Living Otherwise: Buddhist Photography on the New Silk Road

The Middle


If we start in the middle, we have to begin on Sunday, July 5, 2009. That afternoon the Han photographer Tian Lin was riding a bus from the Uyghur neighborhood of Heijiashan back to the Han area of the city in the north of town. He was on one of the last buses to make it that day. Buses that left just after his (like the bus we see here), were stopped by crowds of Uyghur migrants. The Han passengers and drivers were beaten. Police cars were overturned. Han shops were burned.

The violence began as a protest that was initiated in response to unjustified killing of Uyghur migrant workers by Han migrant workers in the province of Guangdong in Southern China. Uyghur college students who had seen fellow Uyghurs taunted and beaten to death on widely-circulated cell phone videos had marched to the center of town, waving Chinese flags, demanding their rights as citizens. They wanted the state to acknowledge that Uyghur lives matter. 

Violence erupted out of a confrontation with police and soon many young Uyghurs from the nearby bazaars and Uyghur enclaves joined the protest. By most accounts the violence erupted spontaneously, a result of repressed anger toward what many Uyghur view as their colonial oppressors: the Chinese state and Han settlers who have arrived over the past 20 years to support the thriving natural resources industry and occupy the land.

Over the next few days Han migrants began attacking Uyghur migrants. Many died. In the weeks that followed the police with the aid of Han migrants began to conduct house-to-house searches for Uyghur young men suspected of participating in the violence.

In the neighborhood where Tian Lin had been taking pictures right before the violence began (which we see in the video here), hundreds of young men were taken. Human Rights Watch estimates that following the protests of 2009 several thousand men were disappeared by the state.

In the months that followed Tian Lin watched as the people he had been photographing for years were forced to relocate in government housing blocks. Eventually more than 250,000 were relocated and hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave the city entirely. To understand some of the issues that caused this eruption of violence and how artists like Tian Lin have dealt with it, I need to show you some of the deep history and geographical breadth of the situation.

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