maps are shown at the beginning. The first locates Xinjiang as the most westerly province in China, more than 2000 kilometres from Beijing, bordered by Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Tibet. The second map shows the principal cities within Xinjiang, including Yining, southwest of Urumqi, where the author spent most of his time. After the maps are descriptive pages providing information about the unrest which has occurred in the province in 1997 and again in 2009 and offering divergent explanations of the events from the differing viewpoints of those reporting and commenting on them at the time. There follows a short description of the author’s original journey to Yining, which took him three days from Beijing. The early pages vividly provide the reader with the sense of the vastness, isolation and inaccessibility of Xinjiang, which has a total population of about 23 million, and of the confusions which arise from being in a separate time zone. Yining, with a population of about half a million, is called a border town although it is still about an hour away from the actual border with the neighbouring state, Kazakhstan.
In his description of Yining, Holdstock paints a detailed picture of the stark town where he taught and his observations on the changing character of Xinjiang’s ethnic composition are revealing. The people of Xinjiang, Holdstock tells us, are a mixture of Uighurs and Hui, (both Sunni Muslims), Han Chinese and several other ethnic minorities. He confirms that the reasons for the riots in 1997 and 2009 are complex and will not, if ever, be easily explained.
After the initial pages the book is divided into sections Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer. In “Autumn” we are introduced to diverse and interesting characters including several American teachers with a hidden agenda; Murat and Ismail, two quirky and outspoken Uighurs teaching English; Miss Cai, the ‘foreign liaison officer’, with a colourful past; and Erkin a student, who invited the author to a wedding that provided him with a unique experience delightfully recounted. As autumn progresses, Holdstock became increasingly aware of the divergent lives lived by the different ethnic groups within the student body. So much so that each acts as if the others do not exist. A conundrum surely?
‘Winter’ finds Holdstock, discussing the hardships experienced by the inhabitants of Yining, (including himself) during the sub- zero temperatures. This season provides the author with the opportunity to hold numerous conversations with the different Uighurs and Han Chinese he meets. Through these conversations he gains (and so does the reader) a deeper understanding of different aspects of the Muslim faith and of the working lives of the Uigher people of Xinjiang.
After winter comes ‘Spring’. Spring opens with observations about the prevalent drug abuse which the author encounters. Discussions on this topic in some of his adult classes prove difficult for Holdstock and end inconclusively. He finds it impossible to determine if this is a result of student reticence or lack of knowledge brought about by the suppression of information.
The teaching year ends with “Summer” but Holdstock’s observations on local life continues, and with summer comes an explanation for his intriguing title!
The Tree That Bleeds is a fascinating book for those interested in what is happening in this remote part of China. While great insights and information are provided about Xinjiang province to Holdstock’s frustration he is unable to reach any satisfactory conclusions about the definitive causes and reasons for the riots, although the extent of the tensions and potential causes for strife are well described.
To my mind this is a book of short stories rather than a comprehensive and seamless tale but the format does not detract from what is a fascinating and elegantly expressed account of this little known Province. It raises the question – is there a sequel to be written about the future of Xinjiang Province in this fast and ever changing world where the Muslim faith grows ever more in importance? If so Holdstock is the man to write it.
February 6, 2012 § Leave a Comment
A lot of authors seem to dread their reviews, but I have really enjoyed mine. It’s not because they’ve been wholehearedly positive, far from it. All have hated my brief use of the second person. Most have criticised my intolerance, or atheism, or refusal to tie things up in a neat, conclusive bow. For me, the enjoyable parts are the misreadings (and in some cases, the inventions) of the reviewers, the sense of the mind that the book has passed through, and how it has thus been transformed.
There are many things I love about this latest Review: its strange opening sentence (‘in February 1997, a riot shook China to its core which reverberated across the world’); the talk of my ‘unquenchable and dangerous curiosity’; its claim that I encountered ‘lepers up close and personal’ (I never mention them); the idea that my ‘benign and humanistic’ approach’ is indicative of the fact that the ‘book is more of a personal odyssey of growth than anything else’ (if only); the notion that I am ‘an instigator, a fire-starter’; its accusations of pathos: ‘He cannot find the people he used to know. Like most people who revisit a place in their memory, he is both estranged from the past and painfully lost to the present time as well, he sits there somewhere, lost in limbo’.
I give this review four stars!
January 6, 2012 § Leave a Comment
From a new review of The Tree That Bleeds in the Asia Times Online:
“Some readers may be appalled by the author’s behavior in reporting on his fellow teachers, and I was surprised how he makes no apology for what could easily be regarded as stabbing colleagues in the back.”
At the risk of splliting hairs, it was really only one colleague.
October 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I was asked my opinion about recent violence in Xinjiang- here it is: CHINA: New Laws to Crack Down on Uyghurs – IPS ipsnews.net
October 4, 2011 § Leave a Comment
My review of Sam Meekings’ The Book of Crows- a novel set in different time periods in China -is in the new issue of Edinburgh Review.
The Book of Crows by Sam Meekings (Polygon)
How did people think and speak a thousand years ago? The simple answer is: we don’t know. Without recorded speech, or transcripts, the best a historian can do is guess. So when we read a historical work of fiction what matters is not so much the accuracy of the characters’ thoughts and language, but whether they seem plausible. Sam Meeking’s second novel, The Book of Crows, attempts to ventriloquise characters from four different periods in Chinese history: a young girl in the 1st Century BCE who is kidnapped and taken to a brothel; a grieving poet in the 9th Century; a Franciscan monk in the 13th Century; and a low ranking civil servant in the early 1990s. What these disparate narrators have in common is that they encounter people determined to find a mythical book that contains the entire past, present and future history of the world.
