The first indication that the Qurban festival has arrived in Northwest China is the pooling of sheep outside every block of Uyghur tenements in the cities of Xinjiang. Quivering clumps of fat-tailed sheep are tied to branches as men begin sharpening knives for ritual slaughter. After the throat is cut, a small opening is made in a leg and air is blown from mouth to shank. The sheep is then hung from the nearest available beam or branch and skinned. Under ideal circumstances, every part will be used.
In the summer of 2012, 46,000 (some estimate up to 60,000) Uyghurs gathered regularly for three hours of interethnic agonistic struggle. They came from hundreds of miles away, old bearded men, rotund mothers, young men and women clad in sky blue. They came to engage in identity politics, but even more important, they came because for 90 minutes in that southern Ürümchi stadium, they were free to be proud of their complex subjectivities.
As the coils of economic development have tightened around the cities of Southern Xinjiang over the past dozen years, many Uyghur parents have increasingly found themselves without land, jobs, and stable futures. In many cases the strain of existential insecurity is most sharply expressed in the lives of children.
Last month Adil Hushor (Ch: Adili Wuxor) pulled off his latest feat – walking over the Pearl River on a wire suspended 116 meters in the air. Over the past decades he has walked between skyscrapers, over China’s most iconic valleys, canyons, stadiums, lakes, and rivers. He’s broken multiple world records by doing it faster and longer, higher and weirder. As a 19-year-old he broke 12 bones when a rotten rope broke in Shanghai and he fell 15 meters. But the everyday trauma of risking his life has not stopped him from tackling bigger and more dangerous feats.
Behind Chen Zhifeng’s hotel and gallery in Northern Ürümchi are giant Jurassic Park-style gates often guarded by a huge hound (which I'm told is Chen’s personal pet). Inside the gates is something Chen refers to as an “Ancient Ecology” park: a collection of rare Xinjiang artifacts. There is a forest of petrified wood, a collection of meteorites, sand-polished boulders, mysterious stone balls, and a collection of ancient Turk ancestor stelae known as balbals. It is here, among propped-up 3,000-year-old desert poplars (the iconic symbol of Xinjiang), that Chen meets visiting heads of state and domestic dignitaries for business negotiations and history lessons in Xinjiang style.
Chen Zhifeng is a “self-made” billionaire, founder of the Western Regions Photography Society, and a major force in Xinjiang’s art scene. He is part of a newly minted cohort of Xinjiang capitalists: the Xinjiang 8 (or 9), who have taken advantage of Chinese-Central Asian market development and the post-Reform oil and gas economy. His Wild Horses Corporation brings in an annual income of $700 million selling Chinese-made women’s underwear and TVs in Russia and Kazakhstan.
Yet, unlike some other Xinjiang elites, Chen has reinvested his wealth in Xinjiang.
Last week I wrote about the way endearing child stars such as the seven-year-old Berna are being mobilized as a method for securing the future of Uyghur ways of knowing and speaking. Yet Uyghur “mother tongue fever” has a long legacy. The famous Uyghur poem Ana Til, or “Mother Tongue,” was composed by the poet Haji Qutluq Shewqi in the mid-19th century when a love of Uyghur was directed in opposition to the dominance of Persian and Arabic in Uyghur education. While the vectors of linguistic force have found new centers of gravity in the past few decades...
As has been well documented in discussions of the cultural situation in Xinjiang, many minority people in Xinjiang feel the future of their language and culture is insecure. Efforts to replace Uyghur-medium education begun in 2004 have intensified as the capillary spread of Chinese capitalism embeds its network and ideology deeper and deeper into southern Xinjiang.
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.
I first heard of “Dao Lang” from an economics professor on the way to a fancy dinner at a four-star hotel on the northwest corner of the People’s Square in downtown Urumqi. We had been discussing taste in cars as we slowly careened across three lanes of traffic and walkers. The professor said she found the American Hummer to be the best car, and then turning, as though catalyzed by the brawn and force of a combination of army machine and Michigan muscle, she asked if I had ever heard of Dao Lang. She said he was the best Xinjiang singer.
A smart person once told me that the feeling she gets when certain people enter the room is the same feeling she gets when she encounters the dank scent of mildew on damp, bath towels. It’s a livable smell, that palpable acrid taste in the air, but for her it also brings with it a constant grating and discomfort. Even worse, people who project this feeling on others with condescending smiles and cheerful helping hands are often “true believers” with the very best of intentions. They move and talk as though under an ideological spell. Their hope is that when they enter the atmosphere of a situation the positive vibes, the affect, or “wisdom of the body,” they emit will radiate like an emotional contagion.
Please give a hearty Beijing Cream welcome to Beige Wind, an anthropology doctoral student who studies urban living, popular culture and the arts in the cities of Northwest China. He runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, and will swing by these parts periodically to enlighten us with stories from Xinjiang.
This is the third post in a multi-part series on Abdulla Abdurehim.