Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang

In many ways the history of Xinjiang is in exile like its many dissidents, such as Rebiya Kadeer. The People’s Republic of China, in whose uneasy embrace it lies, has enforced a strictly patriotic historical narrative that disallows the complexity suggested by the province’s various identities throughout history: Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Nestorian Christians, Sufis, Shiites and Sunnis have all worshipped there. It has been occupied in turn by the obscure and the mysterious, such as the Qarakhanids and Hephthalites, and the mighty and powerful, including Mongols, Soviets, the Tibetan Empire and several Chinese dynasties. Xinjiang has had so many languages, peoples and cultures that towns, mountains and rivers have multiple names, creating a geographic Babel.

The province is best known as China's “restive” Muslim province, the source of domestic oil wealth and a front in the “Global War on Terror”. In recent years, a great deal of ink has been spilt on the topic of its contemporary political drama, in which both sides namely the Chinese government and Uyghur exiles – have armed themselves with historical figures and dates, while Western observers have often been drawn to a “clash of civilizations” storyline, especially in the wake of September 11.

It is thus both timely and important that the first comprehensive history of Xinjiang seeks to place these events in their proper historical context, and also treats the claims of both political factions with the skepticism they deserve. It is a place that has seen wars between dozens of Eurasian powers, both great and small, and in a context that includes “minarets of skulls,” camel-mounted cannon and a plethora of assassinations at banquets, not to mention the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and both World Wars. In this context, claims of a “holy war” are greatly exaggerated.

James Millward, an associate professor of history at Georgetown University, is one of the preeminent scholars on Xinjiang today. His new book, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, expands upon two chapters he contributed to Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland, the book undoubtedly Millward is referring to in his preface that “was smuggled to China, translated, circulated and rebutted internally in the PRC before it had even been published in the United States”.

The Pro-Beijing Hong Kong paper, Ta Kung Pao, recently wrote that the previous book was the theoretical basis for Xinjiang’s secession in the event of a Sino-American war. Such subterfuge demonstrates the political sensitivity of Xinjiang in the halls of Zhongnanhai, and the prominence of history as a major battlefield for legitimacy. It is doubly to Millward's credit, then, that he is skeptical not only of China’s claim that Xinjiang has been in the motherland “since ancient times”, but that he also turns a critical eye on the historical claims of Uyghur exiles abroad.

A great deal of Xinjiang’s history is not anywhere near Xinjiang. In writing his book, Millward visited archives in Paris, Stockholm, Beijing, New Delhi and Tokyo, searching both national archives and the collections of archaeologists, missionaries, spies and occultists. There is little doubt, given its geographical proximity, that China has played the biggest role in Xinjiang's history, although when read the other way, Xinjiang has played one of the biggest roles in China's interaction with the world. The province’s history turns the history of China and its periodic nomad invaders on its head, as well as the relationship between the Qing Dynasty, themselves nomads, Central Asia, and the modern age.

Quite rightly, Millward’s chapter titles highlight Xinjiang's betweenness (“Between Islam and China”, “Between Empire and Nation”, “Between China and the USSR”, “Between China and the World”). Xinjiang is most often placed in a historical context subordinate to some greater power or civilization – whether its inseparability from China, conflating its Sufi-inspired Islam with the extremism of Osama Bin Laden, or claiming the ancient mummies found in its deserts are (gasp!) “blonde and blue-eyed” “Europeans”, even though Europe did not exist at the time. Asks Millward in a characteristic dash of humor, “Do mummies still have eyeballs?”

Millward instead gives Xinjiang its own central place in Eurasian history, while avoiding Pan-Turkic, Pan-Islamic or Chinese hegemonic rhetoric. Consider some of the historic firsts that occurred in Xinjiang: the first state to endorse Genghis Khan; the Qocho Uyghurs, who would go on to teach Khan's descendents to read and write and administer a great deal of the Mongol Empire; the origin of the medieval name for China, “Cathay”, derived from the name of the Khitans and echoed across the Silk Road; the first modern genocide in Chinese history, the extermination of the Zunghars; the first unequal treaty, granting trade concessions to Khoqhand, later a model for negotiations with the British; and the first CIA operative to ever die in the field, the first star on Langley's wall, Douglas MacKiernan, “our man in Urumchi”.

A History of Xinjiang is first and foremost a history book, and as such it may frighten some readers. Millward makes the experience considerably easier by bookending each section and chapter with clear summaries, though even a well-informed reader will become dizzy upon reading the constant backstabbing and intrigues of the Republican era as improbable alliances are formed, such as the Soviets supporting exiled White Russians fighting for the Republican-backed warlord Sheng Shicai, or the president-for-life of the second East Turkestan Republic turning in his own ministers to Sheng for a vice-chairmanship. But even then, the vast array of competing forces involved in Xinjiang only goes to support Millward's thesis that the history of Xinjiang is that of the interaction between many “peoples, cultures and polities, not of a single nation”.