Ruins of a Theater

At the Vereshchagin retrospective in 2018, I spent some time staring at a painting of a ruined Chinese theater somewhere in Central Asia. After posting these notes on Altishar and Kashgaria, I wondered if had Vereshchagin found his theatrical ruins in that region or close to it.

The answer, I believe, is in the title of the painting: Ruins of a Theater in Chuguchak.

Chuguchak, also known as Qoqek, Tarbagatai, and Tacheng (plus a few other names), is a place in what is now Xinjiang, China. However, it is not part of the Altishar (Beshbalik, Yettishar) region, which lies in the southern part of the province and is sometimes referred to as the Tarim Basin or Southern Xinjiang.

Rather, Tacheng/Chuguchak is located in the northern section of Xinjiang known as Dz(h)ungaria or Jungaria. Actually, it is known under so many names that it’s impossible to enumerate them here (or even at all). For more linguistic detail, I recommend this excellent post by Language Hat and the enlightening discussion in the comments.

The town is known to historians of the region for the Treaty, or Protocol, of Chuguchak, or Tarbagatai, signed in 1864 by the Chinese and the Russians to delineate the border between the two empires. That document is still relevant, I think, to disputes over the exact route of the Sino-Kazakh border.

But when Vereschagin visited Chuguchak in 1869 or 1870, he found the town in ruins: it had been destroyed by Muslim insurgents in 1865. It was only one of the many massacres of the so-called Dungan Revolt of 1862-77. Vereshchagin painted two more images from the devastated town: A Garden Gate in Chuguchak and Ruins in Chuguchak.

As a diversion from this grim subject, Tacheng might be the Eurasian pole of inaccessibility although there are other candidates, all of them in Xinjiang.

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