Fine-tuning the Spin: Xinjiang’s Awkward Not-so-Chinese Mummies

Uh-oh. Looks like those suspiciously Caucasian mummies from Xinjiang are making trouble again. Or so says an AP report in early January 2011:

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A museum just days away from opening a long-awaited exhibit including two mummies and other historical artifacts from China is gutting the display of all objects at the request of Chinese officials, the museum announced Wednesday.

The artifacts were part of “Secrets of the Silk Road,” which is scheduled to open Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. The exhibit has already traveled to museums in California and Texas without issue. Visitors to the Philadelphia museum will see a pared-down exhibit.

But China’s sensitivities about mummies with Caucasian features unearthed in Xinjiang are long-standing. Here’s a piece I wrote last year showing how foreign news reports about these mummies are translated into Chinese and then edited to ensure political correctness:


Imagine you work for the China Unity Department: It’s your 24/7 mission to convey that, more or less since Day One, the Middle Kingdom has ruled all the land claimed by the PRC, including Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

What do you do when ancient mummies keep surfacing—in politically sensitive Xinjiang—buried in clothing that clearly isn’t hanfu (traditional Han attire)? And more recently, when DNA analysis shows their roots to be possibly Central Asian or even Caucasoid?

A while ago, you just pretended it didn’t happen. Go to the  Urumqi Museum and check out the “Beauty of Loulan,” the most renowned among 200 or so mummies discovered in Xinjiang’s Tarim Basin. When I visited three years ago, despite the fact that her origins have been vigorously questioned by scholars in China and without—a debate compellingly documented in The Mummies of Ürümchi by Elizabeth Wayland Barber—there was no allusion to this controversy in the brief text atop the mummy’s air-tight case.  Just another desiccated beauty, apparently, but this time Chinese, not Egyptian.

Nowadays, a more sophisticated approach is taken: You quickly translate, edit and publish reports on those burial ground findings, especially if they appear in respected English-language media like the New York Times. One of China’s most widely read weeklies, Southern Metropolis Weekly (南都周刊), has done just this with a fascinating article on the Xinjiang Lop Nur cemetery as reported in the NYT by Nicholas Wade.

To show English speakers how potentially controversial news like this is presented to the Chinese public, I run the entire online version of the New York Times article below.  I then “edit” it to mirror the final Chinese edition: Additions made in the final Chinese version from Southern Metropolis Weekly are [in brackets], while copy that has been deleted is crossed out.

The Chinese translation reads well, and through judicious editing, gives a rather different spin to the piece:

  • “Riots in Urumqi” has been deleted
  • References to the intense controversy between the Uighurs and the Han about the cultural and racial origins of the mummies have been completely deleted at the beginning, and subsequent references are positioned as differences of opinion among experts;
  • The name of Dr. Victor Mair, an expert on Tarim Basin pre-history,  is deleted twice early in the translation, although he is quoted at length later. The edited copy leaves the reader with the impression that Mair has an informed opinion about the significance of the site, but his actual role in translating much of the scholarship surrounding it is not evident;
  • The word “Uighur” occurs three times in the original, but just once in the Chinese version, and the reference to the Uighur’s claim that the Xinjiang “autonomous region was always theirs” has been deleted;
  • The Chinese version highlights the “obsession with procreation” of this mysterious people whose remains have been unearthed on Chinese soil.


A Host of Mummies, A Forest of Secrets [The Invisible Cemetery]

[In 1934, a mysterious burial ground was discovered in the Lop Lur dead lake region, but it was subsequently lost for 66 years thereafter. In recent years thanks to GPS and Google Earth, archaeologists have once again begun exploring this cemetery, and revealed secrets that are utterly different than those at the Loulan site.]

New York Times (March 15 2010), Nicholas Wade [Translated and edited by Pan Ting]

In the middle of a terrifying [Lop Lur] desert north of Tibet, Chinese archaeologists have excavated an extraordinary cemetery. Its inhabitants died almost 4,000 years ago, yet their bodies have been well preserved by the dry air.

The cemetery lies in what is now China’s northwest autonomous region of Xinjiang, yet the people have European features, with brown hair and long noses. Their remains, though lying in one of the world’s largest deserts, are buried in upside-down boats. And where tombstones might stand, declaring pious hope for some god’s mercy in the afterlife, their cemetery sports instead a vigorous forest of phallic symbols, signaling an intense interest in the pleasures or utility of procreation.

The long-vanished people have no name, because their origin and identity are still unknown. But many clues are now emerging about their ancestry, their way of life and even the language they spoke.

