Chapter Thirteen

The Fragrant Concubines

The 1982 Constitution of the Peoples Republic defines China as `a unitary multinational country created in common by its various nationalities'. This often surprises those who think of China as full to the brim with a population that is unambiguously Chinese.

Ninety percent of China's inhabitants would themselves, at heart, not take this `multinational' definition very seriously. The names `China' and `Chinese' are not used by them, and never have been. As a nationality and as a culture, they know themselves as `Han'. Officially, they have called their country by the names of the successive imperial dynasties. As the Emperor was supposed to be the Son of Heaven, there was, in official ideology, no terrestrial limit to his God-given sway. In court parlance the empire was immodestly referred to as `All Under Heaven' - a claim seldom matched by even the most ebullient of European imperialists.

In recognition that some parts of the known world were less obedient to the Emperor than others, they called the land occupied by the Han (the most obedient and civilised people), Zhong Guo - the Central Nation - and Zhong Guo has stuck as the basic Chinese name for China up to the present. The common English translation of Zhong Guo as `The Middle Kingdom' is unsatisfactory to me, suggesting a kind of harmonious modesty rather than the blunt presumption of centrality to all creation which the Chinese term really connotes. Officially, since the first republic in 1911, the adjectival part of the name has been Zhong Hua - `Central and Glorious' - thus, today, we have the `Central and Glorious People's Republic'. And for most of China's history, that presumption has been excusable: the Han were, indeed, central to the world as they knew it - the world's most enduring cultural and political empire.

When the present Constitution describes China as multi- national, it acknowledges the inheritance of that huge, contiguous empire, complete with almost all its gradual accretions of territory. But almost half the land area we see on today's map of China is the homeland of people who are not Han... not, in fact, `Chinese', in the sense most foreigners understand the word.

The seventy millions of those National Minorities, as they are officially known, are a mere seven percent of China's total billion, and they are themselves subdivided into over fifty recognised cultural nations. Some of these number a scarce handful of remnant tribesmen, living primitively on the mountainous fringes of Han settlement: aboriginal survivors of centuries of Han expansion. Others, though numerous, are racially very close to the Han.

But three in particular of these minority nationalities, the Turkic Uighurs, the Tibetans, and the Mongolians, remain distinct nations of several millions each, with radically different languages, great independent cultures and histories of their own, and who still rankle that they have lost the millennial struggle to retain independence from their overwhelming neighbours, the Han.

China's Constitution defines the relationship this way:

"The people of China, comprising many nationalities, have jointly created a splendid culture and a glorious revolutionary tradition... Socialist relations of equality, unity, and mutual assistance have been established among these nationalities and will continue to be strengthened. In accordance with the characteristics and needs of the different minority nationalities, the state will tirelessly and constantly help the various minority nationality areas to accelerate their economic and cultural development... Discrimination or oppression .. are prohibited; big- nationality chauvinism and local-nationality chauvinism must be opposed... Citizens of the Peoples Republic are duty- bound to safeguard the unity of the country and the unity of all its nationalities."

On the penal side of this coin, China's Criminal Code lists three crimes more serious than murder in the list of capital offences: treason, counter-revolution, and `splittism'. The first exposes the state to external enemies, the second threatens the Party within the state, and the third raises a spectre that Han historians and politicians through the centuries have feared more than flood or famine: disintegration of the Empire.

Over more than two thousand years, successive imperial dynasties have seldom been free of rebellion and insurrection, somewhere or other in their territory. Reign periods are judged, traditionally, and past Emperors venerated, according to their success in avoiding or putting down such rebellions, and especially according to their success in expanding the frontiers of territory under Imperial control. More rigorous scrutiny reveals a torrid internal political history, full of complex regional rivalries and internal clashes of interest within the Empire, comparable with the history of Europe over a similar period. But the overriding ideology of the Empire obliged Chinese historians throughout the ages to record `unity of all under heaven' (and under the Emperor) as the proper state of the world and the unwavering aim of all good men. Theoretically, China could just as easily have evolved into the multiplicity of competing nation-states that developed in a roughly equivalent economic area: Europe.

The persistence of the Chinese imperial ideology, in the face of all challenges, is a subject of fascination to foreign scholars. This ideology, broadly termed Confucianism, has been formative to the present-day politics of more than a third of the world, from Japan to the Pamirs, Siberia to Singapore. Curiously enough, several of the most vigorous Chinese dynasties were actually set up and ruled by non-Han invaders, `barbarians' by Han reckoning, but whose rude militarist beginnings were soon muffled in the beguiling silken folds of Han bureaucracy, and whose sinicised grand-children blushed to remember their rough antecedents.

The frontier colonies have always figured largely in Chinese literature. They were often a place of banishment for disgraced courtiers or out-of-favour civil servants, spawning a vast genre of `Longing for Home' nostalgic poems and songs. The genre includes several popular tales concerning high-born Han ladies given in political marriages to non-Han border princes, as pawns in the unceasing task of `taming the Barbarians'. The tales vary. Beijing Opera treatments generally favour sagas of heroic misery along `Close-your-eyes-and-think-of-the-Empire' lines. One, alone, of the popular tales puts a contrary view, making it subversive to Imperial ideology, then and now : the story of Xiang Fei - the Fragrant Concubine.

Around the year 1760, the Emperor Qian Long was close to the height of his powers. Like Henry VIII of England, he comes down through history as a man of prodigious talent: a statesman, a warrior, a scholar and a patron. As a Manchu, though, he seems also to have remembered his non-Han origins, and with age he became increasingly interested in Lama Buddhism, as practised by Tibetans and Mongolians, to the presumed distaste of orthodox Han courtiers.

Qian Long's military campaigns had expanded the Empire's borders further than any previous regime, but he was not free of problems in the border territories. The Uighurs, Muslim Turks in the far west, were particularly hard to control, on account of the long marches across ferocious deserts.. the Gobi or the Taklimakhan.. required to reach their oasis and mountain bases. The Muslims' religious fervour also reinforced their desire for self-rule, and contributed to making them formidable foes.

A major rebellion lasting several years was led by one Ali the Lion.. whose family, the Aba Khoja clan, had both temporal and religious authority in the region through having first introduced the new Sufi sect of Islam to Eastern Turkestan some years earlier.

At great cost, and with great ruthlessness, the rebellion was put down by Imperial troops. All the rebel leaders died.. some sources say in a massacre, others that Ali the Lion took his own life after the defeat.

The story, however, follows Ali's wife. Her name was Ipar, meaning `musk', and she was famous both for her beauty and for a peculiarly attractive natural skin fragrance, from which she got her name.

Chinese chroniclers say the Emperor was struck by her haughtiness while reviewing a parade of hostages brought back to Beijing. He had her whisked off to the palace and given both rank and title: Xiang Fei, the Fragrant Concubine.

