Archive for September, 2009

Movie(studio) stars!

September 29, 2009

Imagine hordes of people running around in Mao-caps and red armbands, a victim dragged in the midst. He wears a dunce cap and a sign with his name crossed out, while they taunt and jeer, pulling his arms behind his back. Must be the red guards! Actually, no. They’re middle-aged and it’s just for fun. This is Ningxia west movie studio on a Wednesday afternoon. My last day in China.

In addition to the “cultural revolution” set where you can relieve your youth in a PLA uniform or a hat, there’s a Ming dynasty village and an entire Qing-style town. Everything complete with streets, buildings, fake animals, fake people, and fake food. Its the biggest tourist attraction with Yinchuan. (possibly rivalled by the sand lake and the tombs of the western xia dynasty which was obliterated by Genghis Kahn). On its day off they film soaps and films which are broadcast across China (aside from a litany of historical series and dreadful 80s martial arts films some real big names like Red Sorghum were partly filmed here).

If the camera had been in my hands, the photos would be of locals dressing up and swarming everywhere with mobile phone cameras. Instead you’ll have to make do with my ugly mug, on the day Ellie, Xiaozi, Zhutou and xiao Ye became movie(studio) stars!

Ellie and Xiaozi in the barren desert turned openair film studio

Ellie and Xiaozi in the barren desert turned openair film studio

This food is all made of plastic. Looks pretty good, no?

This food is all made of plastic. Looks pretty good, no?

a ghost and badge The ghost gets fewer points for realism.

But the bread's awesome!

But the bread's awesome! (though would break teeth)

Do. Not. Mock. Or. Else. (ps i rapidly fell off)

The archetypal embarassing Brit abroad.

Imagine the scenes which we didn’t get photos of! Twas a rather eye-opening day.

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A Chinese perspective on foreign criticism

September 28, 2009

The following was written to me by my friend Jian. I felt that she puts things very eloquently in such a way that a non-Chinese can easily understand the perspective. She gave me permission to translate it and post on my blog. Enjoy and feel free to respond. Any errors in the translation are my own.

“I very much welcome you to discuss Chinese politics with me, although my understanding is also incomplete. You certainly don’t need to worry about offending me. Although many Chinese people – including some government officials – are very sensitive to criticism, I don’t mind. In Chinese we have a saying: honest advice, though unpleasant to the ear, benefits conduct (忠言逆耳利于行) – this refers to criticism. If one doesn’t dare to receive criticism, it shows that one lacks confidence in oneself, and if friends never criticize each other, then they are not genuine friends. So I welcome you to discuss your opinions frankly with me; through being straightforward with each other, we avoid having to speculate on what the other really means.

I wanted to express some opinions about your post – of course, limited by my own knowledge and experience. I welcome you to continue discussing this with me.

Just as I said before, the Chinese government is not open enough to recieving criticism; but this does not mean it can’t accept criticism at all. Indeed, if you visit Chinese websites and online forums, you can see countless people expressing dissatisfaction with the government. Their sarcasm and ridicule is no less direct than that of foreign internet users. And this dissatisfaction already gives strength to public opinion. On certain levels the public already influences the policies of the government. For example if we look at China’s judiciary field, public opinion has an important influence on the establishment or abondonment of laws, as well as the judgement with which legal decisions are carried out. So although on the face of it the Chinese government does not verbally accept criticism, this may be to do with the Chinese tradition of saving face. I personally really hate this tradition, but it can be a factor in the response of the government towards criticism.

