My Personal Khotan on the Silk Road
Coming to Khotan
Khotan is a far, far away little town on the edge of the world’s second largest desert – the Taklamakan - in northwestern China. It is as far away as “the end of the sky” according to a Chinese expression, set in the Kunlun Mountains between the Tarim Basin and Tibetan plateau, in one of the fertile oases where there are water resources to grow grains and raise sheep and cows. The earliest traceable residents were probably Sakas, an Iranian-language-speaking people, who later mixed with Qiang-Tibetans and Turkic peoples. In about 9th century CE, a Turkic people called the Uyghur became the dominant population. They converted to the Muslim religion, and thus there is a strong Muslim presence in the region today. The Han Chinese people have founded small communities there since the Han Dynasty. Geographically and historically, Khotan has been an important trade center for caravans, pilgrims, explorers, and even diplomats: a place to stop for a rest, to reload supplies, and to conduct trade. Early travelers who stayed in Khotan and left their remarks about the place include Zhang Qian, the envoy to the West Region during the Han Dynasty; Xuanzang, the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk who traveled to India; and Marco Polo, the merchant of medieval Venice and ambassador of the Pope to Cathay, to name the best known. And, of course, there was Aurel Stein, the Hungarian-British archaeologist, who made Khotan even better known to the world at the turn of the 19th and 20th century with his famous rediscovery of ancient Khotan.
My parents, who were assigned to work for a local newspaper, the Khotan Daily, brought me to Khotan in the early 1960s, when I was five years old. Both of them had been artists and editors-in-fine-arts, my father for a publishing house and my mother for the only women’s magazine in Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had secretly labeled my father as “having Right Opportunist opinions,” and supposedly sent him to Khotan to help with frontier development. Mother had to go with him. However, since there were so many things going on in the country at that time, my parents did not know the true reason they were chosen until some twenty years later. The Party had called on educated people to go to the remote and poor areas to work. The District of Khotan sent delegations to the big cities to recruit people with up-to-date knowledge and skills; and the government tried to relocate people from big-famine-affected provinces to Xinjiang. My parents, young and idealistic (naïve, too), simply believed they had responded to the Party’s call for the noble cause of constructing a Communist new China. Only a few years earlier, the CCP had called on them to help build the new Xinjiang and sent them from Xi’an, the ancient capital city in central China, to Urumqi, the largest city and the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Now they were on the road again from Urumqi to Khotan.
We traveled on a military truck that had a grass-green colored heavy canvas cover. We sat on our suitcases and luggage rolls and were tossed up and down on a poorly paved road along the edge of the desert. Three other families and a few young retired soldiers were packed in with us. All of them, including my parents, were so optimistic and enthusiastic that they ignored the length and boredom of the journey. As my mother recalls, the journey was not really so bad. It was early spring. Within a day or two of driving in the dull barren desert there were occasional areas with fruit trees full of blossoms and green fields, and these always caused great excitement. All I can remember is that when we stayed in Kashgar (another large oasis town) for two days, my father took me with him to a bazaar to look around, and I became obsessed with a small colorful doll the size of my hand carved out of rough wood. It took us twelve days to get to Khotan.
Khotan welcomed us with its cheerful blossoms. For new settlers, as for travelers throughout time, its abundance of fruits, grains, and lamb meat, make strong impressions. Thanks to the ever-lasting snowmelt of water in the Kunlun Mountains, the crops of the oasis are secure. Actually, at the time we got there, it had such surplus that the Khotan District was responsible for shipping its grain to Tianjin, the third largest city in China, to relieve the devastating famine there.
In the town, people who were Han Chinese like my family made up only two percent of the population. But to my surprise, I gradually learned that Han Chinese had lived there all along. These included the families of merchants from the central provinces, descendents of Qing dynasty’s officials, and those who had helped the Russians to build railways in Siberia and fought for them during the first World War, but became stuck in Khotan on their way back home. Many of these people had married local Uyghurs, Russians, and in a few cases, Jews. We called these Han Chinese “Old Khotanese.”
Growing up in Khotan, I was happy, although to many people it was such a miserable and unlivable place. Sand was everywhere – in the air, on the ground, in and out of your houses, all the time. No matter if you sat in an outdoor movie theatre (there was no indoor one) with rough wood benches for two hours, or went out for a short time to shop for groceries, you needed to whisk off the dust and sand from your head, shoulders, and feet before you could go into your one or two-room apartment. Every year in the spring there were sandstorms. Sometimes they could be so thick that the entire sky became dark like nighttime. One storm could last for an hour or two. When it passed, you would find sand at least an inch thick on everything in the room, no matter how well you had shut or even sealed the doors and windows. We called these storms a “black wind” if they were very bad, or a “yellow wind” if they were not so bad.
