|The Chinese like to say that theirs is not an expansionary country, since most of the country's population consists of the yellow peoples. Which is nonsense on stilts, given that most of the Roman empire was composed of Caucasians, and had to be conquered a square foot at a time. Nonetheless, even if you accept the silly Chinese claim at face value, that the most of the yellow peoples of Northeast Asia somehow naturally belong in a single country, this natural cohesion was achieved with a minimum of violence, and all of China's present lands are also their ancestral lands (meaning the Chinese - within their definition of imperialism - are not imperialists), the problem is that these digs show that the previous occupants of these lands were not yellow skinned Mongoloids, but white-skinned Caucasians. Could the Chinese (gasp) have actually committed the sin of imperialism? (Of course they have - the history of China is the history of empire).
An exhibit in the museum in Urumqui gives the government's unambiguous take on the history of this border region: "Xinjiang has been an inalienable part of the territory of China," says one prominent sign.
But walk upstairs and the ancient corpses on display seem to tell a different story. One called the Loulan Beauty lies on her back with her shoulder-length hair matted down her high cheekbones and long nose the most obvious signs that she is not what one thinks of as Chinese.
The Loulan Beauty is one of more than 200 remarkably well-preserved mummies discovered in the western deserts here over the last few decades. The ancient bodies have become protagonists in a very contemporary political dispute over who should control the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
The Chinese authorities here face an intermittent separatist movement of nationalist Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking
Muslim people who number nine million in Xinjiang. At the heart of the matter lie these questions: Who first settled this inhospitable part of western China? And for how long has the oil-rich region been part of the Chinese empire?
Uighur nationalists have gleaned evidence from mummies, whose corpses span thousands of years, to support historical claims to the region. Foreign scholars say that at the very least, the Tarim mummies seem to indicate the very first people to settle the area came from the west - down from the steppes of Central Asia and even farther afield - and not from the plains and river valleys of Chinese interior. The oldest, like the Loulan Beauty, date back 3,800 years.
The mummies show that humans entered the region almost certainly from the west. As a result the government has been unwilling to give broad access to foreign scientists to conduct genetic tests on the mummies.