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.

Review in SCA magazine

Sceptics in the Yining market

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.


My ‘unquenchable and dangerous curiosity’.

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!


The brave and noble Sadur who never stabbed anyone in the back

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.

The Book of Crows- A Review

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.


Sadur, who fought the Qing invaders, sitting in his cell, eating what appears to be a very reasonable lunch.

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).

The Scottish Review of Books

Asia Sentinel

Far West China Blog

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?

My reply:

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.

Ghulja, 1997.

This is a Channel 4 report I only found the other day. It contains pretty much the entirety of the video/photo evidence for the protests, at least the stuff you can find on the internet.  This, after all, was before people had camera phones, well before YouTube. It contrasts sharply with how much footage there is of the Urumqi 2009 riots.

Arrests after the 2009 Urumqi riots

I have a new post on the LRB Blog  about some footage of the arrests that followed the riots in Urümqi in 2009. The clip shows the fairly brutal treatment of suspects, not just by the police, but by the onlookers as well. It corroborates reports from eyewitnesses who spoke to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.


This gentleman was selling snake-oil in Yining market, and was doing excellent trade.

Apologies for the smallness of the video- I shot it sideways, then had to get an adult help me to rotate it (thanks Yaz!). Also thanks to A. for the following translation:

“No side effects on the human body, does not harm the skin, a universal cure for arthritis, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol. It was prepared from boiling a mixture of various local (ethnic) herbal medicines. When you wash your body with it, it will cure and prevent back pain, leg pain, pruritus and other skin conditions resulted from the increasing cold in human body  (cold here is like the 阴in the Chinese cosmic term 阴阳)”

Scotland China Association talk

I’ll be giving a talk to the Scotland China Association on Tuesday April 12th, mainly about what’s been happening in Xinjiang since the July 2009 riots. I was there during April last year, and will be showing photos, and maybe some video from the trip. I wont be showing this photo:

Tue 12 Apr 2011 “The Tree that Bleeds: Xinjiang after the 2009 riots”

Tuesday, 12 April 2011 7pm for 7.30pm

The Meeting House
7 Victoria Terrace, Edinburgh
at the junction of Victoria Terrace and the Upper Row, just off the Royal Mile/Lawnmarket.

The Corpse Walker

Liao Yiwu’s book is a collection of interviews with people on the margins of Chinese society. This is an extract from an interview with a man in prison for human trafficking.

LIAO: You sent your daughters to a faraway place and married them off to strangers for money?

QIAN: What do they know about happiness? My daughters are the children of a poor peasant. As long as their husbands have dicks, that’s all I care. The more often women get laid, the prettier they look. Of course with some women, after they give birth to a couple of kids, their looks are gone forever.

LIAO: How did you manage to expand your business?

QIAN: I realized that I could be pretty charming.

His other interview subjects include a professional mourner, a murderer, a beggar, a fortune teller, a thief, a dissident, a homosexual, a pimp, a former landlord and a school teacher. Most were cast out of mainstream society during the various political purges of the Mao era or are products of the tumultuous generational changes sweeping China.

Much of Liao’s work is banned in China and he is forbidden to publish. In the spring of 1989 he was given a five year sentence for publishing two poems deemed to be anti-Communist.  He was released early in 1994 for ‘good behaviour’ (though with only fifty days left of his sentence. In 1998, he compiled an anthology of underground poems of the 1970s that included or made references to numerous Chinese dissidents. One of China’s vice-premiers ordered an investigation into the book, calling it a ‘premeditated attempt to overthrow the government, and… supported by powerful anti-China groups’. Liao was again detained. He currently lives in Chengdu, in Sichuan province (where many of these interviews took place).

Another reason these interviews are banned in China is that they feature people speaking candidly about the injustices of the past, and being critical of the Communist party. Here’s an interview with ‘a Rightist’

FENG: …We joined the Communist revolution so we could live a better life, have enough to eat, marry a beautiful woman and raise a family. This basic concept was totally distorted in the Mao era. All we talked about were the abstract ideas such as the Party and the People. Private lives were considered something disgraceful. You can’t marry the Party or the People, can you? We used to hear phony stuff like “So-and-so has been nurtured by the Party and the People.” What do the Party’s breasts look like?