However the government’s reaction is even more conservative in the face of foreign criticism. I think two main reasons for this are historical elements, and aspects of objectivity. From the historical perspective, from the recent period – by that I mean 1842-1949 – China always suffered the encroachment of the west (including Japan and the Soviet Union). Only since the 1970s has it really been able to develop its own independent foreign policy (after 1949 it was in the pincers of the Soviet Union for many years). Because of this, although the Chinese government may try to learn from the experiences and the successes of western countries, on a deeper level it does not really trust them. Thus it may suspect that their criticism – does it not come from some ulterior motive? Another reason for mistrusting western criticism comes from objective aspects. If we look at the questions surrounding Xinjiang/Tibetan/Taiwanese independence, these do not simply amount to inter-ethnic differences and desire for separation. Indeed, behind all of these independence questions we can find the support of the forces of foreign countries. I think this is very different from the situation with Scotland or Quebec. In this world there is no free lunch, so why do foreign agents want to help regions in China to gain independence? Understandably we suspect their motives.

Now you could refute this by saying that there is such thing as a free lunch, and that this sort of foreign “support” does come from genuine benevolence and the desire to help people. But can there really exist such genuine behavior in international relations? Churchill once said that between countries there are no eternal allies or eternal enemies, only eternal interests. This is the harsh reality of politics – it could be said that in politics there is no truth.

Of course, governments could be more self-confident in the face of criticism. If they are not in the wrong, then why can they not simply allow differences of opinion to be voiced, then give a public justification for their actions? I think this involves another political tradition of China. China has historically experienced countless peasant rebellions, which on many occasions went so far as to cause the collapse of the government and replacement of a dynasty. These uprisings often started with dissatisfaction with the government, for example failure to act swiftly to provide assistance for the people following a natural disster. When dissatisfaction had accumulated to a certain point, intellectuals might come along with slogans and ideology, causing people to rise up and oppose the government togther. Therefore the rulers of successive dynasties were always terrified of “words”, which of course includes criticism. Through this one can understand why the government does not respond positively to criticism – it is afraid that it will incite the people, bringing them to revolt. This may lead to the situation getting out of control and ensuing chaos. 

From understanding the significance of the above, there is also an implication that the government does not really trust the people, and in particular does not trust the intelligence of the people. It does not believe that the people have the ability to judge for themselves. Otherwise it would accept that if criticism were false, the people would be clever enough not to follow blindly, whereas if the criticism had some truth, it could only mean that there were some problems within the country. Such problems cannot be resolved by avoiding them, and if the government were to admit that problems existed, and then face them sincerely, this would inspire the respect and trust of the people. However in reality, a government’s open acceptance of criticism does not necessarily bring respect in return. It could lead to even more violent criticism. This is especially the case in China – Chinese politics is very complicated, and not entirely within my own understanding.  

Everything above is my own opinion and not necessarily true: I very much appreciate your interest in issues to do with China, and I really hope that from talking to you I can gain new perspectives. Su Shi wrote the following poem:

“From the side, a whole range; from the end, a single peak; 

Far, near, high, low – no two parts alike. 

Why can’t I tell the true shape of Lushan?

because I myself am in the mountain.” (not my own translation)

The meaning is that if you are an insider, you may be entangled in all sorts of its aspects, and unable to distinguish what is and what isn’t. But sometimes, standing at the perspective of an outsider, one can see clearly the true perspective of something.” 

mountai

Chinese artwork. Camoflague.

September 27, 2009

Magnus sent me this link. It’s super. You must look at this Chinese artwork:

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A Light on the Mountain (Tent of Nations )

September 27, 2009

(Borrowed Post: Written by my friend and flatmate Ruth, highly recommended!)

I have recently returned from spending 6 weeks on a farm perched on a hill just outside of Bethlehem.

I was volunteering there as part of the peace project known as Tent of Nations which was set up by the Nassar family to fulfil the vision of their father. Bishara Nassar dreamed of providing a space to bring people of different cultures together and connect them to the land.

What the family have come to create is quite unique. Something of an oasis of peace in troubled lands, they bring in volunteers from all over the world, teaching them about the situation, about the difficulties they face in their day to day lives, how they overcome these difficulties and, above all, they teach people hope.

