Like many in China, Liu Zichao used to consider Central Asia a strange and mysterious land.
The former journalist recalls being on an assignment in the western Chinese city of Khorgos in 2010 and a local truck driver telling him that on the other side of the snow-capped mountains ahead of them lay Almaty.
At the time, the name meant little to Liu. His knowledge of Kazakhstan, he says, was limited to a vague sense of its history as a stopping point along the ancient Silk Road and its socialist past as part of the Soviet Union.
Now, however, Liu is single-handedly putting the countries of Central Asia on the map in China, as his travelogue “Among the Stans: A Central Asian Journey” has become a surprise hit with Chinese readers.
A view along the M41, a road cutting through Central Asia also known as the Pamir Highway, July 2018. Courtesy of Liu Zichao
The 36-year-old has described the book as an attempt to acquaint himself and his compatriots with “our most unfamiliar neighbors” — a task that seems even more urgent given China’s growing presence in the region.
China shares a land border with three Central Asian nations — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan — and has invested billions in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative. Yet to ordinary Chinese, as one reviewer of “Among the Stans” put it, it often feels like Central Asia “only exists in the state broadcaster’s daily newsreels.”
Liu, who worked for the leading Chinese media firm Southern Media Group before becoming a full-time writer in 2016, gives his readers a ground-level tour of the region, retracing the routes once trodden by the 7th century Buddhist monk Xuanzang and describing the lives of individuals he met along the way.
Through these encounters, Liu paints a portrait of a region wrestling with a state of “weightlessness” in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, with his acquaintances often striving for a sense of identity and belonging.
“Among the Stans” became a breakout hit in China after its release last year, receiving more upvotes than any other nonfiction book on review site Douban. An excerpt from the book released ahead of publication, meanwhile, won an honorable mention in the 2019 True Story Award. For Liu, the hope is that the book’s unexpected success may presage a golden era for Chinese travel writing.
Despite China’s rapid emergence as a global power, with millions of Chinese moving abroad each year to work and study, the market for writing about other countries is remarkably small. Taiwanese writer Sanmao is one of only a handful of Chinese-language travel authors to have achieved mainstream popularity.
According to Liu, the lack of Chinese voices demystifying the world for readers back home is a problem. In December, the author sat down with Sixth Tone to discuss “Among the Stans” and why he believes Chinese journalists and writers urgently need to fill a “massive gap” in their coverage of the outside world. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Writer Liu Zichao poses for a photo, 2020. Courtesy of Liu Zichao
Sixth Tone: “Among the Stans” is one of the first travel books about Central Asia by a Chinese author, and it has won acclaim from critics and readers. Has the book’s success come as a surprise to you?
Liu Zichao: I didn’t expect the book to be so popular. But I also wasn’t worried about sales figures when I was writing, because I knew I’d given it everything. The project just felt right to me.
By the time I began working on this book, I was very clear about what kind of writing I wanted to do. I wanted to set the individual stories of the people I met against a wider historical backdrop, to try and understand the trends of the times and get a sense of where they might be heading.
There are two aspects of Central Asia’s history that form the kernel of my book. One is that the region has a rich culture and history, and used to be closely tied to China in ancient times. The other is the collapse of the Soviet Union, as my book focuses on the 30 years after this key event.
The fall of the Soviet Union isn’t distant history, and you can meet many people in the region who’ve lived through it. Actually, many cities left from the Soviet times feel very similar to Beijing. We share some common memories of communism, and it’s easy for us to understand what each other is talking about.
A Soviet military uniform covered in badges, Oct. 6, 2017. Courtesy of Liu Zichao
Sixth Tone: How do people in China generally perceive Central Asia?
Liu: They’re curious, just like I was 10 years ago when I thought of the region as a mysterious land. They’ll often reference the Western Regions — events that happened during the ancient Tang or Han dynasties. Their knowledge of things after that, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is often very low.
Sixth Tone: What inspired you to write the book?
Liu: I hoped my experience might inspire young Chinese writers to challenge themselves to write about other countries. I wanted to show them it’s not something entirely out of reach. When I first started, I barely knew anything about Central Asia. But as you travel, read, meet people, and listen to their stories, you slowly peel the onion and come to understand their world.
Too often, when you travel abroad, you’ll find there are many things about the outside world that have never been covered in-depth by serious Chinese media. It’s an issue. In today’s world, you can’t simply rely on reports from outlets like The New York Times. Nowadays, people are so divided, you naturally expect there’s another side to the story. You need to make your own voice heard.
Apart from my book, no one has ever written seriously about Central Asian societies in Chinese. The same is true for Africa and the Middle East. Just pick a place, and you could be the first to write about it. There’s a massive gap. Younger writers should be trying to fill it.