The Fragrant Concubine, however, showed none of the expected gratitude. She resisted with tears, fury, and ultimately with a drawn dagger, all attempts by the Emperor and his attendant ladies to take her to the Imperial bed. After twenty-five years on the throne as Son of Heaven, Qian Long could not take no for an answer.

As the story goes, the Emperor `next day was very sad, because the Fragrant Concubine was not obedient'. Guessing that she pined for her homeland, he ordered housing and food to be prepared in her local style, and procured a maid from the region to look after her. As nothing availed, be had a huge tower constructed by the palace garden wall, so that Ipar could look across Beijing to the nearby Muslim quarter, with its mosques and minarets.

Like many Palace tales, the death of the Fragrant Concubine has several versions: history has always bent to serve the present in China. The commonest story is that the Dowager Empress, Qian Long's mother, had opposed this infatuation with an exotic foreigner from the beginning. She became increasingly concerned that her son was in some kind of danger from this intransigent, not to say impertinent wench. She took advantage of the Emperor's ceremonial fasting in the Hall of Abstinence to offer Ipar the choice of compliance or suicide. Ipar chose to strangle herself with a silk scarf, still weeping for her dead husband, Ali the Lion.

The story has always been enjoyed by the people, but has been a problem for propagandists. Was Ipar a loyal widow or a disloyal subject? Can a barbarian be morally superior to an Emperor? How could such barbarians reject the obvious benefits of accepting the Emperor's patronage, or the `unity of all the nationalities'?

An attempt at resolving this embarrassment has now been made, with an elaborate exhibition mounted in Beijing in 1982 designed to suggest that the Fragrant Concubine never existed. An antithesis of her history has been published in its stead, following `lengthy research by the Minorities Historical Research Institute in many parts of our country'. According to this new material, a hitherto unknown Uighur concubine named Glorious, whose family `had assisted in quelling a rebellion in Xinjiang', lived happily with the Emperor Qian Long and his mother for 28 years, being buried with honour at the Imperial Tombs near Beijing at the ripe old age of fifty-five.

It's highly unlikely that the Uighurs will give up Ipar's story so easily. Whilst this new exhibition was being prepared, I visited the site at Kashgar, Turkestan, where the Fragrant Concubine has a tomb among the five generations in her family vault.

Preserved there, also, is the ceremonial litter in which her remains were carried back to her home from Beijing, on the orders of the Qian Long. Blue-tiled brick capped by a huge dome, the open mausoleum, built in 1763, sits now among new collective farm fields in the Kashgar oasis, on the old Silk Road, half way between Beijing and the Mediterranean. It is about thirty metres square, contains seventy-two tombs, and is the only known memorial to disobedience to Beijing. Koranic inscriptions in mosaic tiles curl across the individual tombs, and the crude Maoist slogans of the Cultural Revolution have been painted off the walls again.

In a 1978 renovation, one grave at the site was razed to the ground: that of Yakub Beg, a nineteenth century local leader who played the `Great Game' well enough to hold independent sway over the region for some years, playing Russian and British Empires against each other as best he could before a punitive expedition from Beijing undid him. He is remembered by Uighurs as, for all his faults, their last Uighur ruler.

I asked a young Chinese accompanying us why his grave had been obliterated.

`Because he was backed by foreign forces', replied the youth, a man brought to the region by his parents when the Chinese armies marched in the early fifties. The same young man told me that Uighur history is not taught in any primary or secondary schools in Turkestan.

`Anyway, it's just a part of Chinese history', he said.

Meriem was born in the year of the Communist victory, but it was some time before she would realise what this meant. Both her father and her mother were of merchant families, and one grandfather had been an Aksakal - the town headman - in one of the western cities of Eastern Turkestan. This was during the fifty years of Russian dominance in the region, when some Russian customs found favour among the local well-to-do. Some of Meriem's earliest memories are of the four-wheeled sprung carriage in which her family would go visiting, or promenade the dusty streets on hot evenings, comfortably above the bouncing two- wheeled donkey-carts around them.

Meriem's father was a trader in wool and hides - the major exportable products of the region, which were increasingly sought after by both Russian government trading agents and the burgeoning manufacturing industries of China's big coastal cities. Trade meant travel - hard travel. The way to the Chinese inland was the old Silk Road, now travelled by decrepit motor bus or lorry, through scorching heat, potholes, and windstorms which could whip the pebbled surface of the Gobi into a murderous hail of stones. Those conditions lasted most of the 2,000 kilometres to the first Chinese rail-head, at Lanzhou.

Trading expeditions took a long time. So, following the local custom of prosperous Muslim's, Meriem's father would take a wife from among the local Uighur community, whenever he expected to stay long in any particular Chinese city. Then, China had no marriage law, and under Muslim custom such a marriage of convenience could be ended simply by the husband (but not the wife) announcing "I divorce you", three times.

Father had the reputation of being a good-hearted, generous and hospitable man, but Meriem still does not know how many half- brothers and half-sisters she may have, scattered in her father's tracks. Her elder brother, Ahmed, claims Father had twenty-four wives during his trading career. Mother stayed at home in Urumchi, the provincial capital - her four children memorials to the six pregnancies that followed Father's periods at home. In the harsh local conditions, infant death was an expected part of life.

The `Liberation' of Xinjiang was a curious affair, owing to the region's long isolation, and to the ambiguity of Soviet intentions there. Though the Soviet Union had not kept any significant military forces in Xinjiang since the thirties (when Soviet troops and aircraft several times saved local Chinese warlords from Muslim rebel armies), Xinjiang had been teeming with Soviet agents since the 1920's. Objectives had been both political and economic: to prevent the area being used as a base for anti-Soviet subversion, either by White Russian remnants or by Turkic nationalist groups against Soviet Central Asia; and to ensure access to the rural produce and vast mineral wealth that Soviet geologists knew lay beneath its soil.

Access to the region is easier from Soviet territories than from China. The Soviet Central Asian Railway had already surveyed an extension line along the old Northern Silk Road through Ili to Urumchi, and held an agreement with Beijing to extend it as far as Hami - almost to the borders of China proper. Local leaders had been bought, threatened or eliminated, and a cadre of promising young Uighurs and Kazakhs had been taken to Moscow for training.

It's clear that Josef Stalin's plan for the region was the establishment of an `independent' buffer state under Soviet influence, along the lines of the Mongolian Peoples' Republic. This plan would have been widely welcomed by the local people.. not for love of Soviet Russia, but because it would seem to offer them the sovereignty they so dearly desired, and would have eased their perpetual fear of being swamped by the Han.

In January 1945, as the Chinese Kuomintang government was beginning its final attempt to wipe out the Communists, an East Turkestan Peoples Republic was in fact set up in Yili, under some Soviet protection. The `government' was a coalition of prominent Uighurs, Kazakhs and Mongols. It's Minister of Education was a young Moscow-educated Uighur, a member of the Soviet Communist Party with a Russian wife - Saifuddin. He had led anti-Chinese uprisings the previous year in which several thousand Han had been killed in Xinjiang.