Their graveyard, known as Small River Cemetery No. 5, lies near a dried-up riverbed in the Tarim Basin, a region encircled by forbidding mountain ranges. Most of the basin is occupied by the Taklimakan Desert, a wilderness so inhospitable that later travelers along the Silk Road would edge along its northern or southern borders.

In modern times the region has been occupied by Turkish-speaking Uighurs, joined in the last 50 years by Han settlers from China. Ethnic tensions have recently arisen between the two groups, with riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. A large number of ancient mummies, really desiccated corpses, have emerged from the sands, only to become pawns between the Uighurs and the Han.

The 200 or so mummies have a distinctively Western appearance, and the Uighurs, even though they did not arrive in the region until the 10th century, have cited them to claim that the autonomous region was always theirs. [The Uighurs of Xinjiang have facial features whose characteristics are similar to Europeans—brown hair and long noses. Similarly, these mummies have unique Western faces, so it’s very easy for the public to associate them with the mummies of the Loulan ruins.]

Some of the mummies [at the Loulan site], including a well-preserved woman known as the Beauty of Loulan, were analyzed [underwent DNA analysis] by Li Jin, a well-known geneticist at Fudan University, who said in 2007 that their DNA contained markers indicating an East Asian and even South Asian origin.

The mummies in the Small River Cemetery are, so far, the oldest discovered in the Tarim Basin. Carbon tests done at Beijing University show that the oldest part dates to 3,980 years ago. A team of Chinese geneticists has analyzed the mummies’ DNA.

Despite the political tensions over the mummies’ origin, the Chinese said [A team led by Dr. Hui Zhou of Jilin University in Changchun] said in a report published last month in the journal BMC Biology that the people were of mixed ancestry, having both European and some Siberian genetic markers, and probably came from outside China. The team was led by Hui Zhou of Jilin University in Changchun, with Dr. Jin as a co-author.

[The majority of test results showed:] All the men who were analyzed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China. The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, Dr. Zhou and his team conclude the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.

The Small River Cemetery was rediscovered in 1934 by the Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman and then forgotten for 66 years until relocated through GPS navigation by a Chinese expedition. Archaeologists began excavating it from 2003 to 2005. Their reports have been translated and summarized by Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in the prehistory of the Tarim Basin.

As the Chinese archaeologists dug through the five layers of burials, Dr. Mair recounted, they came across almost 200 poles, each 13 feet tall. Many had flat blades, painted black and red, like the oars from some great galley that had foundered beneath the waves of sand.

At the foot of each pole there were indeed boats, laid upside down and covered with cowhide. The bodies inside the boats were still wearing the clothes they had been buried in. They had felt caps with feathers tucked in the brim,[from which it can be deduced that they may have been Tyrolean] uncannily resembling Tyrolean mountain hats. They wore large woolen capes with tassels and leather boots. A Bronze Age salesclerk from Victoria’s Secret seems to have supplied the clothes beneath — barely adequate woolen loin cloths for the men, and skirts made of string strands for the women.

Within each boat coffin were grave goods, including beautifully woven grass baskets, skillfully carved masks and bundles of ephedra, an herb that may have been used in rituals or as a medicine.

In the women’s coffins, the Chinese archaeologists encountered one or more life-size wooden phalluses laid on the body or by its side. Looking again at the shaping of the 13-foot poles that rise from the prow of each woman’s boat, the archaeologists concluded that the poles were in fact gigantic phallic symbols.

The men’s boats, on the other hand, all lay beneath the poles with bladelike tops. These were not the oars they had seemed at first sight, the Chinese archaeologists concluded, but rather symbolic vulvas that matched the opposite sex symbols above the women’s boats. “The whole of the cemetery was blanketed with blatant sexual symbolism,” Dr. Mair wrote. In his view, the “obsession with procreation” reflected the importance the community attached to fertility.

Arthur Wolf, an anthropologist at Stanford University and an expert on fertility in East Asia, said that the poles perhaps mark social status, a common theme of tombs and grave goods. “It seems that what most people want to take with them is their status, if it is anything to brag about,” he said.

Dr. Mair said the Chinese archaeologists’ interpretation of the poles as phallic symbols was “a believable analysis.” The buried people’s evident veneration of procreation could mean they were interested in both the pleasure of sex and its utility, given that it is difficult to separate the two. But they seem to have had particular respect for fertility, Dr. Mair said, because several women were buried in double-layered coffins with special grave goods.

