Category Archives: religion

Gen. Sherman vs. the Comanches

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 332-333:

For federal Indian officials, the Comanche situation was a stinging embarrassment: half a decade after the Civil War had eradicated institutionalized slavery, Comanches were trafficking in human merchandise on U.S. soil and with U.S. agents. The distressed settlers, sheep and cattle magnates, and government officials directed their frustration at the Peace Policy, which in their view had weakened rather than strengthened the United States’ hold on the Indians. They found a powerful ally in the military elite, who had opposed the Peace Policy from the beginning for strategic and personal reasons: the end of the Civil War and the reduction of the army had closed avenues for promotion, which only another war could reopen.

The opponents of the Peace policy found their opportunity in May 1871, when a Comanche and Kiowa raiding party attacked a supply train near Fort Richardson, killing and mutilating seven teamsters. The raiders narrowly missed General Sherman, who was on an inspection tour in Texas. Hearing of the attack, Sherman implemented a policy change, ordering four cavalry companies to pursue the raiders and, if necessary, to continue the chase in the Fort Sill reservation [which had until then been demilitarized]. He then stormed to Fort Sill to confront agent Tatum. The flustered agent conceded that the Quaker experiment was failing. On the next ration day, Tatum authorized the soldiers to arrest three Kiowa chiefs—Satanta, Satank, and Big Tree—and send them to Texas for civil trial. His Quaker ideology crumbling, Tatum asked the army to pursue the Kwahadas and Kotsotekas into Texas, confiscate their stolen stock, and force them to enter the reservation “as kindly as the circumstances will admit.” Although the Peace Policy remained the official policy, by fall 1871 if had become a dead letter on the southern plains. Tatum was replaced in early 1873 by an agent more committed to Quaker principles, but by that time hard action had become the norm.

When fighting Comanche campaigns, the U.S. Army was able to draw on its rapidly accumulating experience in fighting the Plains Indians. The Lakota wars had revealed that regular soldiers, although armed with Colt revolvers and Winchester repeating rifles, were a poor match for the highly motivated and mobile Indian warriors. convincing the military leadership that the army needed a decisive numerical advantage to defeat Plains Indians on the battlefield. But numbers were exactly what the army lacked. The eastern public, weary of war and eager for normalcy, was unwilling to finance Indian wars in the West. Young men were equally unenthused: the prospect of fighting Indians for meager pay and under vigorous discipline on the Great Plains drew few volunteers. The army’s main instrument in Indian wars was therefore the light cavalry, composed of ten regiments, approximately five thousand men in total.

Short of troops and wary of open battles, the army set out to deprive the Comanches of shelter and sustenance by destroying their winter camps, food supplies, and horse herds. By the early 1870s this kind of total warfare against entire populations was an established practice in the U.S. Army. Sherman had pioneered it against the Confederacy in his “March to the Sea,” and Sheridan had introduced a stripped-down version of it to the plains in his 1868–69 winter campaign against the Cheyennes. Culminating on the Washita River where the Seventh Cavalry [under George Armstrong Custer] killed nearly a hundred noncombatants and eight hundred horses and mules, Sheridan’s campaign broke Cheyenne resistance on the central plains. This success convinced the army that targeting civilians and economic resources was the most efficient—and since it shortened the conflict, the most humane—way to subdue the Indians. But the army could not simply duplicate Sheridan’s straightforward offensive against the Comanches, who ranged over a vast territory and had a more diverse subsistence base than the Cheyennes. To subdue the Comanches, the army was forced to launch the largest and most concentrated campaign of total war in the West.

It was only now, twenty-three years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, that Comanches came to feel the depth of the United States’ expansionist power. They had been exposed to that power before—most tangibly through Texas, whose territorial expansion into Comanchería was a corollary of the South’s economic expansion into Texas—but its full force had been curbed by several factors: relative American disinterest toward the Great Plains, the Civil War, and finally the Peace Policy. It was therefore all the more shocking when the United States unleashed its military might on Comanchería in 1871. Whatever difficulties the army may have faced in mobilizing soldiers for Indian wars, the troops that were mustered could draw on their nation’s enormous resources—superior technology; bottomless supply lines; an elaborate communication system; and a strong, tested central state apparatus. More important perhaps, the troops formed the vanguard of an ascending nation-state driven by a civilizing mission and bent on expanding its frontiers through conquest and exclusionary borders. The U.S. Army that moved into Comanchería was an adversary unlike any Comanches had encountered.