Stalin's historic mistake was his lack of faith in the prospects of Mao Zedong's Chinese Communists, and he re-opened negotiations with the Kuomintang instead. The East Turkestan Peoples Republic was dissolved into a bizarre and ill-fated coalition with a dwindling rump of Kuomintang government and troops.

In 1948 Burhan Shahidi, a Tartar (one of the smaller Turkic nationalities) educated in Germany, was appointed Governor of the province by the Kuomintang. A sophisticated man with considerable experience of the Soviet Union and politics, Burhan read the political winds better than either Stalin or the Nanking government. In September 1949, with the Kuomintang in rout all over China, he announced that his entire government had switched its allegiance to the Chinese Communists. Thus was Xinjiang `peacefully liberated', though intransigent Nationalist forces held out in the mountains for a number of months. Burhan and Saifuddin were invited to the new National Consultative Congress in Beijing.

The only flies in this ointment were the non-communist members of the old East Turkestan Peoples Republic government- influential and respected men among the local people, who continued to press loudly for a separate republic. They were invited to a conference with Premier Zhou Enlai to discuss these matters. A special plane was sent to collect them. It crashed mysteriously, not long after take-off, and the only survivors of that government were Burhan and Saifuddin, who had joined the Chinese Communist Party.

For Meriem's family, the first impact was simply the knowledge that the last chance their people would ever have for independence was now finished. They had known the Han for centuries, and they knew that the Han had never voluntarily relinquished a centimetre of their empire. In truth, for some centuries now Turkestan had only been able to hold its independence during periods when internal strife in the Chinese inland kept the Han forces at home. Some Han rulers had been ruthless and corrupt, others had succeeded in winning a measure of co-operation from the Turkic peoples through respect and the mutual advantages of trade. The question now was how the Han intended to rule them this time.

For the first few years under Chinese Communism, socialist policies were introduced slowly. In Xinjiang, the first requirement was to purge or `re-educate' the army units and administration handed over to the Communists by Burhan. There were further military campaigns against Kuomintang remnants, and against local rebellions, principally by the nomadic Kazakhs and others. And there was the task of recruiting and training an entirely new group of young local people as communist cadres to give the `liberation' some local appearance. One such cadre, a Uighur, told me how he had been a small farmer near Urumchi when he answered a village recruiting poster, and was sent, after six weeks training, to take part in the `liberation' of the very conservative Kashgar region in southern Xinjiang.

The introduction of socialism was orthodox. First targets were the rural landlords, and they were dealt with as in the rest of China. There were problems when Han cadres tried to apply the same principles to the tribal herdsmen, where the group ownership of cattle was a more complex matter, and kinship loyalty to the clan leaders was very strong. Tens of thousands of Kazakhs and Kirghiz took their cattle, tents, and gold savings and departed - across the Pamirs into Soviet Kazakhstan, or even across the treacherous Karakorum Pass into Afghanistan, rather than lose their traditional way of life.

There were many Kazakhs near Ili, where part of Meriem's family were living. Some made extra money by caring for sheep and cattle owned by local townspeople - a system which, before refrigeration, was the best way a town family's fresh milk and meat supply could be assured. Meriem's family's first material loss came when their cows were `collectivised' into the Kazakh herd. This enrichment of the Kazakh herd, at the expense of the town dwellers, may have been part of the bait to encourage them to accept collectivisation. In any case, there was no question of any compensation, and the cattle were never seen again.

Next official targets were the Capitalist Exploiters. A tiny handful of local entrepreneurs had started factories - a soda-water plant, a match factory, a handful of small foundries and tanneries - and were the only employers of industrial labour to be found, so they became the Capitalist Exploiters. Meriem's father, as a trader, did not count as a Capitalist Exploiter, because he did not employ labourers. His turn would come later.

It was from about 1954 onwards that the Party's heat began to concentrate on the traders. This was partly because the initial grand designs for a socialist economy had not been very successful, and the remaining free traders were doing very well by making up, outside the system, the deficiencies of the official commercial networks. It was also a period in which up- and-coming young party officials were keen to make their names by catching more than their allotted quota of `speculators' - a term which by then was coming to mean anybody who made their living by buying and selling. Meriem's family had owned a number of houses and shops in various towns of the region. These were declared `surplus' to their needs, and `redistributed' to tenants chosen by the officials, at nominal rentals.

Meriem was largely unaware of the tension in her family caused by these gradual moves against them, and the uncertainty as to what the future might hold. Her clearest memory of politics was the Destroy the Birds campaign. Mass-mobilisation increasingly became the theme of Chairman Mao's prescriptions. This time, he had decreed that the Four Pests - flies, mosquitoes, rats, and sparrows - should be made extinct in China within four years.

Personal quotas and household competitions were introduced to enforce the campaign against the first three of the pests. Meriem recalls her infant classmates proudly laying out their daily quota of captured flies and maggots, with their fingers, on the school desks - hygiene was not the important part of that campaign. Another participant, an adult, confessed later to deliberately breeding a swarm of maggots in a piece of rotten meat in a shoe-box under her bed, in order to escape punishment for failing to meet her quota.

Individual techniques were not good enough, however, to deal with the sparrows - winged villains accused of eating millions of tonnes of the Peoples Grain. On an appointed day, every person in every town and village was instructed to take to the streets and lanes, with pots, pans, or anything that could make a loud noise when banged. The purpose was to frighten the birds to death - or at least to keep them from perching until they were so exhausted they fell to the ground and could be despatched with a boot or a kitchen implement.

The children loved the noise, and the skies over every town and village swarmed with panic-stricken birds of all varieties. It was, indeed, a holocaust in feathers. But the birds' revenge came even before the next harvest. No-one had dared point out to Chairman Mao that sparrows ate insects as well as grain - and what's more the broad masses, in their frenzy of zeal, had killed not just grain-eaters, but every fowl that flew. Insect plagues were so catastrophic, that year, that Mao's writ was altered. Henceforward, the Fourth Pest was not to be sparrows, but bed- bugs!

Meriem's father decided it was unwise to spend much time at home, where he and his family were well-known and likely targets for the next campaign. He spent more and more of his time away, in the relative anonymity of Shanghai, Tianjin, Harbin, or Lanzhou. These cities still had big non-Han populations: White Russians, Jewish refugees, and descendants of the once-thriving foreign communities in the Treaty Ports. Turkics like the Uighurs, with their almost Mediterranean features, their unintelligible languages, and their western-style dress, could usually pass for foreigners among the common Han. Among themselves, they could live relatively unmolested, and on a looser ideological rein than the Han.

