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Adil, “Prince of the Sky,” Uyghur Diplomat


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 andlonger, higher and weirder. As a nineteen 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.

Above is Adil’s biography as shown on CCTV 9: Adil brings the Uyghur tradition of dawaz-style tightrope walking forward into global spotlight of Asian cities. According to the Uyghur oral tradition, dawaz or darwazliq (Edit: see comments below) – a kind of dashing, court-performance, dance-style of tightrope walking – has played a role in Uyghur society for 2000 years. It was first noted as a Uyghur cultural feature in Mahmud Kashgari’s authoritative dictionary of Turkic languages in Kashgar in the 1070s. Adil places himself in this long tradition of nobility and valor. He himself is a member of the sixth generation of performers in his family to take to the tightrope. Yet being the prince of the sky does not place Adil above the fray of being a minor figure in a Chinese world. Like Uyghurs everywhere Adil is pulled in multiple directions: when he’s off the wire his speech and actions are noted by the Chinese media, his corporate sponsors and the Uyghur public.

1. Adil in the Chinese Media

According to many Chinese-language media accounts Adil is the pride of China. He carried the Olympic torch in 2008. After nearly every performance Adil feeds this sentiment by speaking toward the glory of China, the future of harmony in Xinjiang, and the ethnic friendship he is modeling. The party-secretary of the cultural ministry of Xinjiang, that is, the Chinese state’s top authority on Xinjiang culture, a heavy-set man from Henan named Han Ziyang has gone as far as to say that Adil was trained by Han masters (shifu). To his thinking, Adil seems to be a model of the way Uyghurs can learn from Han civilization.

2. Adil in the Urban Business World

Many Uyghurs have never seen Adil perform. He is a celebrity as seen on TV. In the early 2000s he became known as “Adil Shohla” or “Adil the Tomato” because he was featured in so many ads for a Xinjiang based tomato company. Nicknames are a common way for Uyghurs to address difference and perceived weaknesses in others. Although these nicknames usually have derogatory connotation they are often voiced with affection. For example, if a city Uyghur like Adil were slightly overweight then he might be called Adil Pangza (Pàngzi), if he wore glasses he might be called Adil Jinsian (Uyghur pronunciation of Jìnshìyǎn),people who have some type of disability are often given pretty mean nicknames. As one young Uyghur man put it after discussing Uyghur name-calling: “I am ashamed to admit this side of Uyghur culture, but sometimes we are not very tolerant towards people who are slightly different from the majority.” In any case Adil became so fed-up with the name calling, that he publicly defended his moral character by describing the way he refused to become a spokesperson for Qingdao Beer when he walked over the Yangzi River. Alcohol should not be supported by Muslims he said.

Some Ürümchi inhabitants caught a glimpse of Adil when he performed in front of his name-sake shopping center in the south of the city. But that complex called “The Diplomat” in English or in Uyghur “Adil Soda Sariyi” (Ādílì dàshà in Chinese) is only partly owned by him.  Young urban Uyghur youth talk instead about his legacy of salacious entanglement with Uzbek nightclub singers: women from the former-Soviet Union who traffic in booze and scandal. In the mid-2000s the urbane Uyghurs were quite taken with these singers particularly one group called Shahrizoda. The international suave of Uyghur folk songs and sung with Uzbek accents is said to have captured Adil’s attention. The heart of this Uyghur cosmopolitan scene was the popular night club in Ürümchi called MIX which Adil frequented with great regularity, flashing wealth and success. The club which was the site of the video below was always packed. In the late 2000s the club went bankrupt and closed.

3. Adil in the Uyghur Imaginary

In Adil’s hometown of Yengisar (just outside of Kashgar), he has started a craze among young Uyghurs who want to emulate his success on the tightrope. In order to meet this demand in 2011 he began building a dawaz complex in Kashgar. As he said in an interview: “I will invest 8 million yuan (US$1.26 million) and spend three to five years completing the entire school. Besides the training area, my future school will have a dormitory building, canteen, teaching school, grandstand and a dawaz museum. Students ages 10 to 12 will be trained for six years. The tuition will be free, but I will strictly select those who can enter my school. The students will have two hours of study for English and computers every night at the school, this will ensure at least that they can find jobs after graduation. The students also can stay on after graduation and become staff members at the school. The monthly salary will be about 1,800 yuan, which is not low in Kashgar.”

Follow this link to an excellent documentary short from the Shanghai-based videographer Seth Colman which examines the experiences of Adil’s students in the new school and Adil’s vision of the future.

