What you need to know
A Sinology expert says we must learn Uyghur history and culture before it is whitewashed by the CCP.
Five years ago the then Deputy Governor of Xinjiang Shi Dagang said that the local minorities were “too busy dancing and singing to make trouble.” Shi Dagang claimed that “every time we are guests in ethnic minority homes, we are treated with good meat and wine. They sing and dance. Ethnic minorities are very simple and kind in such matters, generous and passionately hospitable.” Well, who could say no to entertaining a visiting governor?
For a number of years a stereotypical image of Uyghurs as “good at dancing and singing” has been promoted by the Chinese authorities, and this fits well with the increasingly unified image being created of non-Han ethnic groups in the People's Republic of China: colorful dresses, women with plaited hair, and dancing and singing. Even male Uyghur military officers are portrayed in this way, although the expression “good at singing and dancing” has been mostly used to describe women.
In 2013, members of the September 3rd Society in Xinjiang – one of the so-called “democratic parties” which support the CCP (Communist Party of China) – proposed making Nasreddin Ependi (“Ependi”/Afanti) “an image ambassador” for Xinjiang. However, they were not interested in the content of the many stories about Ependi or his role as a cultural symbol in Central Asia and the Middle East. Instead, he was to be “packaged” as an image ambassador to “promote party policy, promote outstanding Xinjiang, and introduce Xinjiang development.”
The Chinese party-state claims the right of interpretation over everything: the history of Xinjiang, 'religious and ethnic transformations,' and any 'issues that the masses care for most.'
Alongside the “singing and dancing”, the official narrative of Xinjiang and the Uyghurs has often had a pedagogic tone, of telling “truths” in the manner of “seeking truth from facts.” One large-scale project started in Nov. 2011, which aimed to publish a series of 10 books over a five-year period (two per year) under the title: “The Xinjiang Ethnicity Religion History Book Series.” These books were to have a “succinct length and simple language,” and were aimed at “answering the issues that the masses care for most, and to help the masses of all ethnicities have a deeper understanding of the history of Xinjiang, of its religious and ethnic transformations, as well as of the state laws and policies”. The books were given for free to religious leaders from all over the province.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, ever harsher measures have been employed against supposed “splittism” and terrorism in the region, while still maintaining an air of “singing and dancing.” The book series from 2011 is an interesting example of the paternalistic and hegemonic rhetoric that prevails, showing how the Chinese party-state claims the right of interpretation over everything: the history of Xinjiang, “religious and ethnic transformations,” and any “issues that the masses care for most.”
But are the conflicts and tensions the things that we hear and know about Xinjiang? Or is it perhaps only “singing and dancing”? Those who control or claim the narrative narrow the spectrum of images we see. Xinjiang may seem utterly far way, both in time and space, landlocked and far from the ocean, almost at “the end of the Earth”, to use a Biblical phrase.
However, according to the Book of Han, 2,000 years ago the population of the Kashgar area had already reached nearly 20,000. Have we heard of the Buddhist kingdom in Kucha, Eastern Christian churches around Taklamakan (including paintings of Palm Sunday processions from the eighth century in Qocho (Gaochang), Sufism, Mazar pilgrimages or the lexicographer Mahmud al-Kashgari (1005–1102)? And what about Uyghur Jadidism in the early 12th century or the 1920s debate around using the name Uyghur for the people now called so? What history and which narratives are we accepting? What historical links are missed?
Kaschgar, Kabul, Lhassa! – the triumvirate of darkness in innermost Asia. The names should be pronounced with a dark accent since there is heavy darkness in their depths.
The Swedish missionary John Törnquist (1876-1937) wrote the words above in 1926 in the foreword of his book "Kaschgar," more than 20 years after arriving for the first time in Kashgar. He was one of 60 Swedish missionaries working in southern Xinjiang from 1892 to 1938, establishing churches, hospitals and schools, as well as the only printing press in the area. Perhaps this is an anomaly in Xinjiang history, but it is an important one, as the missionaries’ photographs and other material collected in Swedish archives represent an important part of Uyghur cultural history.
Törnquist further writes that “…Kaschgar is first among the triumvirate to subject to illumination”; “illumination” in his view being modernization and reception of the Christian message. Törnquist continues his optical and photographic imagery throughout his foreword, and adds that “the bright images appear bigger and the shadows smaller through diffraction”, but that he will constrain himself so as not to increase this distortion in his writing. He finally adds that “in this illusion lies also the comfort that light is stronger than darkness.”
We need such a reflection today in regard to Xinjiang, too. What is distorted through the diffraction of official narratives and propaganda? Do the brighter images appear bigger and the shadows smaller? We already hear about happily “singing and dancing” Uyghurs emerging from so-called “vocational and educational training programs” – programs which are also called “re-education camps.” This is an obvious distortion, but what happens in parallel? We need to study Xinjiang from many perspectives, through many methods and from different academic fields to see as clearly as possible.
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The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published here by Asia Dialogue, a website published by the University of Nottingham's Asia Research Institute.
TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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