Review: Li Juan – “Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders”

by J.R. Patterson
Li Juan Winter Pasture

Li Juan (trans. Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan), Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders (Astra House: 2021), 304 pages. 

Book review by J. R. Patterson.

Reading Winter Pasture, Li Juan’s account of her time with shepherds in the foothills of the Altai Mountains, I was reminded of Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski. In the early 20th century, Malinowski traveled to the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea to live, work, and play among the locals, making notes while paddling between islands on outrigger canoes to observe intricate gift-giving ceremonies. His experiences, captured in his 1922 book Argonauts of the Western Pacific, established a new kind of methodology for ethnographers and writers alike. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to simply observe quietly from the bushes, as one might a clutch of birds: those strange beings on the fringes of Western Society were people too. How much an observer understood became linked with just how dirty they were willing to get their hands. 

This, of course, runs the gamut. Arabian Sands wouldn’t have been nearly the same without Wilfred Thesiger’s suffering alongside his Bedouin allies, but donning a leather thong wouldn’t have added much to James Suzman’s look into the world of southern Africa’s San people, Affluence Without Abundance. Other travelers cum ethnographers have set high limits. Francis Burton’s self-circumcision, done to penetrate Mecca disguised as a Muslim pilgrim, comes to mind. Likewise, it’s difficult to say whether Keep the River on Your Right, about Tobias Schneebaum’s time with the Harakmbut people in Peru, was made better by his experimenting in cannibalism (we taste “a bit like pork”). Either way, such writing requires a deft hand, balancing a superhuman ability to observe and deduce the meaning of minutiae with sensitivity and compassion. There is, therefore some level of surmising and guesswork that comes into it. Nonetheless, since Malinowski, the rule has been: you must not only go, you must do. 

And do Li Juan does. For three months in the harsh winter of northwestern China, she shovels sheep shit, hems clothes, and throws her tiny, 88 lb frame up onto camels and rides off in forty degrees below into a stiff wind — the winter of 2010, the year of her trip, turns out to be glacial “thousand years’ freeze”. The work is hard, and the amenities are threadbare. The herders’ house is a burrow dug into the earth and built with bricks of frozen manure. Inside, huddled around a tiny stove, are anywhere from three to ten people drinking tea, eating boiled meat, or watching a frenetic, solar-powered TV. Her three months in the winter pasture verge on an ordeal, and make for a wonderfully jaunty book.

Juan lives and works in Akehara village, an outpost in the far-flung Altay Prefecture of Xinjiang province, around which ethnic Kazakh herders have grazed their sheep, cattle, and camels for centuries. It’s with one of these families she travels into the winter pasture, a large stretch of isolated land, to observe the lives of the Kazakhs as they spend months in the bitter cold, grazing a herd several hundred-strong, before moving on to more amenable summer pasture. 

Juan finds herself both close to home, and a considerable alien. Though by no means an urbanite, being only a hundred miles from the comforts of her hometown, in the remoteness and danger — wolves and frostbite being just outside the door — was enough to cause a kind of “existential crisis.”

Nonetheless, Juan captures well the herders, in particular the family she lives hunkers down through the winter with, through their isms and idiosyncrasies; sharing a sleeping platform in a hundred square meter manure burrow will do that.   

It’s possible to romanticise the lifestyle, but the pragmatic Juan nips those feelings in the bud, her feet and hands numb in the saddle. “The reality,” she writes, is “one of desolation, loneliness, and helplessness. In reality, year and year, everyone must submit to nature’s will, oscillating endlessly between south and north…They are forever departing, forever saying goodbye.” It’s a harsh landscape, and not a loving one. Humans suck the marrow out of boiled bones; sheep paw through dry scree for a blade of grass; dogs are thrown frozen lumps of blood to lick. 

Juan gives a picture of a China that few will be familiar with. For that alone, she should be read. But the book is also playful, immensely funny, and full of the high-spirited energy one associates with gymnastics. 

