The first time Tasken competed on the TV show The Voice of China, the Chinese version of America’s Got Talent, he didn’t get through to the second round.
But the second time, he sang the song “A Lovely Rose” in Chinese. The judges were so impressed, they asked him to sing it in his native language – Kazakh.
Kazakhs in China
The second largest Turkic Muslim group in Xinjiang, with 1.5 million people, Kazakhs in China have a long tradition of pastoral herding between high-elevation summer pastures and lower-elevation winter pastures on the northern fringes of the Heavenly Mountains (Tian Shan). But in recent decades, a combination of state policies and the sense of lack which accompanies rapidly imposed development has radically transformed their way of life.
Their rangeland was gradually seized by the Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary established by agricultural Han in China’s border areas as land reclamation and irrigation projects were geared to secure the Chinese-Soviet frontier. This has led many Kazakhs into a more sedentary existence in government housing in small villages, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union some immigrated to Kazakhstan. By 1997 up to one-third of China’s Kazakhs had moved into Chinese cities in Xinjiang.
Tasken’s biography reflects these changes. Born in Ürümchi, the capital city of Xinjiang, Tasken is the grandson of the general Dalelkhan Sugirbayev, one of the leaders of the Soviet-inspired pre-1949 “Three Districts Revolution” that established a republic in Northwest China prior to its “peaceful liberation.” His mother was the daughter of Ili Kazakh autonomous prefecture’s governor. Instead of taking advantage of such good family background and becoming a “guān èr dài,” a second-generation official in Ürümchi, Tasken decided to pursue his dream of becoming a musician. He moved to Beijing and went from bar to bar to try to find his way. As this clip shows, he finally found his moment when he broke through on The Voice of China.
Yet despite his background as the grandson of a communist martyr (who died in a mysterious plane crash on his way to meet Mao), despite his deep fluency in Chinese culture and language, Tasken still finds himself confronted with blunt questions regarding his position as a cosmopolitan, modern man. Talking with a reporter, Tasken explained his approach to Chinese show business by noting that unlike most minority contestants who choose songs strongly rooted in ethnic characteristics, he prefers to sing mainstream English and Chinese pop tunes. Tasken explained this by saying: “It is not that I do not love our Kazakh music, our nationality’s biggest feature is the moving melody of our music, but… it may be unsuitable to be properly presented (on a mainstream stage). From the time I was in school, music from abroad has been very appealing to me, and I hope that through my music I will be able to tell you that Xinjiang is not an isolated place.”
He continued, “Sometimes when in a taxi or while meeting strangers, people ask me which country I have come from. When I say that I am Chinese, a Kazakh from Xinjiang, they ask, ‘So, do you live in a tent, and ride horses to school every day?,’ along with many other questions.” Out of exasperation Tasken will reply: “I always walk, but children of wealthy people get to ride horses to school, and the richest children go to school by camel.”
“A lot of people still do not understand the changes we have undergone in Xinjiang,” he says. “I hope that through my own efforts, through my singing, that they can see a new Xinjiang, a modern Xinjiang.”
Given Tasken’s orientation away from “doing the minzu,” from performing within his ethnic identification, it is ironic that the song that won him a pass and a request for a Kazakh song was a Chinese version of a song from Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. This song, known as “A Lovely Rose” in Chinese, is a mistranslation by the famous Chinese folk-singer and ethnic cataloguer Wang Luobin of a song called “Dudar-Ay.” As one Chinese-Kazakh listener told me, “Dudar-ay was originally about a young Russian woman named Mariyam and her cross-cultural devotion to a young Kazakh man named Dudar. But in Wang Luobin’s version, ‘A Lovely Rose,’ the story becomes one about a girl who is so exotic and beautiful that a boy loses his way following her song.”
Yet despite the missed messages and a flip in female agency, many Kazakhs still see Tasken’s success as a “mixed blessing.” Many listeners say it is great that Kazakh music has been introduced to a national audience and they feel like Tasken provides a model for Kazakh success in mainstream Chinese society; but it bothers them that the credit for Tasken’s breakthrough song has been allotted to Wang Luobin. Like the museum dedicated to Wang near Turpan, they sense that performing this song further strengthens cultural appropriation and reflects the way the mainstream claims ownership of minority art while at the same time claiming ignorance of minority cultural property. A further source of complaint among Kazakh listeners is their lack of Kazakh fealty in Tasken’s voice; perhaps because they are aware of his class background and his lack of facility in Kazakh language, they say “there are many Kazakhs in Xinjiang that sing better than Tasken.”
Regardless, non-Kazakh netizens seem pretty impressed by Tasken’s voice and have taken to calling him the “Josh Groban of China.” In keeping with the exotic minority imagery, they have referred to his voice as pure as “melted spring from a snow-capped mountain.”
Tasken, Minor Transnationalism and the Mainstream
At the beginning and end of the clip above, the celebrity judge Zhang Huimei (A-Mei), who claims an aboriginal identity in her native Taiwan, shows deep interest in Tasken by utilizing a discourse of minority nationalities (shǎoshù mínzú). Tasken’s performance seems to resonate with her because they are both minority transnationals; the affect of his performance even produces a shivering tear.
It is interesting to note the way she links up the way minority discourse operates in China and how feelings of displacement are amplified when a minor actor is relocated in the Chinese city. Both she and Tasken have moved to Beijing to pursue careers in the Chinese mainstream. (Correction: A-Mei went to Shanghai, where Voice of China is filmed.) In part it is the lure of money and power that accompanies having “a voice” that has made them diasporic subjects within the Chinese world. Both of them, to greater and lesser extents, have been confronted with the dilemma of “passing” as legitimate Chinese urbanites and the feelings of loneliness that confront cultural orphans in a strange land. For a few seconds on The Voice of China, music connects them, two minor players catalyze each other, and Tasken advances to the next round.
The Taiwanese-American scholar Shu-mei Shih refers to minor-to-minor relationships as “minor transnationalisms”; that is, they are the way people from different margins of mainstream societies can connect without directly engaging a dominant center. She and her writing partner Françoise Lionnet argue that a perceived lack of “authenticity” – be it white or Han – historically denied minor people “full access to citizenship” (9). Rather than encouraging a reactive claim to minor authenticity, Shih further argues that minor actors can use their “creole” social position to subvert stable categories of value, meaning, and ethical possibility. The affective exchange between Tasken and A-Mei is an example of the way dominant Chinese and American systems of value can be turned toward inclusion despite the overriding discourse which reduces minorities to identifiable categories.
Cowritten with Guldana Salimjan, PhD student at the University of British Columbia
R.H. “Wang Luobin: Folk Song King of the Northwest or Song Thief? Copyright, Representation and Chinese Folk Songs.” Modern China. Vol. 31, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 381-408.
S. Shih & F. Lionnet (2005). Minor transnationalism. Duke University Press.
Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, which 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.