A tale of twin cities: the new and old settlements of Aksu

A tale of twin cities: the new and old settlements of Aksu

China is no stranger to twin cities and urban agglomerations. For instance, the city of Xiangfan in Hubei Province was once an agglomeration of Xiangyang and Fancheng; while Wuhan (also in Hubei) is an agglomeration of Wuchang, Hanyang and Hankou. In the Qing Dynasty, a number of twin cities appeared throughout Xinjiang, such as Urumqi (which comprised the Gongning settlement and the old city) and Kashgar (which comprised Laining and the old city). Aksu, Yarkand, Yengisar, Kuqa, Hotan and Barkol were also composed of two cities.

The Qing settlements in Xinjiang were mostly founded during the reign of Emperor Qianlong and were inhabited by Manchu and Han soldiers, as well as Chinese merchants from the inland. Meanwhile, the old cities were the native home of Uyghur people. In this way, in the "twin cities" of Xinjiang during the Qing Dynasty, multiple cultures lived in close proximity — but segregated by city walls, and in vastly different conditions.

Image 93: Statue of Lin Zexu in Urumqi

It is said that Lin Zexu, a Qing scholar-official who was banished to Xinjiang after the First Opium War, passed through Aksu one day in May 1845. On his way there, he may well have squatted by the road, next to a local farm, and tasted some of the region's famous melons. Upon arriving in Aksu, he would have discovered two distinct cities: the old Muslim city, and the new Qing settlement. In June 2015, I visited an orchard on the outskirts of Aksu, where I gorged myself on delicious watermelons and Hami melons freshly picked from the vine. I then made my way to the city, where I searched all over for traces of the twin settlements that Lin Zexu would have seen that day.

In 1845 (the 25th year of Emperor Daoguang's reign), Lin Zexu had already been in exile for four years and was about to be reappointed by the emperor. He wrote of his stay: "I first arrived in the Muslim city, where I found a spacious lodge whose architecture differed greatly from Han dwellings. I thus chose this lodge as my accommodation for the night. Wu Qiao (then the Grand Minister Superintendent of Aksu) came to chat for a while before I followed him to the Han city of Baicheng. This settlement was linked to the Muslim city; the Grand Minister's office was not large." The "Muslim city" to which he refers is the old city of Aksu, which by then already had an illustrious history; while the "Han settlement" had only been built less than a century before, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong.

Image 94: Aksu as shown on the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang stored in Taipei

As shown in Image 94, the "twin city" layout of Aksu had already taken shape during the Qianlong era. (In this chapter, "Aksu" refers to Aksu as it was known prior to 1883, in the modern-day region of Wensu County.) The east side is labelled as the "Muslim city", while the west side is labelled "City of Aksu".

The Muslim city was constructed along an incline to the north, known to locals as the "ridge". The ridge is thus described in Qing documents: "It was at least a dozen zhang high. On the top, it was flat and smooth; while its sides were as abrupt as walls. It did not harbor plant life; it was merely sandstone and nothing else." In 1845, after eating dinner, Lin Zexu and Wu Qiao climbed to the extremity of this ridge; Lin later wrote that he "could see for more than 20 li."

Image 95: Aksu as shown on the Map of the Western Territories

Throughout its long history prior to the Qing occupation of Xinjiang, Aksu was primarily inhabited by the Uyghur people. However, its convenient transportation made it a popular place for inland Chinese and Central Asian merchants to sell their wares; every bazaar day, the markets "were a sweaty throng of people clambering for merchandise stacked as far as the eye could see".

Aksu was a prolific producer of a variety of wares. "Its fields were vast and fecund. Crops of sesame, barley, wheat, rice, beans, millet and cotton covered the rolling hills like golden clouds; while orchards abounded with peaches, apricots, mulberries, pears, pomegranates, grapes and phoenix eye fruits, bringing wealth to local farmers. Livestock such as cows, sheep, camels and horses gathered in herds and flocks on nearby pastures. The city was particularly known for its community of skilled artisans, who would sculpt jade and make tools with an evident attention to detail."

The label "City of Aksu" on Image 94 refers to the Han settlement built during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. According to Qing court documents written in Manchu, the Qing troops did not build a settlement immediately upon their arrival in Aksu, in the 24th year of Emperor Qianlong's reign (1750); instead, they lived in tents on the outskirts of the old city. In the 31st year of the Qianlong reign (1766), a local Uyghur noble with close ties to the Qing court, Setibu Baledi, donated his courtyard to the west of the old city to the Manchu and Han troops. That same year, the Qing court began to construct the new city, with the donated courtyard at its center. The settlement truly was square, as it is depicted in Images 94 and 95. The city wall was 35 zhang high on either side; its four sides had a combined length of 140 zhang. In the Qing measurement system, a zhang was equivalent to 3.2 m — therefore, the city occupied 12,544 m2 and each of its sides were 112 m long each.

Image 96: Aksu as shown on the Illustrated Journal of Borders in Southern Xinjiang

As shown in Image 95, Aksu's layout — whereby the old city was separate from the new settlement — remained the same during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing as it was during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. As the new settlement was situated at a low altitude, it was susceptible to flooding. In April and May, 1811 (the 16th year of Emperor Jiaqing's reign), the new city was flooded by heavy rainstorms and had to be reconstructed. Fifty years later, in the 10th year of Emperor Xianfeng's reign, the city was renovated once more. In keeping with the conventions of the Qing Dynasty, each of the four city gates was given an ornamental wooden slat inscribed with the following auspicious phrases: "Martial Glory", "Welcoming Charity", "Conquer the West" and "Peace to the West".
The twin cities that Lin Zexu passed through in 1845 were as described above — two utterly different places in terms of their design, residents and history. The new settlement founded during the reign of Emperor Qianlong was situated in the northwest of the modern region of Wensu County. Establishments such as the Wensu County No. 1 Middle School, the Wensu County Hospital and the Wensu County Bureau of Grain are all partially or entirely built on the site of the Qing settlement.

Afterwards, southern Xinjiang was afflicted by the rebellions led by Yaqub Beg. By the time these rebellions were quashed by the Qing troops (in 1877, the third year of Emperor Guangxu's reign), the cities of Aksu had virtually been reduced to rubble. Its walls were completely decimated, and the lives of those who remained there were, for some time, very bleak. Image 96 is a map of Aksu from the ninth year of Guangxu's reign (1883). By this point, the two cities had already been partially rebuilt. The Qing court official Shakedulinzhabu is said to have visited Aksu at this time. At the foot of the ridge were Longwang Temple and Yangzheng Academy; at the markets, one could find everything that one would expect inland, such as vegetables, fruit, fish and meats. One could say that, after a few years of recuperation, Aksu had moved past the ravages of war and was returning to its former prosperity.

However, by the end of the Guangxu reign, only a few structures from the Muslim city of Aksu remained. In 1939, the Qing settlement was gradually demolished. Today, the former layout of two cities — with their completely divergent cultures, architectural styles, ethnic compositions and religious beliefs — has been totally engulfed by an all-new, modern city.

No traces remain of the twin cities that Lin Zexu visited in 1845, other than a few historical documents. Be that as it may, under the nourishing sunlight, Aksu's famous melons have continued to grow as plump and flavorful as ever.

Main references:

The Elaborated Official Reports, Public Documents and Diary Entries of Lin Zexu. Sun Yat-sen University Publishing Press, 1985.

Sights and Sounds of the Western Territories. Edition from the 12th year of the Japanese "Kansei" era.

Wensu County Gazetteer. Sun Yat-sen University Publishing Press, 1993.