The invasion began from Texas, the state with the longest list of grievances against the Comanches. Comanche raids had taken a heavy toll in Texan lives and livestock since the late 1850s, stunting the state’s projected economic growth. Blocked by a wall of Comanche violence, the expanding Texas cattle kingdom had bypassed the Great Plains, extending instead toward less desired regions in New Mexico and the Rocky Mountains. By 1871, Texans considered the situation intolerable.

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Filed under Mexico, migration, military, religion, slavery, U.S., war

Wordcatcher Tales: Old Japanese Cemetery Kanji

I’ve been helping to decipher some old gravestones in the newly renovated Mo‘ili‘ili Japanese Cemetery (est. 1908), a candidate for the State and National Register of Historic Places. Here’s a short list of deciphering aids that I’ve just updated in time for this year’s Obon season.

Dates

紀元 Kigen ‘record-origin’ (counting from Emperor Jimmu, 660BC)
明治 Meiji 1–45 (1868–1912)
大正 Taisho 1–15 (1912–1926)
昭和 Showa 1–64 (1926–1989)
平成 Heisei 1–? (1989–?)
行年~才 gyounen/kounen — sai ‘age at passing: — years old’
享年~才 kyounen — sai ‘age at passing: — years old’~生 ‘born (on) —’
~亡 ‘died (on) —’
~寂 ‘died (on) —’
~往生 oujou ‘departed life (on) —’
~帰幽 kiyuu ‘returned to the netherworld (on) —’
永眠 eimin ‘eternal sleep’
早世 sousei ‘early death’
生児 seiji ‘just born’
嬰児 eiji ‘infant’
孩児 gaiji ‘infant, suckling’
若郎子 wakairatsuko ‘young boy’
若郎女 wakairatsume ‘young girl’
吉日 kichijitsu ‘propitious day’ (e.g., for erecting a monument)

Names

~家之墓 — ke no haka ‘(X) family’s grave’
~之奥(津)城 — no oku(tsu)ki ‘(X)’s tomb/grave’
~之霊神 — no reijin ‘(X)’s soul’
~霊位 — no reii ‘(X)’s mortuary tablet’ (‘soul/spirit’ + ‘place/stand’)
~先祖 — senzo ‘(X family) ancestors’
~代々 — daidai ‘(X family) generations’
士族 shizoku ‘samurai clan’
俗名 zokumyou ‘secular name’
妻~ tsuma ‘wife’ (name often written in katakana, not kanji)
原籍~ genseki ‘original domicile registry, permanent address’
法号 hougou ‘Buddhist name’
戒名 kaimyou ‘posthumous Buddhist name’
法名 houmyou ‘posthumous Buddhist name’
釈~ Shaku ‘Shak[yamuni] (the historical Buddha)’ (in many posthumous Buddhist names)
~妙~ myou ‘mystery, miracle, wonder’ (in posthumous Buddhist names)
~居士 koji ‘Buddhist lay leader (male)’
~大姉 daishi ‘Buddhist lay leader (female)’
~禅定門 zenjoumon ‘Zen Buddhist honorific (male)’ (formerly ‘Zen monk’)
~禅定尼 zenjouni ‘Zen Buddhist honorific (female)’ (formerly ‘Zen nun’)
~信士 shinji/shinshi ‘honorific title for men’
~信女 shinnyo ‘honorific title for women’
~童子 douji ‘honorific title for boys’
~童女 dounyo ‘honorific title for girls’
~尼 ama ‘nun’ (sometimes marks posthumous names for women)
~県~郡~村/町 — ken ‘prefecture’ — gun ‘district’ — mura/machi ‘village/town’
施主 seshu ‘mourners, benefactors, donors’
嗣子 shishi ‘heir, successor’
dou ‘ditto’ (same as the name in the next column to the right)
dou ‘ditto’ (same as the name in the next column to the right)
々 (doubles/repeats the previous kanji)

Mantras

南無阿弥陀仏 Namu Amida Butsu ‘Hail Amida Buddha’ (= Kannon, Pure Land [浄土 joudo] Buddhism)
南無妙法蓮華経 Namu Myouhou Renge Kyou ‘Hail the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra’ (Nichiren Buddhism)
倶会一処 Kue Issho (a phrase from the Amida Sutra suggesting) ‘we will meet again in the Pure Land’
三界萬霊 Sangai Banrei ‘3 worlds, 10,000 souls’ (for all souls, past, present, and future)

Helpful Resources

NengoCalc is invaluable for converting Japanese imperial reign name dates into Western calendar dates.