For the first two weeks of my visit, a summer camp was held for children from towns and refugee camps around the Bethlehem area. The title of the camp was “Bringing Nature to Life: Learning Hope and Planting Peace” with the central goal being to encourage the children to interact with and feel close to the environment around them, to give them space to realize their skills and creativity, express their ideas and have a voice. Plus, simply to give them a bit of fun respite from daily life under occupation.

I helped in organising art, music, dance and theatre activities for the children which they displayed and performed in a presentation to the parents on the last day. It was wonderful to see the children proudly performing what they had learnt from over the past two weeks and, it seemed, particularly moving for the parents to see such international support, one of whom stood to welcome us and told us in an emotional speech that we were their ‘ambassadors for peace’ and we must return to our countries and let the world know what is the future for their children if nothing changes.

What is the future for their children if nothing changes?

With regards to this land in particular, things seem to be getting more and more difficult. They have been through endless court cases, as required to ‘prove ownership of the land’. Eighteen years since the first and it is still not settled, despite their presenting all the correct documents and paperwork. Someone once said to Daoud, the director of Tent of Nations, “You have papers from here but we have papers from God.” This is what they are up against to keep the land that their grandfather bought in 1916.

Daoud and his family have a very inspiring attitude towards this unjust struggle. ‘We must react in a different way’ they say. By this they mean that everything thrown at them is geared towards either forcing them to loose hope and give up or coaxing them to loose hope and get angry. But what this family rely on is the third, and too often overlooked option, to stand your ground, react in a human and peaceful way and, above all, keep hope alive. As you approach the gate of the farm, a stone sits strong by the side of the path and reads “We Refuse To Be Enemies”. For me, this says it all.

When asked if he does not get frustrated with the problems that they constantly face; their running water and electricity being cut off, a road block stopping easy access to the land, 250 olive trees once being uprooted by nearby settlers, the hundreds of dollars having to be found for legal fees, the threat of eventually being annexed off from Bethlehem, he replied “Yes, of course I feel frustrated but I try to turn this into energy for the farm.” While others might pick up a gun, throw stones or leave, he starts a new project and devotes himself to developing what they started in 2001.

In the few weeks that I was there, compost toilets were built, a new water cistern was dug and – most exciting of all – new solar panels were erected – sponsored by German charity, Green Helmets – giving them their very own source of electricity and making them truly a light on the mountain.

I hope that this light extends to others in the region, and that the message that a peaceful resistance to the occupation is possible can spread as far as possible to make the difference that is needed.

Personally, I would challenge anyone to visit Tent of Nations and not leave with a sense that anything can be achieved if you have half the sheer motivation, will-power and patience that this family put into making their dreams a reality.

If you are interested in finding out more about Tent of Nations and how you can help, please contact me at ruthcape@msn.com.

You can also check out the ToN website at www.tentofnations.org or read more about my stay there at http://www.travelpod.com/members/ruthcape.

Ruth Cape

September 2009

Ruth

Nanjing! Nanjing? Nanjing…

September 25, 2009

I really don’t get what is in any way “pro-Japanese” about this film. I spent most of it feeling like I was being continuously twisted tighter and tighter, squeezed until tears and horror were seeping even from the pores of my scalp. Never before have I cried like that even after the credits had finished flicking. Powerful bloody film. One of the best I have seen for a long long time. Watch it! (But not more than once).

nanjing-nanjing-04

Map of Summer Travels

September 3, 2009

Thought it was high time I uploaded a wee map of where we went this summer.

china map

0) Guangzhou 1) Chengdu 2) Kangding 3) Tagong 4) Ganzi 5) Dege 6) Mannegange 7) Cishu/ 8 ) Yushu 9) Xining 10) Huatugou 11) Shimiankuang (asbestos mine) 12) Cherkliq/Ruoqiang 13) Cherchen/Qiemo 14) Hotan/Hetian 15) Middle of nowhere in the desert 16) Yarkand/Sochefu 17) Kashi/Kasghar 18) Karakoul lake/Kalakulihu 19) Turpan/Tulufan 20) Urumqi/Wulumuqi 21) Tianchi 22) Lanzhou 23) Yinchuan! Home sweet home.

