Music, Uncategorized
comments 3

Speaking for the “Dao Lang”: Cultural appropriation and the singer Luo Lin

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.[1] We had been discussing our 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 catalysed 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. Later during the dinner with an investment banker who commuted between Urumqi and Beijing, she brought him up again. The banker too attested to his fondness of Dao Lang’s musical stylings. He said that, after coming to Xinjiang, listening to Dao Lang just made sense. He liked his “flavour.”

As I mentioned last week, one of the reasons the recent red song “Harmonious Xinjiang” does not resonate with marginalized minority people is because it is seen as a direct derivation of Dao Lang’s 2009 song “One Family” (Yi Jia Ren) which was produced shortly after the major trauma in the summer of that year. While the tag-team performance of unity sung by a multi-ethnic ensemble of Mandarin-trained army opera stars in that video resonated strongly with portions of Xinjiang’s Han population, it causes many Uyghur listeners to think only of the long duration of loss catalysed by that horrific violence.  However, both repulsion and attraction to Dao Lang go deeper than this.  In a two part discussion of Dao Lang’s call and response from the Northwest, I will first describe his arrival in Xinjiang, his appropriation of local ways of life, and the way he speaks in the place of minorities. Next week, I will describe some of the reasons why he is immensely popular among Han settlers.

“Dao Lang,” whose given name is Luo Lin, was born in 1971 in small town in Sichuan to a “common family” (putong de jiating). He began playing music at a young age and, after dropping out of high school, began touring the country performing in night clubs. In 1995 his life took a dramatic turn when he met his future wife while touring in Hainan. She persuaded him to follow her back to her home town in Xinjiang.  After working in music production teams in Urumqi for five years, Luo Lin produced his first album. Disappointed with the sales of the record, he traveled to Southern Xinjiang where he found himself inspired by the cultural differences he encountered. According to Luo Lin’s BaiKe, what came out of this journey of discovery were more than 1000 songs – many of which deal with Northwest themes such as the “Western Love Song” and “Silk Road Spirit.” Inspired by the musical traditions of the Dolan (Ch: Daolang) people – a  name which is used by the Uyghur people who live in the Mekit, Maralbeshi and Yarken area on the rim of the Taklimakan desert, Luo Lin renamed himself Dao Lang. The Dolan, whose name is rendered Daolang in Chinese, are famous throughout the Central Asian Turkic world for their ecstatic Sufi dance and singing traditions.

The life trajectory I have just described is analogous to that of a high school dropout from Missouri moving to Flagstaff, renaming himself Apache (or some other group of “noble savages”), and coming to be known as the King of the Southwest. Interestingly, in a 2004 interview a CCTV host accused the Uyghur musician Erkin of stealing the name of his 2002 album “A Dolan from out of the desert” from Luo Lin. Erkin had to patiently explain to the host that “Dolan” is the name of a group of people and that his album, which features Dolan music from near his hometown in Kashgar, was released before Luo Lin emerged on the scene in 2004. Given this history of outside appropriation what do long-term Xinjiang residents hear in his music?

In his first “Dao Lang” album titled “The First Snow of 2002” (2004), Luo Lin focused primarily on unrequited desires for exotic Uyghur and Kazakh beauties. Utilizing his distinctive hoarse voice, a Uyghur, Tibetan “Folk,” and blues guitar instrumental fusion, and a precise deployment of the power ballad, Luo Lin announced himself a distinctive presence on the Xinjiang stage.[2] Drawing on his experiences in Uyghur oasis cities he delivered songs from the Uyghur position – describing the ideal minority subject for Chinese-speaking audiences. In his version of the Red Song “Salam Chairman Mao” Luo Lin spoke from the position of Uncle Kurban – the Uyghur peasant who travelled to Beijing to meet Mao Zedong in the 1950s.  Kurban Tulum (or Uncle Kurban) was said to have planned to ride a donkey to Beijing to meet with Mao in order to thank him for the great life Mao gave him after liberation. Upon reaching Urumqi, local officials transported him by train to Beijing because of his love for Mao. In his 2005 version of the story, Luo Lin seems to be unaware that in the local Uyghur rendition of the folktale Uncle Kurban is ridiculed as an opportunist and slothful worker. Whenever his village head came to ask him to go to the commune to work along with other peasants, he would say he is busy preparing for a trip to Beijing to meet Chairman Mao – so that the village officials would leave him alone.  Nevertheless, Kurban’s handshake with Mao has been turned into a statue that dominates Unity Square in downtown Hotan.

Luo Lin not only misinterprets Uyghur imagery, but he frequently relies on a semblance of linguistic knowledge to mark his authenticity as a cultural interpreter for minorities. Revitalizing a red classic (it might only be from the 1990s) in 2005 he sang in pidgin Uyghur of the goodness of the army guarding the Chinese borderland, protecting locals from harm.


The Ili river’s tumbling currents,

Water the grasslands and villages.

The soldiers guarding the frontier from the banks of the river,

Interact with the people beaming with joy.

The soldiers guarding the frontier from the banks of the river,

Interact with the people beaming with joy.

Ya-ka, Ya-ka-xi-ye (In garbled Uyghur: yakh, yakhshi-ye; in English it would sounds like: goo, good-ye)

What is good (ye)?