Rikai Unicode Kanji Tables are invaluable for locating rare (or miswritten) kanji that don’t show up in the usual kanji dictionaries, name glossaries, or input methods. Kanji dictionaries will often give you the code range of similar kanji (grouped by semantic ‘radicals’), so you can scan for a form that is no longer used in Japanese, but that shows up in old names, then cut and paste it into a search box to see if you can get a name reading.

The Weblio English-Japanese/Japanese English website is perhaps the best place to match name kanji with multiple pronunciations (which is almost every name kanji in Japanese!) against actual attestations in a wide range of Japanese sources. If you google Japanese name kanji and get nothing but Chinese search results, you probably misread or misanalyzed the original engraving, but stonecarvers also make mistakes.

Nanzan University’s 2001 Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (28/3-4) translation of Tamamura Fumio’s “Local Society and the Temple-Parishioner Relationship within the Bakufu’s Governance Structure” helps clarify Buddhist posthumous naming conventions and honorifics.

Finally, English Wikipedia articles about Japanese prefectures almost always have very helpful subarticles listing old district, city, and town names that have disappeared after mergers and reorganizations. And Japanese Wikipedia is even more complete, besides listing major cities, towns, and districts by their kanji names (and pronunciations).

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Ute-Comanche Slave Raiding & Trading, c. 1700

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 26-27:

Utes also introduced Comanches to European crafts. Having traded regularly in New Mexico since the 1680s, Utes had accumulated enough guns and metal tools to pass some of them on to their Comanche allies, who now moved, literally overnight, from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. Although Comanches used the new technology to replace their traditional tools and elaborate on their old techniques, not to realign their basic economic system, it was a momentous leap nonetheless. Iron knives, awls, needles, and pots were more durable and effective than their stone, bone, and wooden counterparts, making the daily chores of hunting, cutting, scraping, cooking, and sewing faster and easier. Spanish laws prohibited the sale of firearms to Indians, but the ban was widely ignored in New Mexico’s trade fairs, especially in the northern parts of the province. The few guns available at the fairs were cumbersome and fragile flintlocks, but they nevertheless profoundly changed the nature of intertribal warfare. Firearms allowed Comanches to kill, maim, and shock from the safety of distance and to inflict wounds that the traditional healing arts of their enemies were unaccustomed to treating. And, like horses, firearms gave Comanches access to an unforeseen source of energy—gunpowder—further expanding the world of new possibilities.

With Ute assistance, Comanches incorporated themselves into the emerging slave raiding and trading networks on New Mexico’s borderlands. By the time Comanches arrived in the region, commerce in Indian captives was an established practice in New Mexico, stimulated by deep ambiguities in Spain’s legal and colonial system. Although thousands of Pueblo Indians lived within the bounds of Spanish-controlled New Mexico, strict restrictions prohibited their exploitation as laborers. Encomienda grants of tributary labor, the economic keystone of early Spanish colonialism in the Americas, were abolished in New Mexico in the aftermath of the Pueblo Revolt. The repartimiento system of labor distribution continued, allowing the colonists to pool and allot Pueblo labor for public projects, but that system operated on a rotating basis, making Indian laborers a communal rather than a personal resource. Most Pueblo Indians, furthermore, were at least superficial Christian converts, whose exploitation was strictly regulated under Spanish law. Eager to obtain personal slaves to run their kitchens, ranches, fields, and textile workshops—and to reinforce their fragile sense of honor and prestige—Spanish elite turned to captive trade in indios bárbaros, savage Indians. Spanish laws specifically prohibited the buying, selling, and owning of Indian slaves, but the colonists of New Mexico cloaked the illegal traffic as rescate (ransom or barter), whereby they purchased captured Indians from surrounding nomadic tribes, ostensibly to rescue them from mistreatment and heathenism. In theory, these ransomed Indians were to be placed in Spanish households for religious education, but in practice many of them became common slaves who could be sold, bought, and exploited with impunity.

