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Gendered Futures, “Mother Tongue,” and Berna the Uyghur city girl

(Part 2 of 2)


I have written previously about the way endearing child stars such as the seven-year old Berna are being mobilized as a method of 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-nineteenth 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, the sentiment carried forward by that old poem resonates more strongly than ever in Uyghur popular culture. Yet as I will explain below despite the continuity of these feelings, there are also some important differences from these desires of the past. Despite, and because of, their almost bizarre appeal, young performers like Berna and her promoters are challenging staid masculine notions of what it means to be Uyghur and what the future might look like for the children of those born after the 1980s.


While older generations were concerned with language and cultural preservation, as one young Uyghur man put it recently, many “young people think that they were too conservative and closed minded.” The fact that the poem “Mother Tongue” is most closely associated with the iconic male persona of the senior dutar master from Kashgar Abdurehim Heyit is no surprise.  While most fans of Uyghur music would acknowledge that he “is a great musician, he also represents a somewhat backward perspective of someone from the heart of Kashgar who is not willing to change anything.” Abdurehim embodies an iconic symbol of Uyghur masculinity – he is the epitome of a strong, silent, smugly dignified guardian of Uyghur honor. Here is the video and lyric of “Mother Tongue:”

I will respect the person who knows his mother tongue
I will trade gold for the mother tongue spoken from their lips
Whether this mother tongue is in America or Africa
I will spend thousands of gold coins and go there (to hear the mother tongue spoken)
Oh, mother tongue you are a mark left to us by our great ancestors
I will take pride in you in the spirit world.

Abdurehim is known to be a bit “too proud” of his ethnic heritage. In Chinese he is referred to as an “ethnic sentimentalist” (minzu qingxuzhe) – a category which is viewed as potentially dangerous; in at least some cases he has been forbidden from public performances. The new stars of Uyghur language pride are more careful in crafting a malleable image which recuperates images from the past as well as the future. While in the past the trust in the sanctity of Uyghur language as the mother of the collectivity was guarded and sculpted almost exclusively by male intellectuals, in the new economy of Uyghur signs, sophisticated children and their minders are rising to the surface as stewardesses of the Uyghur future.


Berna’s most interesting performance to date has been her reimagining of the 1960s Uzbek lounge song “The Apples of Namagan” (video at top). In this song of unrequited love and female desire, Berna, dressed in a suggestive pink dress, intimates the qualities of the fruit of the town in Uzbekistan. She whispers in Uyghur (which is nearly identical to Uzbek): “Like an apple of Namangan which ripens in the Autumn, all eyes were watching me as I stood on the stage…” Over the course of the song we learn that though all eyes are on her, the one she desires does not return her gaze.

The lyrics here are less important than the aesthetic contrast which arises from watching the presentation of these two songs side-by-side. Abdurehim’s imagery suggests that Uyghur culture is a transhistorical gift guarded by mustached men reclining in pastoral scenes, while Berna suggests with bated breath and disturbing eyebrows that Uyghur culture is cosmopolitan and urbane. Berna’s Uyghur past and future borrows from Turkish, Soviet, and Chinese worlds to create an shifting Uyghur atmosphere where subjectivities are multiple; and where women have more than a metaphorical role to play in the future of the society.

Through her performance and its popular reception she suggests that Uyghurs as a social collectivity, and Uyghur women in particular, have a glamorous past and a cosmopolitan future.  While this presentation elides the violent unveiling of Uzbek women in the decades of Hujum that preceded the secular efflorescence of Uzbekistan in the 1960s, Berna is nevertheless laying claim to an alternate narrative of the Uyghur past and future. The future she presents is spoken in Uyghur; it is a language of contemporary sophistication; and the richness of its past must be intentionally translated into a directly Chinese register: the cute kid performing adult themes.

As China Daily has told us, the future of multi-ethnic relations in China lies in deep engagement with the diverse histories of China’s culturally different. Berna, a cutsy star-in-the-making in urban Northwest China, is uniquely positioned to appeal across spatial and temporal difference and soften the hard edge of Uyghur stereotypes. Berna tells us that Uyghur language revitalization does not necessarily lead to the reactive and conservative outcomes imagined by policymakers in Xinjiang.

Further Reading:
M. K. (2006). The new woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, modernity, and unveiling under communism. Univ of Washington Press.
C. H. (2009). Muslim Women at a Crossroads: Gender and Development in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley).

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  1. Pingback: Children’s Music, Uyghur Memories and Berna a seven-year-old pop star from Ürümchi | art of life in chinese central asia

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