Confessions of a Jade Lord, by Alat Asem

translated by Bruce Humes and Jun Liu

Aurora Publishing LLC, 2017

Publisher’s blurb

Confessions of a Jade Lord immerses us in an underworld peopled by gangsters with their penchant for firewater-fueled storytelling and philosophical reverie,appetite for Uyghur delicacies such as lagman hand-pulled noodles and whole roasted lamb,fierce loyalty to family and aghines, and a willingness to unsheathe their daggers when honour, brotherhood or jade require.

Alat Asem’s fiction is a Uyghur universe where Han Chinese rarely figure. His hallmarks are serial womanizers — real hanzi who piss standing, not squatting — monikers that belittle, and a hybrid lingo with an odd but appealing Central Asian flavour.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Paul Woods, 20/11/18

This 300-page volume is a full-length novel set in Xinjiang and most of its protagonists are Uyghurs. It is the first piece of fiction written by a Uyghur author that I have read.

The use of ‘lord’ in the title brings obvious parallels with the idea of ‘drug lord’ and it is clear from the outset that while the jade trade is nowhere near as destructive and socially undesirable as that in drugs, it does have a darker side. Many of those involved in it employ dubious methods and consciously site themselves at the edge of criminality. There is an ‘ask no questions’ atmosphere in which jade changes hands and often ends up on China’s rich eastern seaboard.

The story is of Eysa, a Uyghur man who has become rich by dealing in jade and selling it to Uyghur and Han customers in Xinjiang and the rest of China. Eysa has to flee Xinjiang after seriously injuring a competitor in the jade business and decides to ask a Han customer in Shanghai to help him with plastic surgery. The details of the surgery are not clear, but the results are described as a ‘mask’ which means that even close relatives and friends cannot identify Eysa on his return to Xinjiang. I have to say that I did not find the ‘mask’ convincing. It seems not to have been the result of face-altering plastic surgery, yet Eysa was not recognisable to people who had known him since he was a child. For me this was a weak element in the story.

Eysa spends some time there cultivating friends and gathering intelligence on the situation on the ground and in the jade business by pretending to be Mijit, a previously unknown ‘kidney-brother’ of the missing Eysa. After many adventures Eysa decides to have the ‘mask’ removed and asks his doctor friend in Shanghai to do this. Without ever revealing that he and Mijit were one and the same, Eysa works to put right many of his previous misdeeds and make amends for hurt he has caused, including the attack on Xali, his erstwhile competitor in the business.

Eysa’s change of heart is partly caused by his mother’s wisdom and love for him, as well as the realisation that having lots of money but few real friends amounts to a second-class existence. At the end of the story, after much drama, Eysa is reconciled to Xali and even his violent and evil son.

The story is interesting as a first look into the lives and customs of Uyghur people, whom I have only ever come across in China selling lamb kebabs and working in restaurants. While the tale is one of redemption and a man returning to the ways of goodness and righteousness, giving and receiving forgiveness, it also reinforces traditional values and practices.

The characters in the story are strongly gendered. Apart from Eysa’s mother, most of the other female characters take supporting roles; they appear providing food, in the service sector, and in the roles of wives and mistresses. The male characters are primarily rogues, lovable and detestable, enjoying large amounts of strong drink, big chunks of meat, and the company of women, as they jockey for position in the masculine world of the jade trade.

There is a clear distinction between the wisdom of the old and the foolishness of the young. Eysa’s wayward younger brother dies of a drug overdose and Xali’s son wishes to murder Eysa. It is when Eysa looks back over his life and temporary exile in Shanghai and then behind the ‘mask’ that he becomes open to the wisdom of his mother.

There is also an emphasis on harmony. Uyghur characters occasionally quote from Chinese sayings, Eysa’s plastic surgeon friend is Han, and relations between Uyghur and Han are portrayed as pleasant. Between the Uyghurs, the themes of harmony and friendship are evident, and Eysa realises that good interpersonal relationships are better than any amount of money. In addition, mention is made of face, honour, and respect. The author interacts with the secular-religious divide in Xinjiang and pious Muslims are described in positive and moderate terms. It is hard to know how much Alat Asem is describing contemporary Uyghur society and its values and how much he is prescribing and aspiring. The novel won a prize in China and it is thus unlikely that the author would delve into the murky area of Uyghur-Han tensions.

Having only seen pictures of Xinjiang and heard from friends and relatives who have been there, the novel increased my desire to visit the area and learn more about the Uyghur people. The author certainly portrays his people as different from the Han.

The English translation reads well, but while the spelling is American the idiom seems to flip-flop between British and American. The pronunciation guide at the beginning is useful and I enjoyed the sprinkling of Uyghur words throughout the story.

I would recommend the story as a first experience of Uyghur literature and the world from which it springs, but I would hope to see greater depth, complexity, and intrigue in future fictional trips to Xinjiang.

Reviewed by Paul Woods