btw extremely unimpressed that the stolen-off-google map names every province in China except Ningxia :-/

Hotan for ourselves

September 2, 2009

We took the day sleeper-bus to Hotan. It was decked like a carriage from 1001 nights, with crimson and plum carpets tassling the beds. A tv blared arabic music and indian films, and the passangers lounged in the heat, men dressed in stripey shirts and caps, women in patterned cloth with colourful headscarves. The Uyghur language buzzed and hacked from inside and outside the bus, the assistant driver occasionally standing up to yell “everyone get off for the police checkpoint”, or “shoes OFF in the bus”. Of course we didn’t understand, but after looking around in plaintative confusion, a friendly lady with a toddler helped translate.

We got talking after she spotted me sweating over my teach-yourself-uyghur books, and let me practice “what is that? that is a X/Y/Z!” with her hyperactive son. “I work for an IT company in Urumqi, I’m travelling to Hotan for my cousin’s wedding, would you girls like to come?” guttingly the dates didn’t match. “never mind, I hope you enjoy Hotan, it’s a nice place.” “Why is your Chinese so good?” I asked her. “I think speaking Chinese is very important for us. If you don’t speak Chinese, you can’t expect to get a top job or a university education. So many of our people only go to Uyghur school and never learn to speak or read Chinese. But I am sending my son to Chinese kindergarten. Come on Adeel, say ni hao!” “ni hao auntie” squeeled the boy, then grinned and threw my book onto the floor. Many of the Uyghur people I spoke to were keen supporters of  learning Chinese… but obviously there is some selection bias as I could only talk to the folk who spoke it already.

We arrived in Hotan as it was getting dark, and got the impression of a noisy, bustling and overwhelmingly Uyghur town. Donkey carts clattered up and down the streets, as well as motorbikecarts with passengers sitting sidesaddle and dangling their legs over the edge. Nowhere cheap would let us stay unless we registered with the police, and the police insisted they were all “unsafe” and we must say somewhere “suitable for foreigners”. Worried about the potential expense of a hotel I explained “we’re students, can’t pay more than 25 yuan each” (though we’d prefer to pay 10 or 15) so they bundled us into a fancy car and drove us to one of the only registered places in town. It later turned out we’d got a discount because the police insisted they were not to charge us more than 25! Here we also saw the first other foreigners since entering Xinjiang – some guys from Pakistan over to do business. I felt a wave of cultural affinity when one started to interrogate me about cricket!

Donkey cart in a market street.

Donkey cart in a market street.

The next day we went to the Friday market and I wish I had pictures because it was fantastic! A huge bazaar full of silks and carpets and cloths and spices and fruits and busy, skilled, beautiful things being produced. Didn’t spot any Chinese there and really felt I’d been transplanted to another world (I’ve never been to an Arabic country). I bought a long green skirt and we all got some headscarves for the heat. In the afternoon I tried out wearing a headscarf to see if I blended. Sure enough, I could walk around the streets without anyone batting an eyelid at me. Except some women who looked at me funny – I wonder if because they sussed me, or because the way I’d tied the headscarf was like so 1990’s or sth. There seem to be dozens of different ways and apparently the fashions are constantly changing. I decided to return to the comfortable Brit-abroad style and display my stylish sunburn.

I also visited the carpet factory which was laid out like a huge public museum but had 0 visitors, so I just wondered undisturbed in and out of the rooms and generally all over the place. They had every step from washing and dying the wool, through spinning and stretching and then tying it into carpets by hand. As well as the typical glorious-harmonious-fantabulous communist-vocab explanation signs. A whole row of parrot-scarved girls grinned and wove blankets on machines, reminding me of film of Sheffield factories in the 60’s. One grinned and waved me over, speaking happily at me in Uyghur for about 5 minutes apparently not the slightest bit bothered that I understood not a word.

