The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Whitman and Journalism

In Walt Whitman’s first version of Leaves of Grass, there’s an engraving of the young author. He stares out from the page with a dark, scruffy beard. His hand is on his hip, and his black felt hat is tilted—he has the brash, cocksure attitude of a Harrison Ford character.

But on my paperback, there’s another image of Walt Whitman: a photo of him with a scruffy, white beard—a sort of proletarian Santa Clause. In it, the face of youthful rebellion has been replaced by a pensive gaze.

Whitman spent a decades editing and adding to Leaves of Grass, and the two different images of the iconic poet represent more than just his physical aging. As he got older, he experienced the world differently.

In the first version of Leaves of Grass, he wrote:

I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
And accrue what I hear into myself …. and let sounds contribute toward me

And in the much later version, the poem reads:

I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it

Only four words changed, but Whitman changed the focus of his experiences. In his youth, his listening and learning is directed only to his self. As he became older, he’s still listening and learning, but it’s directed towards a creating something new, his ‘song’.

The life of the young Whitman and the old Whitman both involve learning and experiencing the world, but the later one adds meaning beyond the self while sacrificing the joys of experiencing the world for its own sake.

Now as a reporter, I’ve become the old Whitman, constantly trying to accrue experiences that could contribute to an article. I wish sometimes I took more time to do nothing but listen, but when I do, it has become impossible to turn off the journalist. Off hours, reporters are constantly listening to the world with an ear out for a story. Being a reporter becomes part of one’s identity, permanently affecting the way one experiences the world.

And what happened to Whitman between his first edition and his ninth?

I’m no Whitman scholar, but after he published his first version, he became a Civil War correspondent.

Unrest in Xinjiang

A year ago to the day, I met a Uighur shoemaker in Kashgar (read about it here and here). He loved foreigners, because a few years ago, a Westerner found him, a drunkard living on a park bench, and helped him set up a small shop where he now lives.

But he also loved foreigners for the simple fact they weren’t Chinese. Until the Chinese government hires white Americans to spy on its minorities, I was one of the few people he could safely complain to. Like many Uighurs I met on the trip, he was bitter and frustrated. The city he grow up in was being destroyed and replaced by Chinese suburbia. He wasn’t religious, but he felt the only people helping Uighurs were the Islamic groups and an occasional foreigner.

The English-speaking shoemaker spoke about (and sometimes embodied) the disorders like alcoholism and physical abuse that go hand in hand with social disintegration, and Chinese policies are only making the situation worse.

Mäshräps—grass-roots, Islamic social groups designed to supply substitute activities for drinking—were banned in 1995, and today, China banned group prayer in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. Underemployed, oppressed minorities with nothing to do can lead to violence anywhere in the world, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that riots broke out, though I would’ve expected it to happen in cities like Kashgar or Yarkand where tensions were much more palpable a year ago.

I’ve found myself these last few days since riots erupted in Xinjiang imagining what the shoemaker is up to. He’s a sick middle-aged man—not someone you’d think would get involved in something so rowdy as a protest. But he also has nothing to lose. His happy years of playing in Uighur rock band are over. Last year, I saw Chinese troops march through the centre of Kashgar’s Old City everyday, and the shoemaker told me the sight never ceased to anger him.