Free Ilham Tohti


Ilham Tohti, the respected Uyghur economist, has been charged with separatism and faces ten years to life in prison in China. It’s the kind of thing that’s a reminder of how China’s judicial and political system hasn’t made the same kind of progress as its economy. I wrote about the case on the LRB Blog.

The Death of Old Kashgar


I went back to Kashgar, in southern Xinjiang, in September last year for the first time in 13 years. In 2000 it was a place that I was sorry to leave; I didn’t feel the same this time. More words and pictures about that can be found at Unmapped, a new travel magazine that’s publishing the kinds of pieces that are in short supply: well-written, insightful reports from places that the news agenda doesn’t seem concerned about.


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.


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)”

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