Utes had first entered New Mexico’s slave markets as commodities seized and sold by Spanish, Navajo, and Apache slave raiders, but the allied Utes and Comanches soon inserted themselves at the supply end of the slave traffic. When not raiding New Mexico for horses, Utes and Comanches arrived peacefully to sell human loot. Their raiding parties ranged westward into Navajo country and northward into Pawnee country to capture women and children, but their main target were the Carlana and Jicarilla Apache villages in the upper Arkansas basin at the western edge of the southern plains. Traffic in Apache captives mushroomed in New Mexico. By the late seventeenth century, the people in New Mexico possessed some five hundred non-Pueblo Indian captives and were emerging as major producers of slave labor for the mining camps of Nuevo Vizcaya and Zacatecas; they even sent slaves to the tobacco farms in Cuba. By 1714 slave trade had become so widespread in New Mexico that Governor Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollón saw it necessary to order all Apache captives baptized before taken “to distant places to sell.” Many of these Apaches were purchased from Utes and Comanches, whose mutually sustaining alliance had put them in a position of power over their neighboring Native societies.

By the early eighteenth century, the Ute-Comanche coalition dominated the northern borderlands of New Mexico. The allies shut off Navajos from the prime trading and raiding locales in New Mexico and treated the colony itself as an exploitable resource depot.

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Not Exactly Ethnic Conflict in Sarajevo

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1206-1258:

The conflict was commonly defined as “ethnic warfare,” yet everyone comes from the same ethnic stock. The difference among people is primarily in the religions they practice, yet to explain the fighting as a “religious war” would be equally misleading, since most Yugoslavs were not religious people.

The Yugoslav (literally “south Slav”) people are mostly descendants of the Slavic tribes that wandered through the region in the third and fourth centuries. Those who settled to the west took the faith of the Roman Catholic Church in what is now Croatia. To the east, the Serbs assumed the Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine Empire. The Muslims were Slavs who converted during the four centuries that Bosnia was ruled by the Ottoman Turks.

If you watch a Sarajevo street scene for a few minutes, you will see brunettes, blonds, and redheads, blue eyes and brown eyes, tall and short people. They are more diverse in appearance than the residents of many European capitals. You cannot tell a Serb, Croat, or Muslim by appearance. The only way to tell the difference is by traditionally Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox given names—although even that method is not fool-proof. Lana Lačević, so named because her mother liked the actress Lana Turner, once told me with her wicked sense of humor, “I’ll decide whether Lana is a Serb or a Muslim name when I see who wins the war.”

In the former Yugoslavia, religion and ethnicity are contentious subjects. Even some of the historical scholarship is slanted by underlying political disputes. Serb and Croat militants—who agree on little else—consider the Muslims to be lapsed Christians who betrayed their faith by collaborating with and taking the religion of an occupying power. The Serbs trot out historical treatises that suggest the Muslims were originally Orthodox. In this way, they have tried to bolster their claim that Bosnia is truly part of “Greater Serbia.”

In 1993, when fighting between Croats and Muslims broke out in western Bosnia, the Croat nationalists adopted a similar tack—insisting that the Bosnians were really lapsed Catholics and that Bosnia belonged historically to Croatia. Actually, some historians have theorized that the medieval Bosnian Church was neither Catholic nor Muslim. Some evidence suggests that pre-Islamic Bosnians were Bogomils—members of a heretical Christian sect. Under this theory, the Bosnians eagerly embraced Islam and the protection the Ottoman Empire provided them from persecution by the Bosnian Church.

In any case, the prevailing view among modern historians is that it was not the Ottoman Turks’ policy to force conversions. Other than the Albanians, the Bosnians were the only Turkish subjects to convert to Islam in large numbers. Nevertheless, under Ottoman rule, Muslims enjoyed certain tax benefits and stood a better chance of retaining large land holdings. As a result, much of the feudal aristocracy converted. This set the stage for a dynamic that would persist into the twentieth century.

Conflicts between Serbs and Muslims were often about economics—a Serb peasant class revolting against a better-educated and wealthier Muslim elite. Not surprisingly, after World War II the Serbs joined the Communist Party in disproportionately high numbers. Muslims lost out when private estates were socialized. The Chetnik militia was inspired by the Hajduk bandits—Robin Hood figures in Serb folklore who robbed Turkish merchants. In 1992, the Serb militiamen who perpetrated the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in northern and eastern Bosnia boldly carted off the Muslims’ televisions and VCRs, often in stolen Mercedes.

