China's most westerly province – 新疆, Xinjiang - what's in a name?
After deciding to embark on the project of blogging a contested part of the world, the first (and I'm sure not last) conundrum I have is what to call it. Inherently, the decision to use one label over another is political. Having lived in Lebanon for the past year amongst Lebanese and Palestinians, I have become accustomed to referring to the space to Lebanon's south as Palestine, its capital as 'occupied Jerusalem'. The legitimacy of Israel is denied by the use of a name. On the other side, the Zionist colonisation project takes definitions seriously too. Tel Aviv, a major city in the new state of Israel, is the renamed Arab town of Jaffa. All allusions to an Arab past have been vanquished in an attempt to re-write history and narratives that contradict official policy.
The extension of Han Chinese power into the geographical area spanning the Taklamakan Desert, the central Tian Shan mountain range, the Dzungarian Basin and the Altai mountain range has its own definitional difficulties. In Mandarin Chinese, the area is referred to as Xin Jiang 新疆 'new border(lands)'. In addition, many of Xinjiang's cities have experienced either a sinification of their names. In some cases, such as for Urumqi, the Han Chinese signifier retains relative closeness to the original name 乌鲁木齐(wulumuqi). In others, there is less attempt to be faithful to the original name, so Kashgar becomes 喀什 (kashi). In further cases, all attempts are forgone as the Uighur town Kulja becomes 伊宁 (yining) that takes its name from the Ili river that runs nearby.
In these towns themselves, the Uighurs use continue to use their names, whereas the Han use theirs. The major difference is while the Uighur recognise the Han names, the majority of Han can be completely confused by the Uighur's ones. Why? All official references to locations are in Han Chinese: the map I bought in a bookstore, the road signs marking distances and direction, the 'welcome' signs at towns entrances, the 'to-from' sign in the front of buses. There is little reason to expect the average Han Chinese to know Uighur names because, in everyday life these names are simply blotted out of existence. The labels that are attributed to places in this region are expressions of unequal power relations.
I want to consider more closely now the Chinese signifier for the area as a whole 新疆, because, unlike the sinified city names, the provincial name is entirely a Han Chinese creation, with a Han Chinese meaning and it displays, in part, the Han Chinese attitude toward it.
My analysis here relies on a specific idea of naming, that naming is not just a process that acts on its subject but is also that which acts on an object. Thus, by naming night as night, there must also be a contingent definition of day, without which night would be meaningless. All names operate in this way.
In using the character 新(new) to define a space, that space is always consider in the context of another space, that can be considered old. If it were not, then 'new' would cease to have meaning. So what are the new and old in our context?
In the state provincial museum in Urumqi, it is possible to see evidence of the discoveries of human remains in the Taklamakan desert that show the area has a history of human inhabitation that stretches back for at least 3000 years. These human remains are older than any found in other parts of today's China. Clearly, even human history is not new to these parts. The 新 of 新疆 however does not seek to refer to this ancient history, the 新 of 新疆 refers to a new history, the history of Han Chinese presence. Han Chinese origins and history lie in the centre of China, with, amongst others Confucius (Shandong province) and Qin Shi Huang (whose tomb of terracotta warriors is near Xian in Shaanxi province). Their presence by comparison is 'new'. The 新of 新疆attests only to a Han Chinese reading of history and refers to the contested space only in terms of its attachment to a Han Chinese state.
The second character that makes up the signifier is 疆meaning border or borderlands. Border as a geographical or political term is contingent on its compliment. For border to have any significance, there must be a centre against which to define it. The term border has two implications that on first glance can be considered as contradictory, difference and unity. The border is different, in that it is distinct from the centre. Borders are often restive places where the influence and grasp on power of the centre is weak. During the European appropriation of North America, the borders were the homes of Indians, of dangerous wild animals, of untamed environments. During the 'Great Game' of the 19th and early 20th century, Tsarist Russia and Imperial Britain battled to extend the borders of their respective influences into the exotic, dangerous unknown of central Asia. In Afghanistan, the British government, keen to expand its own borderlands, granted local leaders sovereignty over lands they felt unable of paying the costs of winning militarily, thus establishing what is now the Federally Administered Tribal administrative areas of modern Pakistan. This territory that was too difficult for the British still exists under its own law and has provided the main base for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to maintain their presence. Throughout history, exile and banishment to the periphery have always been a prominent tool of punishment. The punishment is doubly efficient as the punished is at once moved away from the centre where they could be dangerous, but not so far away as that they are outside of the eyes and ears of the state. Leon Trotsky was banished to Alma Ata, Napoleon to Saint Helena. By sending these influential people to these far away places, they are far removed from the loci of power and thus their strength is neutralised, yet they remain within the state's surveillance mechanism. The examples I have given thus far are European but parallels exist in Chinese culture. The danger and untamed idea of border is symbolised by the Great Wall. Built with intention of protecting the Han Chinese from the dangerous barbarians beyond, it highlights the special prevalence that dangerous outsiders have in the minds of Han Chinese.
The punishment of exile is to the Chinese an equally powerful one. Chinese emperors would send criminals and vagabonds to the fringes of the empire, to the lands of outsiders where access to imperial power did not exist. Hainan island, the most southerly part of China, is an example of this. Today, Hainan is a tropical paradise and a major tourist draw for China's fast developing internal tourism market. However, in the past, this distant island far from the imperial centres of Xian, Beijing or Nanjing served as the primary place of exile for those deemed undesirable by the dynasty of the day. It was only recently, that Hainan island became an exclusive holiday resort where China's new elite could bathe in the tropical sun and eat up exotic culinary treats to the sounds and rhythms of southern China's 'ethnic minorities'.
The rehabilitation of Hainan however did not remove the need for a place to deposit the undesirables of society. Since its inception after the civil war, the Communist revolution has had millions of internal enemies, former capitalist, intellectuals, rightists, common criminals, peasants who opposed communalisation amongst others. These challenges to the state's authority needed to be removed and their influence nullified. Where better to send them. than to the borderlands, dispossessed of their power base, yet under within the state's surveillance.
Finally, the label of border, within an international system of nation-states, implies ownership. Between all modern nation states, abstract lines of demarcation exist that define how geographical spaces are to be divided amongst states. The border division is an all or nothing game, on one side of the border, sovereignty is afforded to A, on the other to B. Thus, while at once being considered as periphery, the border is also by definition considered to be within the sovereign space of the centre. The Chinese name 新疆defines its referent as peripheral, yet also irrevocably bound to its centre.
For the reasons given, I currently believe that the name 新疆 is the violent imposition of Han Chinese conceptions of history and of value on a geographical space that is not exclusively theirs. This Han Chinese name is imposed by the state in order to emphasis a Han-centred reading of history that highlights on the one hand the space's attachment to the Chinese state and on the other hand its marginality within the Chinese state.
For these reasons, when specifying geographical spaces, I will, wherever possible refrain from making generalised statements about the region as a whole and prefer to refer to cities, towns, villages or areas. I will where I can use Uighur names for these cities, towns and villages, a fact that is testament to my personal bias.