The Tunken Shubian, or station troops guarding the frontier and cultivating the frontier areas, is a strange concept to grasp. Literally speaking, Tunken refers to farmers’ job of ‘opening up wasteland and cultivating the fields' while Shubian are soldiers’ tasks of ‘defending the frontiers'. These are two quite different professions. However, they have been combined into one, and it is a common social phenomenon in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is far from the inner land. The primary purpose of stationing troops to open up wasteland was perhaps to solve the food and grass supply problems of the garrison troops. Two thousands years ago, since Xinjiang had its first this kind of cultivated land, this activity is not merely economic behaviour. It was closely connected with the career of defending the frontiers.
In history, those people who cultivated waste land and defend the frontiers stored food and grass in daily life, essentially living a farmer's life, but in war time they would kill their enemies and protect their country. During these times, they were one hundred percent soldiers.
After the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, this behaviour was passed down from generation to generation, and developed on a large scale. The organization's formal name was “Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps'. This special social organization handles its own administrative and judicial affairs within the reclamation areas under its administration, in accordance with the laws and regulations of the state and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and with economic planning directly supervised by the state. Complete army units and administrative organs can be found here; they deal in various businesses from agriculture and forestry to animal husbandry and fishery; there are people from all walks of life, including farmers, workers, businessmen, soldiers and students; all kinds of social institutions are present here, including farms and factories, schools and prisons, residential sites and arsenals. The Corps are described as “Four Dissimilarities”: it’s an army without military expenditure, a government that has to pay tax, a corporation that deals in all industries of the society and a village that has its own labor union.
Thus, people find it hard to give it a definition, but the existence of this kind of organization has necessity and rationality.
People in this organization live their life like this. When it is harvest time, they farm on the land. When there is not much work to do on the farmland, they practise their drills. When they come back home, they are husbands and fathers. When leaving home, they are military officers and soldiers. Their roles in society change from time to time, according to the season and to the need. However to defend the frontiers is their everlasting task.
Their task is very special and demanding, but far from enough. Besides the danger of sacrificing their lives, the people of Xinjiang production and construction military troop have to bear the sorrow of missing their homeland. They can come to the west with their families but can't leave easily. Therefore, many people have to settle in. They live in and defend the frontiers from generation to generation. They might not really want to stay, but their choice of staying in the west to defend the frontiers for ever makes them the most respectful people.
In the old times, fighting and killing the enemies were their main task but now constructing and developing are of greater priority. In the present, peaceful world, there is no remaining sacrifice. To build the country and change the world was the main battle at the beginning of the military troops' foundation.
Nearly half a century ago, when the military troop members and their families arrived at the waste land, there was nothing here but wild plants. There was no house, no water supply, no machine, no road – nothing but the spirit of overcoming these inconveniences. They lived in tents and worked very hard in extremely poor conditions. After tedious work, they built up a brand new city with new houses, highways and fertile lands.
Today, when you walk through those military farm lands like the Alar, Xiaohaizi, Tieganlik, Shihezi, Wujiaqu, Beitun, Tacheng and Kekdala reclamation areas, you can't believe these used to be barren and desolate land several decades ago. While wandering on streets of cities like Shihezi, Kuytun, Wujiaqu, Alar and Tumushuke, you can't imagine that this military city could be so young.
Shihezi City,a manmade oasis in the desert
If you talk to any senior military troop member, he or she will proudly tell you the hard time they went through. When listening to their fabulous story, told in an excited tone, your imagination will fly widely. The great change of the city - from a waste land to a modern city happened within only forty years, even twenty years or less in some places. It is not only a miracle but also magical. We are so proud of those military troop members who have made great contributions to the changes!
Although some of them are still living happily nowadays, they have sacrificed so much! They sacrificed their youth, their whole life as well as their offspring's future. This kind of sacrifice is equally respectful and precious to that of fighting in the fields.
We have no reason to deny that there were indeed respectful people, involved in a spiritual pursuit at a young age!
The carriages cars and trains heading west have sent people of many generations to cultivate the wasteland and defend the frontiers. Today we walk along the road sign at our own expenses to experience the mysterious areas' past and present.