The BBC has been forced to remove an extremely bizarre and far-fetched travel article from its website which described Uighur Muslims in China’s far-western Xinjiang region as “Eastern European Muslims trapped on the wrong side of a line on a map.”
The piece was authored by freelance writer James Michael Dorsey and was published on Tuesday with the headline: “In China, the people who barely exist.” It describes the author’s apparent meeting with an elderly craftsman in Kashgar who could well be China’s most interesting man.
While the article has been removed by the BBC, you can fortunately still read it in cached form. The rollicking tale begins with Dorsey setting the scene for his meeting with the craftsman on a street corner in what he refers to as “Xinxiang province.”
I watched the old man for about an hour before I approached him. He sat on a dirty blanket on the street corner, bent like a sextant with age, rats scuttling in the gutter below his feet. That was his spot; I had seen so many like him throughout China, those without status who survive by their wits.
His clothes were tattered and his four-cornered hat identified him as a Uyghur, one of the displaced Eastern European Muslims trapped on the wrong side of a line on a map. China has declared Xinxiang province to be a “Uyghur Autonomous Area,” but that is only lip service to a minority that is scorned by the ruling Han majority. The Uyghur are Chinese on paper only.
I watched him work with infinite care, carving with a tiny penknife. He was oblivious to the uninterested masses passing him by, focused only on his work. No-one stopped to buy or even look at his wares, delicate wooden combs, spoons and whimsical creatures. He was an artist by any reasonable standards, but his birth status had relegated him to the streets. His leathery skin looked like an aerial map of old dried river beds, and his whippet-thin arms ended in gnarled hands bulging with purple veins. They were craftsman’s hands that liberated beauty from old blocks of wood. In another time and place, he might have been a great sculptor, but in today’s China, he was but one of those who do not officially exist. These are the people I want to talk to.
From there, the piece somehow only gets stranger and more painful to read. Dorsey writes that he approached the craftsman, drawing the attention of onlookers and the police, before asking the old man to accompany him to a tea house, where they drew even more attention…
In rural China, Westerners are a curiosity, especially those of us who stand over 6ft tall and weigh 200lbs, so my approach brought with it a crowd, and crowds always bring the police. I sat on his blanket, fingering his works, while he cocked his head studying this strange foreigner who was giving him face by sitting near him. Within a minute we were surrounded by a pushing mass of onlookers, including two young policemen who were obviously out of their league in dealing with such a situation. They seemed as curious about me as I was about the old man.
He spoke halting English with a strange accent, so, intrigued, I invited him to join me in a local tea house. I knew that under normal circumstances he would not be allowed to enter. But the Chinese get jittery in the presence of Westerners, especially those with cameras, and I suspected they would not challenge me if he entered as my guest.
All heads turned and eyes stared as we took seats on the patio, while necks craned to hear the strange language being exchanged between this unlikely pair. The waiter served my tea, but placed the pot on the table without pouring the old man’s, so I picked it up and made a show of pouring his, as a gasp of astonishment spread across the tables. Then to counter the local arrogance, I called the waiter back and ordered two bagels, knowing them to be a Uyghur favourite, and put them in front of the old man while the waiter glared. The two young policemen just stood, blankly staring, hoping no trouble would start.
At the table, Dorsey says that he learned the man’s name was “Bingwen” and asked to hear his story, believing that it was “one of those lost epics that fall through the cracks of society, lost forever except for chances encounters.” Bingwen agreed to tell the author his tale, which — what do you know — turned out to be one whopper of a story.
“Bingwen” as photographed by James Michael Dorsey.
Bingwen, whose English apparently turned out to be less than halting, told Dorsey that he was born in Kashgar, the son of one of the last great merchants on the Silk Road. He said he was the sole survivor of a bandit caravan raid in the mountains of Afghanistan, smearing himself with blood and hiding underneath a dead camel until the looting was over.
Afterward, Bingwen made his way to Kabul where he eventually found his calling as a woodworker, producing souvenirs for Soviet troops during the invasion. However, his life was turned upside down when one night three drunken soldiers broke into his shop and tried to have their way with the young girl who cleaned and cooked for him.
“When he came to her defense, they beat him senseless with camel whips. He awoke the following morning in a pool of blood beside her lifeless body. He stared at her for most of a day, and that night he set fire to his studio and walked off into the hills to find the Mujahidin,” Dorsey writes.
Bingwen then became a fighter for a local warlord, killing Soviet soldiers and bringing back severed body parts as proof. But eventually, after being bayonetted and looking up at the stars in the night sky, he had a change of heart and instead became a hermit among the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
After thinking things over for some months, Bingwen decided to head back home to Kashgar where he has since established himself as a humble streetside craftsman selling wooden knick-knacks to tourists and locals.
After listening to Bingwen’s incredible life story, Dorsey concludes that:
Travel has taught me that the world is full of Bingwens who go unnoticed every day. Everyone has a story worth telling. That is why I start conversations with strangers when I travel, because sometimes, something as simple as tea and a bagel can bring an epic tale in return.
I am probably the only person who has ever heard Bingwen’s story, and I still wonder why he chose to tell it to me. Perhaps, I sometimes think, our meeting was just a part of some larger carving.