Liao’s book is full of the kind of rich, detailed, revealing stories that don’t seem to count as ‘news’. It was perhaps for this reason that many of these first appeared in English in The Paris Review. Their site has a few extracts, some of them quite long, from interviews they’ve run. My only qualm is with the English translation, which at times is overly idiomatic (e.g. the use of words like ‘phony’ and ‘jerk’)- I would have preferred something less region specific. But this doesn’t diminish the value of these pieces, which offer perspectives on Chinese life that are seldom otherwise heard,

Extracts from interviews with The Public Toilet Manager and The Peasant Emperor here.

In Defense of Lost Causes

After my conversation with the organisers of the July 2009 Urumqi protests, I’ve been thinking a lot about protest, in all its forms. Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes is a book that aims to convince the reader that the ills of the world will not be solved peacefully. What is needed, he argues, is revolutionary terror. The book is a sustained attack on the idea that tolerance and democratic debate are going to effect meaningful change (which for Zizek means the end of capitalism). It’s a complicated book whose argument wanders at times, and occasionally gets lost in score-settling, or Hegelian nitpicking, but it is always readable, provocative and entertaining, not least because for Zizek everything- whether it be Shakespeare or a Jennifer Anniston film -can be illustrative.  As a Pynchon scholar I was particularly interested in how he deals with alternative communities, whether or not these are genuinely subversive, or just a form of escape which does nothing to threaten that which they are fleeing from. If I rely heavily on Zizek’s quotes to summarise some of the book’s main arguments, it’s because it seems a safer way to avoid any ‘violence’ to his ideas.

The book’s aim “is not to defend Stalinist terror, and so on, as such, but to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative… the misfortunes of the fate of revolutionary terror confront us with the need- not to reject terror in toto, but- to reinvent it” (6-7).

In terms of the accepted ideas about which to put a human face to capitalism, he argues that “When one confronts a world which presents itself as tolerant and pluralist, disseminated, with no center, one has to attack the underlying structuring principle which sustains this atonality- say, the secret qualifications of “tolerance” which excludes as “intolerant” certain critical questions, or the secret qualifications which exclude as a “threat to freedom” questions about the limits of the existing freedoms. (30)

He goes on to critique the idea of opting out of the system:

“Postmodernity” as the “end of grand narratives” is one of the names for this predicament in which the multitude of local fictions thrives against the background of scientific discourse as the only remaining universality deprived of sense. Which is why the politics advocated by many a leftist today, that of countering the devastating world-dissolving effect of capitalism modernization by inventing new fictions, imagining “new worlds”… is inadequate or, at least, profoundly ambiguous: it all depends on how these fictions relate to the underlying Real of capitalism- do they just supplement it with the imaginary multitude, as the postmodern local narratives do, or do they disturb its functioning? (33)

Zizek is withering about the way in which many of our ‘ethical’ choices involve choosing how we consume:

True freedom is not a freedom of choice made from a safe distance, like choosing between a strawberry cake and a chocolate cake; true freedom overlaps with necessity, one makes a truly free choice when one’s chouice puts at stake one’s very existence- one does it because one simply “cannot do otherwise.” When one’s country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, the reason given is not “you are free to choose,” but: “Can’t you see this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?” (70-71)

At times the worldview he presents veers towards a form of Gnosticism (much like Pynchon’s):

The fact that God created the world does not display His omnipotence and excess of goodness, but rather his debilitating limitations. (153)

Many of the book’s best lines belong to Robespierre. This is his riposte to the moderates who deplored the excesses.

Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution that has come to revise, so to speak, the one that broke our chains? But what sure judgement can one make of the effects that follow these great commotions? Who can mark, after the event, the exact point at which the waves of popular insurrection should break? (163)

Robespierre addressing those who complained about the innocent victims of revolutionary terror: “Stop shaking the tyrant’s bloody robe in my face, or I will believe that you wish to put Rome in chains”. (471)

On the anti-globalisation movement:

This movement also succumbs to the temptation to transform a critique of capitalism itself (centred on economic mechanisms, forms of work organization, and profit extraction) into a critique of “imperialism”… with the (tacit) idea of mobilizing capitalist mechanisms within another, more “progressive” framework. (181)

On the power of ‘failed’ revolutionary Events:

The ultimate factual result of the [Chinese] Cultural Revolution, its catastrophic failure and reversal into the recent capitalistic transformation, does not exhaust the real of the Cultural Revolution: the eternal Idea of the Cultural Revolution survives its defeat in socio-historical reality, it continues to lead an underground spectral life of the ghosts of the failed utopias which haunt the future generations, patiently awaiting their next resurrection. (207)

With reference to Pynchon and the failed Utopias that appear in his work (such as Lemuria in Inherent Vice), it makes me think that though it can be a form of escape, to posit some form of Utopia is always an essentially hopeful act.

