Never Give Up The Fruit
Never Give Up The Fruit explores the triangulation of identity against not only the twin ideological poles of communism and political Islam but also the ethnic tensions of Uighurs and Han Chinese. According to legend, the Qianlong Emperor specifically asked that the religious and political leader Afaq Khoja’s granddaughter – known as Xian Fe to the Hans or Iparxan to the Uighurs – be taken alive after Xinjiang was conquered. Her beauty was so renowned that she is said to have been transported back to Beijing in a carriage with felt-lined wheels to ease the long journey. The Uighurs see in Iparxan a symbol of resistance thanks to her alleged refusal to submit to the Emperor’s desires. The Emperor went to great lengths to please her, building a scale replica of Kashgar’s bazaar outside her window to make her feel less homesick, having the famous Hami melons of her homeland delivered, and even allegedly providing her with baths of sheep’s milk. None of this sufficed, nearly driving the Emperor mad and convincing his mother to assassinate his unyielding mistress. Alas, the Han narrative is more mundane, seeing Xian Fe as one of many concubines; in their version of the story, neither her fragrance nor her beauty was enough to save her from the Emperor’s entreaties.
The only part of Central Asia historically under Chinese (as opposed to Russian) rule, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is home to the majority of Uighurs and spans 1.6 million square kilometres – roughly equivalent to the surface area of Germany, Spain, and Turkey combined. If, for the West, Islam comes from the East, and the East is often adopted as a shorthand for Islam, the religion of Muhammad comes from the West for the Chinese. Not only does Xinjiang sit just inside Slavs and Tatars’ geographic remit on this side of the Great Wall of China, the province itself is the site of a face-off between the two major geopolitical narratives of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – communism and political Islam, respectively. And crucially, almost without any trace of mediation by the West.
Xinjiang is China’s most resource-rich province, with the world’s largest oil and natural gas reserves; it also has the misfortune of having the lowest population density amongst all Chinese provinces, the result of which has been a large influx of Han Chinese in recent decades, facilitating an Uighur population drop from 75 % in 1953 to 46 % today. The mutual enmity and tension between the Han and the Uighur – from online forums to the very streets of Hotan – is palpable, and conjures up the case of Israel and Palestine, except on steroids. Sandwiched between Russia and China, Xinjiang was a stage during two World Wars, not to mention two communist revolutions thirty years apart. So Uighurs have had their fair share of geopolitical landmines to navigate, with differing degrees of success. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union provided support by establishing unions and workers’ groups, as well as publishing titles catering to the sizeable percentage of Uighurs living in the neighbouring Kazakh and Uzbek Socialist Republics. The early Soviet policy of ascribing a narodnost or ‘ethnicity’ to each and every distinct group of the exceptionally diverse population was one of many attempts to deal with the legacies of Imperial Russia and its transformation into a Soviet society.
There has been no shortage of recriminations and ugly stereotypes on both sides during the many decades of this unhappy marriage: the Han accuse the Uighurs of being lazy, while the Uighurs claim the Han lack proper hygiene. Historic neighbourhoods are razed in their entirety under the pretext of fortifying faulty old constructions, incensing the Uighurs, whom the Han in turn consider ungrateful. Despite being the largest ethnic group by a substantial margin (until recently, that is), the Uighurs are never given top administrative posts or political appointments, instead often holding ceremonial secondary roles.