ALEC FARMER WRITES – Nature is a brutal place with harsh conditions that can push anyone to their limits. Despite the vastness of its glory, nature can also be a place of unmatched serene beauty. This dichotomy of truths is ever-present for those who live and move alongside the Earth. Journalist Li Juan tackles this idea through her writings as this is a significant concept in her second book, Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders (2021).
Throughout her career, Li Juan continued to explore the connection between natural environments and their communities. Li Juan’s first book, Distant Sunflower Fields (2021), documents her family’s experiences traveling through China’s Gobi Desert. Similarly, Winter Pasture (2021) follows a nomadic group through harsh terrain. However, in Winter Pasture, the environment is a frigid mountain range, and the cultural community is that of the Kazakh people.
The Kazakhs are an ethnic group spread heavily throughout Central and East Asia. This culturally rich community is the focus of Li Juan’s novel and their continuation of nomadic pastoralism. Li Juan writes that “the six-month-long winter and the infertile land imposed a nomadic “lifestyle” onto the Kazakh people’s ancestors. Year after year, survival demanded obedience to nature’s rhythm.” Thus, the Kazakh people’s cultural continuation of transhumance serves as the backbone of this beautifully rendered literary study.
In describing the Kazakh’s nomadic lifestyle, Li Juan takes a very intimate approach as she travels and resides with the Cuma family. Rather than approaching this tradition from the macro, Li Juan enlightens her audience through the eyes of a single family. Throughout the book, the argument is brought up to Li Juan that “someone like you who wants to write about our winter pastures, can’t just stay in one place” as this Kazakh practice is in its very nature migratory. This transhumance constantly moves these families hundreds of miles across Earth’s barren and beautiful surface. Yet, author Li Juan is unfamiliar with Kazakh culture at the book’s outset. Instead of trying to learn every aspect of this practice, the book is an intimate portrait of one family and their connection to their culture, each other, and the Earth.
The Cuma family is highly engaging to follow as everyone has such distinctive and captivating personalities. When describing Cuma, the father figure, Li Juan writes, “Their world was something like this—a big sky and a big earth, in which they dwelt alone and far apart; where the days were quiet and dull, life hard and lonely, deprived of contact with the outside world; and where most people were resigned to a life of quiescence. So the presence of a character like Cuma offered people a sense of joy and relief.” Each member of this familial unit helps to remove the feeling of isolation from their often-desolate surroundings. Whether it’s the sly comments made by Cuma, the passion for art displayed by the nineteen-year-old Kama, or the quiet reassurance and understanding of the family’s mother figure, they collectively create a sense of community. Despite living in harsh and barren conditions for these winter months, this novel is comforting as these individuals and their dynamics capture a sentiment frequently felt though rarely appreciated — familial beauty.
While the focus is primarily on the Cuma family, Li Juan does not remain a passive character in her book. She works to earn her keep within the familial unit. The intense physical labor often leaves Li Juan quite exhausted and “As a result, on the second day, I ended up miserably tired. By the time we reached camp, my legs were aching and stiff, my buttocks were too sore to sit on a saddle. As for the intractable camels—I dare not put my rage in words here.” While this grueling physical labor is portrayed as being quite difficult, it also leads to serene moments of introspection while in nature. Li Juan explains that “There was another world across from our world, one beyond the curtain at the world’s edge, a seemingly impenetrable world. Yet, slowly and silently we crossed into it. In the middle of this expanse, I could fully feel the roundness of the earth—the earth curved down in all directions as our team of camels inched along the crest of the sphere.”
In this novel, Li Juan’s writings are beyond beautiful, even though they derive from her manual labor in frigid conditions. This duality of nature’s beauty and brutality is central to this book and Li Juan’s career. The demanding nomadic lifestyle is seen as mundane by the Kazakh people in the book. Some of the herders even ask Li Juan “what’s there to write about” in relation to transhumance. However, for Li Juan who spent much of her adult life in cities, the hardships that come from a nomadic lifestyle are quite revelatory for both the author and her readers. It is through a deeply personal experience with nature and community that Li Juan crafts a book that speaks to the complications of living, not just on, but with this planet.
A parallel that frequently appears throughout the book is the connection between nature and the nomadic Kazakh culture. “In the past, life in the wilderness must have been even more difficult and isolated. But even in a life like that, beauty was a necessity. When people finished their work and found a moment to spare, they stripped the damp tree bark and carefully smoked their simple leather clothes. When a figure on horseback would slowly emerge out of a forest—his red, not the red of his clothes, but the red of his mind … the red satisfied the world’s tiniest desire for beauty.” The history of this desire for beauty is encapsulated in the visual arts of the native Kazakh people. Individuals such as Kama work on embroidery and to capture the emotions that nature and community can elicit.
The translators of this book, Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan, worked to preserve the Kazakh culture for unaware and curious English readers. While the original version of Winter Pasture had brief descriptions in Chinese for Kazakh words and phrases, the translators opted not to translate culturally specific iconography and words into English but instead write them in their Romanized versions. This romanization allows these items and phrases to retain their cultural heritage while insuring they are not lost in translation to an English reader. Both the author Li Juan and the translators often only give short descriptions of these untranslated words, as if to prompt the audience to further research the Kazakh culture outside of this book.
Winter Pasture is tinged with melancholy as the Cuma family and many other Kazakh people remark on how nomadism is becoming increasingly more challenging, with fewer families able to make these treks every year. However, this practice and its connection to the Earth should not be forgotten. It should be mentioned that the Cuma family and other Kazakh’s who live within China’s borders are faced with the country’s increasingly hostile policies towards ethnic minorities. The future remains unclear for the Kazakh people living in China. However, the nomadic Kazakh culture symbolizes a transcendence of geopolitics and borders. The physical act of transhumance represents the Kazakh culture’s reverence for nature that should be admired, not demonized, by anyone who lives on this planet.
Towards the end of Li Juan’s journey with the Cuma family, she remarks that “life was already difficult enough, they didn’t need an outsider chewing their ears off all day long, not only being of little use but also a constant distraction—I refuse to be that person. Plus, we had more than just a day or two together, there would be plenty of time and opportunity—better that I rely on my own experiences little by little and slowly try to learn.” This book is a special opportunity to learn about the beautiful, harsh, and transitory lifestyle of China’s Kazakh herders.
New AMI book reviewer, Alec Farmer, recently graduated from LMU with a degree in Film and TV Production and a minor in Asian and Pacific Studies. He has studied contemporary Asian literature and cinema.
*Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.