Newspaper article International New York Times

China Promotes Myths of Social Cohesion ; Uighurs and Tibetans Chafe as Government Remolds Figures from Past

Newspaper article International New York Times

China Promotes Myths of Social Cohesion ; Uighurs and Tibetans Chafe as Government Remolds Figures from Past

Article excerpt

The Communist Party has devoted enormous resources to composing historical narratives, like that of a Uighur concubine, that seek to legitimize its rule.

They come for the camel rides, the chance to dress up like a conquering Qing dynasty soldier or to take selfies in front of one of the most historic Islamic shrines in Xinjiang, the sprawling region in China's far northwest.

But the busloads of Chinese tourists who converge on the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum each day are mostly interested in a single raised crypt amid the dozens of tombs ensconced under the shrine's soaring 17th-century dome. It is the one said to belong to Iparhan, a Uighur imperial consort, who, according to legend, was so sweetly fragrant that she caught the attention of a Chinese emperor 2,700 miles away in Beijing -- and was either invited to live with him or dragooned into the palace as a trophy of war.

"The love between her and the Qianlong emperor was so strong, after she died he sent 120 men to escort her body back here for burial," one guide explained, eliciting nods and knowing smiles from the crowd. "It was a journey that took three years."

But with the group out of earshot, a local resident offered up a starkly different version, describing Iparhan as a tragic figure, little more than a sex slave who was murdered by the emperor's mother after she repeatedly rejected Qianlong's advances.

"The story that most Chinese know is completely made up," said the man, an ethnic Uighur who asked that his name be withheld for fear of angering the authorities. "The truth is she isn't even buried here."

In the six decades since coming to power, China's Communist Party has devoted enormous resources to composing historical narratives that seek to legitimize its rule and obfuscate its failures. The disastrous famine that claimed millions of lives last century is said to have been caused by bad weather, not Mao's misguided policies. Chinese history books often accuse the United States of starting the Korean War, not the Communist troops from North Korea who, most historians agree, first invaded the South.

When it comes to China's ethnic minorities, the party-run history machine is especially single-minded in its effort to promote story lines that portray Uighurs, Mongolians, Tibetans and other groups as contented members of an extended family whose traditional homelands have long been part of the Chinese nation.

Alternate narratives are far less cheery. They include tales of subjugation and repression amid government-backed efforts to dilute ethnic identity through the migration of members of China's dominant group, the Han.

Chinese historians rarely veer from the officially sanctioned scripts; Uighur and Tibetan scholars who have insisted on writing about the disagreeable aspects of Communist rule have seen their books banned and their careers destroyed.

James A. Millward, a Georgetown University professor who studies China's ethnically diverse borderlands, said the drive to shape history, while not unique to China, was zealously practiced by each succeeding dynasty in an effort to malign an emperor's predecessors and glorify his own rule.

But the Communists have also sought to use history as a tool against separatist aspirations and to legitimize their efforts to govern potentially restive populations.

"The ability to control historical narratives and airbrush out problematic truths is a powerful tool," Professor Millward said, "but it also reveals the party's insecurity over certain aspects of the past it would rather the world forget."

In Xinjiang, as Uighur resentment over Chinese rule boils over into increasing bloodshed, this propagandistic approach to history has taken on greater urgency. Over the past year, at least 200 people have been killed here, some of them Han murdered by what the government calls terrorists, but many of them Uighurs shot by security forces under murky circumstances. …

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