For Zizek, the real problem is what happens after a revolutionary Event, how one keeps revolutionary momentum.

The problem is thus: how to regulate/institutionalize the very violent egalitarian democratic impulse, how to prevent it being drowned in democracy in the second sense of the term (regulated procedure)? If there is no way to do it, then “authentic democracy” remains a momentary utopian outburst which, on the proverbial morning after, has to be normalized. The harsh consequence to be accepted here is that this excess of egalitarian democracy over the democratic procedure can only “instituinalize” itself in the guise of its opposite, as revolutinary democratic terror. (266)

One of Zizek’s main strengths is overturning conventional wisdom about what rhetorical positions we should occupy:

The influx of immigrant workers from the post-Communist countries is not the consequence of multiculturalist tolerance- it is indeed part of the strategy of capital to hold in check workers’ demands… the lesson the Left should learn from it is that one should not…  merely oppose populist anti-immigration racism with multiculturalist openness, obliterating its displaced class content (267)

Given how much of Pynchon’s work deals with delusion and escape, I was interested in what Zizek has to say about fetishes:

They can be our inner spiritual experiences (which tell us that our social reality is mere appearance which does not really matter), our children (for whose good we do all the humiliating things in our jobs) and so on and so forth (298)

Fetishists are not dreamers lost in their private worlds, they are thoroughly “realist”, able to accept the ways things effectively are- since they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to canel the fall impact of reality. (296)

Zizek on how democracy has its own constraints:

When Rosa Luxembourg wrote that “dictatorship consists in the way in which democracy is used and not in its abolition” her point was not that democracy is an empty framework which can be used by different political agents (Hitler also came to power through- more or less -free democratic elections), but that there is a “class bias” inscribed into this. (379)

Zizek then goes on to offer what looks like an argument in favour of some kind of revolutionary faith, without which one cannot see the potential for change.

Liberals claim that capitalism is today so global and all encompassing they they cannot “see” any serious alternative to it… The repy to this is that, in so far as this is true, they do not see tout court: the task is not to see the outside, but to see in the first place (to grasp the nature of contemporary capitalism)- the Marxist wager is that, when we “see” this, we see enough, including how to go beyond it. (393)

The following seems to be a fairly clear endorsement of ‘violence’ (though what that means is not yet clear, i.e. is it literal violence or symbolic?)

One should not renounce violence ; one should rather reconceptualise it as defensive violence, a defense of the autonomous space created by subtraction (408)

Zizek also offers a way of evaluating subtraction (e.g. the alternative communities that occur throughout Pynchon, especially in Vineland).

Is it a subtraction/withdrawl which leaves the field from which it withdraws intact (or even functions as its inherent supplement , like the “subtraction” from social reality to one’s true Self proposed by New Age meditation); or does it violently shake up the field from which it withdraws? (412)

It’s only in the afterword that Zizek starts to signal what he might mean by ‘violence’. Unfortunately, this seems to shift, initially from a kind of eye-of-the-beholder definition of violence (that differentiates between “radical emancipatory violence against the ex-oppressors and the violence which serves the continuation and/or establishment of hierarchical relations of exploitation and domination” (471)) to talk of violence that is really non-violence. He calls for

a passive revolution which, rather than directly confronting power , gradually undermines it in the manner of the subterranean digging of a mole, through abstaining from particiapation in the everyday rituals and practices that sustain it. (474)

However, Zizek concludes by arguing that the distinction between literal violence and non-violence is less important than whether the “violence” is “divine violence”.

