Book Review: China's borderlands

Part travelogue, part social commentary and part history lesson, The Horse that Leaps Through Clouds takes readers on a colorful 10,000-mile journey along the Silk Road. Author Eric Enno Tamm weaves together a rich tapestry of narratives in order to tell the story of his 2006 travels through China and Central Asia, as well as the much earlier journey of Finnish hero Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, whose steps he retraces.

The book features a varied cast of characters, ranging from stone-throwing Tibetan monks living in the early 20th Century to present-day American missionaries living in coal-smothered industrial cities; from Uyghurs to Yugurs to Pakistani traders in Azerbaijan.

Tamm’s writing deftly conveys readers from 1906 to 2006, from St. Petersburg to Beijing, intertwining his own experiences with those of Mannerheim. His prose and dry wit, which earned him the 2011 Ottawa Book Award for Non-fiction, sustains readers masterfully through a grand scope of nearly 500 pages. (Mannerheim’s memoirs of his sojourn, entitled Across Asia from West to East in 1906-1908, take up an impressive 821 pages).

The 100th anniversary of Mannerheim’s expedition, which provided the motivation for Tamm’s adventure, brought with it the opportunity to compare two Chinas-- the China that existed during Mannerheim’s trek, during a period of unprecedented technological innovations and social, economic and political change, and the China of today, reminiscent of that era in terms of the breathtaking nature of transformation now taking place.

Mannerheim himself appears as somewhat of an enigma, despite his historical prominence as the sixth president of Finland and leader of Finnish military forces against the Soviet incursion. Tamm retraces the Finnish-born Mannerheim’s successful early military career under Imperial Russia, when Finland was a western province of the Russian empire, and his subsequent departure from Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Mannerheim’s crusade against communism is well-documented in the annals of history, but, as Tamm discovers, he writes nothing of political reform in his record of his explorations. Mannerheim’s personal journal, Tamm finds, is also curiously cold and lacking in any detail of his interpersonal relationships.

Unlike Mannerheim, Tamm uses the stories of individuals he meets to highlight his overarching themes, relating the politics of a region through its people. Traversing areas on China’s western and northern borders that the Qing court and now the CCP have worked hard to control, he encounters Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mongolians struggling to express their identity in the face of a massive influx of Han Chinese settlers.

The story of the destruction of young Uyghur Gulnar’s house in a Hotan suburb and the anger felt by Kahar in Kashgar over Chinese tourists’ behavior at the Idkah Mosque quietly illustrate the effects of state-led “modernization” policies and associated migration into traditionally Uyghur areas. The refusal of Buhchulu in Hohhot to elaborate on the political or social forces driving the disappearance of the Mongolian language is commentary in itself.

Throughout northern China’s polluted industrial cities, Tamm meets Chinese migrants, students and businessmen affected by the country’s explosive economic growth and energy exploitation. Though he spends some time with entrepreneurs becoming rich off of China’s new economic boom, such as in the “new Silicon Valley” in Xi’an, most of his companions and interviewees on the northern and western fringes of China are members of a larger population of Chinese citizens existing at the margins of the country’s economic success.

Jerry, a young student at a technical university in Henan, takes Tamm to visit his sister, who had made a modest living operating a sewing shop outside of Zhengzhou. However, having grown up in rural poverty, Jerry was not optimistic about his own future, because his family lacked the official connections necessary to attain prosperity in the new China. His fatalism is representative of the untold masses of Chinese citizens trying to scrape their way out of an impoverished life. “I’m afraid of the future,” he says. “I’m afraid I’ll be like my friends who work 12 hours a day in the factories.”

Prior to riding on horseback into Chinese territory, Tamm visits with dissidents and diplomats in the oil-soaked capital of Azerbaijan; has an unwelcome encounter with security agents in Turkmenistan; listens to accounts of torture in Tashkent, where he manages to avoid being questioned by police; and browses the bazaars in Osh.

Tamm is not shy about giving a voice to those critical of Central Asian dictators’ tendencies toward the violent repression of their people. He provides an uncompromising glimpse into the absurd rule of “Turkmenbashi,” the leader of Turkmenistan then nearing his last days, describing him as a tyrant “with the flair of Liberace and the savagery of Stalin.” An Uzbek human rights defender shows him files and grisly photos of those who had run afoul of security forces, whose skulls had been cracked open in Islam Karimov’s war against his own people.

Beginning with his account of Central Asia and continuing throughout China, Tamm contrasts the social and political forces encountered by Mannerheim with modern realities, often drawing uncanny parallels. He relates the abuse of power on the part of “local mandarins” in Mannerheim’s day, recounting protests that took place against such malfeasance in Yarkand, and the killing and wounding of a dozen protestors by troops in Kumul (Chinese: Hami).

He demonstrates Beijing’s continuing difficulties in reigning in the deeds of greedy local and regional officials, pointing out the central government’s worry that “local corruption and growing inequality will create social unrest and destabilize the country- and Communist Party rule.”

Tamm devotes several chapters to the experiences of Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mongolians and their efforts to maintain their way of life in the face of unrelenting Chinese oppression. He chronicles the protests of Uyghurs and Tibetans against human rights abuses carried out by Chinese officialdom in earlier decades, and his description of turbulent unrest in Uyghur and Tibetan areas in more recent years reminds readers that Chinese leaders’ continuing reliance on brute force has done nothing to quell Uyghur and Tibetan desires for more autonomy.

Tamm draws frequent comparisons between the unrest seething throughout China at the time of Mannerheim’s travels, on the eve of the Qing Dynasty’s collapse, and the grievances being expressed in modern-day China by disenfranchised populations that appear to mirror those of Mannerheim’s day in their threat to Beijing’s power over its empire. However, Tamm is careful not to draw the conclusion that the inequalities and protests plaguing Beijing today predict a collapse of Communist Party rule.

The connections drawn to Mannerheim’s observations and experiences, detailed and backed by meticulous scholarship, provide historical context to the book and offer a thoughtful lens with which to view the present. However, Tamm’s meetings with contemporary activists and dissidents stand out in their fresh relevance to the undercurrents of tension in twenty-first century China.

Indeed, upon winning the Ottawa Book Award for Non-fiction, Tamm paid tribute to imprisoned Uyghur writer Nurmemet Yasin, whose story Wild Pigeon was perceived by Chinese officials as “an allegory for their harsh and brutal rule over their Muslim borderlands”.

Interviews Tamm conducts prior to his journey provide additional, important context to his narrative. Uyghur doctor and activist Enver Tohti describes his research into the horrific effects of nuclear testing on surrounding Uyghur communities. Finnish scholar Henry Halén and American scholar Gardner Bovingdon both offer critical insight into the politicized nature of the Borderland Research Centre, an institution that hosts a conference on Mannerheim during Tamm’s visit to the regional capital of Urumchi in East Turkestan.

The Horse that Leaps Through Clouds goes far beyond clichéd notions of the Silk Road and the modern rise of China, and imparts to readers a discerning look into the marginalized people and groups living on the geographical and economic edges of Chinese society. The book is unique in its understanding of the methods of control used by paranoid leaders attempting to maintain power in the face of myriad forms of discontent. The travels and observations of both Tamm and Mannerheim outline the mundane difficulties and the more agitated discord created by regimes slow to embrace political reform but, in China’s case at least, experiencing tumultuous economic reforms. It is left to the reader to predict whether or not the side effects of Beijing’s reticence to embrace fundamental reforms will take cues from history, and how those living on China’s periphery will react to continued pressure from above.