Meekings is to be commended for his ambition in trying to weave these separate narratives together, not so much at the level of plot, but in terms of parallels between the different narrators. The poet, the kidnapped girl, and the civil servant all share a degree of fatalism, which accords with the ideas of predestination and fate raised when different characters debate whether the knowledge offered by the mythical book is more a curse than a blessing. ‘Rain at Night’, the story of the grieving poet, is by far the most affecting of the different strands. Though Bai Juyi‘s grief for his daughter is dealt with in a mostly oblique fashion, there is a delicacy and sadness to his narration. His discussion of poetry with the crown prince is an impressively nuanced scene that functions as both a literary and spiritual lesson. Though some of his expositions of Buddhist precepts feel a trifle forced (‘…for a while we shared our common experiences of finding solace in the words of the Buddha, in the first realisation of the illusory nature of the world and, therefore, of the self.’), for the most part the voice remains compelling, especially with each section’s epigrammatic closing statement (e.g. ‘I say a sutra that your shoes stay strong, that your palms stay open’).
Unfortunately, this lightness of touch is absent in the novel’s other strands. Though Meekings does well in conjuring the different places and time periods, in the main his characters fail to convince on either a psychological or linguistic level. ‘The Whorehouse of a Thousand Sighs’ is narrated in a faux-British manner that makes it very hard to believe that events are taking place in 1st Century BCE China. People speak of ‘winding us up’, being ‘pretty pissed off’, or say they ‘needed to pee’. When a cook says, ‘And knock me over if it doesn’t look longer than the bloody desert itself’, it verges on Cockney. There is also a general portentousness to these sections, not only in the dialogue (‘She didn’t just buy our bodies: she bought our lives, our hopes, our dreams, our futures’) but also in the sententious tone of the young narrator, who has a frequent (not to say unconvincing) tendency to deliver homilies such as ‘If you don’t speak of things, sometimes they get lost so deep that when you really need them the words are buried beyond your reach’ and, ‘Why can’t we keep our dreams to the present, to what we already have, instead of grasping at the future, the sky, the impossible?’
Another troubling feature about this strand is the almost romanticised treatment of a very young girl being abducted and forced to have sex with strangers. The girl rarely seems frightened, and when it comes to her first time, this is dealt with in a single, cursory paragraph.
The other two narrative strands are similarly plagued. The 13th Century monk’s expressions of prejudice and faith are so predictable that it is hard to retain interest. As for the civil servant in the 1990s (who also employs words like ‘wonky’ and ‘git’), some of his exclamations and statements are utterly implausible. ‘Thank the mighty Politburo!’ is a phrase that belongs only in propaganda. Meekings- who has lived in China –should also know better than to have his narrator say, ‘Some folks these days are nostalgic for the old Cultural Revolution’. This was certainly not the case in the early 1990s- it was far too fraught and recent a memory.
If The Book of Crows doesn’t succeed as either a collection of short pieces, or a novel (even one with a discontinuous narrative), this is partly because the attempt to recreate the thoughts and feelings of people from another time (not to mention another culture and language) must always carry a taint of the contemporary. In order for such characters and their worlds to be convincing, they need to be both linguistically and psychologically unfamiliar, so as to remove the reader from their language, time and culture. Otherwise the historical setting is what Lukacs called ‘mere costumery’. Though The Book of Crows offers us ‘curiosities and oddities’ from ancient China, its characters are too much of the present.
September 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
Here are the main reviews of The Tree That Bleeds so far- I’d like to express my gratitude to all the reviewers for their careful, thoughtful responses to the book (i.e. thank you for not giving it a mauling).
Thanks also to Scott Pack at Me And My Big Mouth for featuring it in his Quick Flicks section.
I don’t know if its gauche or amateurish to reply to some of the points they raise, but there are a few caveats- firstly, the SRB review was a pre-publication review, and some of its criticisms thus refer to an earlier version of the book (e.g. that it has no index, when the published version does- it’s first entry is ‘Awkward Sexual Moments’ (3 entries)). Secondly, that I corresponded with Josh Summers at Far West China, as he makes clear in his review. He quotes me accurately as saying that there were times when my anger gets away from me, but it might help to have the context in which I said that.
Josh asked me:
Your disdain for missionaries is readily apparent and I believe you did a wonderful job exploring the ignorant and uninformed hatred by both the Han and Uyghur. Were you hoping your reader would be able to make the connection between these two similar forms of bigotry or did you actually desire to paint such a picture of your expat co-workers?
A tricky one. I hope I give a slightly more favourable portrait of Gabe than the others- but even now I still think there’s something unethical about a teacher using his position and access to push his ideas on students. I do think there are missionaries who do genuinely good work, but in the main I still have a problem with them being there (and not as teachers or health workers, but purely to proselytise). I think their actions endangered others. They certainly contributed to the atmosphere of paranoia and distrust (which I definitely succumbed to). Had it not been for them, it might have been easier to make more Han friends within the college.
But I can’t deny that there are moments in the book when my anger gets away from me. Believe it or not, I did tone some of this down, but in the end I left a lot of it, perhaps unwisely. I was trying to keep hindsight out of the book as much as possible, and this is one of the consequences. As is often the case with books like mine, the personal life of the narrator sometimes obscures the more interesting material. It occurs to me now that maybe some of this anger is due to the fact that of all the groups of people I tried to get to know, the missionaries were the most resistant- of all of them, only Gabe would talk about it. I don’t blame them for this, but it meant that I had little to go on in terms of understanding them and their motivatons. In some ways, I might have been better to just leave them out of the narrative. They aren’t really a significant part of what’s happening in Xinjiang, but they were a big part of my college world, and that’s why they loom fairly large.