It was to Tianjin that Meriem's father took her to live, for a time, when she was just six. Tianjin is a flat, smutty commercial city on the coastal estuary nearest to Beijing, which had grown up around the Concession territories exacted by European powers in the wake of various disgraceful nineteenth century skirmishes with the isolationist Chinese empire. Mills, railways, warehouses and ports grew up, and with them a class of local Chinese capitalists as well. The commercial heart of the city was built in contemporary European style, banks and trading houses erecting huge neo-classical pillared stone facades as testimony to their power and wealth. Most of these buildings still stand, though decidedly down at heel.

The proud names of those banished foreign companies can still be picked out, in some cases, as slightly cleaner patches where the former bronze lettering was chiselled off the stone, or showing through the peeling slogans on a factory wall. Small white-painted wooden plaques now announce such premises as The Peoples Bank, the Peoples Insurance Company, or The Peoples No.3 Aquatic Products Export-Import Corporation.

The thousands of foreign residents lived in whole suburbs of European-style houses. As in Shanghai and the other Treaty Ports, when a foreign family was moved out, several Chinese families would move in to the same space, unless the residence proved desirable to someone with status in the new regime. Meriem's father secured them a room and a half in a large house in the former German concession, sharing the building with a motley collection of Chinese and other non-Chinese families. Even today, one in fifty of Tianjin's population is classified as non-Han. Then, the proportion was much higher, but not enough to prevent Meriem realising for the first time what it is to be a foreigner.

The Korean War had raised the pitch of anti-foreign feeling among the eastern Chinese. Nursery rhymes then taught to Chinese children told of Eisenhower running home crying for his mummy, after getting his tail kicked by the brave Korean people. Uncle Sam caricatures were regularly paraded in the streets and lambasted in children's pantomimes. It was no fun, therefore, for Meriem and her step-mother to be followed in the streets by hordes of urchins chanting `big-nose foreigner, big-nose foreigner!'

It had its compensations, however. China was still far from secure in its possession of Xinjiang, Tibet, and some of the south-western regions inhabited by Thais, Lao and other non-Hans. The policy of giving special treatment to `minority' persons was being followed even in relatively cosmopolitan places like Tianjin.

A time of appalling food shortages, known as the Three Bad Years, followed Mao's Great Leap Forward. As a ten year-old, Meriem watched a woman die of starvation in the streets, surrounded by a crowd whose own hunger left them little energy even for pity. Her own people, in acknowledgement of their minority status, had access to slightly better rations than the masses around them, but every item of food had to be queued for.

Not all the beggars were peasants or industrial workers. One eccentric woman who used to wander the neighbourhood in rags was known as Mrs Admiral. Her husband had owned a fleet of coastal steamships. He had opposed the communists during the civil war, so all his property was taken from him and he died soon afterwards in prison. The woman went mad.

From the age of eight, Meriem rose at four in the morning to queue for food at the government stores. Even at that hour, the queue could be long, the temperatures in winter down to twenty degrees below zero. Meriem learned early to apply politics to her own advantage, baring her non-Han features to those at the head of the queue as she quoted Chairman Mao's words on `nurturing the minorities'. Often she could jump the queue this way.

Scavenging was also part of life. There was a canal dock not far away, where boats bringing scarce vegetables from the countryside were unloaded. Occasionally, some scraps dropped in the water, and could be fished out inconspicuously down-stream. Fuel was equally scarce, but essential for winter survival. Meriem teamed up with some neighbouring Uighur children to scavenge a local coal depot for stray chips of wood. They considered that since it was a coal depot, wood would not be missed.

They were wrong, and the three young Turkic children found themselves in the Public Security bureau facing what could have been a very serious situation in those acutely rationed times. They took cover in their non-Han status, feigning less understanding of the Chinese language than they really had. As Chinese policemen do, the officer in charge of them delivered a long and stern lecture on the seriousness of their crime. The children's exaggerated looks of bewilderment gradually took the wind out of his sails, however, and his lecture came to a halt.

`Because Chairman Mao and our Party care very deeply for our small minority friends, we will not punish you this time as severely as you deserve', he said.

`Now, we all know that minority peoples are very good at singing and dancing. If you now sing us a beautiful song to show your good attitude, we will release you'.

The gang's ringleader was a boy of eleven, and he readily agreed. He began to sing a catchy melody from the repertoire of popular Uighur songs. The other children began to laugh. What the fondly smiling policeman would never know was that the boy was extemporising the song's lyrics, substituting a string of Turkic obscenities about the Han people at large, and the policeman in particular.

Culturally, the Uighurs in Tianjin held themselves aloof from the Han. It happened that the house shared by Meriem's family was quite close to the training school of a local opera troupe. Chinese opera singing style is hardly bel canto. Developed from open-air entertainments, and always performed before an audience of openly chattering commentators, its emphasis is on penetrating power rather than sweetness of tone, for male and female voices alike. In the quest for this power, the school-age acolytes of the craft were herded onto the roof of their dormitory at dawn every morning, there to bellow at the top of their lungs to strengthen their vocal chords. It was an unbearable cacophony to the Uighurs, whose own music is melodic and sentimental in character.

Students at this school were recruited from the age of eight. As the troupes were already all state-run, such recruitment would ensure life-time employment, whether the recruit finished up as a star performer or as carpenter in the troupe. When recruiters from the opera troupe visited Meriem's school, they were captivated by the strong-willed little girl with the fair skin, curly hair, large eyes and straight nose, and promised her a stage career if she would join. What nine year-old could resist such an offer. Meriem went home full of excitement to tell her parents.

The reaction was furious. `All of us sing dance, in our own homes, better than any Han', exploded her father, `but I will never allow my daughter to stand up on their stage, painted like a ghost and shrieking like a devil.' Meriem pleaded in vain. Recruitment would have given her tremendous prestige among her Han school-fellows, as the local opera troupes attracted the same kind of possessive hero-worship as football teams do in other cultures.

Father conceived the dream of emigrating. At the time, the remnants of the foreign resident community, especially the many White Russians, were leaving in large numbers. He applied for passports, knowing that this act alone would bring unwelcome attentions from the Public Security Bureau. It did.

There were many interviews with the police. Were they ungrateful to the Peoples Government for what it had done for them? Were they secretly working for a foreign power? Were they seeking a life of ease and sloth, instead helping to build New China? Were they fooled by Capitalist propaganda, which falsely claimed that conditions elsewhere were better than in China? When the parents maintained their wish to leave, the police began on the children.

Meriem was warned that she might be interrogated by the police, and told to say that she knew nothing about anything. One day she was taken from her school and interviewed privately by uniformed police. When she had nothing to say about her parents, the security men attempted to sway her personally. Did she really want to leave all her little friends here? If she stayed, the Peoples Government would look after her, educate her, and give her a privileged job when she finished school, as a fine example of the assimilation of non-Han peoples. If she would only say that she did not want to go, the police would make sure that her parents could not take her away. How about it?

