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Book Review: The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China

Arts & Entertainment

By Erik Durneika, 2015 All-USA Coca-Cola Bronze Scholar

41mR7zpjR9L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_In the book The Emperor Far Away (2014), world-renowned journalist David Eimer paints a realistic picture of post-Maoist China. Eimer travels to the far-flung regions of the country where the nation’s plethora of ethnicities dwell. The author emphasizes the fact that this East Asian nation is much more diverse than the stereotypical “Han-oriented” ideas of many Western individuals. Mr. Eimer spends time with the Uighurs in Western China, a Muslim ethnic group; he treks the land of the Tibetans, a distinct Buddhist minority; he lives among the Dai in the hills of Yunnan Province; and he finishes his trip in the Northeastern region of primarily ethnic Manchus and Koreans. Besides emphasizing these aforesaid groups’ traditions, social values, religions, and lifestyles, David Eimer records these ethnic people’s relationship with the current Communist regime of the People’s Republic of China (the CCP). Furthermore, he compares and contrasts the government’s views on the varying ethnic minorities. For example, the Dai are idealized by the CCP for their obedience, whereas the Uighurs are scrutinized for attempting to maintain their distinct ethnic identity.

Before entirely reading the book, I was eager to learn about the exact meaning of the title. I wondered to myself: Is it a historical novel that explains a rich timeline of Chinese dynasties, or is it a work that “dissects” contemporary issues that exist within this particular nation? As I began reading the book itself, it became evident that the title—The Emperor Far Away—is connected to the Ancient Chinese proverb of “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” This refers to the vast reaches of the Chinese country, but it simultaneously expresses the Beijing government’s inability to fully control the lives of all distant ethnic minority individuals. Essentially, the saying refers to the incapability of the Han Chinese people to fully “tame” minorities in distant provinces. The author created only a faint pre-reading connection between the cover, title, and struggle of the ethnic groups with the CCP, but the barren photo cover of a lone figure timelessly standing amid a beige-colored sea of sand invites further reading in order to gain more details. Eimer’s introduction is strong, descriptive, and informative, which is a characteristic that many authors strive to create.

This book fits very easily into the genre of non-fiction travel literature. Besides creating a historical backbone, Eimer also develops characters by interviewing ethnic minorities in order to gather their varying views on the CCP government’s actions and laws. The Uighurs of Xinjiang province view the CCP as malicious people who attempt to publicly erase Uighur history and heritage, while the Dai “happily” assimilate with the Han Chinese culture. The following quote from the book reiterates the CCP’s oppressive skepticism towards the Uighurs, as well as the governing body’s starkly contrasting trust in the Dai people: “… Banna’s [the region where the Dai live] near-open borders are in part due to Beijing’s belief that the minorities here pose no threat to its hegemony. Unlike the Uighurs with their stealthy separatist groups, there is no Dai or Akha nationalist movement.”

Eimer essentially creates a multidimensional work that captures the essence of traveling with a purpose. He richly illustrates his surroundings by incorporating information on the new foods that he tries, the differing mentalities and outlooks of the minorities, and the metamorphosing daily lives of these various ethnic people. The author provides his own experiences of traveling throughout these exotic lands within China as well as of immersing himself in the cultures of China’s borderlands. The following quote from the book is a reminder of the so-called “shady-nature” of this Southern paradise, “It would be a journey through the heart of the Golden Triangle, one of the world’s most lawless zones [bootlegging, drugs, Opium production, etc.] and the last great gathering place for the minorities of South-east Asia who still resist the concept of statehood.”

David Eimer provides the reader with regional maps of China, which feature the cities that he journeyed through. These maps are helpful visual aids to a reader, since they include physical/geological sites, cities, provincial locations, and bordering nations. These geographical tools contribute to the overall travelogue format of this book. Eimer usefully divides the book into four separate parts: 1) The Northwestern Province of Xinjiang and Central Asian Neighbors; 2) Tibet; 3) Yunnan Province and Southeast Asian Neighbors; and 4) The Northeastern Provinces (including: Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning Provinces). He devotes an equal amount of attention to each section, creating a smooth and well-balanced flow by first focusing on the most heavily “outlawed” ethnic group to the most accepted minority within China’s modern-day boundaries.

In conclusion, David Eimer’s The Emperor Far Away is a mesmerizing look at a largely unknown handful of ethnic minorities in the People’s Republic of China. Mr. Eimer continuously strives to bestow a sense of curiosity upon the reader(s)—literally from the front cover until the last word. The book is not the traditional narrow view of China but is a collection of multiple insights that range from Eimer’s own experiences to historical facts. Eimer further documents the lives and traditions of neighboring relatives, in nearby countries, of various Chinese ethnic groups, creating a thorough understanding of several Chinese minority groups. He details the beauties of the ethnic groups in this specific Asian nation while recording their relationships, both positive and negative, with the atheistic governing CCP in a read that is simply intriguing and well-rounded!

Header photo by melenama (flickr creative commons license)

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