Designed as an interview that brings together the authors of five new monographs on Xinjiang, this article by Rian Thum begins with a rather bold observation: ‘Perhaps no area of China-related scholarship has taken longer to recover from the access limitations of the mid-twentieth century than the study of Xinjiang.’ After briefly presenting the evolution of limitations and constraints that applied to scholars focusing on Xinjiang since the 1980s, the author outlines the year 2016 as a turning point in the history of what he presents as ‘Xinjiang Studies’. Indeed, this year saw the publication of the five following English-language monographs: Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia-China Frontier by David Brophy; Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang by Tom Cliff; Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State byJustin Jacobs; Borderland Capitalism: Turkestan Produce, Qing Silver, and the Birth of an Eastern Market by Kwangmin Kim; Constructing, Creating and Contesting Cityscapes: A Socio-Anthropological Approach to Urban Transformation in Southern Xinjiang, People’s Republic of China by Madlen Kobi.
Rian Thum, a historian and the author in 2015 of The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, hasasked these five authors six different questions concerning the evolution of Xinjiang Studies. Their answers provide the readership with a critical overview of how this peculiar field has evolved over the past three decades. After stating that a consensus is emerging among their publications on the colonial relation of Xinjiang and the PRC – which he describes as a colonial system of the classic sort –, Thum first asks what the study of Xinjiang has to bring to research on empire and colonialism. The answers tend to present Xinjiang as a great case study through which to include China in global comparisons of empires’ fates. While Cliff posits that the region combines ‘key characteristics derived – but not necessarily direct copies – from past versions of colonialism’, Brophy insists on the necessity to acknowledge the ‘peculiarities to the Chinese tradition that shapes Beijing’s approach to this day’ and that ‘there has also been a succession of different colonial policies in Xinjiang from the Qing to the PRC’. Kim adds that new scholarship on Xinjiang, and especially on the Qing Empire in Xinjiang, provides ‘serious challenges to the argument of European exceptionalism’.
The five following questions address topics ranging from a potential ‘direction to the field of Xinjiang Studies’ to the ‘big unanswered questions of the field’. They have sparked a variety of answers deeply influenced by the research methodology of the five authors, as well as by the chronological focus of their respective research subjects. In doing so, this article provides a critical and multi-layered perspective on the evolution of Xinjiang studies. Critical, because all authors not only mention the impact of the visa-ban applied by the PRC on foreign scholars based on their publications, but also their own strategies to curtail this political measure without endangering the life of their interlocutors on the field. Multi-layered, because they speak from quite different positions, ranging from advanced-positioned historians working on Soviet archives like David Brophy to post-doctoral sociologists and anthropologists working in southern Xinjiang, like Madlen Kobi. This variety of perspectives deeply enriches the article, which mostly suffers from its shortness.
Finally, by reflecting on the accumulation of research production on Xinjiang and the historical construction of Xinjiang as a geographic entity and research field, at the same time, Thum and his interlocutors successfully address the touchy question of colonial place names. Their collective critical perspective brings forward the fact that Xinjiang is not only a colonial construction, but also the name of a field to which a growing number of scholars feel like they belong. In Kim’s words: ‘This Qing construction has taken on a real life of its own. The concept of Xinjiang and Xinjiang studies is relevant and useful, as long as one is mindful of its constructed nature and of other competing spatial constructions.’