“Eating Hanness”: Uyghur Musical Tradition in a Time of Re-educationSeptember 01, 2019
In a 2018 government white paper on ethnic policy in the region, state authorities wrote that “Chinese” culture should now be considered the core of all other ethnic cultures (State Council Information Office 2018). They argued that Hanness should be seen as preceding all other identities. “The many ethnic cultures of Xinjiang have their roots in the fertile soil of Chinese civilisation, advancing their own cultural development while enriching the overall culture of China. All ethnic cultures in Xinjiang have borrowed from Chinese culture from the very beginning” (State Council Information Office 2018). In August 2018, the mayor of Urumqi made this even more explicit, declaring that “Uyghurs are not descendants of Turks” and instead are “members of the Chinese family.”3 These counterfactual erasures of Uyghur history by state authorities reveal the current politics of rewriting Uyghur identity. As this article shows, Uyghurs were also being forced to assimilate Hanness in all of its rich and varied forms by learning dances from the Northeast, singing styles from Beijing, and standard Mandarin, and by replacing their identities with imposed values and cultural performances. Although the so-called re-educators carried with them a “Chinese” national identity (Zhonghua minzu 中華民族) that was presented as unmarked by Hanness, they were in fact asking Uyghurs to consume the values and rituals of their colonisers. Across Uyghur society, people came to understand that this new-style performance was a primary way of demonstrating their loyalty to the state.
Drawing on multiple years of ethnographic fieldwork, open-source Chinese and Uyghur media, and recent interviews with Uyghurs in the North American diaspora, this article argues that the transformation of Uyghur society now consists of replacing Uyghur cultural traditions, not with socialist rituals, but with Han cultural traditions. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork among Uyghur traditional poets, dancers, and musicians, and on an analysis of the transformation of music performance events in the Uyghur homeland, this article first examines the importance of music in Uyghur social life and traditional knowledge through the circulation of performances of Sufi legends. It demonstrates how these forms of performative knowledge have been appropriated by the Chinese state and turned into commodities for non-religious consumers in the 2000s. It then considers how they have been replaced by Han cultural forms since early 2017. The article shows that the subtraction of Uyghur society that has occurred through the re-education campaign using “training centres” as a final stage of the “People’s War on Terror” has also been replicated in Uyghur musical traditions. The state expropriation and reengineering of Uyghur song and dance has shifted to force Uyghur performers to mimic Hanness and in this way has enacted a deeply-felt form of violation.