AAS Report: Trauma and Memory in Modern Xinjiang

This year’s meeting of the conference of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) was held in Seattle, WA. The weather kindly held all weekend long, and while I’m told that Seattle isn’t usually so sunny, I choose to believe that the harbor view is never obscured by fog.

I organized a panel for this year’s meeting on “Trauma and Memory in Modern Xinjiang.” The word “trauma,” “memory,” “modern,” and “Xinjiang” might set off alarm bells — those are some pretty trendy terms, all lined up in a row! Nevertheless, the topic was one that fell naturally out of current research in the field. Here’s a rundown of the talks:

Eric Schluessel (me): “‘When the World Fell Apart’: the Muslim Uprisings as Personal and Historical Trauma” We took the panel in chronological order, so I started with this piece on the 1860s and after, which also set up some of our common analytical machinery. The basic argument is this: the mass violence that broke out in Xinjiang in 1864 became a limit event in the historical memory of different groups. The subsequent discourses of recovery as they played out in the 1870s and beyond shaped the ways that Muslims and non-Muslims alike reimagined their individual and collective pasts. The dead became martyrs, and “recovering lost parents” became “recovering lost patrimony” — but only certain dead, and certain parents.

Sandrine Catris (Assistant Professor, Augusta University): “The Struggle Against Forgetting 1960s Xinjiang” Sandrine Catris has written the only dissertation I know of on Kashgar in the Cultural Revolution. She had to deal with some exceptional difficulties in approach her sources, which include oral histories and memoirs, many of them censored or polemical. In order to explore these issues, Catris presented the politics of representation two important incidents that have received practically zero treatment in the scholarship: the Red Guard attempt to destroy the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar on August 18, 1966 and the Shihezi Incident of January 26, 1967. In a manner reminiscent of both Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys and Melvyn Goldstein et al.’s The Nyemo Incident, Catris demonstrates the complex ethno-religious politics surrounding these incidents, both at the time and in recollection.

Brian Cwiek (PhD Candidate, Indiana University): “From Nanniwan to Tuntian: Colonizing Historical Consciousness in the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps” Brian usually works on cotton and archaeology in twentieth-century Xinjiang, so he naturally reads a great deal about Xinjiang’s province-within-a-province, the XPCC. The XPCC itself and historians of Xinjiang often represent the organization as continuing the ancient legacy of tuntian, a (never successful) system of military farming. However, Brian argues, this characterization is actually very recent — once upon a time, the people of the XPCC thought of themselves primary as continuing the Communists’ modern agricultural projects. What prompted the change, and when? Ask Brian.

Rahile Dawut (Professor, Xinjiang University): “Revolution and Remembrance: Oral Histories of Sufi Women in Contemporary Xinjiang” I am so glad Prof. Rahile Dawut could join us. She is a global leading scholar of Uyghur anthropology and a mentor to many of us in the field. Her powerful ethnographic work was on display in this talk, which explored the modern experience of women’s Sufi circles who have passed down distinct practices of dhikr (“remembrance”) for generations. These oral histories and their communal maintenance are at the heart of historical memory for untold numbers of Uyghurs — and yet, they have received little treatment in the literature, especially not by Western scholars. (Rachel Harris is of course an outstanding exception!)

Our discussant Rian Thum (Assistant Professor, Loyola University New Orleans), who recently won the Fairbank Prize for his work in historical anthropology, put it well: if you work on Xinjiang, and you aren’t familiar with Sufi practices of memory, then you ought to be. The field tends to focus on two things: policy and identity. If we are serious about painting a more complete picture, or pushing the limits of understanding in ways that are productive both for scholarship and for politics, then we need to have much greater regard for how non-elites experience and imagine their worlds. If we claim to care about “Uyghur” issues, then let’s focus on how most Uyghurs live and build their communities, both practically and discursively.