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China at its Limits
An Empire's Rise Beyond its Borders
a selection of book photos & pages
Church of Dormition
A stroll through Kyakhta’s Ulitsa Lenina is an extraordinary walk through time: one can begin at the ruins of Trinity Cathedral and end at the blue-tiled towers of the Church of Dormition. In between, one can come across a bust of early Soviet leader Mikhail Kalinin and later enjoy the architecture of beautiful, well-preserved wooden houses, or of larger masonry buildings built in the mid-nineteenth century by merchants and tea traders. Unfortunately, Kyakhta is no longer the departure point for tea from China, but its enduring charm will be forever linked to this once fascinating land route connecting China with Europe.
During World War II, Mandalay Palace (pictured in the background) was heavily bombarded by Allied forces, but it was restored in the 1980s as a symbol of Burmese sovereignty. Around the same time, due to increasing isolation, Myanmar’s military junta looked abroad for political and military support, which it finally found in Beijing. But in the popular view of many Burmese, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) has been selling out the nation to the Chinese. This is an ordinary scene of people exercising peacefully one morning in front of the palace grounds. But if we look closely and read the red banner on the palace wall, another reality emerges. The message: “Tatmadaw and the people cooperate and crush all those harming
An ethnic Russian in Xinjiang
“My grandparents came all the way here to escape famine,” explains Semyon Zazulin to us in a decades-old Russian Orthodox cemetery immediately behind his house. Grass and weeds are gradually overrunning the compound, not far from a couple of high-rise buildings. Looming construction projects endanger this cemetery’s future, but Zazulin continues to care for the graves, including those of his parents and grandparents. He vividly recalls how all things Russian were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Some bullies seized his cap and burned it while he watched helplessly in tears—one of the very few times he remembers crying. But even so, Ghulja, and not Russia, remains his home. One of his hobbies is playing the bayan, and in the past few years his family has acquired a fine collection of these exotic instruments. When Zazulin and his brothers feel nostalgic or visitors request it, they take an instrument down from the shelf and play a tune. The melancholy strains are only occasionally interrupted by the excited hubbub of children frolicking in the street.
A fleeting moment in Kashgar
A cloudy sky offers a fleeting moment of shade at a lakeside corner of the sundrenched oasis city of Kashgar. An Uyghur man chances by and suddenly pauses to look back. He seems a bit concerned and curious about the young woman wearing a white headscarf and a large pair of sunglasses. After a few seconds, he loses interest, and there is no dramatic event that could make this more than a poetic moment. While a couple of years ago Kashgar, with its maze of alleyways and traditional Uyghur-style homes, was still a city where one could easily step back in time, the urban landscape has changed dramatically. Many traditional houses have been razed to build larger apartment blocks, broader streets and modern plazas. Some experts justify this demolition with the risks of earthquake damage, while others see aggressive economic development and Han domination as the true reason. The surviving parts of a once lively community will probably become a tourist attraction, an “open-air museum of Uyghur culture.”
A Burmese Chinese family
This boy belongs to a five-member Burmese Chinese family that moved to the border town of Ruili in hopes of finding work. They have rented two simple rooms in an area mainly inhabited by Burmese Chinese, Shan and Burmese migrant workers. When we visited them, his parents were away looking for work. His eldest sister, a waitress, was still the family’s sole wage earner. The colorful tropical fruits pictured on the bright wall poster suggest their ties to Myanmar and perhaps the kind of opulence they dream of.
A waitress in a Sino-Vietnamese border town
At the peak of the late-1970s boat-people crisis, the Friendship Bridge connecting Dongxing with the Vietnamese town of Mong Cai became a bottleneck for thousands of ethnic Chinese fleeing from the south. However, the bridge was destroyed during the Sino–Vietnamese border war, and Mong Cai was the scene of intense fighting. Many refugees were also forced to escape by boat, struggling to reach Hong Kong and other parts of Southeast Asia. After peak business hours, the receptionist of a restaurant in Dongxing whiles away the time playing with a cellphone.
Pu Yi in Khabarovsk
“One day soon after my arrival in Khabarovsk I decided to go for a stroll. As I started downstairs I noticed a former minister sitting in a chair at the bottom of the staircase, and when he saw me he ignored my presence completely. I was so angry that I never thought of going downstairs again, and spent most of my time reciting scriptures” (Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi). Pu Yi, the emperor first of the Qing dynasty and then of Japan’s puppet state of Manchukuo, was unwillingly taken from Chita to Khabarovsk on a steam-engine train. Nonetheless, he had been truly glad to be captured by the Soviet army in Shenyang and taken to Russian territory after Emperor Hirohito unconditionally surrendered. The fact that Russian Communists had executed their own tsar not long before was the least of his worries. The places across the Amur, which he so often gazed at from the window of a villa in the village of Krasnaya Rechka (Red River) during his detention in Khabarovsk, were no longer the motherland he missed. What possibly awaited him there terrified and drove him in desperation to apply again and again for permanent asylum in the Soviet Union. In this photo collage, the Amur River, a “foil of danger” for Pu Yi, seems on this sunny afternoon a dreamland for a young beauty queen. Pu Yi’s despair so long ago was as real to him as her optimism is for her on the same riverbank today.
Tearoom waitresses on Kinmen
This photo collage is meant to pay homage to the buried stories of the anonymous young women who "comforted” Taiwan's soldiers: a so-called tearoom waitress (played by Wan Qian) from the film Paradise in Service (2014) by the Taiwanese film director Niu Chen-Zer is set against a Kinmen courtyard house. Traditional Minnan dwellings with horseback and swallowtail roof designs, Western-style buildings erected in the early twentieth century and military infrastructure, including military bases, bunkers and tunnels, are characteristic architectural features on this tiny island. At the time of our visit, this courtyard with a Southeast Asian colonial-style building was redecorated for Niu’s film, which was set in the troubled 1970s. “Return my rivers and mountains” [huan wo heshan], once a powerful slogan during the Sino–Japanese war, and later a popular KMT propaganda motto, is written on the red wall with a huge map of China.
A believer in Mandalay
We visit St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church shortly before the late afternoon mass. This imposing Gothic church stands out in Mandalay’s Chinatown. In these chaotic, agitated surroundings, the devout face of a girl with Anglo–Indian features is hypnotic. Her eyes radiate a calm faith in the power of goodness, as if saying that all evils can be overcome. The centuries-old church, originally built for the flourishing Chinese Catholic community, now serves followers of both Chinese and other ethnicities.
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