While there is a respectable body of literature concerning the history and anthropology of Xinjiang,1 little attention has been paid to the conceptualization of place by its inhabitants, in spite of the fact that, like time, place matters for the simple reason that human existence is constrained by it. Following Martin Heidegger’s concept of dwelling, Keith Basso suggests that “dwelling is said to consist in the multiple ‘lived relationships’ that people maintain with places, for it is solely by virtue of these relationships that space acquires meaning” (Basso 1996: 54). Many authors have studied aspects of the emergence and shaping of modern Uyghur ethnic identity tied to one particular place, the political entity today known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Cesaro 2000, 2002; Gladney 1990, 1994, 1998; Rudelson 1997; Smith 1999, 2000). This chapter is a preliminary attempt to consider more mundane expressions of localism, sentiments toward people’s more immediate environment, the oases, and specific places where they live and work, notably the land and the house. My enquiry is limited to social groups which define themselves primarily as peasants and I pay no attention to urban elites. My starting point is the premise that spaces become bounded, definable places through the symbolic meanings humans attach to them, be it geographical features, urban centres, villages, administrative units, or human dwellings. In this sense all places are constructed as they become invested with meanings and associations, which in turn are capable of evoking emotions of all sorts. Emotional reactions to places, such as attachment, a sense of belonging, can be summed up under the concept of “localism.” The central argument of the chapter is as follows. Following major interruptions of social life during the era of collectivisation by the state, the reform period which followed the end of the Cultural Revolution has resulted in the introduction of the free market economy. Due to the special position of Xinjiang within China, where the government fears Muslim separatism, here liberalization has, to a great extent, remained restricted. Thus, in spite of the undeniable changes and improvements of the repressive policies which characterized the Cultural Revolution, the state today continues to make its powerful presence felt in many areas of life, including agricultural production, family planning, political and religious freedoms. Since the second half of the 1990s religious repression
and the fight against separatism have been stepped up, and in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, political tension has once again gained momentum. But all these developments have done little to erode the localism characteristic of traditional society; parallel to the search for ethnic and regional identification, claims to locality may take on more direct and tangible forms, which also perpetuate important links to pre-socialist social practices. Among peasants, one of the sideeffects of state policies has been the partial loss of the security provided by local networks and knowledge of how things work. Formerly unquestioned security has become challenged, and in an atmosphere of sustained political tension and religious repression, an ostensibly benign ethnic policy is incapable of filling the ensuing gap. As a result, old attachments are perpetuated and have merged with new levels of attachment to stress belonging to a particular place. Access to and symbolic appropriation of local space continues today to be a contested field in which asymmetrical power relations between alien power holders and indigenous populations are played out. Places are conceptualized here as “sites of power struggles” and “histories of annexation, absorption, and resistance” (Feld and Basso 1996: 5). In what follows I shall first look at the history of instances of interference by power-holders in the daily life and traditional practices of the inhabitants in the pre-socialist and socialist periods. This sets the historical scene which necessitated both the perpetuation of old and the emergence of new forms of localism. The following sections consider examples of symbolic identifications with locality, ranging from naming places to attachments to land and house.