Meriem remained loyal to her parents. None of them were granted passports, in the end.

Things did not improve for the family, however. The tempo of anti-foreign feeling accelerated in China, with confrontations with America over Taiwan, the hostile stalemate in Korea, and even a growing hostility towards the Soviet Union. Hope dwindled for emigration, and it was becoming politically dangerous to show any interest in leaving China. Meriem's family gave away their isolated existence in Tianjin, and returned to their homeland, in Yili.

There, the regime finally caught up with her father. He had been careful in his dealings since the revolution, so did not, after all, suffer too greatly. All his property was confiscated, though they called it `redistribution' and allowed keep only a part of one of the family houses, for his own family to live in. There were many visits from officials responsible for his case. Usually there would be two officials.. a Chinese, and a Uighur cadre who would go through and through the well-rehearsed litany of social crimes which inevitably attached themselves to any member of the capitalist class.

One day father finally `volunteered' for fulltime re- education, and was taken away to a re-education camp outside Urumchi. This was before the Cultural Revolution.. persuasion, not compulsion, was the policy. There was even religious tolerance, up to a point, within the camp.

On the Muslim religious festival of Korban Bayram, those inmates who still adhered to their religion were permitted to organise a celebratory feast. After a heavy meal of roast mutton (paid for, of course, by the inmates) he went into a side room to offer a special prayer of thanks for the festival. When he hadn't returned after half an hour or so, one of the others went to fetch him, and found him dead... of a sudden heart attack that had caught him in the very act of religious prostration. Ever after he was spoken of with some respect by the faithful, who considered it a sign of great piety that he had died in the act of prayer.

But for his family it was a disaster. Meriem's mother had never worked, and her older brother was still too young to do much. None the less, he was the only breadwinner the family had, and he made them a living as best he could: breaking stones, contract coal-mining, whatever casual labour could be found in those days of economic confusion.

Eventually, Meriem and her mother were sent away to `learn from the peasants' at a commune, a day's journey from Yili. Mother was too strong-willed to adapt to the collective system, though she did her best to follow the strange Chinese jargon that filled their compulsory daily political education classes. As everywhere, the cadres were a mixture of Han and local people. Frequently the pattern was that the Chairman of the commune was a local man, while the Party Secretary was a Han.. almost always a retired PLA officer of middle rank.

At the end of the year, each family's accumulated work- points were calculated, and the value of each work-point determined as a proportion of the whole commune's distributable income. From this was subtracted the food and other debts they had built up with the commune dining hall and store. Meriem's mother had had enough to eat all her life, and refused to adapt her diet to the meagre portions expected in the communal dining halls. After three years of `education' and unaccustomed agricultural labour, Meriem and her mother were hopelessly in debt to the commune, whose leaders were only too glad to send them back to the city. As recruits to the labouring class, they had been pronounced failures.

The Cultural Revolution, for them, took a while to sink in. The first signs were bands of Red Guards, almost all Han youths from the inland, marching around the city with slogans attacking various of the local political leaders as renegades and reactionaries. There were scuffles, people disappeared, but the locals tried to keep out of it as long as they could, leaving it all to the Han who seemed to be fighting among themselves.

It couldn't stay that way, however, and rival groups of Red Guards soon began recruiting young Uighurs into their groups.. starting with the most ambitious. As the movement developed into a more formal pattern of `criticism' meetings, Meriem and her mother were obliged to publicly repudiate and revile their family background as members of the exploiting classes. Meriem's Chinese was good enough for her to handle the situation, but it also meant that she could be expected to master more of the self- critical jargon she had to regurgitate, day after day.

Mother was beyond that. She understood well enough the realities of what was happening... that some people were having their revenge on other people who used to be better off than they were... but the ideological niceties and universe of Marxist logic never had any meaning for her. She had courage, however, and with coaching from Meriem she was able to learn, parrot fashion, thirteen syllables which served as an ideological life- preserver.

`Da dao Mei Di, da dao Su Xiu, Mao Juxi Wan Sui!', she would yell, whenever she thought she was being asked for an explanation of her political views. To this day, she is not sure what the words meant, but she knows that they worked most of the time. She was actually saying `Down with U.S. Imperialism, down with Soviet Revisionism, Long live Chairman Mao'.

There were deprivations, there were fears. Elder brother, who had stayed behind in Yili, got into a fight with some Han, was badly beaten and went to prison for two years. In those times, he was lucky not to be killed. Sections of the Cultural Revolution fanatics identified Maoist correctness with everything Chinese, and considered all non-Han culture to be inherently counter-revolutionary. Where those beliefs prevailed, there were drawn-out pitched battles that claimed the lives of thousands, especially in Southern Xinjiang where the Islamic faith was strongest and most conservative.

Around Yili, where the Russians had had a big presence for almost a hundred years, the victims of the Cultural Revolution were more likely to be those whose family backgrounds suggested too-friendly relations with Soviet Revisionism. Other than losing all of their family property without compensation, Meriem's little family were able to ride it out.

Later, the army was brought in to restore order, and gradually the schools re-opened. Meriem discovered she was brighter than most, and was able to compete with the children of the Han immigrants.. mostly demobilised PLA men and women. Examinations for universities and teaches colleges were conducted only in Chinese.. so the only Uighurs who had a chance were the children of Uighurs who had joined the Chinese administration and got their children into the Chinese secondary school stream. The Han expatriates invariably nurtured dreams of their children being able to return to their inland home provinces, and insisted on having a full Chinese-language education system. So parallel systems of education existed, and still do today.

There is no more crucial moment for anyone in China today than their school graduation, upon which they will be assigned to the job they will most likely hold for the rest of their life. Meriem's available options were few, but she was delighted when she passed top of the class in an entry exam for the Nurses Training college. It would mean a move to Urumchi, the capital of the region, but there were few jobs in the region that offered more prospects for a respectable and mentally-stimulating career.

She had been there, one of only a handful of non-Han girls in the intake, for two weeks, when she was called to the personnel office. The personnel officer, as in most units, was a woman, a Han, and the wife of a relatively senior Party official of the area. Meriem was told that the Party had decided to change her work assignment. She would be going to an iron foundry paper mill, immediately.

Meriem was devastated, sure that some terrible political crime had been uncovered in her family. Later, she discovered the explanation was much simpler. A Han girl, daughter of a military officer, wanted to be a nurse, and Meriem had been removed to make room for her.

Foreign visitors to Xinjiang seldom stay in Urumchi, the provincial capital, longer than they have to. It's an ugly, grimy place, without charm, and with scarcely anything to distinguish it from a thousand other provincial towns in the Peoples Republic. Even the indigenous people are in an obvious minority there. Urumchi has been a centre of Han administration and commerce for centuries, being at a strategic junction of the old Silk Road.