What is and what is not divine violence?… it can appear in many forms: from “non-violent” protests (strikes, civil disobedience) through individual killings to organized or spontaneous violent rebellions and war proper. (483)

As for evaluating such acts, these are said to be

located ‘beyond good and evil’, in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with what, to an ordinary moral consciousness, cannot but appear as “immoral” acts of killing, one has no right to condemn them, since they are the reply to years, centuries even, of systematic state violence and economic exploitation. (478)… If a class is systematically deprived of their rights, of their very dignity as persons, they are eo ipso also released from their duties toward the social order, since this order is no longer their ethical substance. (479)

This is about as unambiguous as it gets:

Sometimes one has to kill in order to keep one’s hands clean; not as a heroic compromise of dirtying one’s hands for a higher goal. (484)

However, in the final pages, Zizek again muddies the waters by suggesting that no one is able to pass judgement on whether an act of violence is ‘divine’ or not, which if he means it, to some extent undermines many of the judgements he passes on the value of various failed revolutions.

There are no “objective” criteria enabling us to identify an act of violence as divine: the same act, that to an external observer, appears merely as an irrational outburst of violence, can be divine for those engaged in it. (485)

The subtleties of this may be lost on me. But to me this seems dangerously close to denying us the right to condemn the killings by a lynch mob, the suicide bomber in a school, or acts of ethnic cleansing.

Street Scene, Urumqi, 1957

Urumqi's Nan-Men (south gate) in 1910


Richard Hughes was a journalist who spent most of his life as a correspondent in Asia for  The Times, The Economist, and the Far Eastern Economic Review. During World War 2 he was thought by some to be a spy, and possibly a double agent. Given these suspicions, it is unsurprising that he ended up being fictionalised twice: Ian Fleming based the character of Dikko Henderson in You Only Live Twice on him; in John Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy he appears as Craw. This is his from book Foreign Devil, a memoir. I quote this because a) it suggests how relations (not to say manners) have worsened in the city known as ‘beautiful pastureland’ and b) I have a weakness for this kind of prose.

It happened in ‘The Street of the Grey-Eyed Men’ during the tranquil noontime traffic ‘rush’. The inexpert Chinese driver of a bus loudly tooted his horn and frightened a nervous, highstepping white mare, ridden by a tough Kazakh tribesman. The horse reared, neighing, and fell. The horseman skillfully sprang clear, raised and soothed the mare, handed the reins with a bow to the chairman of a council of dignified nomads seated in converse in the gutter, walked calmly over to the halted bus, and, with deliberation but no visible anger, fetched the apologetic driver a fearful backhand clout over the nose. He then remounted, saluted his quietly approving audience in the gutter, and rode off. The Chinese driver wiped his nose, bowed first to the seated gallery, arose, turned and bowed next to the amused but friendly passengers, and drove off, without tooting.

Urumqi's South Gate in the 1960's

‘Whether you have a boy or girl, it is still a blossom’

Whether you have a boy or girl, it is still a blossom

More Chinese Propaganda Posters, this time from the large collection at the University of Westiminster (thanks to Jeff Wasserstrom for making me aware of the collection).

The collection spans the period between the late 1960s and the late 1980s. John Gittings,  then Senior Lecturer of the Chinese Section, began the collection in 1979 as the China Visual Arts Project for  research and teaching purposes.  Over the years it grew, with the contributions of other colleagues, students and friends who studied and travelled in China.There are over 500 images in the collection, which is organised thematically.

Hold High the Revolutionary Banner of Proleterian Criticism

Mao addressing troops of the fourth red army at Gutian, Dec 1929

Unite to win still greater victories- April, 1975

Chairman Mao is the saviour of the world's revolution, 1968

'Man Must Conquer Nature'- Miner with "Tangshan" on his vest, with doctors, soldiers and peasants carrying spades, bringing aid to the July 1976 Tangshan earthquake

Twentieth-Century Xinjiang

I recently came across this excellent Blog on Xinjiang’s history, which has made me painfully aware of how much of a non-expert I am on this subject (not to mention…). There’s a great deal of thoughtful analysis on a wide variety of topics, from the deaths of the leaders of the East Turkestan Republic, to UFO sightings in the region. I’d particularly recommend the posts on the  Photos of J. Hall Paxton, who was U.S. Consul-General in Urumqi from 1946 through 1949. The captions on the photos below particularly caught my eye.

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