The piece was noticed by Kaiser Kuo, editor-at-large of SupChina, who wrote on Facebook that he couldn’t believe that “the BBC would run something with such a blatant factual error so high up,” referring to Dorsey’s assertion that Uighurs are somehow “Eastern European Muslims.”
About an hour later, the BBC’s Carrie Gracie responded to the Facebook post, “Just saw this. Will deal with it.” The article has since been removed from the BBC website.
“I’m pretty sure this was written by the J. Peterman character from Seinfeld,” one Facebook user commented underneath Kuo’s post.
The author of the piece, James Michael Dorsey, describes himself as “an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 42 countries.” Over the years, he has been published by numerous publications around the world and has written several articles for the BBC in the past few months including one about befriending an African king and another about visiting a village in northern Xinjiang that Genghis Khan’s horde rode through centuries ago.
[UPDATE – 10 pm] As pointed out by Austin Ramzy of the New York Times, James Michael Dorsey published a strikingly similar piece about a Kashgar craftsman in a February 2014 edition of webzine Perceptive Travel. While the article includes the same photo, cringeworthy writing and racism toward Han Chinese, it doesn’t mention anything about the old man fighting against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, or even him speaking a lick of English.
Enjoy some more selections from the saga of Bingwen:
We watched from a distance as people passed his blanket, some kicking his spoons away while others stepped on them. China has always been cruel to its people and indifferent to its poor, but being born a Uyghur is the bottom of the heap. One teenage punk grabbed a spoon and ran before the old man knew what was happening, but this was his life and you do not reach old age in this land without accepting abuse.
Pierre and I were both old China hands, used to being charged foreigners prices and having guns stuck in our faces, the price one pays for solo travel in a culture that feeds on paranoia. I could identify with the old man.
It was our last day in Kashgar and just for the hell of it Pierre and I had wandered to the public square in front of the big yellow mosque. It had been ten years since Pierre had met the old man on the same corner, whittling wooden spoons for a few pennies, never making enough to prosper, but obviously making enough to survive, which is in itself an accomplishment for the lower masses of China.
Apparently, Dorsey’s friend, Pierre, had bought spoons from the man a decade ago (paying ten times the asking price, because Pierre’s a nice guy). While they both sensed that the elderly craftsman had an incredible story to tell, they couldn’t actually find out because they didn’t speak Chinese (or Uighur) and the man didn’t speak English. Still, they decided to walk over and “give the man face.”
Both Pierre’s and my home are filled with the detritus of years of remote travel and I wanted my own artifact from this spoon carver. I wanted to shake his hand and tell him I travel to seek stories about people like him, stories from the collective memory of mankind that enlighten all of us, and I wanted a piece of this man’s life for my shelf at home that holds so many other stories brought back from the corners of this earth. But neither of us spoke Chinese so the words went unsaid. What we could do though was give the man face…
By this time a significant crowd had gathered and in China a crowd also brings the police. The two officers were visibly surprised to see Pierre and I at the center of this gathering and I have no doubt they would have been cruel to the old man had we round eyes not been there. Nothing rattles the bureaucratic goons of the Chinese hinterlands like the presence of an outsider. If you stand up to their ingrained bullying tactics they usually back down, often making fools of themselves. They simply do not know how to act around foreigners, terrified of the truth we may carry back to the outside world.
Then, it was time for what Dorsey labels a “transformative transaction.”
Pierre and I each picked up a spoon, making a great display of admiring them. With people pushing and shoving to get close to this strange performance we made a point of pulling out a large roll of bills. With all eyes on him, Pierre began to count out money, slowly so all could see. As the count grew an audible murmur spread through the crowd. At about US$20, Pierre handed the wad to the old man, a fair price to us but a veritable fortune in rural China. We heard the incredulous comments needing no interpreter. “How could these foreigners give so much money to this old Uyghur?”
With that we both stood up, bowed to him deeply, and turned to walk away, leaving two gaping policemen and a stunned crowd of people on the corner.
It was a simple act, but in Kashgar it was open defiance against the status quo that only a foreigner could get away with. The old man was smiling from ear to ear.
Somehow, the article gets worse from there with Dorsey labeling Han Chinese as “programmed automatons” unable to show respect to the old man.
We retreated across the street, into a store where no one could see us to watch what came next. The police who normally would have routed the old man with their batons were ordering people to walk around him, and everyone began to give him a wide berth. They were no longer trampling on his wares and in fact a few of them dropped money onto his blanket without taking any spoons. The Han are such programmed automatons that they would now show the old man respect, whether they felt it or not, understood why or not, simply because their masters had ordered it.
Our simple act had given the man great face and that crosses all barriers in the paradox that is China.
Kashgar is a place of routines, where people go through the motions of life each day without really living because there are no other options. I am sure the story of two strange Americans honoring an old Uyghur spread quickly, changing with each telling while the facts recede into myth.
Today the old man’s photo sits on my den shelf with his spoon, and that day is a story I relive over and over.
Indeed, it does appear that, just like on the streets of Kashgar, when Dorsey does relive this story it also appears to change with each telling “while facts recede into myth” even further.
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