It was also an ethnic junction, close to where the oasis farming communities of the Uighurs met the open-range grazing territory of the Kazakhs, another Turkic people whose nomadic lifestyle closely resembles that of the Mongols. Urumchi's very name is Mongol, meaning `good pasture'.. though the reason for this name is now far from evident.

Today, Urumchi is beset with all the problems of any expanding industrial town in China, and with few resources to cope with them. Many of the Han who have been transferred there would prefer to be back in their inland home-towns, and the Turkic peoples, substantially outnumbered by the colonists, feel an uncertain identification with the place. Urumchi is a widely un-loved city.

The real Uighur towns are further south. A sealed road leads out through miles of desolate industrial suburbs, then climbs into the surrounding hills - bare, stony, and deeply eroded - which, from the air, give the Urumchi region the appearance of a gigantically wrinkled pelt.

The Turfan Basin is the second lowest place in the world - 154 metres below sea-level - and one of the driest, with almost no rainfall at all. It's also the heart of Uighur cultural history.

The road follows the old Silk Route across an ancient pass in the Tien Shan range, past ruins of imperial watchtowers, then suddenly strikes off across a stretch of unrelieved Gobi desert. As the mountains recede, the sensation is of a voyage across a solid, flat sea. The continental Roaring Forties winds, that created this desert, have left a surface of small, round stones sitting on a hard-baked, lifeless crust of earth. When the mountains finally disappear in haze, its like losing sight of the land, and you instinctively crane forward for a glimpse of a landfall ahead, like voyaging land-lubbers.

The ambient threat of that burning vacancy diminishes, however, when your bus passes local traffic, that restores a human scale to the landscape. Two men share a bicycle, one peddling, one holding up an umbrella - or a family of four, on a flat donkey-cart, trot confidently into what looks like infinity.

It's not infinite, though, and after a few hours Turfan begins to announce itself in a peculiar way. Doughnut-shaped mounds of earth and stones appear, scattered across the surface of the desert like small volcanoes. They fall into lines, marching, ultimately, towards a line of fuzz on the horizon. Like giant molehills, they are the surface signs of the `kerez' - a system of underground tunnels dug by the Uighurs over more than a thousand years, and stretching for miles - a wonder of construction that taps the underground water-table of the Gobi Desert, fed from the Tien Shan snow-melt, and leads it to the oasis, while avoiding the desert's fierce powers of evaporation.

The fuzz on the horizon grows into tamarisks, then poplars, and suddenly you are driving down an avenue lined with tall green trees, beside a strong-running channel of clear water. Your car slows down to pass the shabby, disused reviewing-stand of a Peoples Square, and you realise that you are entering Turfan.

In another minute, you feel you have left China, and made a landfall in Central Asia, as the Turkic character of the market- place laps against your bus windows. Kebabs are being barbecued in the street, the towers of private mosques dot the earth-walled skyline. Aquiline old men in beards and skull-caps, women with gold and ruby earrings peeping out from their headscarves - a spectrum of complexions from sunburnt oriental to blond and blue- eyed.

Chinese history first records the early Turks, over three thousand years ago, as red-haired, green-eyed inhabitants of what is now Inner Mongolia. Recent discoveries of blond, mummified corpses from the period support the ethnic distinction from the Asiatic racial type, though millennia of neighbourhood have ensured a predominance, now, of the dark-haired, dark-eyed genes.

If you are foreign, a third culture strikes you as you turn into the gates of what looks like a southern Soviet dacha, clothed in cool vines. It is the Municipal Guest House.. once, long ago, a Russian Consulate.

Most of the service staff are Uighurs. But most of the administrators are Han. When I arrived on one occasion with my wife, Dilber, we were greeted by a guide who was neither.

Munever was in her early twenties. Both her parents were Uighurs, who had been working for the government all their adult lives as Uighur-Han interpreters and teachers. Realising the limited future for anyone given only a Uighur-language education, they managed to enrol their daughter, Munever, in the Chinese- language stream of the local school.

By the time we met her, Munever's assimilation into the Han way of thinking was complete. She dressed in Han style, wearing the uniform baggy blue trousers, shapeless white blouse and unadorned pigtails of a Chinese girl. She welcomed us in Mandarin, which she spoke with an inland accent, not the strong north-western twang that distinguishes her compatriots. She had of course been briefed on our background: that we both spoke Mandarin, and that Dilber, although she had lived almost all her life overseas, was of Uighur origin.

As the baggage was being taken to our room, Munever took Dilber aside and whispered to her: `Speak Chinese. If you speak Chinese, the people will never find out that you are a Uighur.'

Dilber is rightly proud of her ancestry, but it was clear that Munever was not. It was also evident that she was regarded with a mixture of scorn and envy by the other Uighur girls working in the guest-house. Munever had become one of the Han.

My own response to Munever varied between anger and pity. In Xinjiang, Uighurs do not normally get the opportunity to learn a foreign language. Their only language option in school is to learn Han. In the parallel Chinese-language stream of the schools, the Han pupils have the choice of studying either Uighur, or English. All who can, opt for the English, as it might offer a chance of escape from their colonial exile to a more exciting inland job. For a young Han, to study Uighur is almost certainly to condemn oneself to a life-time in Xinjiang.

This was the atmosphere in which Munever completed her secondary schooling, surrounded by the sons and daughters of the Han cadres of Turfan. On graduation, she gained a place in the newly-opened Tourism Trade School.. one of many opening at that time, as China sought to develop its neglected tourism gold-mine. What she learned there, over two years, I do not know. Her English (the principle language of foreign tourism in China) was negligible, and, worse, she seemed totally ignorant of her own nation's history.

Turfan is the site of several of the most interesting ancient sites of the Silk Road. It was also the centre of Uighur culture and political independence for five hundred years.

It is the current Chinese custom to call these formerly independent nations `minority peoples' even when referring to the long centuries of their independence, as if it had never existed. The 3,000 year old mummy found in the Central Asian desert was described as `an ancient minority person' , though Chinese power had reached nowhere near that region at the time. Munever followed this practice assiduously, and even bettered it.

As we went through the ancient Buddhist cave-monastery at Bezeklik, a store-house of pre-Chinese Buddhist frescoes blending Indian and Persian influences with the oriental, she could point out only those elements which showed contacts with the Han.

In the magnificent earthen ruins of Karakhoja, known to the Chinese as Jiao He, she could tell us nothing of it's five centuries of power as a trading and cultural centre. The architecture of that fastness, perched on an island of sheer earthen cliffs above a river junction, she called `minority style'. Apparently, she had been taught only of its history under various Han imperial dynasties. Her final word on that abandoned city was, `Our country had victories of unification here, against the minorities' . She was talking about the conquering of her own people by the Chinese empire.

In the end, we could only feel sorry for her, trapped in the syndrome of `cultural cringe' so common to colonial peoples everywhere. One must wait for China's own historians to set the pace in restoring the record, since for any local Uighur to undertake it on his own would be a dangerous enterprise, verging on the crime of `splittism'.