For more of Seth Colman’s documentaries and photography in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, visit his website.
Next week I will examine the deeper implications of Adil’s influence in Southern Xinjiang through a discussion of the documentary film On a Tightrope.

4 Comments

  1. Nice post; I’m very much enjoying your blog.

    Apologies if this seems overly nitpicky, but I just want to point out a minor problem that easy’s to fix: darwaz (dawaz in pronunciation, as you’ve written here and as appears in the CRI English article you link to) is actually the Uyghur word for a tightrope walker, or what we would call Adil Hoshur. Darwazliq (dawazliq) is the word for tightrope walking.

    • Hi Insanshunas. Cool. Thanks for pointing that out. My dictionary and Uyghur collaborators are used to spelling “dawaz” without the “r” (http://dict.yulghun.com/#/en_ug/tightrope walker) and referring to one who walks the wire as a “dawazchi” (داۋازچى). So maybe the art form itself is “dawazchiliq” just as “insanshunas” is an anthropologist and “insanshunasliq” is anthropology as the discipline itself. To be honest, I didn’t put a lot of consideration into the way the term should be deployed in an English text. Most people who have written about it seem to drop the suffix (http://bit.ly/17ckkSW). But since you pointed it out some of them do spell dawaz with an “r”; the dictionary that spells it without the “r” also has it with an “r” (http://dict.yulghun.com/#/ug_en/دارۋاز). In any case, from checking out your blog I get the feeling that your Uyghur is probably better than mine…

      Please keep the feedback coming. This website is intended to be a way of shaping my thoughts and sharpening my analytic tools rather than a definitive account of Xinjiang lifeworlds so any pointers I get along the way are more than welcome.

      I’ll be looking forward to seeing more of what you are up at http://caseamongcases.wordpress.com!

      • Most dictionaries, especially those in print, include the ‘r’, and I try my best to default to them in my own spelling though I, too, drop the ‘r’ in pronunciation-not unlike insisting on using “going to” in formal writing even though I almost always say “gonna” when I’m speaking. But really, what we’re discussing here touches on issues in orthography, which are alive and well (and sometimes downright annoying/vexing) in modern Uyghur. There’s the broad history of script reform, for starters, and then there’s regional/dialect difference, and then there’s also the fact that, over the last 30 years, dictionary spellings in kona yéziq have been changed to reflect pronunciation (e.g., in the late 1980s usul –> ussul for dance, to distinguish it in writing from usul as ‘method’ and to reflect a slightly different pronunciation that probably existed anyway). There are multiple spellings of the same words used simultaneously all across contemporary Xinjiang: thus, dukan AND dukkan, dutar AND duttar, etc., which are really just reflecting the fact that some people pronounce these words like they have double consonants in the middle of both words.

        Lots of people also just don’t know how to spell, as happens everywhere and I think becomes worse as fewer and fewer people are actually well-educated in Uyghur. The men who printed my business cards–which I’d had a PhD-holding Uyghur linguist at XinDa check over–in January tried to introduce a number of orthographical errors, most of which reflected pronunciation, onto my cards. A good Uyghur friend of mine regularly recalls his horror at discovering 40+ spelling errors in an ad for a new Uyghur-run language school several years ago.

        As for darwaz vs. darwazchi (and darwazliq vs. darwazchiliq), they’re more or less synonymous. Sometimes -chiliq is used to refer to something as more “professional,” or darwazchiliq as the way someone makes his living, versus darwazliq as maybe a hobby but I don’t think there’s *too* much of a difference here. (Another example: tijaret and tijaretchilik exist simultaneously, with just slight differences in meaning.) I’m also wondering if it has partly to do with darwaz being a foreign word adopted with a slightly different meaning in Uyghur than in the original language: it’s actually a Persian word, dar from tar/tor, meaning “string,” and boz the stem of the verb “to play,” and the basic word (tarboz, torboz) in Persian just means tightrope-walking.

        Anyhow. I clearly get excited about language, as I’m a bit of an accidental linguist. I’ve been studying Uyghur for a while and actually started learning it before I started Mandarin. I’m willing to be your Mandarin’s better than mine.

  2. Thanks for the write-up. Didn’t know about Adil beforehand, although I have seen footage of Uyghur tightrope walking on CCTV during Mid-Autumn Festival last year.

    I’ll definitely be reading through your blog, because I’m still very unfamiliar with the relationship between Xinjiang and the government in China.

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