Towards a Social Landscape

In August 1998 I traveled by train, bus, car, and Jeep from Beijing via Batou, along the Yellow River, to Lanzhou, Urumqi, and Kaxgar.

The photographs capture everyday moments of urban and rural life in the various provinces, with their diverse ethnicities and cultures. Far from the central government in Beijing, the people we met in villages and small towns were friendly, open, and curious.

Especially fascinating is the “secret capital” of the Uyghurs, Kaxgar, with its Sunday market in the old city. In the teashops and at the open-air markets we were surrounded by a wide array of colors and smells. A bustling, lively trade in sheep, vegetables, fruits, herbs, carpets, and fabrics was conducted. Police on motorbikes and the crescent of a mosque ostensibly ensured the orderly unfolding of everday events. All of these scenes from daily life were like images of a long-forgotten world: strange, yet oddly familiar, as if they corresponded to a heritage preserved in the collective consciousness, a pre-modern epoch when the co-existence of farmers, craftsmen, soldiers, and church defined the world.

The political atmosphere in the autonomous western Chinese province of Xinjiang Uyghur (“new border”) was tense. There were rumors about massive state regulation and the Chinese leadership’s repressive interference in the lives of the Turkish minority, the Uyghurs.

On the journey from Krygyzstan via Bishkek and Almaty to Kaxgar in June of the following year, the impression of the political conditions was similar, the situation even more tense. A young Uyghur asked us how he and his family could emigrate abroad. Ten years later, in July 2009, it became known that large portions of ancient Kaxgar would be torn down. The reason given was that the city needed to be modernized. At the same time, this led many of the Uyghur population to fear even more Sinicization.

From a distance of two decades, the analogue photographs from 1998 and 1999 are already historical when compared to the digital pictures taken during a third sojourn in 2015. All the photos were selected to provide a sense of day-to-day coexistence and cooperation, without glossing over the injustices inflicted upon the economically and socially disadvantaged. How to maintain changing traditions and idiosyncrasies without repression remains a challenge – and not only in Northwest China. In the best-case scenario, it would entail engaging the local population in the processes of altering economic, social, and cultural structures.

 

 

Rosemarie Zens

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