Water, obviously, was precious here. Each government agency or residential compound had a man-made reservoir called a laoba to store water for daily use. There was one laoba in the Khotan Daily compound. It was the size of a standard American swimming pool and held water for about one hundred residents (employees and their families). Twice a year canals would bring in water to refill the reservoir. Most of the time the water was brownish and opaque. And of course, we were not the only ones who needed water. There were other creatures: birds, toads, bugs, water-worms, and so forth that also shared the same water. It was my mother’s strict rule that we must boil the water before drinking it. Even then, it would still take a couple of minutes for the dust particles to fall to the bottom of a cup before you could drink it. My father, and later on my brother, was responsible for fetching water for the family, with our two aluminum buckets. Occasionally there were bad years when we were very short of water. When that happened, the entire family would use one bowl of water to wash all our faces in the morning, and we saved it to wash our feet in the evening.
Because of the moisture around the laoba, willow trees and fruit trees grew nearby. They were the famous native fruit trees: apricots, peaches, pears, and plums. A man who was publicly denounced as a “Counter-Revolutionary” and therefore not given any other job but janitorial work was in charge of taking care of the laoba area. He seemed to put all his time and energy into planting many kinds of flowers, which turned the field into a beautiful garden. It was this garden which we called the “circle of the laoba” that became our kids’ Eden. We children spent most our off-school time playing there. Still today we remember this place fondly.
The grape trellises all the way to the roofs in front of our apartments and office buildings created another pleasant and common scene in the compound. We could reach the grapes right outside the apartment door. But of course, we were not allowed to pick the grapes on our own until the autumn time when the grapes were ripe and shared by all members of the agency. All the fruits grown in Khotan were extraordinarily sweet.
There were never any extra material goods other than the most basic. I remember I had only one doll all my childhood. Four of us lived in a two-room apartment without any appliances but some make-shift furniture including three beds made of plain wooden boards, a small cabinet for clothes, a wooden shipping case used for storing the kitchen utensils, a desk and a chair, a very small eating table with four little stools, and a large bookshelf. There was neither kitchen nor bathroom in the apartment. In the summer we cooked outside on an adobe stove on the ground, and in the winter we had an iron stove set in one room for both heating and cooking. The birthday treat was two boiled eggs for the birthday-child, and the other could have only one egg. I did not receive any birthday present until my twelfth birthday when my parents spent more than a half of their monthly salary to buy me a violin – the greatest luxury in all their lives and mine until then. It was heyday of the “Cultural Revolution.” My parents were criticized as “black” (meaning bad) artists with bourgeoisie and revisionist ideas. They had to burn or hide pictures of any Western art except for the Russian socialist realistic art. They did not want us to follow in their footsteps to become artists anymore, although they had dreamed of training me to be a painter and my brother a sculptor. But Western musical instruments were all right if we played revolutionary music on them. So there they were, my parents, with this beautiful violin, wishing I would grow up artistic and elegant.
Some years later I brought my violin with me to Grandma’s in Shanxi Province, just to kill time there. I had played only some folk and revolutionary songs. One day my first uncle asked me to follow him to his room. He moved pillows from an old broken couch that had a strong steel frame. He crawled down looking for something under the couch. Surprisingly, he tore the seat from underneath and took out some old records, and then a record player. It was like magic. He said he had had to hide these things when the Red Guards had come looking for anything feudal or bourgeois. I helped him carry the player and records to the grandma’s room where my third uncle helped set up the record player. They played famous classical music for me, which I had never heard before. All western music had been banned during the Cultural Revolution. It was the first time in my twenty-year old life that I heard Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and many others. I was electrified the moment Beethoven’s No. 5 Symphony started. I stood like wood by the record player for about an hour or so without noticing my uncles’ gesture telling me to sit down. How could there be such beautiful music ever in the world! And why was it not allowed to be played? The world I had known became suddenly so small and so ridiculous. A hunger for more knowledge burst out inside me. I realized there was another much larger world out there. It was the darkest moment before dawn, to use a Chinese expression. My uncles and I played the music everyday after that; but we played it with low volume and with all doors and windows closed, so nobody on the street could hear us. While I tried to suck in every note of the music, my uncles fell into their remote memories and dreams. I felt very sorry for them.
I am grateful to my parents for passing on to us their optimistic attitude toward hardships. Bad as our circumstances were, their artistic eyes always sought out beauty from this sandy, barren, harsh, difficult, and forgotten corner of the world. Father’s landscape paintings were of the lofty Kunlun Mountains, of peaceful pastures with grazing horses and cows, of yellow diversiform-leaved poplar trees and Red Willow shrubs stubbornly growing in the desert, of farm workers riding on little donkeys going to markets. Mother’s fine-line paintings of Uyghur girls with many little hair braids and beautiful dresses dancing on Khotan-style carpets under the grape trellis, or of Tajik children caring for their baby sheep, all made us love the place and feel fortunate to live here.
The above is my persoanl narrative written for an analogy on Teaching the Silk Road by SUNY Publication.