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Mildew, or the affect of ethnic friendship and “Harmonious Xinjiang”

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 seems to be 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. Think happy thoughts! Be positive!

Thinking about these intersubjective dynamics made me reconsider a summery Mandarin-Uyghur pop song called “Harmonious Xinjiang” (Ch: Hexie Xinjiang). Released last month following recent traumas on the outskirts of the oasis cities of Southern Xinjiang, the highly-polished music video is filled with well-meaning sentiments and hopeful thoughts written by Uyghur pop-star Enwerjan. It features Mandarin-speaking, Han-trained Uyghur celebrities singing in soft-tones of Mando-Pop love songs. Here a rough translation of the lyrics of the above song (中文).

We live such a happy life now,/ just because you are accompanying us/ I hope this can last from sunrise to sunset — forever./ Under the azure sky we sing loudly/ of our times together./ Until the day we get old,/ we still stand side by side./ My dear friends from all minority (ethnicities),/ ethnic unity is what we have learned and promoted — always./ We live in the same place,/ breath the same air/ and will never be apart./ My older and younger brothers and sisters/ Harmony will give you a smile./Play that tambourine;/Leap in dance;/ and sing about the goodness of Xinjiang./ My older and younger brothers and sisters,/ Unity will give you a hug / See all of the nationalities sing of the goodness of the motherland/ Older and younger brothers and sisters are good / Xinjiang is good / the motherland is good/ Happiness and peace are the most reliable/ Nationality unity is very important.

Despite the good intentions of this almost-nonsensically correct lyric, the flawless timbre of these Mandarin-Uyghur voices, and catchy hook of the tune, many Uyghur listeners of this song tell me that it and similar feel-good messages create a grating feeling that is impossible for them to ignore. As one Uyghur woman interviewed by David Tobin – in his important 2011 essay on the lived experience of “face-to-face communities” in Xinjiang – put it: “ethnic unity is like pressing my warm cheek against their cold ass” (19). No matter how hard many people try they find themselves blocked: job appointments, apartment leases, loan approvals, passport applications and recognition of struggle just beyond reach.

Due to the widespread repetition of these failures for many Uyghur listeners the sweet sounds of “Harmonious Xinjiang” infuse the atmosphere with a sickening feeling of decay and loss; it creates an aural “scent” in the air which empties joy out of smiles and reminds them of the horrors of the summer of 2009 when violence infused the streets of Northwestern cities. When Xiao Ni (Nighmet /尼格买提 – a well-known personality for CCTV), Xiao Ai (Enwerjan/艾尼瓦尔江) and the child singer/rapper Xiao Wangzi (Arfa / 阿尔法) sing, they introduce a perfectly intonated contagion into rooms which steals like a virus into every aspect of Uyghur life. “Harmonious Xinjiang” tells Uyghur listeners to tune in to the herk-and-jerk of performances which are not their own; to wear the mask of the majority and pretend they don’t care. It tells them to lie with a smile. As Sherman Alexie has written about a similar situation in the United States, these are songs which “take the tomorrow out of their bones” (98), leaving only a shell of their bodies, their landscapes, their knowledge.

Let me be clear, the aspirational desire for harmony and friendship is of course lauded by a great number of marginalized minority people. But the angle with which “Harmonious Xinjiang” approaches these desires rings false for many listeners who so far have been discarded in the process of China’s rapid economic growth. For these listeners “Harmonious Xinjiang” feels like an erasure of the “Help-Wanted” signs across China’s development zones that tell minorities that they need not apply; it seems like it is ignoring official billboards that reduce veiled women to the status of dogs.

Perhaps the most grating aspect of this song is the way if takes the musical stylings of the Sichuanese settler-singer “Dao Lang” (Luo Lin ) as its source of inspiration rather than the Uyghur aural traditions taken up by Abdulla, the moral codes of Hezriti Ali, and the cheerful poetics of Ablajan – but that discussion of appropriation, masculinity and manifest destiny will need to wait until next week.

Further Reading:
Tobin, David. (2011). Competing Communities: Ethnic Unity and Ethnic Boundaries on China’s North-West Frontier. Inner Asia13(1), 7-25.
Alexie, Sherman. The Toughest Indian in the World. Grove Press, 2000.

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