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Oil and Water

Being Han in Xinjiang

For decades, China’s Xinjiang region has been the site of clashes between long-residing Uyghur and Han settlers. Up until now, much scholarly attention has been paid to state actions and the Uyghur’s efforts to resist cultural and economic repression. This has left the other half of the puzzle—the motivations and ambitions of Han settlers themselves—sorely understudied.
With Oil and Water, anthropologist Tom Cliff offers the first ethnographic study of Han in Xinjiang, using in-depth vignettes, oral histories, and more than fifty original photographs to explore how and why they became the people they are now. By shifting focus to the lived experience of ordinary Han settlers, Oil and Water provides an entirely new perspective on Chinese nation building in the twenty-first century and demonstrates the vital role that Xinjiang Han play in national politics—not simply as Beijing’s pawns, but as individuals pursuing their own survival and dreams on the frontier.

280 pages | 16 color plates, 44 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: East Asia, General Asian Studies


"In Oil and Water, anthropologist Cliff uses a blend of personal histories, theory and photography to detail the lives and ambitions of the settlers....Cliff brings a fresh perspective to a poorly understood problem."

Financial Times

"The tension between Uyghur and Han Chinese people in the Xinjiang region of China – the former long-term residents, the latter recent settlers – has been an important subject of scholarly attention in recent years. Accounts, however, have tended to focus on state actions and the oppression – and subsequent resistance – of the Uyghur populations. Anthropologist Cliff’s excellent ethnographic study of the motivations and ambitions of Han settlers offers a much-needed corrective."

Tank Magazine

"In Oil and Water, Cliff presents a new perspective on the issues in the region. Taking a job as an English teacher in a state-owned oil company in Xinjiang, Cliff analyzed the hierarchies and pressures among the Han community there. After spending several years in the dusty city of Korla, Cliff paints a fascinatingly unique and in-depth picture of life for the Han locals."

Time Out Shanghai

"Cliff gives us a nuanced, diversified account of how [the Han settlers] compete for advancement, view one another, and see Xinjiang’s relationship to the rest of China."


"An intelligently written book, rich in ethnographic detail supported by in-depth knowledge of regional history, economy and politics. Though Xinjiang is where Cliff’s story takes place, the concepts with which he structures his analysis are not context-specific but link to broader debates on social and spatial mobility, the systems of organized dependence, the life of guanxi, forms of social organization, marriage economy, urbanization and more. Scholars and students interested in these questions, and those interested in the region of Xinjiang, will find Cliff’s book insightful and important."

The China Quarterly

"Scholars of modern China, economic anthropology, and comparative colonialism will all find much of value in Oil and Water. The separateness of the Han world that Cliff describes contributes to the book’s value, as so little work has been done on contemporary Han life in the region. Cliff radically reorients our perspective on Xinjiang and challenges our assumptions about the ways in which its people align with or against the government. Han settlers may imagine themselves as powerful pioneers, but they, too, are colonials in China’s developmental project: struggling, hopeful human beings who use the resources available to them to find stability in an uncertain world."

The China Journal

"An excellent contribution to the established literature on China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and China studies more broadly. This is masterful scholarship. The book has a fluent and accessible style, and it critically engages with a vast array of issues affecting the daily lives of Han in Xinjiang."

American Anthropologist

"The value of such a study cannot be emphasized enough, since Han presence in Xinjiang, though always invoked as one of the main causes of Uyghur discontent, has hardly been investigated hitherto. Cliff’s theoretical scaffolding includes the concepts of empire, colonialism, center-periphery relations, and the “new imperialism,” which combines domination and exploitation with development."

The Journal of Asian Studies

“I am deeply impressed by Cliff’s commitment to the Xinjiang region and by his capacity to describe complex social change and political systems with such detail and fluency. Cliff is a scholar but also a wise observer of a multiethnic region that lives in contradiction. Oil and Water is also eminently readable. It is illustrated by Cliff’s own photographs, which brilliantly capture lives that are lived in both stasis and uncertainty, a condition that is embodied in the landscape.”

Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, University of Liverpool

"This book presents a timely and provocative analysis into Xinjiang Province, China’s westernmost province and largest administrative region....Through interview and interactive scenario, accompanied by photographic image, Cliff explores different life trajectories of local Han residents as they construct meaningful livelihoods and conceptualize their place along China’s frontier."

Central Asian Survey

“In his beautifully written and photographed book, Cliff uses personal narratives of self-segregated Han residents of Korla, an oil town in Xinjiang, to help us see this contested region of China through a fresh set of eyes. The literal and figurative use of "oil and water" to stand for the differences and divisions within the Han community, as well as the basis of Han political and economic power, is particularly well chosen.”

Thomas Gold, University of California, Berkeley

Table of Contents

1 Constructing the Civilized City
2 The Individual, and the Era-Defining Institutions of State
3 Structured Mobility in a Neo-Danwei
4 Legends and Aspirations of the Oil Elite
5 Lives of Guanxi
6 Married to the Structure
7 The Partnership of Stability in Xinjiang
Bibliography Index
Photo Essay: Urban development in Korla, 2007–10
Photo Essay: Portraits of “Old Xinjiang People”



Association for Asian Studies: E. Gene Smith Book Prize

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