The Emperor Far Away
In this utterly absorbing description of his travels around the very edges of the People’s Republic, David Eimer meets some of China’s 55 official minorities as well as other non-Han Chinese. The emperor might have been far away, but these days the Communist Party in Beijing is not so far from China’s besieged ethnic minorities.
This blend of travelogue and geopolitical history doesn’t always mesh well but as The Emperor Far Away progresses, the vulnerability of these people becomes achingly apparent. Some groups, such as the predominantly Muslim Uygurs in Xinjiang province in China’s far west, have never given up hope of an independent state. “I hate them, I do,” says one Uygur man, of the Han Chinese. “I’ve hated them since I was a kid...” In Tibet, Eimer says, “just possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama can lead to arrest” and in Yunnan province, minority Dai people play a canny game of appeasement to keep their most important traditions alive. The Wa people, former headhunters who live wedged against the Myanmar border, have an army 20,000 strong and fund their independence from Beijing with a sophisticated amphetamine operation.
These are extreme travels, even for an old China hand such as former foreign-correspondent Eimer – at one point he resorted to an illegal second passport to access parts of Tibet off limits to journalists. In his travels, he meets teenagers wielding AK-47s, escaped sex slaves and secret Christians. At the insistence of his hosts, he spends a night off his face on speed. While exploring the Golden Triangle, the source of 10 per cent of the world’s opium, Eimer tells of 13 Chinese sailors murdered execution-style not long after his visit, and the increased security that resulted. “I was lucky to have travelled when I did,” he says breezily. “The days of foreigners hitching rides down the Mekong from China are gone for now.”
We’re the lucky ones, to share this trip with the intrepid Eimer. In the end, though, it’s neither the entertainment nor the analysis that lingers, although his book contains plenty of both. Intermarriage, Han migration and bans on the teaching of minority languages make this an irreplaceable document that provides a glimpse of people from many distinct cultures whose children will simply be regarded as “Chinese”. LS
Bloomsbury, 336pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 20, 2014 as "David Eimer, The Emperor Far Away". Subscribe here.