In February 1997, a riot shook China to its core which reverberated across the world. This riot, between the Han and Uighur ethnic groups, took place in the town of Yining. At the time, western media were denied entry and relied upon grainy smuggled footage and shaky testimonials. Eyewitness accounts varied from peaceful protest to separatist riot. You got a different version depending on who you spoke with; how many were killed or imprisoned is still a mystery today. Nick Holdstock, then an English teacher, had an unquenchable and dangerous curiosity and decided to visit the area of XinJiang. In his travelogue The Tree That Bleeds he mulls through documents, delves into people’s lives and attempts to uncover the truth of what happened 15 years ago.
The Xinjiang region of China where the book is set, is a crossroads where the Muslim population of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan meets the largely Buddhist China and the mostly Han Chinese population. Xinjiang is a region of civil unrest, cultural segregation and casual racism on all sides.
There are elements that are very typical of any travelogue – eating lung soup or not knowing what exactly he is eating, encountering lepers up close and personal, attending wedding ceremonies and marvelling at the differences in culture. Mostly, he approaches this alien world and its people in this benign and humanistic way, indicating that in many ways this book is more of a personal odyssey of growth than anything else.
There is an oversimplified narrative running underneath that the Han are the baddies, and the Uighur are goodies. Despite his many attempts at a balance of perspectives, Holdstock admits that he never befriended any Han. As he never documented any of their lives up close as he did with the Uighur, this separateness is also felt as a missing part of the narrative here.
The book is full of warm, vibrant and earthy observations of the Uighur people, the type of literary language that book-lovers, and political history lovers adore, but this is let down because there is no equivocal observations of the Han people. A people who, it can be argued, are equally as mythologised, castrated and disenfranchised by their own government, as the ethnic minorities living in China.
One of the earlier chapters in the book is the second-person tense. It begins ‘Your train waits in Beijing West one thick September night…thankfully you’ll be travelling in relative luxury’ This kind of writing is more suitable to experimental literary fiction and not a non-fiction biography on such weighty subject matter. This rattles along awkwardly through one chapter then thankfully changes back to a more conventional narrative device.
In one part, Holdstock becomes outraged at Christian missionaries trying to convert the local people from Islam to Christianity. He sabotages their attempts by stealing their Christian books from the library and then theatrically destroying them in a fire. In doing so, he tacitly acknowledges that he has his own biases, and is subject to his own whims and ideological longings. This self-reflexive acknowledgement of his own limitations shows his human side and the fact that he is not just a passive observant in this tale but is rather an instigator, a fire-starter.
The riot in Yining is made more poignant by the fact that the situation repeats itself a decade later in a nearby town of Urumqi. Holdstock leaves his post as a teacher in 2002 and then returns again, years later. He finds Yining to be both eerily different but also the same. He cannot find the people he used to know. Like most people who revisit a place in their memory, he is both estranged from the past and painfully lost to the present time as well, he sits there somewhere, lost in limbo.
Holdstock is undoubtably a skillful writer, someone who can blend word pictures together in a series of scattered vignettes, each tiny piece of a jigsaw puzzle is added up, and forms a grander picture that one hopes will become clearer towards the end. Paradoxically, the inconclusive, mysterious nature of the place is more frustratingly inconclusive at the end.
Despite the bumpy awkward parts, ‘The Tree that Bleeds’ is a riveting and well-crafted ride that is definitely worth the read, if not for illuminating a part of Chinese history that deserves closer examination, then just for the occasionally beautiful language.