A Han official pours tea for local Uyghur farmers in 2014.
Villagers gather to watch a goat fight in Aksu, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 2014.
Before writing Notes of Residency in Southern Xinjiang (南疆住村笔记), Zhao Jiangtao had never imagined he would live in a rural village among Uyghur residents.
For many, the southern part of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region remains a land of mystery. A majority of the area is covered by China's largest desert, the Taklimakan, which in Uyghur means “the Gobi under the mountain.”
People in this area, which is 95 percent Uyghur, have to cling to whatever land or resources that the desert has left available. These harsh natural conditions have lead to economic and even social issues. The region is underdeveloped with a high unemployment rate. This situation combined with a lack of quality education has led to a rise in religious extremism over the past few years, which in turn has given birth to terrorism.
Graduating from Tsinghua University in 2011, Zhao worked as a government employee in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. In 2014, in the wake of a slew of terror attacks both in and outside Xinjiang, the regional government decided to send 200,000 officials to rural areas to help reinforce local governments, win over local residents' hearts and uproot extremist ideology.
Zhao was among the first group of government employees sent to southern Xinjiang. During the year he spent in a village in Wushi county, Aksu prefecture, Zhao recorded his interactions with local Uyghurs. These writings later became the basis for Notes. His first book, it was released in January.
He recorded the village weddings and funerals, the Uyghur festivities during which people gathered and danced, and the basketball games he played with villagers. He recorded local people's customs and traditions as Muslims, telling stories of their joys and sorrows. Despite living in a region that outsiders might consider dangerous, he depicted his fellow Uyghur neighbors as polite, gentle and hospitable.
But most importantly, his book showed, from first-hand experience, how government policies are implemented at the grass-roots level in Xinjiang. Of the 200,000 officials that have been rotated in and out of rural Xinjiang over the past three years, Zhao is the only official so far who has recorded his work in Xinjiang in a systematic manner and presented it to the public for scrutiny.
The book, which is written in Chinese and comprises 45 essays, not only introduces southern Xinjiang and Uyghur culture to those outside the region, but also provides insights into some of the social woes that have been plaguing Uyghur society, thereby offering a unique perspective for the outside world to understand the Chinese government's policies.
The wedding dance
“March 15, 2014. Our cook, Riyagul, took a few days off to prepare for her second daughter's wedding. Last night she came to invite us to attend the event, which we will, as attending weddings is part of our job.”
Zhao described the wedding in one of his essays. After giving a cash gift to the bride, he and his colleagues were taken to a banquet where they enjoyed a five-course meal that started with snacks and candies and ended with lamb pilaf.