Hotan was also super for food, especially the area around the mosque. Since it was friday the mosque filled up with men for prayers, and some women and kids hang around outside waiting. Before it started, food stalls selling kebabs or rice with eggs or cold egg noodles rocked up, with drink stalls of date juice or yoghurt water mixed with huge lumps of ice kept cool under a knitted cover. There also seemed to be a major industry in trading stones (well to me they just looked like stones, some of them huge and heavy looking) as well as Hotan jade, which is internationally famous.

Here’s a couple of food pics:

Food1

Bread

restaurant

The pics are as before all courtesy of Joanne, and she’s got some really super ones of Southwestern Xinjiang and the area around Kashgar and Karakoul lake, so I’ll be nicking some of those later!

Btw the post title “Hotan for ourselves” is because apparently it’s usually full of tourists, but we didn’t see any. This is presumably because they were all scared away by the July 5th incident.

How to learn Uyghur

September 2, 2009

The Uyghur language used to be known by Europeans as “East Turkic” and is spoken by about 10m people in Xinjiang and around half a million outside. To learn the language, the following steps would be helpful:

1) learn to read the arabic script. except for a few decades in the late 20th century, the uyghurs have written mostly in arabic letters since they were islamicised a millenium ago. the recent blip was a shift to the roman alphabet organized by the chinese government. cynics suggest the return to arabic came about because they didn’t want uyghurs getting a headstart learning english and collaberating with roman-script-using enemies. (now that islamic terrorism has replaced the capitalist west as a direct threat to the region’s stability, this might seem a mistake). The more generous say this was simply the abondonment of an unpopular and overly zealous communist policy, and return to the traditional way of writing. Older people still have a fluid command of the roman script, but arabic has ubiquotously replaced it.

2) Speak Turkish, Kyrgyz, Tartar, Uzebkh or some other Turkic language. They’re all related and Uyghur so it would help hugely. Some of the grammar takes a bit to get your head around – for example the subject has to agree with the verb (I, You, He, all add endings if they are combined with the verb to have, eg it would be I-X have, You-Y have, He-Z has). The are also seem to be at least three different throaty h noises. In Kashgar I met quite a lot of central asians who spoke no chinese but communicated reasonably well with the locals via their own languages.

3) Go to Southern Xinjiang. In the area I was I met many, many, many people without Chinese. Even the simplest questions such as “how much?” or “where?” couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be understood.  English is actually more useful since some words (Maschina for car, kilo, bazaar) are similar. But even for the short amount of time we were there, teach-yourself-Uyghur books came in very handy indeed.

4) Look vaguely central asian. My friend who is half asian apparently looks chinese when she wears glasses and uyghur when she does not. when she did not, she was constantly talked at in uyghur. I also found that if I dressed less like a bratty brit abroad (ie less of the hawaiian shorts and more of the longsleeved shirts) the uyghur-spoken-at me levels went up astronomically.  

5) Read the menus. They often have a Uyghur/Chinese translation, so you can practice your food vocab. Actually Uyghur food has mixed up quite a lot with chinese, complete with loanwords, eg meefan for rice (mifan in chinese), laghman for pulled noodles (lamian in chinese). Of course this requires the arabic script. Take care when ordering random stuff off the menu in uyghur – they might think you’re serious and really do want a lump of deepgrilled fat on a stick.

The longer I stayed in Xinjiang for, the more I was struck by a curious desire to come back some day and study Uyghur probably. One real draw is that as an indoeuropean you can mingle much more with the crowd than in chinese areas where you’ll always be the laowai. Also I met folk who had used it to great effect in other central asia countries, or vice versa. Actually I met a few really impressive characters in Xinjiang, including a french girl who spoke fluent Tajik (which interestingly is not turkic but close to persian) and had travelled widely in Afganistan, and an American who spoke extremely good Uyghur. There were also a pleasantly surprising number of Han Chinese who spoke or were learning Uyghur. This was markedly different from Western Sichuan/Southern Qinghai when I didn’t meet any locally based Chinese leraning Tibetan.

