They come for the camel rides, the chance to dress up like a conquering Qing Dynasty soldier or to take “selfies” in front of one of the most historic Islamic shrines in Xinjiang, the sprawling region in China’s far northwest.
However, the busloads of Chinese tourists who converge on the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum each day are mostly interested in a single raised crypt amid the dozens of tombs ensconced under the shrine’s soaring 17th-century dome. It is the one said to belong to Iparhan, a Uighur imperial consort, who, according to legend, was so sweetly fragrant that she caught the attention of a Chinese emperor 4,300km away in Beijing — and was either invited to live with him or dragooned into the palace as a trophy of war.
“The love between her and the Qianlong emperor was so strong that after she died he sent 120 men to escort her body back here for burial,” one guide explained, eliciting nods and knowing smiles from the crowd. “It was a journey that took three years.”
Yet with the group out of earshot, a local resident offered up a starkly different version, describing Iparhan as a tragic figure, little more than a sex slave who was murdered by the emperor’s mother after she repeatedly rejected Qianlong’s advances.
“The story that most Chinese know is completely made up,” said the man, an ethnic Uighur, who asked that his name be withheld for fear of angering the authorities. “The truth is she is not even buried here.”
In the six decades since coming to power, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has devoted enormous resources to crafting historical narratives that seek to legitimize its rule and obfuscate its failures. The disastrous famine that claimed millions of lives last century is said to have been caused by bad weather, not former leader Chinese Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) misguided policies. Chinese history books often blame the US for starting the Korean War, not the Communist troops from North Korea who, most historians agree, first invaded the South.
When it comes to China’s ethnic minorities, the party-run history machine is especially single-minded in its effort to promote storylines that portray Uighurs, Mongolians, Tibetans and other groups as contented members of an extended family whose traditional homelands have long been part of the Chinese nation.
Alternate narratives are far less cheery. They include tales of subjugation and repression amid government-backed efforts to dilute ethnic identity through the migration of members of China’s dominant group, the Han.
Chinese historians rarely veer from the officially sanctioned scripts; Uighur and Tibetan academics who have insisted on writing about the disagreeable aspects of Communist rule have seen their books banned and their careers destroyed.
James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University who studies China’s ethnically diverse borderlands, said the drive to shape history, while not unique to China, was zealously practiced by each succeeding dynasty in an effort to malign an emperor’s predecessors and glorify his own rule.
However, the Communists have also sought to use history as a tool against separatist aspirations and to legitimize their efforts to govern potentially restive populations.
“The ability to control historical narratives and airbrush out problematic truths is a powerful tool but it also reveals the party’s insecurity over certain aspects of the past it would rather the world forget,” Millward said.