As only an observant outsider can, she throws her eye over the barest details. The monotonous days are broken by her focus on everything from animal tracks, home remedies, and the predilections of her hosts — tea and sewing being two indefatigable salves in those desolate boonies.

Faced in similar circumstances — a dome of sky, a sweep of desert, the ear-pinging quiet, most would find themselves contemplating the smallness of mankind, the humbling of the self. Juan doesn’t dwell on such cliché pish-posh, but tacks the opposite direction:  

“Scanning the land from the peak of a dune, the human body seems no bigger than a leaf. But how can people possibly be considered small in a world like this, where signs of human activity are what leave the deepest marks?” Humans, she rightly notes, orient their entire world around them—the look for signs of each other, seek each other out across expanses so wide and open, the curve of the earth is visible. Therefore, for those who seek human contact—for those whose lives depend on it, “everything races relentlessly their way. Indeed, the whole world orients itself around them. They are the masters of the wilderness.”

Li Juan, “Winter Pasture”

Winter Pasture was a long time in translation, and, as has been pointed by many before, books about China tend to date quickly. Juan’s journey took place in 2010, and the book was first published in 2012 — and though it will be most readers’ first encounter with these Kazakh herders, it may also be their last chance to read about them in action. Squatting around an iron stove a decade ago, Juan is regularly told that the year of her visit will be the last for the herding families. They sense the outside world closing in on them, the whip crack of official policies landing harder than the wind. Physical extremes can be endured. Official extremes, however…It seems likely, given the intervening years, that many of the families profiled therein are no longer heading out into the steppe, that the winter pasture has changed inimitably. 

That, of course, points to the other master at play in the Chinese highlands. The herders appear to live somewhat separated from the regulations of Chinese democracy, and speak happily about their uncontrolled lifestyle. Restrictions, though, creep in over the horizon. In 2003, a Chinese national initiative, tuimu huancao, was brought in established to “retire livestock and restore grassland.” Predicated on the idea that pastoral grazing damages the grasslands, herders have found their lifestyle once again at odds with Chinese monocultural aspirations. That the Kazakh herders are Muslim is given short shrift in the book, though perhaps there are limits to what even a writer as distant from the Chinese cultural scene can get away with. 

Xinjiang is, by now, known to most of the world as the location of China’s Uygur “re-education” camps. Juan is Han Chinese, and, while any personal feelings about her nation’s governmental policies remain unstated, passages about government-instituted “Grassland Restoration” projects, large-scale fence construction, and expropriating land for settled agriculture, seem like a soft acknowledgment of Beijing’s attempt to corral these Kazakh nomads. As one passing horse trader tells Juan, through the government resettling schemes, “the Kazakh will be over.” When Juan displays shock at hearing a trader’s dire predictions for the nomads’ fate, he turns on her, asking, “Have we Kazakhs not suffered enough for you yet?” 

What appears as a simple story is, like all ethnographies, a tale of survival. The family revels in the smallest of amenities (a new hat, a set of batteries), and works feverishly to salvage what breaks — a moment of clarity comes as Juan observes a furious effort to repair a disposable lighter. The family eats painkillers like candy, and spends days without seeing another soul. The lights may not always work, and, in blizzards, the snow will block the door, trapping them in their burrow. It is a hard life, but if they choose it, all the more power to them. As Juan notes, happiness is a thing of hope, not comfort. 

Li Juan (trans. Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan), Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders (Astra House: 2021), 304 pages. 

Book review by J. R. Patterson.

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Last Updated on 18 October 2021 by Travel Writing World

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Katherine 2 November 2021 - 3:55 pm

Oh, I can’t wait to read it. So interested to read her insights. What a fabulous review.

Jeremy Bassetti 2 November 2021 - 3:59 pm

Thanks, Katherine. James says it is a great book. We take his word on things around here. I haven’t read it yet, but it is on my ever-growing list.


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