However unless I end up living in Xinjiang, Uyghur probably won’t rank that high on my language to-learn wish-list. Which is still topped, as it has been since I was 14, by Russian. One day…

Is it good to believe?

September 1, 2009

There’s something that really bothers me about the church, and has bothered me since I was a child. It is the confusion of belief with morals.

The term “morals” is of course problematic and I’m just using it in the most general sense of “values we think are good”. I tend to think most “morals” can be boiled down to love, truth and action. Love meaning caring about other people and the world, truth meaning seeking to base our understanding on reality, and action meaning living our lives in a way that respects or even fights for truth and love. Most other morals are a combination or extension of these.

The christian church puts these values at the forefront of its message. God embodies all of them – he is love, truth and life. He created everything and it is our duty to love him, to search for truth for him, and to live for him. In the search for truth, the church has splintered into branches catering for those with a wide variety of different conclusions about what is true. Christianity is great for the believer.

The problem occurs when the church comes into contact with non-believers. In particular, non-believers with a strong sense of moral purpose, who also put love, truth and action at the centre of their universe. Christians score very highly on the love front – loving the sinner and the heathen is at the core of the message (although there are some widespread slipups, eg homophobia) – and on the action front, via community action and evangelism. The point of dispute is truth.

The truth of Christianity and the existence of God have never been proven by science or philosophy. They have never been disproven either. Many people devote years to searching, but ultimately, all seekers come to one of three conclusions:

God exists. God does not exist. We cannot know whether or not God exists. (The fourth one being, I don’t know/don’t care)

What is the difference between holders of these opinions? OK background and upbringing is a major factor, but the real seekers will acquire/discard/change their religion if necessary. These are people who really value moral truth, and are prepared to question everything they know in the search for a sincere and real understanding of the universe. Since these seekers can be found among atheists, agnostics and christians alike, we need a way to differentiate. And the difference is belief.

It’s howlingly obvious of course, but the difference between a christian and a non-christian simply boils down to belief. The Christian believes in the christian God, and the non-christian does not. Intellectually serious christians do not claim that God can be proven or found without faith. Arguments about the creation of the universe or the source of morals are irrelevant unless you are willing to make that leap, to put your trust and your life in God, as did Abraham, as did Paul, as can any person. The non-christian may want to believe, but they do not. They may search for a God, but they do not find him, though they come across many explanations for why people tend to believe in religion. They conclude that he does not exist at all, or that he exists for some people but not for others, or that we’ll just never know.

On the face of it, it shouldn’t be too difficult for these two groups, the non-christians and the christians, to work together. They both value truth, love and action, they just see them as coming from a different source. Both groups produce idealists, activists, realists, fighters, fantastic people. Both groups have been involved in individual and institutionalised lying, killing, abusing, and other misdemeanours. We could accept that belief makes us different, but that all people are searching together to do what is right and it is good. But we do not, and this is my problem with the church.

The church says that unbelievers are going to hell. OK not all churches say it in so many words, but that is the basic idea. There are two types of people in the world, the sheep and the goats, the lost and the found, the in and the out. If you are in then no matter how many problems you have, we can help you. If you are out then we’ll try to save your soul, but ultimately if you refuse to come in from the cold then you’re a hopeless case. Furthermore, you are a problem. Unbelievers may think they are searching and fighting for love and truth, but they are like blind people lost in the dark, and heading in the wrong direction. They are to be pitied, assisted, evangelised, and kept away from our children.

