“Among the Emperor Qianlong’s trophies from his conquest of Xinjiang was a girl called Iparhan. She was a beautiful Kashgari whose body was said to give off an intoxicating scent without any help from ointments…the abduction of Iparhan became for the Chinese a symbol of the annexation of the western lands which they had twice before conquered—under the Han and Tang dynasties—but never really controlled.” (“Wild West China”) (1)
Much has ensued since the 18th century Qing emperor snatched this enchantress from Kashgar, located near today’s Kyrgyzstan, and transplanted the "Fragrant Concubine" (香妃) to his far-flung harem in Beijing.
The ethnic make-up of Xinjiang, for instance. Once home to an overwhelmingly Muslim, Turkic-speaking population—94 percent of the residents when the PRC was founded in 1949—the “Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region” has been mightily diluted by Han Chinese who, by 2007, reportedly accounted for four of ten inhabitants.(2)
But the legendary fascination of Chinese for Things Xinjiang—the music and dancing of the Uyghurs, the cuisine and particularly the women—endures. In its own unique way, the upcoming publication of “English,” a novel by Wang Gang, a Han who grew up in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution, brings those fantasies firmly into our era, and embellishes them a bit.
Translated by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan, the novel from Viking Penguin will launch in April 2009. My interview with the duo follows this introduction, but you can go straight to the interview by clicking here.