By Katherine Chiglinsky February 24, 2011 (originally published in the Flat Hat)
In the middle of the night, when the police are avoiding unpaved roads, a group of miners transports petrified wood to Shanghai and Beijing. For a group of Uighur miners, this transport of petrified wood is their first stepping stone out of poverty: one piece may earn them over half a million Chinese yuan.
On Tuesday night, the Asian Studies Initiative hosted an on-campus screening of “Deserted Diggers,” a documentary by Chinese independent filmmaker Joy Le Li, as part of the Silk Road events to promote the new major, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.
Rachel DiNitto, associate professor of Japanese and co-director of the grant-funded Asian Studies Initiative, helped to arrange the screening of the film. The Silk Road events promote Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, which combines East Asian Studies, South Asian Studies and Middle Eastern Studies. The Education Policy Committee approved the new major in fall 2010 and hope to offer the program to students by fall 2011.
“As part of the grant and our interest in kicking off the new major, we’ve set up a whole series of events for this semester,” DiNitto said.
The documentary tracks the lives of a group of Uighur miners in the world’s second largest petrified wood forest of the Junggar Basin near Xinjiang, China. The ongoing conflict between the majority group, the Han Chinese, and the Muslim minority group, the Uighurs, creates disparity in the town of Xinjiang. In order for many Uighurs to provide for their families, the men must mine petrified wood. However, in doing so, the miners risk their lives and safety.
In 2011, the Chinese government outlawed the excavation of petrified wood. Only one company, a Han Chinese company called the Yema Group, was able to obtain the rights to mine the fossilized wood. In order for Uighurs to continue to mine, they had to either mine illegally or share some of their profits with the Yema Group.
DiNitto presented the film to spread awareness of the social issues with the Uighurs. Although Li was unable to attend the screening, DiNitto and Li arranged a live Skype session following the screening for the audience to discuss the film. For the students in attendance, the film offered a rare glimpse into the lives of Uighur miners in China.
“Through watching this specific group of miners, you learn more about the Uighur issue as a whole,” Claire Dranginis ’11 said. “I had heard of the Uighurs before, but I never really knew of them in detail and was curious about the issue.”
In the Skype session, Li recounted the struggle to understand the Uighur minority. Since the Uighurs are often discriminated against in China, Li had to rebel against the Han Chinese negative perception of the minority.
“Some Han Chinese think that Uighur people are backwards and have bad tempers,” Li said. “The groups coexist, but they don’t really intermingle.”
Stephen Hurley ’12 attended the screening after studying abroad in Beijing last semester.
“What Joy said about the Chinese people’s perspective on the Uighurs was, in my experience, right on the dot,” Hurley said. “Some of the teachers in the program gave off the feeling that the Uighurs are us, but they’re not really us.”
The disconnection between the groups was most evident through the story of Jengis, a Uighur miner. Due to his extreme poverty, his wife had left him. Mining petrified wood was his only chance to overcome his situation. He described the daily trials of being a part of the minority and trying to mine petrified wood.
“It’s really hard to dig. We do it. We have no choice,” Jengis said.
Jengis and the other miners shared their personal struggles and opinions on their conditions in the documentary. The eclectic mix of personalities illuminated the life behind the conflict of the Uighurs and Han Chinese. When she arrived in China after studying at Columbia University in New York, Li happened upon the group by chance.
“The way I met this group of Uighurs was really pure luck. I was lost in the desert and I ran into them,” Li said. “They helped me get out of the desert, and I was so fascinated by them. I decided I would go back and make this film.”
The chance encounter in the desert led to the production of a documentary. Li filmed the group over a two-year period and focused on the miners’ lives with their families and their daily struggles in the mines.
The road to the final product was not smooth, as Li often faced police interrogations. Even today, the film has not been shown in China for fear of punitive measures being taken by the government. Still, Li hopes that the film will help other people understand the struggles of the Uighurs.
“I want to let people understand Uighurs better,” Li said. “They have love, they are funny, and they are just like everyone else.”