Foreigners seem to get a big welcome from the locals in Turfan - partly because the Turkic and Islamic traditions of hospitality are still strong, and partly, I suspect, because the Uighurs enjoy a common feeling with westerners, as being different to the Han. There is little love lost, however, between the Uighurs and the Kazakhs - the next most numerous people of the region. Though of common Turkic roots, the Kazakhs retain their nomadic ways, a thousand years after the Uighurs have become an agricultural people. The clash of lifestyles and economic interests has been a source of mutual hostility often exploited by the various Chinese empires in their diplomacy of divide and rule.

On an earlier visit, alone, I struck up an acquaintance with Salim, in the marketplace. It continued into the night. Salim had received some hundreds of yuan back from the government two years previously, in compensation for some property of his father's, illegally confiscated during the Cultural Revolution. A knockabout character, full of enterprise, but with no special qualifications and a personal record which would disqualify him from any government employment, Salim decided to build a restaurant. He simply chose a likely spot, on the main road nearest the street market, and hired some casual builders to throw up a mud-brick shanty about four metres square. What about the requisite government permissions and licences? `As long as I pay my taxes, there's no problem', he said with a wink.

Some wooden benches, an elementary kitchen, and he was in business. Shish kebabs grilling over a trough of hot coals, and an open-topped earthen bread-oven, filled the interior with a haze of appetising, onion-laden fragrance. A huge kettle of brick-tea (a rough-grade but very refreshing drink) and half a crate of bottled beer were his liquid stock in trade. An assistant chopped away on a huge block at the onions and meat for the kebabs. A young sooty-faced boy worked the bread-oven.. deftly splashing water over the inside of the fiery chamber before plunging his hand into the inferno to pat the round of unleavened dough onto the oven wall to cook.

I started cautiously with tea, moved on to beer, and finally accepted the grain spirits Salim had been determined, from the beginning, to press on me. By now, a procession of friends were dropping in, each wanting his turn to buy the foreigner a drink or offer me food of their own making.

Islam in Xinjiang is important to the people's identity, but does not have the literal authority it holds in some other parts of the world. Alcohol, I fear, is all too readily acceptable, and is increasingly the refuge sought by a people robbed of the dignity of self-rule.

At some point, now dim in my memory, our assembly, now full of bonhomie, moved to Salim's courtyard home, where his old mother and his young wife immediately put more food on the table. It would have been a disgrace, for them, not to do so, however unnerved they might be by Salim's unexpected guest. Someone produced a saz, the long-necked local banjo, others sang, and the dancing began, in a space under the grape-vines.

Dance is the Uighur's recreation, and a dance full of energy and humour. Most dances follow folk ditties about courtship, with sharp repartee between the partners ending in either a chase or an implied embrace. At Salim's, a neighbour brought in a cassette player bought in the Red Flag department store in Urumchi. Some of the younger dancers took a fling at a tango - the big dance of Shanghai in 1948, and ever since carried throughout China in the diaspora of Shanghai's westernised middle classes. Salim's infant son, not yet two years old, was held up by the arms to stamp vigorously with the music in his mother's lap. A young Uighur might well dance before he can walk.

It was an evening of rare freedom from the social inhibitions that constrict Chinese society. My strongest memory of that night is not of the Tango, but of Salim's old mother, now missing some teeth, but once clearly a beauty, partnering her three-year-old granddaughter in a dance of the old Uighur style - head high, feet and hand movements smooth and precise, the power and humour of her dance transmitted through the subtle turn of a head or the raising of an eyebrow. May it endure the suffocating assimilation now in progress, as described elsewhere in this book.

Some important policy corrections are now under way, with a change in Beijing's view of the best way to `safeguard national unity'. In the 1950s, a teacher of English in Beijing, who had some students from among the hand-picked Uighurs sent to Beijing for training as cadres of the new regime, was upbraided by the PLA General then in charge of `minorities work' the region:

`Why are you teaching these people English?', he said. `We sent them over here to learn to become Hans'.

China grew to its present size by sinicizing neighbouring `barbarians' over the millennia. For most educated Chinese, it was presumed to be the right and moral thing to do, much as nineteenth-century Europeans presumed it their sacred mission to convert the world to Christianity. So its hardly surprising that the simple-minded would presume it should continue doing so. What has slowed the process now is religion.

China's revolutionary Marxist generation recognised the shackles of superstitious religion that kept their own peasantry, and a large proportion of their uneducated urban classes, in a thrall of abject conservatism. They saw that it also made those masses vulnerable to exploitation by clever charlatans and manipulators. The communists propagandised for atheism with a fierce, often violent zeal. They did not recognise that for the major non-Han groups - the Tibetans, Mongols, and Muslims - their religion was vitally entwined with their whole culture.

The re-think in religious policy has not been purely from humanitarian considerations, but from a reassessment of the place of religion in world politics. Specifically, Beijing has been forced to recognise that many nations in the world, including some on whom China now depends most strongly for a united resistance to Soviet power, are fundamentally Islamic in character. In its present world diplomacy, Beijing cannot afford to alienate the Muslim governments of Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, or Malaysia. Even Soviet Central Asia, Islamic in heritage, must be considered. A radio propaganda war still rages across the Pamirs, with each communist empire now keen to show that it is the more tolerant of Islam. In Xinjiang, Islam is strongest just where Chinese political and military power is most vulnerable.

From the old Silk Road junction city of Kashgar, in the far south-west of Xinjiang, the Eastern ramparts of the Pamir ranges are clearly visible, and the border with Soviet Uzbekistan is only 120 kilometres from the crumbling earth walls of the old city. Four hundred kilometres to the south is the Afghan border, and, a little further to the east, the Karakorum highway clambers over the Kunjerab pass into Pakistan. By contrast, it's 4,000 kilometres to Beijing - a journey that takes two days even by plane. Most of that part of Xinjiang is taken up by the Taklimakhan, the Desert of No Return. But snow run-off from the bordering mountains nourishes a string of oases across that strategic south-west corner, with a total population of two and a half million. Ninety-five percent are Uighurs.

Kashgar, for a hundred years and more, was the conspiratorial hub of what Rudyard Kipling's generation called `The Great Game' - the rivalry of two empires, British and Russian, for trade and border security, in a remote desert region that only a bulging empire could covet. Kashgar then, as now, was also the westernmost outpost of Chinese administration.

Memories of the Great Game linger on in Kashgar, in the remains of the two imperial consulates, British and Russian. Once havens to itinerant spies, merchants, explorers, and occasional missionaries, they have been turned now by Chinese authorities to more prosaic uses. The Russian consulate is a base for the four hundred or so Japanese and Italian mountain-climbers who pass through each summer season, paying high fees for the chance to climb rare peaks in the Pamirs. It serves good ice-cream, chemical soft-drinks, and earns plenty of foreign exchange. The former British consulate, the farthest extension of British India and known in the chronicles as `Chini-bagh', is now a run-down hostel for Chinese truck-drivers. When I visited Chini-bagh, built on a yellow bluff overlooking Old Kashgar, I walked around the back to the veranda where consuls and their ladies had sipped tea as they surveyed the frequent local wars and sieges about the city walls. I found the veranda is now being used as an informal latrine.

