Written by Julie Yu-wen Chen.
In October 2013, the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan held an essay competition, called Stories of Me and China. There were 140 essays submitted for competition, and eventually 38 were selected for publication in a book entitled 我和中国的故事/Моя история с Китаем, which literally translates as Stories of me and China. All 38 stories were published in both Russian and Chinese in this book.
我和中国的故事/Моя история с Китаем (Stories of me and China) is not an academic book. The fact that all of the stories presented show the positive relationship between the people of Kazakhstan and China is of little surprise. Nevertheless, reading through the stories gives us the substance of interactions between people from Kazakhstan and China, which are hard to capture in academic analysis.
The contributors of these stories are mostly elite Kazakhs, either in economic terms and/or in terms of their educational level, ranging from government officials, professors, and businessmen to journalists and university students. The common discourse that these stories reveal is an impression of Chinese people being hardworking and friendly. The admiration of the long history and rich culture of China is also often noted by contributors.
Each contributor’s encounter with China is unique. For instance, in the article titled as “My Chinese doctor and me,” a 67-year-old teacher recalled her decision to undergo a medical operation in China. She was touched by the friendliness and professionalism of the people who had helped her in the Chinese hospital.
Universities are places where young people from both countries met and got to learn about each other’s culture. In an article titled “Our friendship continues,” a Kazakh student met a Kazakh from Ürümqi, China when they lived in a dormitory together. Years later, the Kazakh student attended her Chinese-Kazakh friend’s wedding in Ürümqi and had the opportunity to meet people of other ethnic origins, such as Chinese Uyghurs and Tatars. Apart from “Our friendship continues,” there are other stories depicting the friendship cultivated between Chinese and Kazakh, either in Kazakh universities or in Chinese universities. Not all of these university encounters occurred in recent years. In one article, the author was among of one of the early batches of students sent by the Soviet Union to study at Peking University.
Among people of senior age who contributed to the book, there are stories of the harsh situation in Kazakhstan in the old days and how Kazakhs moved to China in search of a better life. For instance, a 66-year-old writer remembered how the 1917 revolution led her grandparents and her mother to move to China. “A lot of people who did not leave the country died of hunger,” she recalled.
Love stories also depicted encounters between Chinese and Kazakhs. A Kazakh couple met in Xian while learning Chinese together and eventually got married. They even invited their Chinese language teacher to attend the wedding. In another article titled “China is with us,” the author used a number of poems to express her admiration of China. Reading between the lines, one comes to realize that the author might have met a Chinese lover in Kazakhstan or a foreign country. “I have never been to your country, but China is always between us,” she wrote sentimentally. The article ended with the author writing about her strong feelings for the lover who left and returned to China.
Physical contact and visits were not the only means where fondness for China grew. A writer, self-identifying himself as a “worker” (which is distinctly different from the other seemingly elitist authors) expressed that his story with China began with a Friendship-branded towel that was produced in China. In the 1950s, his mother used her whole month’s wage to buy this towel and continued to use it for decades, eventually passing it on to her granddaughter. The towel had been with the family for more than 63 years.
A towel, and perhaps images of Chinese landscapes and architecture, can serve as a medium for people to develop feelings for and imagination of the country. I find the article titled “A magical country called Tianxia” a bit incomprehensible, but maybe it was never meant to be comprehensible. The author expressed that she has been telling her daughter all kinds of stories since she was a child. One of the stories she likes to tell is about Tianxia. In Chinese, the term “Tianxia” literally means “all under the heaven.” It is often perceived as a literary expression of China. The Tianxia depicted by the mother, the storyteller, is a place with happiness, wealth, and success. People in Tianxia are hardworking and many innovations were made there. I find the utopian narration disturbing, and I do not think offering children unrealistic, stereotyped imaginations of people in another country is meaningful for educational purposes. I appreciate the breadth of the stories that are presented in 我和中国的故事/Моя история с Китаем (Story of me and China). From the point of view of fostering Sino-Kazakh relations, the book was published with good intentions. But this imaginative piece is exceptionally disappointing.
In academic publications written in English, there is not much updated work on how people in Kazakhstan perceive China despite the growing ties between the two countries politically and economically. Existing literature does not always offer a positive and sanguine picture as 我和中国的故事/Моя история с Китаем (Stories of me and China) has portrayed. While the Kazakh government values the relationship with China for various strategic reasons (Clarke 2014), survey analysis and some expert observations have suggested that Kazakhstan’s citizens sometimes have fears towards the Chinese people and China as a neighboring country (Laruelle and Peyrouse 2012; Sadovskaya 2007; Syroezhkin 2009). Fears of an influx of Chinese migrants and Chinese products to Kazakhstan, increasing wage gap between local and Chinese laborers, as well as stories about Chinese spying in Kazakhstan have all contributed to certain mystical phobias towards the Chinese and China as a whole.
Awareness and understanding of issues related to China and Chinese people have a role to play in affecting Kazakhstan’s perceptions. For instance, studies have found that inhabitants in Almaty, the old political and administrative capital that is geographically closer to China, demonstrate more knowledge of that country than do inhabitants in other parts of Kazakhstan (Syroezhkin 2009). This reminds me of another story in 我和中国的故事/Моя история с Китаем (Stories of me and China). The author’s father was a shepherd and he remembers a lot of friendly interactions with their Chinese neighbors at the Sino-Kazakh border. In general, quite a number of other stories also imply that citizens of Kazakhstan are more familiar with the Xinjiang province and Ürümqi, which are geographically adjacent to Kazakhstan, and that exchanges at the Sino-Kazakh border could spurn mutual understanding and appreciation.
Academic studies also show that the public in Kazakhstan is more interested in contemporary and practical issues related to China, such as economic development, foreign policy, and socio-demographic issues in China, than in Chinese culture (Syroezhkin 2009). 我和中国的故事/Моя история с Китаем (Stories of me and China) as a non-academic book interestingly showcases a more diverse pattern, in that while it is true that some citizens of Kazakhstan are drawn to China’s socio-economic achievement, we also see how fascination with the Chinese culture can drive some to learn the language and visit China.
Currently, I am working with Aziz Burkhanov to analyze how China and Chinese people are perceived by the people of Kazakhstan using discourse analysis of Russian and Kazakh language newspapers in Kazakhstan. We detect that state-sponsored newspapers, be it in Russian or Kazakhs, have a positive depiction, which is in line with the country’s policy to foster economic and political relationships with China. Private Kazakh newspapers can deliver negative stereotypes and are critical of Kazakhstan’s engagement with China. Academic analysis does not undermine the wonderful real life stories that have been recorded in 我和中国的故事/Моя история с Китаем (Stories of me and China). They complement each other and enrich our understanding of the many possibilities of how relationships between the two countries could develop.
Julie Yu-Wen Chen is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan and Executive Editor of Asian Ethnicity.
Clarke, Michael. 2014. “Kazakh Responses to the Rise of China: Between Elite Bandwagoning and Societal Ambivalence?” In Asian Thought on China’s Changing International Relations, edited by Niv Horesh and Emilian Kavalski, 141-172. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Laruelle, Marlene, and Sebastien Peyrouse. 2012. The Chinese Question in Central Asia: Domestic Order, Social Change and the Chinese Factor. London: Hurst & Co.
Sadovskaya, Elena Y. 2007. “Chinese Migration to Kazakhstan: A Silk Road for Cooperation or a Thorny Road for Prejudice?” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 5(4): 147-170.
Syroezhkin, Konstantin. 2009. “Social Perceptions of China and the Chinese: A View from Kazakhstan.” Journal of Eurasian Studies 7(1): 29-46.