Living in harsh surroundings, “infant mortality must have been high, so the need for procreation, particularly in light of their isolated situation, would have been great,” Dr. Mair said. Another possible risk to fertility could have arisen if the population had become in-bred. “Those women who were able to produce and rear children to adulthood would have been particularly revered,” Dr. Mair said.

Several items in the Small River Cemetery burials resemble artifacts or customs [are already well known] familiar in Europe, Dr. Mair noted. Boat burials were common among the Vikings. String skirts and phallic symbols have been found in Bronze Age burials of Northern Europe.

There are no [many] known settlements near the cemetery, so the people probably lived elsewhere and reached the cemetery by boat. No woodworking tools have been found at the site, supporting the idea that the poles were carved off site.

The Tarim Basin was already quite dry when the Small River people entered it 4,000 years ago. They probably lived at the edge of survival until the lakes and rivers on which they depended finally dried up around A.D. 400. Burials with felt hats and woven baskets were [became] common in the region until some 2,000 years ago.

The language spoken by the people of the Small River Cemetery is unknown, but Dr. Mair believes it could have been Tokharian, an ancient member of the Indo-European family of languages. Manuscripts written in Tokharian have been discovered in the Tarim Basin, where the language was spoken from about A.D. 500 to 900. Despite its presence in the east, Tokharian seems more closely related to the “centum” languages of Europe than to the “satem” languages of India and Iran. The division is based on the words for hundred [the pronunciation of several hundred words] in Latin (centum) and in Sanskrit (satam).

The Small River Cemetery people lived more than 2,000 years before the earliest evidence for Tokharian, but there is “a clear continuity of culture,” Dr. Mair said, in the form of people being buried with felt hats, a tradition that continued until the first few centuries A.D.

An exhibition of the Tarim Basin mummies opens March 27 at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif. — the first time that the mummies will be seen outside Asia.

10 thoughts on “Fine-tuning the Spin: Xinjiang’s Awkward Not-so-Chinese Mummies

  1. Long time no see 😉 it’s been a while since we met last time, but I peek your blog from time to time 😉
    A few weeks ago when I was listening to BBC and heard Benjamin Netanyahu saying
    “The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement, it is our capital” in Washington,what occurred to my mind is exactly Xinjiang.

    To me, the relationship between Jewish~Israel~Palestine~Palestinian and that between Han Chineses~Protectorate of the Western Regions(西域都護府)~Eastern Turkistan~Uyghur share so many similarities.Well I am not trying to justify PRC’s policy in Xinjiang here,just as no one would try to justify Israel’s military actions against Palestinian civilians,all I suggest is that it might be an interesting angle to see this problem.By the way Xinjiang the name is picked up by the Manchu emperor Qianlong more than 200 years ago.


  2. I chuckled at the mention of Victor Mair, as I had known him primarily as a Language Log blogger with a peculiar viewpoint on Chinese script.


  3. I love how you do these kinds of posts, Bruce. Simple concept, yet they allow me (and others) to really see what sort of things the censors view as questionable.


  4. I’m really struck by the two paragraphs near the end where the edited/translated version seems to completely reverse the meaning of the original — “no known settlements” to “many known settlements” and “were… until” to “became” — because that’s not really a matter of politics or spin.


  5. @Jonathan

    I do hope you and other visitors to the site won’t put too much emphasis on such small inconsistencies between the original and the translated text! There were just a few days between when the English appeared and when the Chinese version was published, so the translator was working under a tight deadline.

    In fact, one of the two discrepancies you note was arguably caused by me as I retranslated it. Pan Ting rendered “There are no known settlements near the cemetery” as 在墓地附近依然有很多未知的定居点. This is incorrect, but my “version” of her rendition is also flawed (There are [many] known settlements near the cemetery).

    Personally, I do not see any evidence indicating that the translator intended to distort the original meaning of the text; rather, there are a few small errors such as the original phrase (“Several items in the Small River Cemetery burials resemble artifacts or customs familiar in Europe”) incorrectly rendered in Chinese as 小河墓地埋葬的文物在欧洲家喻户晓 (Several items in the Small River Cemetery burials are already well known in Europe).

    It is my hope that my article — and similar ones I often do on English articles translated and published by Cankao Xiaoxi — will help English-language readers understand how translated copy is shaped for the Chinese public. For the most part, these articles are indeed edited to repackage or delete certain viewpoints and highlight others, but I don’t often get the feeling that copy is actually being “mistranslated” in a Machiavellian manner.


  6. Ha ha, mate, this to me looks less like Government censorship and more blatant plagiarism but some lazy and opportunistic Chinese reporter, who, for self-preservation, has dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s.


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