Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature

Desert Reading: A List by John Olsen

Associate Professor of Anthropology at The University of Arizona


Since romantic speculation about the origins of eastern Eurasia's deserts and its indigenous peoples is nothing new, readers should delve into works by the great Swedish explorer Sven Hedin and his British colleague Sir Aurel Stein. Hedin's most famous works include his article "A Journey through the Takla-Makan Desert, Chinese Turkistan," published in 1896 by the Geographical Journal (Vol. 8, pp. 264-78), and his two-volume work Through Asia (London: Methuen, 1898). Stein's magnum opus, Ruins of Desert Cathay: Personal Narrative of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1912; reprint, New York: Dover Books, 1987), chronicles prehistoric and early historic human occupation of arid western China and its borderlands. Also of interest is Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), which offers a thorough overview of the early exploration of eastern Central Asia.

Most of the literature pertaining to East and Central Asian arid lands has not been published in English and few translations of even seminal Chinese and Russian works exist. An important exception is the 1976 translation of M. P. Petrov's Deserts of the World, released by Keter Publishing, Jerusalem.

The basic Chinese text summarizing what is known of China's deserts is Zhongguo Shamo Gailun (An Introduction to China's Deserts), principally edited by Zhu Zhenda and published in 1980 by Science Press, Beijing. Alta S. Walker's 1982 article in American Scientist (Vol. 70, pp. 366-76), "Deserts of China," provides useful summary data and discussion of the subject.

Several atlases and geographical works treat arid western China and neighboring territories in depth. Chen Cheng-hsiang's A Geographical Atlas of China (Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, 1980) is a general work, while Zhao Songqiao's Physical Geography of China (Beijing and New York: Science Press and John Wiley, 1986) and Liu Dongsheng's Quaternary Geology and Environment of China (Beijing and Berlin: China Ocean Press and Springer-Verlag, 1985) contain more specific data and discussions of desert regions.

One of East Asia's most interesting arid zones is the eastern Tarim Basin in China's far northwest. This currently hyperarid territory preserves archaeological and paleoecological evidence of dramatic environmental change during the Quaternary. The basin and its most famous landmark, the extinct lake Lop Nur (where China tests its nuclear weapons), are described by a number of Chinese authors in a popular book edited by Xia Xuncheng, entitled The Mysterious Lop Lake (Beijing: Science Press, 1985), and in a more scholarly article by Zhao Songqiao and Xia Xuncheng, published under the title "Evolution of the Lop Desert and the Lop Nur" in the Geographical Journal (Vol. 150, 1984, pp. 311-21)

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