The best books about Xinjiang

3 authors have picked their favorite books about Xinjiang and why they recommend each book.

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Eurasian Crossroads

By James Millward,

Book cover of Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang

Eurasian Crossroads is an essential resource for anyone seeking to learn about the complex historical context of the genocide taking place in Xinjiang today. James Millward, who is widely regarded as the leading historian of Chinese Central Asia, provides an accessible-yet-thorough examination of the various peoples and empires that have called the region home. 


Who am I?

I traveled to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the summer of 2019, where I saw for myself many of the tools of surveillance and control that the Chinese Communist Party has used to turn the region into an open-air prison. Since returning to the United States, I have tried to draw attention to the Uyghur genocide through my published articles and through my book, Middle Country, where I tell the story of the Uyghur genocide by weaving facts, history, and analysis into a narrative account of the week I spent in Xinjiang. I hope that my book can make this profoundly complex and multifaceted issue more accessible to the average person.


I wrote...

Middle Country: An American Student Visits China's Uyghur Prison-State

By Grayson Slover,

Book cover of Middle Country: An American Student Visits China's Uyghur Prison-State

What is my book about?

In Middle Country, Grayson Slover recounts the week he spent as a "student tourist" in Xinjiang, in the summer of 2019. He describes in vivid, personal detail the pervasive surveillance state that exists in Xinjiang today, his interactions with the local people, and his close encounters with the Xinjiang police. Slover weaves in relevant history and political analysis for readers to grasp how his first-hand experiences fit within the broader context of the CCP's genocidal campaign.

Typhoon

By Charles Cumming,

Book cover of Typhoon: A Novel

When Charles Cumming published Typhoon in 2009, China's Xinjiang province was a festering wound for the Chinese Communist Party, with the local Uyghur population sporadically resisting subjugation by their Han overlords. Now it is a full-blown police-state with mass Uyghur detention camps that amount to genocide, according to many human rights groups. Cumming shrewdly chose Xinjiang tensions as the spark for a rogue CIA scheme to destabilize the Beijing regime. Knowing what is currently happening in Xinjiang, it is hard for me now to re-read the novel with the same sense of nostalgia for the authentically rendered places in the cities I know (or knew) well: Urumqi, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong. These gems have all been deprecated by the Party, but they are partially preserved in Cumming's meticulous prose.


Who am I?

I write about Asia, where I have spent a chunk of my life. My non-fiction reporting has centered on Beijing's territorial ambitions, including its ongoing takeover of the South China Sea, which in a sense was prefigured by the plot of my novel Performance Anomalies. The main character, Cono 7Q, has been pecking at my brain for many years, abetted by my brushes with spooks in the underbelly of Central Asia and China. I use a pen name so my travel in certain countries can be less encumbered.


I wrote...

Performance Anomalies

By Victor Robert Lee,

Book cover of Performance Anomalies

What is my book about?

What do you do with a feral orphan spy, Cono 7Q, who is part Chinese, Russian, Brazilian, and Roma? Pit him against the greatest menace to the free world: China's Communist Party dictatorship. The conflict is framed by a trinity of women: Xiao Li, the fiery Han who as a teen was booted out by her family in Xinjiang, the western region of China, and left to earn her own survival in Kazakhstan. The Ukrainian Katerina, whose access to Kazakhstan's most powerful and ambitious minister entices the CIA to recruit her. Dimira, the steady Almaty teacher whose goodness belies her suffering and strength.

Can these three women and Cono 7Q out-maneuver the Beijing operator charged with bringing vast territories under China's thumb? Or is their real enemy betrayal, in this land of lies?

Down a Narrow Road

By Jay Dautcher,

Book cover of Down a Narrow Road: Identity and Masculinity in a Uyghur Community in Xinjiang China

This book is an ethnographic account of Uyghur suburban life in the mid-1990s, which might sound very far removed from the political and humanitarian crisis going on in the region today. Yet the portrait it offers of Uyghur family life, market trading, informal socializing, and forms of religious devotion has arguably never been more important, given that the Chinese state has been targeting precisely these benign, everyday practices and beliefs in recent years by separating children from their parents, sending officials to live with Uyghur families, and destroying traditional Uyghur homes. Reading it is an immersive, often funny, experience, which should make people understand the consequences of the state-sponsored violence these communities have been subjected to.


