Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Xinjiang - the lure of the Occident

For most native English-speaking readers, the concept of the Orient will be a familiar one - hot, balmy weather, exotic food and the promise of a truly sensuous experience. The Orient is the East - unknown and frightening, enthralling and exciting.

Defining the Orient

When we use the term oriental in English, we think mostly of China and the Far East, although the original term from the Latin verb orior 'to rise' (ie. the rising sun) was applied to anywhere in the East, including the Arab world and even Turkey. When Germans use this word, they are talking about the Middle East rather than the Far East. I've just learned today that the term oriental, if used about a person in the US, is considered to be incredibly offensive, whilst this isn't really the case in the UK, although perhaps it should be! I've also learnt about equivalents of the Orient in other languages, eg. the Levant in French, Anatolia in Greek, Vostok in Russian and Sharq in Arabic - all of which are connected to the concept of rising.

Book cover from Oriental Stories (1932)

Defining the Occident

The term Occidental, which refers to 'the West', from the Latin occidens for 'sunset/falling', has mostly fallen out of use in English. You'll have noticed that I use the term the West a lot, in this blog - but, of course, it's no longer merely a geographical concept. The West includes parts of the world that are in the South and East (eg. Australia, New Zealand). What I mean by 'the West' is those parts of the world that have, broadly speaking, inherited European laws, customs and cultures.

It also, vaguely, refers to what used to be known as Christendom ie. those countries where Christianity was the prominent religion. Whilst, I think the 21st century West is largely secular and based on principles of the Enlightenment, we do use this term to talk about countries in the developed world that are nominally Christian or Jewish (as opposed to Muslim, Buddhist or anything else).

Occidental Women

1930's poster from Hong Kong museum
To the Chinese, the West has been equally exotic and alluring, equally frightening and barbaric. It included not only modern Xinjiang, but other parts of the western China that were inhabited by nomadic people, such as the Mongols, Hui (Chinese Muslims) and Tibetans. As I've been reading about some of the horrific human rights' abuses that have been happening in Xinjiang/Uyghuristan in recent years, it's hard to believe that there is any love or fascination of the Occident in Chinese hearts, but I guess it's a love/hate thing and it's often the case that something can repulse and attract us in equal measure.

To the Chinese, the West has represented freedom from a centralised form of government, but also lawlessness and lack of civilisation. China has wanted to capture the West and, like a wild animal, to tame and possess it. The portrayal of Turkic women in Chinese history, has reflected everything that is alluring and exotic. Sexist? Yes, but there is no denying that, throughout history, the women of enemy tribes have symbolised the ultimate trophy and token of conquest.

Khoja Iparhan - the Fragrant Concubine

The Fragrant Concubine by Giuseppe Castiglione
One of the most potent symbols of China's relationship with the Uyghurs is the legend of the Fragrant Concubine, Khoja Iparhan (Xiāngfēi in Chinese). There was a period of about 1,000 years, when China had very little to do with the region that is now Xinjiang, but the advent of the Manchurian Qing Dynasty (China's last dynasty) in the mid-17th century, brought a renewed interested in conquering the West. The legend of Khoja Iparhan comes from that period and, although it's a legend, it's believed to be based on a real Uyghur woman, who was, reputedly, the most beautiful woman on earth and exuded a natural body odour that drove men wild with desire and earned her the nickname 'the Fragrant Concubine'.

The Chinese and Uyghur versions of the story are somewhat different - in the Chinese version, she is captured and brought to the Imperial Palace in Beijing, where the Emperor becomes enthralled by her and does everything he can to seduce her, including bringing a native tree, the jujube, from her homeland and creating a bazaar outside her window, so she will feel less homesick. For the Chinese it's a tale of conquest and submission. In the Uyghur version, she also pines for her native land, but never submits to the will of the Emperor and resists his sexual advances until she is finally murdered by the eunuchs of the Imperial Court.

Cai Wenji and the Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute

Hu-Jia Art by Kosi Gramatikoff
Of course, this can go both ways and another famous example of kidnap is the story of the Han Dynasty (Roman era) poetess Cai Wenji who was captured by Xiongnu (western) nomads from her home in Henan province, taken West and married to a nomad Chieftain, to whom she bore children. After twelve years, her father paid a ransom, so she could return to China and she dutifully went home, leaving her children behind her. The story of Cai Wenji is an important example of the values of Confucian China, which includes loyalty to your ancestors. She has been held up by Chinese nationalists, as an example of loyalty to China, above everything else, including loyalty to your children.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

As part of my research for this blog, I (re)watched Ang Lee's award-winning movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) which is a modern take on China's relationship with its western regions. The young woman, Jen (played by Zhang Ziyi) is the daughter of a Qing Dynasty aristocrat, who had been appointed as governor of one of the western regions. She is due to be married, but longs for the freedom of the western deserts and pines for a young nomad she met there, who was her first love.

It's a beautiful movie and was partly filmed in Xinjiang. The portrayal of the young nomad, Lo is incredibly sympathetic and seems to sum up the complex nature of China's feelings for its western neighbours. The film is based on the fourth novel of the Crane Iron Pentology by Wang Dulu. These novels, which romanticised the nomadic lifestyles of people like the Uyghurs, were published in the 1930's, at a time of great tension between the (then) Republic of China and Turkic nationalists of East Turkestan.

I'm going to leave you with a trailer for the movie. If you haven't already seen it, I definitely recommend it!

Image credits:

All images except the 1930's poster are taken from Wikipedia and are deemed to be in the public domain, either because their copyright has expired, or because the image creator has released their image for re-use.

The photo of the 1930's poster was taken by me on my iPhona museum in Hong Kong.
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