The Uyghur Chinese musician and poet Hong Qi celebrated his 41st birthday on May 6. He doesn’t know if that day was really his birthday. He said his mother just guessed. There is a lot that Hong Qi doesn’t know about his origins: he is one of those rare Uyghurs who grew up thinking he was Han.
Hong Qi was born into extreme poverty. Hotan — the prefecture in south Xinjiang where he lived until age three — is the poorest prefecture in the nation. According to government statistics, in 2012 the average per capita income for the 2 million Uyghurs in Hotan was $183. Although he was born in a prefecture where the population was more than 90 percent Uyghur, Hong Qi didn’t realize his ethnicity until he was 16. That was when his Han parents told him he was adopted.
Like many military families in the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, Hong Qi moved a lot as a kid. He spent significant portions of his childhood in Ürümchi. He read a lot of comic books; and he started thinking about the Uyghur identity he knew nothing about.
At 17 he decided to join the army. He was assigned to guard duty in a prison farm (laogai) in rural Aksu prefecture. It was there — in the midst of the misery and boredom of a high desert penal colony — that he first began to write songs. He sang about feeling homeless.
In 1992 he absconded from the military and from Xinjiang. He went to Xi’an. While waiting for his formal military discharge, he worked as a magazine illustrator and hung around Shaanxi Normal University. It was there, like a whole generation of Chinese college students, that he first encountered the music of Cui Jian. He grew his hair long and started singing karaoke. This is how he discovered that women liked him and could be talked into paying for food.
It wasn’t until 2003, on a trip to Yunnan, that he finally turned this rock-star persona back toward his Xinjiang origins. It was here that he first experienced the power of traditional folk music and began to think back to his childhood in Xinjiang. That, and the way the Xinjiang-style music of the Sichuanese settler Luo Lin (Dao Lang), caught on in the Han community.
Since those days Hong Qi’s work has followed a slow coming-to-terms with first his Xinjiang and then his Uyghur identity. Along the way he has found inspiration in the adaptations and co-options of the pioneering ethnomusicologist Wang Luobin, but he has also partnered with Uyghur and Hui musicians from Xinjiang such as Askar, Erkin, and Ma Tiao. One of the most successful of these collaborations resulted in a multi-city concert tour focused on generating awareness around the plight of orphaned, abandoned, and trafficked Uygur children who end up trapped in criminal and gray market communities in Eastern China.
This collaboration followed the direction of his 2007 album “A-li-mu-jiang, Ni Zai Nali?” (Alimjan, Where Are You?), which was inspired by a missing person ad he saw posted by a Uyghur mother at a bus stop in Ürümchi. With the support of the post-2009 Zhang Chunxian administration, he and other musicians and supporters inaugurated a nationwide program to raise awareness and create an institutional network for rehabilitating lost children and helping them find their families.
Since that time, Hong Qi has released two new albums titled “Whose Sheep?” and, in 2014, “The Heart of Darkness.” Both of these new albums include explicit references to Hong Qi’s Uyghur identity. He has begun writing his name in Arabic script.
In these two albums, Hong Qi seems to have become more comfortable in his own skin. As one commentator put it, following the earnest realism of the previous records, his new music seems not to be centered as closely on an agenda. Rather, its focus seems to be ruminations on street life in the Uyghur slums behind the South Train Station – the site of the recent bombing in Ürümchi.
His song “Crows and Sparrows,” featured above, begins with the sound of the trains and then moves in a spirited march through the atmosphere of poverty and marginality.
Crows and Sparrows
As the dawn wrestles rain drops in a game of chess,
White pigeons are released to fly to the hospital,
Stray dogs are visitors coming and going throughout the city,
The branches are filled with crows and sparrows.
Pigs and cows are now starting to come and go,
The eyelids of little mynas are quietly fluttering.
There is no final result to the affair which is just about happening,
A person will be baffled to see on every forehead
There are drops of sweat, in eyes there are tears.
Groaning misters, mysterious softness.
There are drops of sweat, in eyes there are tears,
Bodies shrivel, brains stop thinking.