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Xu Xin’s “Karamay” and Life in the New Economy

Xu Xin’s monumental 2010 film, Karamay (above, part 1, with English subtitles), is a meditation on the relationship humans have to the failings of ideology-driven Modernist political projects in our current historical moment. Using long-takes and repetitive framing shot during visits to Xinjiang in 2007, Xu Xin draws out the long duration of trauma and feelings of injustice. With the exception of a minority of Uyghurs and Kazakhs, the majority of Mandarin speakers featured in this award-winning 356-minute film came from elsewhere.

Most of the families in the film came to China’s far Northwestern province of Xinjiang in the 1960s to work in the oil fields and protect the Chinese frontier. Trading rural social networks for the future benefits of membership in the industrial proletariat, these parents placed their lives in the hands of the Party. They committed themselves to a national-communist project thousands of miles from their natal homes; they developed skills for coping with displacement; they disciplined their bodies and the bodies of their children as weapons in a war with nature. Out on the frontier, rituals of patriotic citizenship took on an intensified significance; these pioneering settlers were on the front lines of the nation. If their sacrifice was not completely recognized in the central nodes of Chinese society, it was nevertheless deeply felt at its margins. Although times were extremely tough in socialist Xinjiang, the rituals of sacrifice and interdependence that came with the infrastructure of rationing and cooperative social organization were largely effective in maintaining a sense of being well.

Yet as the vitality of the Maoist social-national project dissipated in Xinjiang during the Dengist Reform era, some of these same people have found themselves superfluous; caught up in forces much larger than them and what they were promised. When 288 children in the city of Karamay died in a horrific fire in 1994 (nearly 20 percent were ethnic minority students), unaffected officials and citizens moved on with economic redevelopment – apathetic toward the uneven distribution of well-being, social justice and prosperity. In its late-Socialist iteration, the ethos of their work unit – the petroleum company PetroChina – and its subsidiary support units no longer seems to account for their well-being. The parents Xu Xin interviewed in this film feel stuck, unable to move with flows of power and wealth that buoyed the futures of so many Reform-era Chinese. Yet more than an exposé of the tragedy of loved-ones lost, this film is also about the corporeal embodiment of social abandonment and failure.

In Karamay people find themselves unable to act or react to their social world in normalized ways. As the bodies of their children, and, likewise their kinship family more generally, are rendered disposable, the parents in Karamay reel between anger and defeat. Although these feelings are certainly not evenly distributed across time-space among “common people” in Northwest China (many have found ways to detach from Maoist comportments and “move on” in the new political economy – see Cliff 2010), in the sample population of the film we see a qualitative, palpable presence of the cycle of defeat: first fingers pointing, fists clenched, palms smacking, then heads buried in hands and finally, almost universally, a vacant gaze disengaged both with the world of the film and, the viewer is invited to extrapolate, the broader social world.

Writing in response to Xu Xin’s film and the way certain aspects of the Chinese world frequently disappear from view the critic Ni Ba had this to say:

“When I asked a few of my friends if the name Karamay made any impression on them, a few friends said, “is Karamay a country?” One friend said Karamay is a desert, still another said Karamay is a person’s name. When I spoke to them later and told them about the great fire in 1994, they said: “Oh yeah!” They said that now they could recall it, vaguely…. Perhaps this is precisely our society’s present condition. Development as the imperative task, stability as the paramount responsibility, the domination of patriotism which parrots the greatness of the motherland, have all been powerful ideals for the duration of our great journey to revival. People with or without intention have chosen to forget about the way the lives of others confront the real and the future. Yet hearing the immediacy with which many regular people in Karamay know the way their children were blocked in the course of the events, and knowing that according to the official rhetoric better times should have come to that place, I can’t help but wonder what kind of success is bound up in [our economic development]” (my emphasis).

Further Reading:

T.C. (2012). “The Partnership of Stability in Xinjiang: State Society Interactions Following the July 2009 Unrest.” The China Journal, no. 68, pp. 79-105.

For more on Karamay, both the film and city, see these excellent commentaries from Josh at Far West China:

A View of Karamay: China’s Richest City

Images & Video from the 1994 Karamay Fire

Filed under: Film


Dr. Darren Byler is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University where he teaches and writes about social theory, urban ethnography and the technopolitics of life in Chinese Central Asia. He also writes a regular column on state violence and Uyghur decolonization for SupChina.

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