Who am I?

I was living in Xinjiang on 9/11 and got to witness the swiftness with which the state imposed strict regulations that harmed the Uyghur community. For me, this was an indelible lesson in the abuses of power and authority on people who just wanted to work, raise families, and enjoy their lives. Since then I’ve tried to raise awareness, first in my memoir, The Tree That Bleeds, then in my journalism. I hope my work helps people think about how to respond as both politically engaged citizens and consumers to one of the worst human rights violations of the 21st century.


I wrote...

China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

By Nick Holdstock,

Book cover of China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

What is my book about?

My book is an introduction to the politics, history, and culture of Xinjiang, which I wrote as a corrective to the then-prevailing notion of the region as a turbulent, volatile place beset by Islamist terrorism. It argues that since 9/11 the Chinese government has been promoting an alarmist narrative for which there’s little support, an idea it has used as an excuse to inflict draconian policies on the Muslim peoples of the region.


It was also important to me to give a sense of Xinjiang as a place, and to present some of the ways in which Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples have tried to find ways to adapt to discrimination against their language, religion, culture, and right to work. Ultimately, the book’s main message is that the current policies of the Chinese government – mass internment, indoctrination, and intimidation – demonstrate that they regard the existence of Uyghur identity as an existential threat.

Oil and Water

By Tom Cliff,

Book cover of Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang

Since 1949 the demographics of Xinjiang have been altered radically by waves of migration of Han Chinese, initially with the paramilitary bingtuan organisation, but in recent decades by economic migrants. Cliff’s book is an important reminder of how their presence functions in a neo-colonial fashion, and the influence that their needs and concerns have on official policy in the region – which to put it simplistically, is to keep them happy. Though he emphasises that Han in Xinjiang are far from a homogenous social group – something that often gets forgotten or obscured – the common viewpoints and concerns that emerge from his interviews are a sobering reminder of the difficulties in finding common ground between Han and Uyghur in the region.


Who am I?

I was living in Xinjiang on 9/11 and got to witness the swiftness with which the state imposed strict regulations that harmed the Uyghur community. For me, this was an indelible lesson in the abuses of power and authority on people who just wanted to work, raise families, and enjoy their lives. Since then I’ve tried to raise awareness, first in my memoir, The Tree That Bleeds, then in my journalism. I hope my work helps people think about how to respond as both politically engaged citizens and consumers to one of the worst human rights violations of the 21st century.


I wrote...

China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

By Nick Holdstock,

Book cover of China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

What is my book about?

My book is an introduction to the politics, history, and culture of Xinjiang, which I wrote as a corrective to the then-prevailing notion of the region as a turbulent, volatile place beset by Islamist terrorism. It argues that since 9/11 the Chinese government has been promoting an alarmist narrative for which there’s little support, an idea it has used as an excuse to inflict draconian policies on the Muslim peoples of the region.


It was also important to me to give a sense of Xinjiang as a place, and to present some of the ways in which Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples have tried to find ways to adapt to discrimination against their language, religion, culture, and right to work. Ultimately, the book’s main message is that the current policies of the Chinese government – mass internment, indoctrination, and intimidation – demonstrate that they regard the existence of Uyghur identity as an existential threat.

The Compensations of Plunder

By Justin M. Jacobs,

Book cover of The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures

A good deal is known about the Westerners who dug up ancient artifacts in Central Asia (China’s Far West) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not least because these explorers were great self-promoters. This book tells the story from the Chinese side, and it is a lot more interesting and complicated than you might expect. It is only with the birth of Chinese nationalism that the tens of thousands of artifacts now found in the museums and collections of the West came to be defined as Chinese and their loss defined as imperialist looting. By academic standards, this book is a page-turner.


Who am I?

Like many Americans of my generation (boomer) who became China scholars, I witnessed the civil rights and anti-war struggles and concluded that we in the West could learn from the insights of Eastern thought and even Chinese Communism. I ended up specializing in modern political thought—I think of this field as the land of “isms”—nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and the like. I have lived in China and Japan, and spent twelve years as a historical researcher in Taiwan before returning to America to teach at the University of Connecticut. Today, I would not say China has the answers, but I still believe that the two most important world powers have a lot to learn from each other.


I wrote...

