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Grave Robbers, Missionaries, and Spies: Foreign Adventurers in Chinese Turkistan



From the 19th century to the mid-20th, the mysteries and fabled cultural treasures of what is today known as Xinjiang lured many outsiders to the region. Missionaries came from Europe hoping to convert the largely Muslim population to Christianity. Professional archeologists and amateur treasure hunters came to root through the deserts for Buddhist scrolls, painting, and statuary. Adventurers passed through looking for excitement, or themselves. Driven by global political developments, military scouts, embassy officials, and outright spies made forays to uncover various suspected secrets: were the Russians seeking to attach the territory to the Czar's growing Central Asian empire? Were the British scheming to claim it for the Queen? Did communists from Moscow or Beijing plot to win it for the global proletariat? Was there uranium, gold, or oil to be exploited? The quests of these figures are interesting in their own right. Fortunately, many left highly readable accounts of their activities and discoveries. Through these texts we will seek to understand both the value of the region to outsiders and the influence those outsiders had on its people and politics. We will read the texts on three levels: first, as sources of information about a period in Xinjiang’s history for which local sources are scarce and fragmentary; second, as windows into the mentalities and values of the authors, who hailed from countries and cultures far removed from the place they were visiting; and third, as new materials with which to evaluate existing approaches to the study of colonialism, missionary activity, and the colonial production of knowledge.

Regions Covered

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

When Taught

Spring 2011, Spring 2010


Department of Central Eurasian Studies