Dispatches From Xinjiang: Aspirational Desire, Migrant Masculinity And “Dao Lang”

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on Sichuan-born singer Luo Lin, a.k.a. Dao Lang.

Luo Lin’s voice and melodies are extremely catchy. In a true sense of the term, he catalyzes — that is, he channels energy toward, and thereby accelerates — an aspirational ethos for many migrant workers in Northwest China.

Last week I wrote about those who resist his catalytic charge by jealously guarding their indigenous cultural heritage. Yet, clearly, critiquing Luo Lin’s “Dao Lang” persona does not deny the very real force of his voice. He is an immensely talented performer; he has proved himself to be very adept at tuning in to desires particular to a Chinese rendering of an alien environment inhabited by displaced people.

Since a majority of his fans, like himself, are earnest, hard-working men who come from elsewhere — Gansu, Sichuan, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Hebei, and Shandong, just to name a few common natal homes — Dao Lang centers his more recent work on stories of lack inscribed over Xinjiang’s landscape. Migrant workers in the oil fields, coal mining, and booming construction industries lack stable intimacies, stable families, stable jobs, and stable futures. Dao Lang’s songs often enter into gaps from a particular male angle: offering migrant workers numerous pathways of “going native” in Xinjiang without surrendering their essential cultural values. His songs seek to transcend these problems and promise successful life chances for Han workers in the urban worlds of Chinese Central Asia. And who better to do this? Dao Lang himself is a heroic example of a self-made man, surveying the cultural field, and transforming it into a legible object for those who gaze through an outsider’s cultural lens.

A major hit that came out of his first album was called simply “Lover” (Qingren). This searing lyric, which follows the general spirit of Uyghur Sufi poetry — burning with desire for one true thing — seemed to convey the crossing of lines of desire and imagination and translate a Xinjiang ethos into the aspirational desires of his listeners. Above is the video of this song, and here are the lyrics:

You are my lover
A woman like a rose
With your fiery lips you burn
Me through the night in endless ecstasy
You are my lover
With your slender body you
Heal the wounds of my passionate heart
Lover of my dreams
I cannot forget your sweet kiss
Every one of your smouldering glances
Makes me melt in your boundless tenderness
You are my lover
A woman like a rose
With your fiery lips you burn
Me through the night in endless ecstasy
Come, come, come, come, come…

Unlike the other songs on his first album, “Lover” features overt minority themes only in the instrumentation of the middle bridge where a Uyghur rawap is featured. By turning his attention to a squarely Han object of desire — a ravishing Han woman (or three) — in this song Luo Lin has translated a minority form of passion into a major genre. As witnessed in Xiao Shenyang’s comedic impersonation of the hyper-masculine voice of Dao Lang’s “Lover” (in juxtaposition to the soft intonations of effeminate masculinities; see below — 4:20), Luo Lin has transformed the sound of Xinjiang in the Chinese popular imaginary.

Capitalizing on his distinctive howl and rough-edged persona, we see a similar theme in the albums that follow: translating alienating urban cultural spaces into places legible to Chinese language poetics and Han cultural symbols. A Uyghur bazaar is therefore a place for enjoying the moon; a train away from the heart of the desert in Urumqi is a movement away from the comfort of home. What Luo Lin is doing is building an ethos for Han pioneers to the far west. As in every other place within the world of global capitalist expansion, the engineering of values of risk-taking and personal fulfilment are necessary for the full market utilization of Xinjiang’s vast natural and cultural resources. I’m not suggesting that Luo Lin’s embodiment of these values is a strictly ideological strategy, but rather an intentional tuning in to the general Chinese project of political and economic transformation: a force which brings migrants from other parts of China to Xinjiang and impels them to call it home. What Luo Lin does is translate the circumstances of migrants in Xinjiang into a scenario in which an imagination of the “good life” on the Chinese frontier becomes a “common sense.”1

As Carl Wilson has written in his discussion of his “guilty displeasure” with the voice and persona of Celine Dion, my sense is that Luo Lin’s voice itself is sumptuous commodity which Luo feels compelled to share with his audience. He seems surprised and overpowered by the force of his own sound and the model of masculinity he performs. Just as Dion has tantalized the tastes of billions of listeners from Baghdad to Beijing with her powerful feminine persona,2 so “Dao Lang” has provided music which is an excellent soundtrack for driving a Liberation dump truck to a coal mine deep in the Heavenly Mountains, sweeping the grave of your grandmother in a graveyard on the edge of the Gobi, kissing a lover leaving on a train for the jade fields of Hotan, or sharing giant green bottles of Wusu and kabobs with friends.

While there is plenty to critique in his appropriation and exoticization of the culturally other and spatially different, Luo Lin is good at what he does. An overt critique of his music on purely aesthetic or ethical grounds would miss the considerable gravity of his Yankees’-baseball-cap-wearing, giant-gray-telephoto-lens-using, desert-nymph-spotting, sometimes-beard-(!)-sporting presence in the beige wind of Northwest Style.

1 I’ve not yet had an opportunity to analyze how listeners outside of the context of Xinjiang view and hear Dao Lang’s presence. My sense is that Dao Lang has fans in places as far flung as San Francisco. See, for example, this interview.

2 E.g., her appearance in last year’s CCTV Spring Gala.

Further Reading:

Anagnost, Ann, Andrea Arai, and Hai Ren, eds. Global Futures in East Asia: Youth, Nation, and the New Economy in Uncertain Times. Stanford University Press, 2013.

Wilson, Carl. Let’s talk about love: a journey to the end of taste. Vol. 52. Continuum Intl Pub Group, 2007.

Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asiawhich attempts to recognize and create dialogue around the ways minority people create a durable existence, and, in turn, how these voices from the margins implicate all of us in simultaneously distinctive and connected ways.

|Dispatches from Xinjiang Archives|

    2 Responses to “Dispatches From Xinjiang: Aspirational Desire, Migrant Masculinity And “Dao Lang””

    1. Boris

      Not sure about his covers of revolutionary songs, but every other album hits the spot. What I can’t understand is the hostility many university students have towards his songs -primarily the lyrics. If he had more access to Western audiences this guy might well achieve something of a cult status.


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