Dispatches From Xinjiang: A Uyghur Dream Manifesto

In an earlier version of her “Wild Pigeon” project the award-winning National Geographic photographer Carolyn Drake dedicated one category of her images to dreams and what Uyghur viewers of her images said about them. One viewer told her:

“Good dreams, you tell your good friends. If you do, maybe the dream will come true. If someone says ‘I was in a forest, I faced a tiger, and the tiger attacked me,’ some people will say, ‘don’t speak about it.’ If someone speaks bad words, they will come true.”

Not only are dreams an important way of relating to reality, Uyghurs have particular conventions for describing dreams. Dream narratives are told as if the dreamer is simultaneously a participant and an observer of the events in the dream. In this dream logic the teller is the center of an out-of-body experience. Lines are consistently concluded with a suffix that highlights the “as if” or “seeming to be” aspect of the dream world.

In this post I will discuss two good dreams that relate to each other mostly by these conventions of telling. It is because of these conventions that people understand them as related.

Dream 1

The first dream comes from an extremely famous song called “My Mother Entered My Dreams.” The song was first popularized by Exmetjan (above), the Uyghur superstar who died tragically of a heroin overdose in the early 1990s. Its first line is widely recognized as a quintessential expression of a common theme in Uyghur pop music: the relationship of young men to their mothers and by extension their Uyghur identity. When Abdukerim Abliz made an etot, or comedy sketch, using only song lyrics, he used this song and everyone in the audience clapped as they recognized his homage to Exmetjan.

It goes like this:

My mother entered my dreams,
She seemed to circle me like a moth to a flame.1
She kissed my forehead,
Giving her blessing to my future happiness.

“My son, please do things worthy of my milk,
May flowers cover your steps.
Set your eyes on the future,
Give to our homeland and make it will laugh.”

Oh mother, please visit me in my dreams often.
Give me wings to soar,
May the spirits of our ancestors be pleased,
May I be faithful to the promise of my love.

Dream 2

In the past few months a variation of this lyric has been circulating on Uyghur language Weixin. In it an anonymous Uyghur poet has replaced the figure of the mother with the figure of Chairman Mao. Uyghur readers automatically recognize that the writer is referencing Exmetjan’s song, and that, along with the content of the poem, is what makes it so powerful. The poem is a manifesto in which a dreamy Mao Zedong resolves the many problems that block the life-projects of Uyghurs. In the logic of the dream, the concerns of Uyghurs is finally made front and center. Mao speaks “for them” rather than “to them”; he helps them find their place in China.

What follows are excerpts from the poem:2

Chairman Mao entered my dreams,
He seemed to be apologizing to Uyghurs.
“In order to achieve peace, harmony and unity,”
He seemed to be saying “let everybody be equal.
Let Uyghurs be leaders.”
He seemed to be saying “leaders should not exclusively be Han.
Give Uyghurs positions in factories and companies,”
He seemed to be saying “this is what Uyghurs deserve.”

Chairman Mao entered my dreams,
He seemed to be saying “let them wear headscarves and grow beards.
It should be the choice of each and every person,”
He seemed to be saying “let them educated their kids in whatever way they want.
If they want to do namaz,”
He seemed to be saying, “let them pray in public.”3

Chairman Mao entered my dreams
He seemed to be saying, “You must understand that Uyghurs are very kind people.
They are even milder than sheep.
Don’t destroy their dignity by labeling them ‘terrorists.’
When you do so Uyghurs feel as though they might die of shame.
Don’t disgrace them.”

Chairman Mao entered my dreams,
He seemed to be saying, “stop bilingual kindergartens,
Let the kids start speaking in their mother tongue,
After they have learned this you can teach them your language (Mandarin).”
He seemed to be saying,
“Don’t impose your own language.
Even though they are weak don’t deprive Uyghurs of this right.”

Chairman Mao entered my dreams,
He seemed to be saying, “let there be autonomy,
Let Uyghurs live in their own way,
Don’t impose a dictatorship,
Let us build a ‘just’ country which can win the hearts of Uyghurs,
Then they might respect us from the bottom of their hearts,
And they might like us.”

Chairman Mao entered my dreams,
Uyghurs seemed very happy then,
They were marching in the streets,
Lifting Chairman Mao in their arms,
All of China seemed to be proud of this,
And the people of the whole world seemed to be applauding.

Like many Uyghur dream narratives this one ends with a happy conclusion. It is a dream that bears repeating. It tells us that Exmetjan is still relevant more than 20 years after his death, but that the mother figure can also take the form of a benevolent Party Secretary. Dreams live on even when they exist only in collective imaginations.


1 This image is drawn from the Sufi imagery.

2 An ellipses marks the spot where I have omitted three stanzas that consider the Mao of Uyghur Dreams’s opinion on population control, the appropriate position of Uyghur women and cultural assimilation.

3 That is: don’t restrict their religious expression to their homes.

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|

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