These class distinctions were more or less obliterated in Sarajevo by the 1990s. There were rich Muslims, poor Muslims; rich Serbs, poor Serbs—and Communists of all religions. On Logavina Street, the last vestiges of the old class order were apparent only in where people lived. The Serbs tended to be clustered in the newer apartment houses, built in the 1950s and 1960s, some of which were used as army housing. The descendants of some of the area’s oldest Muslim families—people like the Džinos, Telalagićs, and Kasumagićs—occupied the single-family houses.

Logavina Street is in the heart of Sarajevo’s old Muslim neighborhood. Nineteenth-century postcards, printed during the Austro-Hungarian period, refer to it as the Turkische Viertel—or Turkish Quarter. Along the street, which stretches less than a third of a mile, there are three mosques, their minarets piercing the distinctive Sarajevo skyline.

Under siege, the call for Muslim prayers came not from the minarets, but from behind a brick wall. Fear of sniper attacks kept muezzins from climbing the stairs of the minarets. At one mosque, a microphone and loudspeakers were installed so that prayers could be called safely from inside. The electricity went off soon after the installation, so the muezzin began summoning the faithful from within a walled courtyard. “It was better before, when you could call from the minaret. It was higher up, louder,” said Alija Žiga, head of a tiny mosque on Logavina.

Despite the faint call, more and more faithful responded. While the cosmopolitan residents of Sarajevo had always thought of themselves as just like other Europeans, the war had made them acutely conscious of their differences. As Šaćira Lačević commented, “We never knew we were Muslims before. The Serbs forced it on us, so now I try to remind my girls not to forget who they are.”

Religion was one of the few refuges for those with little hope. With most businesses closed, no movie theaters or electricity to watch television, praying at the mosque was at least something to do. “People are coming back to Islam, sort of like rediscovering themselves and their roots,” said Edin Smajović, an army officer in his late twenties who lives on Logavina. Like others of his generation, he had come of age under Marshal Tito’s Communist regime, when religion was discouraged.

“Islam is very appealing to people right now because Islam is a religion that is not afraid of death. Every day here is a game of Russian roulette—you don’t know if you will be alive or not—so you have to believe in something,” he said. “We used to say ‘Thank Tito.’ Now we say ‘Thank you, dear God.’”

Most of the Muslims on Logavina Street did not follow the religious strictures. Some didn’t eat pork, but very few were averse to an occasional beer or brandy. Ekrem and Minka Kaljanac showed me their old photo album filled with pictures of the boys sitting on Santa Claus’s lap. “I celebrate all the holidays—Christmas, too,” Ekrem said.

Muslims visited their Catholic friends for Christmas dinner, and celebrated Christmas again with their Orthodox friends in early January. For Bajram, the most important Muslim holiday, Muslims hosted their Christian friends and neighbors.

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Burma’s Student Nationalists, 1940s

From Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, by Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1280-1290:

When the British left Burma in 1948, they left the country in the hands of the men who had been on the extreme fringes of the student nationalist movement just a decade before. They were almost all Buddhists (by background if not practice) and ethnic Burmans. Before the Japanese invasion, they were not particularly important, but the war had radicalized society and they had seized the opportunity, first to collaborate with the Japanese and then to turn against them, in March 1945, just in time to avoid being arrested and hanged as Quislings. They included men like Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi. They were immensely popular and even though they were still in their late twenties and early thirties stood head and shoulders above the older politicians, who were tarred as not having been daring enough. Aung San and many of his colleagues were then gunned down in 1947 in a still puzzling assassination plot, but others from the pool of ex-student radicals formed the first independent government. They would take Burma out of the British Commonwealth and launch the country down what was to be a not very happy path through the rest of the twentieth century.

Some on the British side had been worried about the fate of the Shan and other ethnic minorities in an independent Burma and suggested detaching the upland areas and keeping them as a British crown colony. British frontier officials were particularly fond of the hill peoples, such as the Karen along the Thai border, who had fought consistently and often very courageously against the Japanese.

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How Yunnan Became Chinese, and Muslim

From Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, by Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Kindle Loc. 2475-2501:

Seven hundred years before the present wave of tourists was an altogether different wave, of Mongols, Turks and Islam. The Mongol conquest of Yunnan in the thirteenth century brought this hitherto independent kingdom for the first time under Beijing’s control and began a process of integration into ‘China proper’ that has continued to today. The Mongol conquest also brought an astonishingly diverse influx of mainly Muslim peoples, from across their Eurasian domains.