OK I do Christianity a bit of a disservice. Lots of individual christians are perfectly tolerant and accepting of non-believers. Many see them as no different or worse than themselves. But from an institutional perspective, there are very few churches which fully respect the non-believer. The four churches I’ve had the most direct contact with; Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran, all state that to be the best person you can be you must believe in God. The methodist, orthodox and pentacostalist churches are also pretty strident on this point. The only ones I have come across which seem genuinely open minded and accepting of the unbeliever are the unitarian universalists and the quakers. Who are generally considered as soppy, hippyish, wishy-washy and barely christian. As well as small and shrinking. It is much easier to hold your church together if you can convince your congregation that you are the ONLY way to God.

This is quite simply a confusion of morals with belief. Since it is saying that to be a good person you must not only behave as you think is correct and right, you must also believe in God. Indeed if you do not believe in God, then your moral compass will be completely off balance. What you think is good and true, is not. It may be misguided, harmful, or even evil. But what if you really, sincerely, from the bottom of your heart, just don’t believe? If you search but you do not find? If you pray on your knees to be enlightened, but hear nothing back? If you ask Christians laymen and clergy for help, and are told that all you have to do is to make that leap and believe, and you try, but at the back of your mind a voice is saying “this is nonsense, I cannot accept that this is true, I honestly do not believe.” What then?

In the eyes of the church, your lack of belief means just one thing. You are bad. All people are bad (we are born in original sin, we put Jesus on the cross, even though we are Christians we are still tainted and sinful, but at least through the church we have some chance of salvation), but you are willfully, knowingly, bad beyond help. You are bad and you refuse the medicine that would cure you. You are bad and you say things which may corrupt the church, corrupt other christians. A kind church will not condemn you out of hand. Perhaps you are not bad, you are just lost and confused. You are to be pitied and helped. But ultimately, you are not only different to Christians, but on some level of the moral hierarchy, you are inferior.

Where does this judgement fit in amongst the other moral values? We’re not saying you lack love, lack truth, or action, but simply that you lack belief. And if you lack belief, then the loving, truthful way to behave is in a way that reflects your lack of belief. Otherwise you’re being hypocritical and insincere. Likewise if the church really puts love and truth before other values (such as the value of saying you believe in God or agreeing with the church – even if you don’t), then it should respect very highly the non-believers who strive for these values. Even if their struggle may conflict with some of the interests of the church. The only way to rationally continue to see nonbelievers as morally inferior, is to position belief as a moral value on its own.

If belief has a moral value, then we must be able to distinguish between “good” belief (a la mother theresa) and “bad” belief (a la spanish inquisition). How do we decide which beliefs are justified and which are not? Usually we do this using truth. If the belief seems to conflict with reality it must be false. We can also use love – if the believe contributes to major suffering and unhappiness, it should probably also be discarded. And the third feeling – just knowing – is not a justification but rather a sympton of its presence. And lets say that you you think belief in God is of high moral value, than that also implies God truly exists for everyone in one particular way and is good… but in that case a true seeker armed with love and truth should be able to find him. Which means either all non-believers really ARE morally inferior to believers, or belief is not a moral value.

And if belief is not a moral value, then the church has no business going around separating people into two groups like this. No business telling us that christians are better than non-christians, or that it is morally superior in any way. Furthermore, by behaving like this, the church is violating the very values of truth which it seeks to uphold, through God. Which is a shame. The church does not genuinely seek to understand those who do not believe or to explore the secrets of the universe and God together. Instead it denounces them or keeps them at arms length.

This is my main problem with the church. To say you believe God is everything, fair enough. To say you believe you must work through the church for truth and love, fair enough. To say that only you have found the only way and anyone who doesn’t believe you is fucked up? That contradicts the very principles you stand on,  it undermines everything you say.

This argument is obviously quickly formed and full of holes. If by some miracle you have read through my tedious ill-construed ramblings to this point, and if you disagree either with the whole or any part of my argument, I’d be really grateful if you’d let me know why/where/how. In particular, how would you justify the attitude of the church towards non-believers?