The people’s way of life is ya-ka-xi-ye

Ya-ka, Ya-ka-xi-ye

What is good (ye)?

The people’s way of life is ya-ka-xi-ye

Having the beloved Communist Party,

In constructing the frontier region.

We all have the beloved frontier troops,

Safeguarding our happy way of life.

We all have the beloved frontier troops,

Safeguarding our happy way of life.

What the early 2004-2005 songs from Luo Lin show us is his desire to stand in for Uyghurs; yet in the process of co-opting their culture he misrecognizes their perspectives and bastardizes their language and music. While we hear the Uyghur two-stringed dutar and seven-string rawap in many of his songs, his melodies and voice have very little resemblance to the music of his namesake: the Dolans. In a 2005 interview where the Uyghur musician Erkin discussed the way he was accused of “misappropriating” Daolang’s name in his album title, Erkin said that he would never use the name Dolan to refer to himself since it is something sacred which represents an ecstatic form of dance and spirituality – he would not lightly use a name which represents a whole group of people. Luo Lin has in effect claimed ownership over a whole group of people, a sacred landscape and spiritual practice. As one Uyghur listener put it, “that bastard, Luo Lin, even caused a stir in the media by saying that he might take a legal action against anyone who used this name.”  Paraphrasing Erkin’s comments to China Cultural Daily in 2012, “what would you think of an American who calls himself Jingju (Peking Opera) and does things completely unrelated to Jingju? Would you accept it?”

Yet as I will discuss next week, for the vast majority of recent migrant-settlers in Xinjiang Luo Lin’s shifting howl is exactly what they want to hear. His raw energy and catchy hooks seem to blare from the stereo of every long-distance transport truck, every shopping-mall elevator and cell phone ring tone in the development zones of Northwest China. Even grannies dancing in the park are doing the “Ya-ka, Ya-ka-xi ye.”


[1] The epicenter of protest and, later, violence, in the trauma of the summer of 2009.
[2] His image was supplemented dramatically by his inclusion on the soundtrack of Zhang Yimou’s international blockbuster House of Flying Daggers.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this in English. I am a Caucasian American and do not speak Chinese. However Luo Lin aka Dao Lang has captivated my imagination and ears for several years now. I have always wondered where this sound came from and though he may be misrepresenting the culture of a people, perhaps he is also making it more accessible. There is another singer that I suspect could be similarly accused. Xu Qianya and her song South of the Clouds. To my ear there is a similarity and I am on a quest to seek out more of this kind of music. I have long suspected that these singers have borrowed from traditional songs and modernized them in a way I love but is probably cringe-worthy If I had an understanding of the source.

    From my computer here in California I copy and paste Chinese characters into Youku tracing the music to its roots like an explorer who found gold where the river meets the sea and hacking back into the the mountains and following the tributaries to find the mother lode.

    I will follow your hints but any specific suggestions to online music that inspires Dao Lang, Yun Duo, Xu Qianya and others would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Hi Rhys, Thanks for your comments. Xu Qianya like Luo Lin is a member of the Chinese majority group — the Han (though she is from Northeast China not Sichuan); she went to school at the (Minority) Nationalities University in Yun’nan where it is likely that she encountered the Mosuo minority culture among many other minority cultures from Southwest China. The Mosuo are famous for having a matriarchal society; and are often characterized as having “open marriages” in Chinese language literature. As a result Musuo women have been subject to hyper-sexualized representation in the media and their home area around the famous Lugu Lake (http://bit.ly/2I7lP) has been a center of domestic sex tourism (many of the sex workers who live there are Han women who dress in Mosuo costume). As you see in the English language lyrics for South of the Clouds (http://bit.ly/173tf8h) an idealized version of this atmosphere is what she is describing in the song. The voices you hear around the 4 minute mark in the song is the sound of Mosuo singing (an important part of Musuo oral tradition often misrecognized as a “mating call”).

    My sense is that both Xu Qianya and Luo Lin are exploring the borders of Han sexuality by taking on exotic persona … I’m all for sexual liberation, but when it comes by appropriating and defacing the dignity and well-being of a minority social group than in my view it becomes unethical. If you are looking for an American analogy — you need look no further than the recent outrage among Black Americans at Miley Cyrus’s recent performance: http://bit.ly/17fpyNu

    If you are looking to get closer to the cultural sources which inspire these performances I recommend looking at the way minority performers interpret their own traditions. The amazing singer Erkin was the first Uyghur musician I really fell in love with: http://bit.ly/173x6lI

    Happy listening!

    For more on contemporary Uyghur pop music see this essay: http://bit.ly/15Qvufn

    For more on the sexualization of the Mosuo see this essay from the scholar E Walsh: http://bit.ly/15Qq8AZ

  3. @danceinchina says

    Thanks for this fascinating insight! Having learned about “Dolan” culture through Uyghur dance, I hadn’t been aware of this singer, but he sounds nothing like the music that was used. He sounds more like generic Chinese 90’s pop…
    In the professional dance world in China, the beat of the music is considered key in associating it with a specific type of dance. The beat associated with “Dolan” music is the one in this video: https://youtu.be/6XCAXqboedM that you can hear with the dominant drums starting about 10 seconds in. I’d be curious to find out if this beat is found in modern pop, or is more of a relic that the dance world is keeping alive.
    Best,
    @danceinchina

Leave a Reply