Though the invasion forces were ultimately under Mongol command, many of the officers and most of the soldiers were Turks or people from further west. The force that invaded Burma for example is said to have included no fewer than 14,000 men of the erstwhile Persian Khwarezmid empire, under their own commander Yalu Beg. Others came to garrison the new possession. They included Turks from Samarkand, Bokhara, Merv and Nishpur. They also included tribal peoples like the Kipchaks and even Bulgars from the lower Volga. Yunnan itself had been conquered by the Mongol Prince Uriyangkadai who had also conquered Baghdad, and his forces most likely included captive soldiers from the Abbasid caliphate as well as southern Russia and the Ukraine.

There were even more exotic immigrants. They included the Alans–a Sarmatian tribe today known as the Ossetians–who had submitted to the Mongols and had provided a thousand warriors for the personal body guard of the Great Khan. A son of the Alan chief, Nicholas, took part in the conquest of Yunnan, and men from the North Caucasus were posted along the Burmese borderland.

A member of the Mongol imperial clan, Prince Hugeshi, was appointed ‘prince of Yunnan’ whilst the old ruling family, the Duans, were allowed to stay in Dali and keep the title of ‘maharaja’. The Muslim newcomers, based at Dali, became extremely powerful and the most powerful of them all was a native of Bokhara named Sayyid Ajall Shams al-Din Omar. He claimed descent from the emir of Bokhara (though some say his family were originally from Cairo) and by the late 1250s he was a rising star in the Mongol establishment. He served in Baghdad and in China and was appointed as the top administrator in Yunnan in the 1270s. Today the Muslims of Yunnan regard him as the founder of their community, a wise and benevolent ruler who ‘pacified and comforted’ the peoples of Yunnan.

Sayyid Ajall was officially the Director of Political Affairs of the Regional Secretariat of Yunnan, about as bureaucratic a title as one can imagine in medieval times. According to Chinese records, he introduced new agricultural technologies, constructed irrigation systems, and tried to raise living standards. Though a Muslim, he built or rebuilt Confucian temples and created a Confucian education system. His contemporary, He Hongzuo, the Regional Superintendent of Confucian Studies, wrote that through his efforts ‘the orang-utans and butcherbirds became unicorns and phoenixes and their felts and furs were exchanged for gowns and caps’. There were many other civilizing missions on China’s periphery but only in Yunnan was one conducted under Muslim (and essentially Turkish Muslim) leadership.

In this way, Yunnan became known to the Islamic world. When Sayyid Ajall died in 1279 he was succeeded by his son Nasir al-Din who governed for five years and led the invasion of Burma. His younger brother became the Transport Commissioner and the entire family entrenched their influence. There were still very few Han Chinese in Yunnan and the growing Muslim community began to excel as long-distance traders as well. In the early fourteenth century, the great Persian Jewish historian Rashid al-Din Hamadani stated that the Dali region had become exclusively Muslim.

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Filed under Burma, Central Asia, China, Islam, migration, Mongolia, Turkey

Born and Bred in the NK Gulag

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 119-134:

In stories of concentration camp survival, there is a conventional narrative arc. Security forces steal the protagonist away from a loving family and a comfortable home. To survive, he abandons moral principles, suppresses feelings for others, and ceases to be a civilized human being.

In perhaps the most celebrated of these stories, Night, by Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, the thirteen-year-old narrator explains his torment with an account of the normal life that existed before he and his family were packed aboard trains bound for Nazi death camps. Wiesel studied the Talmud daily. His father owned a store and watched over their village in Romania. His grandfather was always present to celebrate the Jewish holidays. But after the boy’s entire family perished in the camps, Wiesel was left “alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy.”

Shin’s story of survival is different.

His mother beat him, and he viewed her as a competitor for food. His father, who was allowed by guards to sleep with his mother just five nights a year, ignored him. His brother was a stranger. Children in the camp were untrustworthy and abusive. Before he learned anything else, Shin learned to survive by snitching on all of them.

Love and mercy and family were words without meaning. God did not disappear or die. Shin had never heard of him. In a preface to Night, Wiesel wrote that an adolescent’s knowledge of death and evil “should be limited to what one discovers in literature.”

In Camp 14, Shin did not know literature existed. He saw only one book in the camp, a Korean grammar, in the hands of a teacher who wore a guard’s uniform, carried a revolver on his hip, and beat one of his primary school classmates to death with a chalkboard pointer.

Unlike those who have survived a concentration camp, Shin had not been torn away from a civilized existence and forced to descend into hell. He was born and raised there. He accepted its values. He called it home.

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