Eric Schluessel’s Land of Strangers: The Civilizing Project in Qing Central Asia (Columbia UP, 2020) looks at what happened when, at the end of the Qing, Chinese Confucian revivalists gained control of the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang and sought to transform it. Yet this is not a book about high politics or discourse — far from it. This is a book about what this civilizing project looked like on the ground, how it played out in “everyday politics,” and how Turkic-speaking Muslims felt about and responded to attempts to transform them into Chinese-speaking Confucians. Centering on the voices and experiences of ordinary people in the oasis of Turpan, Land of Strangers is filled with stories of prostitution, human trafficking, venereal disease, families divided by war, and so much more. Reading across the Turpan archive this book combines records in both Chinese and Chaghatay, laying bare the difficulties revivalists encountered in educating children and showing how interpreters went about 'translating' oral Chaghatay, and throughout it emphasizes how the negotiation of place, difference, and identity was continual and fraught.
This beautifully written and meticulously researched book is a must read for anyone interested in Chinese history, the history of Central Asia, colonialism, and empire, as well as any historians who might get a particular thrill in seeing the “ragged” sources Eric is dealing with so expertly pieced together.
Sarah Bramao-Ramos is a PhD candidate in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard. She works on Manchu language books and is interested in anything with a kesike. She can be reached at email@example.com