Both consulates were closed not long after the communist government secured control of the region, though Chini-bagh had been run as a joint Indo-Pakistan legation since the British left India in 1948. The Soviet Union was also forced to abandon its dream of an autonomous East Turkestan republic. China has never conceded an inch of sovereignty in the region, and has effectively stamped out all separatist resistance.

Official Chinese policy, now, is to make whatever compromises are acceptable to achieve communal harmony. According to briefings given by the Religious Management Bureau in Urumchi, over 15,000 mosques are in operation in the region, tended by 12,000 local Imams, each of whom has an apprentice in training. A new Islamic seminary (under government supervision, of course) was opened in Urumchi in 1984. The Koran, which was banned during the cultural revolution and burned whenever found by the Chinese Red Guards and soldiers, is now being re-printed and made available, in limited numbers, through the officially-sponsored Islamic association.

For purposes of worship, the Koran is always read in Arabic, and in the past the Chinese have been happy to let this linguistic obstacle limit the teaching of the religious contents of the Koran to the few licensed specialists. A few years ago, the World Islamic Association gave 10,000 Arabic Korans to Xinjiang's Muslims, and the gift was officially sanctioned by the Chinese government. The latest policy, however, has permitted the publication, for the first time ever, of a full edition of the Koran in the Uighur language, along with a mass printing of Sayings of the Prophet Mohammed and a full concordance to the Koran.

The rising prosperity of individual farmers and trading families in Xinjiang, since economic policy was relaxed, brought an upsurge in the private building of new mosques by families. In Turfan, more than a hundred families had built new, domed Islamic tombs for themselves, like a plantation of mudbrick Taj Mahals sprouting among the poplars of the irrigation fields. Chinese authorities do not approve of this use of money, but do not intervene. In Turfan the population is seventy percent Muslim, but in Kashgar it is ninety-two percent.

Kashgar is still one of the great bazaars of Central Asia, with 20,000 people coming to the weekly markets. It throngs with a dense, dusty, crowd of camel-dealers, rug-makers, outdoor dentists, blacksmiths, teashops, tinkers - the market is a testimony to the renewed vigour of individual trade. Most of the market-goers are from outlying oases, and it is plain to see that the relatively few Han in the place prefer not to move about unless in groups.

Though actual mob violence is not very common these days, it is never far below the surface. What brings it out will usually be an incident in which the Uighurs believe that Han have been given special privileges. Typical of the most serious kind of incident was in 1982, when a Han killed Uighur with a shotgun, after an argument over the digging of a drain across the front of his house. The Han was duly sentenced for his crime, but then his sentence was reduced under the influence of pressure from local police and military circles, dominated, of course, by Han. There was a minor uprising, in which two more Han were killed, before the army came to put it down. The Peoples Daily said at the time that `the people of all nationalities exposed the murderers and uncovered the counter-revolutionary organisations that made use of the opportunity to agitate and sabotage unity between the nationalities'. Eight Uighurs were arrested, and two Han. But by the time I was Kashgar, local officials were inclined to downplay the incident. The people who organised the uprising were counter- revolutionary criminals, they said, but one could not say that there was anything in the nature of a `counter-revolutionary organisation' in Kashgar.

In the Al It'qa mosque, a stream of worshippers make their way steadily through the courtyard, to the ablution area, and to the praying wall at the back. Prayer mats are laid out on the raised platform under the awning, and on the bare, swept earth below. Walls are whitewashed, and the wooden beams and pillars picked out in bright blue paint. Water runs continuously in a leafy channel to one side, where bearded, beady-eyed old men in skull-caps sit under a pergola in animated confabulation. Wrinkled hands rise in emphasis, walking sticks thump the pavement. The debates die away and old heads slowly turn to regard the strangers, clanking into the mosque with their cameras and loud, strange language. Women sit separately, watching.

On the threshold of the mosque, young boys cluster about with a new, illuminated edition of the Koran in a bright blue binding. They compete to be photographed, holding the Koran open, reverently. To one side, a bald man sits in a wheelchair. He has two plastic stereoscopic transparency viewers, into which he is carefully allowing a curious crowd of all ages to peep, one by one. I join them, and find he is displaying stereo views of Mecca, the holy city of pilgrim- age. To thousands who will never go, this man spends his days offering the next best thing. Friday prayers at Al It'qa draw forty-five thousand of the faithful, and more than ten thousand pray every day of the week.

Mullah Kasim is the most senior mullah in Kashgar, more than eighty years old, he's not sure exactly. He is a Haj - he went to Mecca in 1946, coming back through Pakistan. He tells us Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are the Islamic countries he most admires. He has no time for Ayatollah Khomeini, blaming him for war between Islamic brothers. In any case, Khomeini's Shia Islam is not practised in Xinjiang. The Mullah believes that the Communist Party will not interfere any more with the practice of religion, as it did under the `Gang of Four'. Other problems in the past concerned the political leadership role of the mullahs in their local communities. That seems to have been solved, he says without elaboration.

Mehmet Amin has a more difficult explanation to make. He is Vice-Chairman of the provincial Religious Affairs Bureau, charged with ensuring the compatibility of Islam and the Communist Party. He has been transferred from Cultural Affairs to Religious Affairs, and considers himself a `bridge' between religion and government. The continuity of religion in Xinjiang is assured, he tells me, by Chinese law. There is a two year gaol sentence for interference with religious freedom. On the other hand, of course, religious interference with civil law in matters such as education and marriage is also forbidden.

`You can't change a thousand years of religion over night', he says.

Mehmet Amin uses the title `Haj', because he has been to Mecca. He was the official in charge of a pilgrimage sent two years previously from Xinjiang. Islamic law is very strict on the Haj - only believers are permitted to attend, and the penalty for defying this rule is death. I asked Mehmet Amin if he was a believer. He looked a little uncomfortable.

`Communist Party members can't believe in religions,' he said, `but certain customs, which might include religious practices, are part of nationality customs, so they can't be called strictly religious, and cadres may participate in them'.

`Are you a Party member?', I pressed him, knowing that he realised he was in a difficult position.

Mehmet Amin declined to answer the question. I concluded that he was, and that the line he had chosen to walk, between two orthodoxies each demanding absolute loyalty, was one I would not envy, whatever his motives.

The old Mullah Kasim was not interested in any such compromise.

`The Prophet told us that Allah gives a man only one heart. Either you believe in Islam, or you believe in Communism'.

More than seven million people in Xinjiang believe in Islam.