Xinjiang People: A Local Photographer’s Portfoli


I was born and brought up in Xinjiang, and my longtime friends often warn me, a photographer, not to take pictures in dangerous places. As a matter of fact I have received many such phone calls in recent years. Each time I finish the call, I become lost in thought. Scenes of experiences in past decades, together with those photos, materialize before my eyes. I decide I will, with my camera and my utmost good faith, continue to record the land and its people that I dearly love.


My father came to Xinjiang in 1943. As a young man, he fed army horses for a time, and afterwards worked stock in the mountains, just as Kazakhs did. Kazakhs rode across the river to call at my house. Once they brought my father a stout club, which we used to prop the door to shut it tight—to keep out wind and wild beasts. In the 1960s and ‘70s many people moved from inland China to settle in Xinjiang and they eventually became “the locals.” To my mind, Xinjiang people are generally obstinate, but ironically also tolerant. It is not hard for new people to live here, even the “weak people,” simply because the so-called “natural” law of selection doesn’t apply in this part of the world.


I majored in the finance and economics of petrol at a college in Sichuan, with the guarantee of a job and, back then, it was a good thing to be assigned to Xinjiang. People asked me, What is Xinjiang like?, since I was the only person they knew who’d ever been there. I either hedged to avoid the question or opened a book to crib relevant details to foist on them. I knew little about the inland and was bothered by imagining what east-central China might be like. One day I realized the yawning gap that exists in the understanding between Xinjiang and inland China.


Since 2000, I’ve been traveling and photographing on this land where my parents were buried, which gives me the opportunity to grip bits and pieces about the great nature and diversified social life of Xinjiang. I suspect that everywhere I go is like my home and individuals of different ethnicities are siblings. For a time, I was intense about the primeval forests, the oases, the pastures and villages. This vast and diversified land is matchless, profound and pure. When people keep the lifestyle of a place intact, are attached to each other, venerate nature, and regard several generations of tradition as not-so-old gives all of us a feeling of timelessness..


In the heartland of Taklimakan desert the inhabitants find it best to live along the KeriyaRiver, where on both sides grow wide swathes of desert vegetation, the Euphrates poplar, rose willows, and reeds. Generations have a deep link with the land, this particular spot on the globe. They are the “primitive tribe” of the desert. For the kind-hearted Tajiks living under Muztagh Ata (7,546 meters), the well-known “Glacier Father, “an integral part of routine is to greet each other if they meet. Things aren’t easy on the plateau, but the people are not move on, moving out, or seeking to emigrate to the plain. Why, they wonder, would anyone wish to move away from their holy mountain. Seeing the massive ice mountain daily lifts their spirits. Being spiritually well-off is more imperative than finding material abundance.


Along the cold border China shares with Kyrgyzstan, the Kirghiz people live in the past, the human past that is–on agriculture and animal husbandry, like plenty of others for centuries have. Domesticating falcons, what a perfect idea saved from the past. Working stock in the pasture, they sometimes ride up high mountain to free their falcons.


Though a mere 160 kilometers away from Burqin County, the aboriginal Tuwa people of Mongolian nationality in Hom Village used to live a secluded life, segregated from the rest of us by high mountains, dense forests and inconvenient transportation. They worship trees, forests and spring water. For them “Hom” is their real home. With the influence of local tourism, though, Tuwa girls fall in love and marry Han or Hui boys. Who can stop love?


The brimming-over, direct hospitality of people in Ili would overwhelm any visitor. Home to herdsmen of different ethnicities who’ve been nomads for generations, it has also become home to soldiers assigned to develop and safeguard the border area in Xinjiang.


Turpan’s climate and natural conditions are a unique blessing. People under the ripening grape trellises seem genuinely willing to lead a bucolic life, content with their harvest and faithful to their homeland.


Kumul. One of my college classmates was assigned to work in Kumul and married a local girl. Their child, who slightly resembles his father in his younger years, talks and acts like other Xinjiang children. My friend has been transformed from a frail-looking graduate student into a frank, straightforward Xinjiang man.


Amid reform and development of a new town and special zone, tradition takes on a different connotations. Kashgar is deeply affected by the severity of the vast Taklimakan desert, yet every corner where life can exist has been utilized. Various ways of living wafted in from central Asia, India and western countries, bringing potential, development, and change. Exotic cultures, no matter how powerful, can be chewed up and at last digested by the strong stomach of this rugged place; over time they may be incorporated into the oasis. Designated a special zone, a new Kashgar, is under construction, its new look is taking hold. Camels don’t cross the Tuman riverside anymore, and you can’t see donkey carts except in Bazhatian, the urban fringe. Type 125 motorbikes are replaced by electric motorcycles driven by pretty girls. Grace and fickleness, tranquility and hustle mix it up in the mist and the dust, in towns old and new.


From remote villages to towns, from desert heartland in the desert outward, conflict between rural and urban development is paramount. Indecision haunts people scrambling to make a living, just like in other areas in China. The shift here, however, in economic mode in Xinjiang is different because it is slower and complicated. Policies are yet to be adjusted and refined. Young people see Xinjiang fits in with the outside world. Bureaucracy, common enough in inland areas, is propagated effortlessly. That old custom of early marriage and yearning for the outside world puzzle the youngsters of ethnic minorities. The discord between the utilization and protection of environmental resources is obvious. How will people break through their misunderstanding and suspicion when cultures clash?


Mardan, a good Uyghur friend of mine, suffer an injury in a traffic accident that made him unable to do heavy physical labor. But because he speaks Chinese well, he was recruited as a company security guard . Kashgar is more than 300 kilometers away from his hometown but he worked there for few years. Mardan liked wearing a beard, but he had to shave it for the physical exam. He was reluctant, and. beside that he disliked his uniform, thinking it unfashionable, not cool enough. He thought of quitting, but his father phoned to say, “you are still Mardan without beard.” Afterwards when highly regarded by his boss from Chongqing, and promoted to be the boss’ full-time driver, he was pleased. In addition, he worked for the ShufuCounty travel bureau and was responsible for the Xinjiang final of 2012 Miss Tourism World. He worked in the village of ethnic musical instruments in ShufuCounty, where raised many gamecocks and Dolans, which had long been his dream. Now he’s doing a sales job in an international furniture shopping center managed by a Guangdong boss.


Though these photos are far from enough to give an overall picture of Xinjiang, they help me to discover the authentic Xinjiang and its hard-working people. I am not as erudite as scholarly anthropologists, sociologists and politicians who labor in the thin air of complex and abstract issues. Development and tradition, law and liberty, religion and nation, science and culture are important, yes. Still, I think to discover Xinjiang at this malleable stage is to let us partake in a transformation based on mutual respect, while seeking answers with patience.

Written/Photographed by ZHANG Xinmin

英文版载于《中国民族》海外版 2014.3

张新民:记录心中的新疆 《人民画报》-----2015.2

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