After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

By Peter Zarrow,

Book cover of After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924

What is my book about?

By the turn of the twentieth century, China was undergoing acute political, social, and cultural change. So, question: how did the Chinese people stop believing in an emperor who claimed the Mandate of Heaven and decide to replace the empire with a republic? After years of looking at individual thinkers, activists, writers, and political movements, I tried to put the story together, with all its ups and downs, from the first glimpses of a political community that would function without a sacred leader to the final ignominious expulsion of the emperor from the Forbidden City a full twelve years after the founding of the Republic. Also important to me: the story of the rejection of kings is not limited to China. 

China's Forgotten People

By Nick Holdstock,

Book cover of China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

This book provides the most accessible account of the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the native peoples of Xinjiang. Holdstock draws on his own experience living in Xinjiang to show how the CCP’s failure to recognize the genuine grievances of the native peoples of the region helped to drive the terrorism problem that the CCP claims to be addressing today through its genocidal policies.


Who am I?

I traveled to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the summer of 2019, where I saw for myself many of the tools of surveillance and control that the Chinese Communist Party has used to turn the region into an open-air prison. Since returning to the United States, I have tried to draw attention to the Uyghur genocide through my published articles and through my book, Middle Country, where I tell the story of the Uyghur genocide by weaving facts, history, and analysis into a narrative account of the week I spent in Xinjiang. I hope that my book can make this profoundly complex and multifaceted issue more accessible to the average person.


I wrote...

Middle Country: An American Student Visits China's Uyghur Prison-State

By Grayson Slover,

Book cover of Middle Country: An American Student Visits China's Uyghur Prison-State

What is my book about?

In Middle Country, Grayson Slover recounts the week he spent as a "student tourist" in Xinjiang, in the summer of 2019. He describes in vivid, personal detail the pervasive surveillance state that exists in Xinjiang today, his interactions with the local people, and his close encounters with the Xinjiang police. Slover weaves in relevant history and political analysis for readers to grasp how his first-hand experiences fit within the broader context of the CCP's genocidal campaign.

The War on the Uyghurs

By Sean R. Roberts,

Book cover of The War on the Uyghurs: China's Internal Campaign Against a Muslim Minority

Roberts is one of the foremost authorities on the ‘terrorism’ issue in Xinjiang. The strong argument of this book is that the Chinese government has opportunistically used the US-led War on Terror as an excuse to repress all forms of dissent in the region by grossly exaggerating the threats they faced, which eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In his view, the concentration camps, destruction of mosques, attacks on Uyghur intellectuals, and attempts to marginalise the Uyghur language amount to a ‘cultural genocide’. The book provides a concise and forceful recapitulation of Chinese policy in the region over the last two decades.


Who am I?

I was living in Xinjiang on 9/11 and got to witness the swiftness with which the state imposed strict regulations that harmed the Uyghur community. For me, this was an indelible lesson in the abuses of power and authority on people who just wanted to work, raise families, and enjoy their lives. Since then I’ve tried to raise awareness, first in my memoir, The Tree That Bleeds, then in my journalism. I hope my work helps people think about how to respond as both politically engaged citizens and consumers to one of the worst human rights violations of the 21st century.


I wrote...

China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

By Nick Holdstock,

Book cover of China's Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State

What is my book about?

My book is an introduction to the politics, history, and culture of Xinjiang, which I wrote as a corrective to the then-prevailing notion of the region as a turbulent, volatile place beset by Islamist terrorism. It argues that since 9/11 the Chinese government has been promoting an alarmist narrative for which there’s little support, an idea it has used as an excuse to inflict draconian policies on the Muslim peoples of the region.


It was also important to me to give a sense of Xinjiang as a place, and to present some of the ways in which Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples have tried to find ways to adapt to discrimination against their language, religion, culture, and right to work. Ultimately, the book’s main message is that the current policies of the Chinese government – mass internment, indoctrination, and intimidation – demonstrate that they regard the existence of Uyghur identity as an existential threat.

China Marches West

By Peter C. Perdue,

Book cover of China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia

Peter C. Perdue gives an exhaustive account of the Qing Dynasty’s conquest of Xinjiang - which, according to many historians, was the first time a Chinese Dynasty consolidated its rule over the whole of the region. This history has important implications for claims regarding the legitimacy of Chinese rule over Xinjiang.