The Southern silk road

September 1, 2009

We arrived in Charkliq (Ruo Qiang 若羌) hot, smelly and knackered after 50 hours by bus, and were immediately struck by the pleasant relaxed atmosphere of the town. It was like a sprawling oasis of bungalows,dusty melons, and leaf-shady trees. The population seemed mixed about half uyghur half han, not surprising since it’s so close to the Qinghai border and the asbestos mines/oil industry. We had intended to leave immediately and head onwards for Kashgar, but since there was no afternoon bus we just knuckled down in a cheap hostel to enjoy our first evening in Xinjiang. 

Whereas the day time was ridiculously hot and dry, the evening was about perfect, though there were a few stares at the foreign girls in shorts. It was my first time travelling to a majority muslim area and I felt an immediate need to aquire long-sleeved shirts and trousers so as to fit in. It’s hard to describe how different it felt from the rest of China, really almost like a different country despite the usual communist banners/signs and identically stocked corner shops. The Uyghur people look a lot like europeans and eat a lot like europeans, with lots of bread and milk-products. Though for dinner we had sortof hybrid uyghur/chinese food which was absolutely delicious.

In the morning we struck off westewards along the southern silkroad, which has branched off in order to skirt around the south of the Taklamakan desert. Crack-dry fields with stickily plants gave way to real desert with swirling hot wind and distant sand-dunes. The sides of the road were tightly plaited with reeds to stop the sand constantly blowing over the road, but it was still slow going and with police checkpoints ever increasing in frequency. The checkpoints had started in roughly the centre of Qinghai province, with all passengers being hauled off the bus to show their ID cards and explain themselves to the police. Since ever han person we talked to warned us we MUST NOT go to xinjiang, we had lied and told the police our destination was Pakistan, which after some grumbling they accepted. Of course to get to Pakistan you have to go through southern Xinjiang, so now we continued to repeat our story. But the checkpoints here were more hardcore than before. Often they would require women to take off their headscarves and would photograph them along with their ID card. Posters of dozens of people wanted in contection with the June 5th Urumqi violence featured prominently at the check points. Police scanned the passengers for any similarities. Then let us continue. 

The second town where we stopped was Cherchen (Qiemo 且末), quite a bit bigger in the last. This is a proper regional centre, and once quite an important trading post on the silk road. PLA military tooted up and down the main street and the cheap hostel refused to take foreigners, though eventually we persuaded them it was OK. We spent the morning seeing the sites – a museum (which I thought was very good) and most excitingly, the mummies! To get a taxi there we first had to go to the museum and register with security and borrow a key, then drive back across town and out into the edge of the desert, where a square field was irongated off. The taxi driver opened a rusty padlock and brought us through to a shedlike boxhouse of one room, in the middle of which the excavation pit lay beneath a smooth layer of glass. At the bottom lay 12 or so wrinkled mummies, well-preserved in the exceptionally dry climate. They are indo-europeans! What more, the time they died was shortly before the volkervanderwung pushed our germanic ancestors out of central asia and into europe, where they eventually invaded england and pushed their influence far into scotland and ireland. we could even be related! I was feeling more at home in Xinjiang than ever. 

In the evening we wondered through the shadow-sloping streets, which seemed more middle eastern than anything else. Shops sold carpets silk and spices, restaurants grilled kebabs and had pretty metal tanks set up to wash your hands. The mosque was tall and well-tended (and strictly off limits to girls) and stalls were piled with melons, grapes, figs and other desert delights. I later realised this is a pretty rich place by Xinjiang standards, and not everywhere looks as healthy and self-satisfied. For dinner I accidentally ordered a whole dove on a stick, but luckily there were lamb noodles and ice tea to wash it down. The restaurant owners spoke not a single word of chinese, and I was dumbstruck at not being able to communicate. You get so used to the idea that you can just travel anywhere in China and people can at least communicate the basics, but here they just glared and started talking loudly at us in Uyghur. I was like, what is this?!

So we got a couple of teach-yourself-Uyghur books to read on the bus to Hotan tomorrow 😀