This book is the result of so many years of research and writing that I can hardly stand to look at it anymore. It has taken me from Seattle to San Diego, Taipei to Beijing, Urumchi to Kashgar, Istanbul to Nanjing, and London to Washington, DC. I long wished for a suitable analogy to convey this experience to friends and family, but I never found one. Then I came across the following entry in the diary of Wu Zhongxin, governor of Xinjiang during the mid-1940s. On March 1, 1946, Wu recalled the belated realization of his long desired dream: passage on a plane out of Xinjiang. The “plane experienced horrendous turbulence, and many passengers vomited in the cabin” as it passed through thick cloud cover and ferocious winds, the aged and battered aircraft lurching and weaving through mountain peaks, on several occasions nearly colliding with rocky outcroppings. Huddled uncomfortably in a drafty cabin without seats, Wu listened anxiously as the pilot cursed and sweated, wondering why they had taken off in the first place. “Though the weather was not conducive to flying today,” the pilot later told him, “there were so many well-wishers at the airport, all giving us a grand and enthusiastic farewell, that it would have been a severe letdown to all if we had not taken off.” When they eventually landed, they were many hours behind schedule.
That, in a nutshell, is the early life cycle of a professional historian and his monograph. For those of us fortunate enough to land safely, there are few greater pleasures than to thank the many well-wishers who paid for our tickets, saw us off at the airport, held our hands through turbulence, and forgave all our cursing and sweating. For putting me on that plane and giving me the tools to weather the storm, no one deserves more thanks than Joseph Esherick and Paul Pickowicz. Joe knows exactly when someone must be built up and when someone must be torn down. In deeming my immature scribblings “appalling,” he ensured that later incarnations would not be such (at least, I can only hope). I thank Paul for many, many things, but none more than teaching me the importance of presentation and packaging. I now know that it is okay to have a PhD and still care about my audience. Sarah Schneewind is the intellectual equivalent of the legendary iron maiden, in which no bad idea goes unimpaled. Unlike the victims of the iron maiden, however, hers emerge much the wiser. For shepherding me through the intricacies of Russian and Soviet empires, I thank Bob Edelman. It is the rare scholar indeed who can impart trenchant insight with a book in one hand and a melting ice cream cone in the other. I am also grateful to Gary Fields and Hasan Kayali for their early enthusiasm and insights regarding my work.
No one has been as constant a friend or as reliable a critic in recent years as Judd Kinzley. I cannot think of anyone else in the world with whom I can discuss the careers of various Xinjiang governors while locking horns in Mario Super Sluggers. (And who else in our line of work can claim the pleasure of having heard him sing the entire score of Mary Poppins?) For smoothing my transition to San Diego and generously sharing their considerable wisdom and experience in the field, I am indebted to Jeremy Brown and Matt Johnson. I recall with fondness my many interactions with James Wicks and do not blame him for my failure to master the surfboard. Maggie Greene and Emily Baum are dear friends whose precocious accomplishments daily invert the hierarchy that once saddled them with the most unpleasant of camping duties. David Chang and Jeremy Murray are generous souls and worthy debate foes, even when they only debate each other. I owe a special thanks to Ernie Esser, who shipped a valuable book across the Pacific when I needed it most. I know he would have read this book with interest, despite its complete and unforgivable lack of algorithms.
I have been fortunate to benefit in a myriad of ways from the knowledge and expertise of many of the top scholars in the field of Xinjiang studies. Pride of place goes to James Millward, who read and commented extensively on two substantially different versions of this manuscript. He helped me think through and clarify some of the thorniest and most intractable theoretical problems in my work. I am also grateful to Linda Benson and Ingvar Svanberg for their early encouragement of my research and generous sharing of contacts throughout Eurasia. Victor Mair has likewise been steadfast and magnanimous in his support. I have benefited immensely from close collaboration with David Brophy and Charles Kraus, both of whom are always forthcoming with new sources, insights, and expert knowledge on all things Xinjiang. Much the same can be said of Eric Schluessel and Joshua Freeman, with whom I look forward to sharing many decades of intellectual stimulation.
My interest in China and its Central Asian borderlands was first stoked as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. Bi laoshi was relentless in her pursuit of tonal perfection, and Chris Dakin was my earliest and most companionable informant on all things China and Taiwan. I regret to note that my congenial Uighur-language instructor, who continually went above and beyond the call of duty, prefers not to be named. Daniel Waugh, who introduced me to the Silk Road and the Great Game, bears most of the responsibility for my unhealthy obsession with Xinjiang. Robert Stevick provided the professional and intellectual model for an academic, one that I have striven to emulate in my own career. Though I have left Old English and Beowulf far behind, I have never forgotten his useful adage that the -es declension always represents the masculine singular genitive—except when it doesn’t. Kent Guy’s enthusiasm for the Qing was so infectious that it was difficult not to want his job. When I told him this, he took me out to lunch and told me how to get it. I am grateful to David Bachman for overseeing my first attempt at conducting research, and for his early encouragement to try my hand in peer review. Few things can replace the sheer love of learning and intellectual discovery that characterized my interactions with Deborah Porter. No one lights a fire in the mind like she does. Stevan Harrell was an incisive and enthusiastic critic for my master’s thesis and most directly responsible for my commitment to become a professional historian. I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him at both ends of the academic spectrum, as both student and peer. His comments on this manuscript improved it immensely. It has also been an instructive delight to work with Lorri Hagman, who has made the publication process as painless as possible. From an earlier life, I recall with fondness time spent learning from Lynn Jacobson, who showed me how satisfying a life of writing and ideas could be. Last but not least, I thank Andrew Marble for tutoring me in the joys of grumpy editing.
At American University, I find myself blessed to have landed in an extraordinarily collegial and supportive department. From the very first day, Max Paul Friedman has served as an unfailingly supportive friend and mentor, from job talk blizzards to real estate in the suburbs and DC bicycling routes. As chair of the department, Pam Nadell has shown touching concern and steadfast support for the plight of a junior scholar. I could not have asked for better colleagues or a more supportive department.
An earlier version of chapter 6 appeared in the Journal of Cold War Studies as “Exile Island: Xinjiang Refugees and the ‘One China’ Policy in Nationalist Taiwan, 1949–1971.” I am grateful to MIT Press for permission to reprint portions of that article here.
Last but not least is the family that has watched my life from afar this past decade and more, ever confident that the roots they laid down would one day bear fruit. From the day I was born, my parents, Jan and Candy, have devoted every possible attention and resource to my education, both within the classroom and without. Never did I lack for anything, and never were my crazy ideas and travel plans met with discouragement or derision. My elder brother Jeff blazed all the paths and erected all the signposts that a younger brother could possibly want. To fail when so much of the foundation had already been laid down would be most embarrassing.
Writing a book is a profoundly isolating and lonely experience. Having a supportive wife and noisy kids makes it slightly less so. Sasha and Lance give meaning to the life I lead when I am not in Rapunzel’s tower. May they always scream at me to let down my hair. My wife, Cindy, has been with me through everything. Only for her do words do no justice. Here’s to where we’ve been, and to where we’re still going.