Who am I?

I traveled to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the summer of 2019, where I saw for myself many of the tools of surveillance and control that the Chinese Communist Party has used to turn the region into an open-air prison. Since returning to the United States, I have tried to draw attention to the Uyghur genocide through my published articles and through my book, Middle Country, where I tell the story of the Uyghur genocide by weaving facts, history, and analysis into a narrative account of the week I spent in Xinjiang. I hope that my book can make this profoundly complex and multifaceted issue more accessible to the average person.


I wrote...

Middle Country: An American Student Visits China's Uyghur Prison-State

By Grayson Slover,

Book cover of Middle Country: An American Student Visits China's Uyghur Prison-State

What is my book about?

In Middle Country, Grayson Slover recounts the week he spent as a "student tourist" in Xinjiang, in the summer of 2019. He describes in vivid, personal detail the pervasive surveillance state that exists in Xinjiang today, his interactions with the local people, and his close encounters with the Xinjiang police. Slover weaves in relevant history and political analysis for readers to grasp how his first-hand experiences fit within the broader context of the CCP's genocidal campaign.

Central Asia

By Adeeb Khalid,

Book cover of Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present

Since the 19th-century control over Central Asia has been split between Russia and China. This makes it extremely difficult for historians to write a coherent narrative of the region as a whole, but Khalid has pulled it off. His book is aimed at general readers while drawing on sources in multiple languages, including Uzbek and Uyghur. Khalid considers comparative imperialism and modernization.


Who am I?

I am a historian of Russia and Eurasia at Hamilton College. I teach courses on Russian history, Central Asia, and the modern Middle East. We usually think of these as separate regions of the world, but in fact they are all connected across the vast Eurasian continent. Russians, Turks, Iranians, Mongols and more have been intertwined with each other throughout their histories. My formal research specialty is Soviet Central Asia. I have written on Stalin’s attempt to destroy Islam, on education and creating a historical narrative for Uzbekistan, and on cotton and manual labor under Khrushchev.

Many people are fascinated by the ancient Silk Road, but don’t know much about how we got from there to the “Stans” that emerged out of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. These books showcase the most recent scholarship on how Central Asia was gradually taken over by the Russian and Chinese empires, and how the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were created, as well as Xinjiang Province in the People’s Republic of China.


I wrote...

Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence

By Shoshana Keller,

Book cover of Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence

What is my book about?

Russia and Central Asia provides an overview of the relationship between two dynamic regions, highlighting the ways in which Russia and Central Asia have influenced and been influenced by Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. This readable synthesis, covering early coexistence in the seventeenth century to the present day, seeks to encourage new ways of thinking about how the modern world developed.

Shoshana Keller focuses on the five major "Stans": Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Cultural and social history are interwoven with the military narrative to provide a sense of the people, their religion, and their practices – all of which were severely tested under Stalin.

Prisoner 13498

By Robert H. Davies,

Book cover of Prisoner 13498: A True Story of Love, Drugs and Prison in Modern China

Xinjiang Province was a very different place mere decades ago when it was China’s Wild West and all kinds of foreign characters were drawn to the region like a magnet. Englishman Robert Davies ran bars and tourism ventures and married an Uyghur woman, a love affair passionately recounted in his memoir, before being arrested for hashish smuggling on trumped-up charges (a drug native to the Uyghurs, who openly sold it in Xinjiang restaurants in Beijing as late as the 1990s) and sent to a Shanghai prison for eight years. Davies and those busted with him were the first such group of foreigners to be made an example of (and survive with mind intact). His account is highly readable, chock full of vivid detail, and an excellent general introduction to Chinese culture and society of the 1980s—from within the belly of the beast. I was most impressed by Davies’ fearless embrace…

Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.


I wrote...

Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews

By Isham Cook,

Book cover of Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews

What is my book about?

Have foreigners shaped China’s history to a greater extent than has previously been acknowledged, reaching back possibly millennia? Was Confucius’ most famous book, The Analects, inspired by entheogenic medicines imported from abroad, possession of which in the 1930s brought one before the firing squad in the name of Confucius? In these book review essays by Isham Cook, foreign devils, old China Hands, eccentric expatriates, and a few Chinese tell an offbeat history of China’s last two centuries, with a backward glance at ancient China as told by Western mummies.

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