Sixth Tone: For many aspiring Chinese writers, funding is a big challenge. How did you overcome this?
Liu: I just put my own money into it. I had to cover most of my own travel expenses. My trip to the Soviet-era nuclear test site near Semey cost me almost my entire savings at the time. For this book, I received a 50,000 yuan ($7,700) grant from the One-way Street Foundation, a charity foundation run by Beijing’s One-way Street book store that supports artistic projects, and put in another 100,000 yuan from my own pocket. I told my publishers that the first 15,000 copies sold were just for covering the costs.
Unlike in other countries, writers in China receive very limited financial support. Besides One-way Street, I don’t know any Chinese foundations doing this. Many Chinese firms go abroad, but they rarely have the foresight to support writers looking to research other societies. I hope this changes in the future.
Workers navigate a path near the Aral Sea, Oct. 9, 2017. Courtesy of Liu Zichao
Abandoned fishing boats sit on the dried-up floor of the Aral Sea in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, Oct. 10, 2017. Courtesy of Liu Zichao
Sixth Tone: Why do you think it’s so important for Chinese people to become more informed about the world?
Liu: China is becoming a globalized country. But if people don’t have their own take on things, it’ll be difficult to operate as a global player. In Africa and Central Asia, many of the Chinese people I met didn’t speak English and purely went there out of a desire for wealth. They’re gold-diggers. And when they go abroad without learning about the local culture, it’s easy for there to be a lot of misunderstandings.
For Chinese companies, it also matters. Since they don’t understand the local rules, they tend to apply the lessons they learned from doing business over the past two decades at home: working with the government and corrupt institutions. This is what they learned in China, seeking guanxi (connections) and bribery, right? On the other hand, these companies also don’t have much of a voice since no writers go there to tell their side of the story.
Sixth Tone: What did the local people you met while researching “Among the Stans” think about China? How has China’s growing presence in Central Asia affected local communities?
Liu: Normally, they’d know China’s economy is good and that it’s developing very fast. They also think Chinese people are hard-working and have clear goals. Sometimes, some of them would have deeper exchanges with me, and they’d begin to see there are many different kinds of Chinese people.
In terms of the big picture, whether it’s in Central Asia or Africa, I feel like China exists more like an undercurrent. It doesn’t have a cultural presence like the U.S., with everyone learning English and watching American TV shows. There’s a lot of Chinese-funded infrastructure projects underway, but you often don’t realize it, especially if you’re in the cities.
At the same time, there are many Chinese businesspeople there. When we talk about the Belt and Road Initiative, I think it’s not just driven by state-led investment projects, as there are also a large number of private companies trading and selling things.
A boy peers through a doorway in his home in northern Uzbekistan, Oct. 9, 2017. Courtesy of Liu Zichao
Sixth Tone: When you’re describing an unfamiliar culture and region, how do you avoid creating a stereotyped impression of the Other?
Liu: I didn’t worry too much about whether the perspective was othering or not. The process of writing about others has its own inherent power structure. Why did Western writers come to China and write about us in the past, instead of us going there to write about them? There’s already a power relationship between writing and being written about, seeing and being seen. You can’t pretend that doesn’t exist. But you can try your best to understand people with empathy.
Sixth Tone: Before becoming a travel writer, you worked as a journalist for Southern Media Group. What led you to quit the media industry? And how has your journalistic experience influenced your writing?
Liu: I started reporting in 2007. Those years up to around 2014 were the final moments of the golden age for traditional Chinese media. There was a lot of talent and competition in the industry. But then the industry crashed as companies stopped paying for ads on traditional platforms, due to the rise of WeChat channels. It suddenly became miserable for us all.
In 2016, I returned to China from a brief stint as a visiting scholar at Oxford University. My newspaper’s finances weren’t ideal, and many of my colleagues and editors had already left. The new management team didn’t know me. I took the hint and decided to quit.
I think traditional media has undergone a bit of a renaissance during the last two years. There are serious outlets doing good reports. Personally, I still consider myself a reporter. I analyze issues the way reporters do, and my interests and working methods have all been shaped by my time in journalism.
Local children pose for a photo in Langar Village, Tajikistan, July 2018. Courtesy of Liu Zichao
Sixth Tone: After your experience in Central Asia, how do you see the region developing in the future?
Liu: Central Asia has always been dominated by a powerful force in the past. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this dominating force no longer exists. Now, it’s hovering between China, the United States, and Russia, like it’s torn between them. As I saw many Chinese people working there and projects led by China, I expect that over time it’ll be attracted more toward China.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A boy rides a donkey in Langar Village, Tajikistan, July 2018. Courtesy of Liu Zichao)