Compared to the provinces's native Uyghur population, Han Chinese settlers in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have not attracted as much scholarly or indeed journalistic attention of late. But in a profoundly troubled and troubling present for Xinjiang, one that is thankfully now gaining somewhat more notice from concerned parties worldwide, Tom Cliff
’s Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang
(University of Chicago Press, 2016) offers us vital insight into precisely this group of people.
Based on years of residence in Korla, an oil industry hub in southern Xinjiang, Cliff draws us close to the thoughts, dreams, beliefs, aspirations and legends of his interlocutors, answering in rich ethnographic detail a question he has been posing himself since 2001: ‘What is it like to be a Han person living in Xinjiang?’ (p. 4). Whilst not always offering full closure on this complicated and shifting subject - and allowing readers to examine for themselves a vivid and compelling array of photographs
he has taken there over the years - Cliff nevertheless leads readers to some stark conclusions regarding how China's Xinjiang frontier operates, and what the political centre is trying to achieve there. The implications of the colonial processes he describes are as dark and devastating as they are important, but appear all the more inexorable for the very human level on which they are unfolding.
Ed Pulford is a postdoctoral researcher at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center, Hokkaido University. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and northeast Asian indigenous groups.