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Uyghur Soccer, Äskär And Wild Bodies

In the summer of 2012, 46,000 (some estimate up to 60,000) Uyghurs gathered regularly for three hours of interethnic struggle. They came from hundreds of miles away, old bearded men, rotund mothers, young men and women clad in sky blue. They came to engage in identity politics, but even more important, they came because for 90 minutes in that southern Ürümchi stadium, they were free to be proud of their social positions.In this arena they were free to say what they wanted; to let off some steam. For three hours these fans could scream the old battle cry “VURRAAA” or “CHARGE!” as one voice while the armed police who provided security could only stand uncomfortably in their riot gear, ready to dive into armored vehicles at a moment’s notice. As one fan told me, it felt like that thing where you “slap someone while pretending that you are trying to kill a fly.”

Soccer was providing an important release for people who felt blocked in their daily encounters with surveillance and voicelessness. Finally, in the atmosphere of the stadium, they were able to express their frustration. Following the recent violence near Turpan, Li Xiaoxia, director of the Institute of Sociology of the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, noted that “religious extremism” can be transmitted during football games. Since the 1997 incidents in Ghulja (Yinning) in which the government shut-down of a Uyghur youth soccer league (along with other conflicts) led to protest and a violent overreaction, Uyghur gatherings have been tightly regulated.

In some corners of Xinjiang where the misrecognition of “strike hard” campaigns is particularly intense, even the number of guests invited to weddings and funerals must be cleared by local officials. It is safe to assume that the gathering of 46,000 Uyghurs in one stadium is the largest number of Uyghurs in one place in the past decade. Over the course of the third-tier soccer league season, the number of 20- to 60-yuan tickets available for purchase was reduced. Empty seats that were reserved for employees of local danwei began to provide gaps in the uniform sky blue of the crowd. This year the stadium lies silent.Yet as the under-13 Uyghur team defeated Korea and Japan in this month’s national games, the future looks bright for Uyghur footballers. Although the under-20 Uyghur team lost to Liaoning in the semifinals due to one misplaced scissor-kick, the theme song of the future of Xinjiang soccer still plays on.

Askar, the senior Uyghur rocker who came of age in Cui Jian’s 1990s, has lent his voice, ambitious songwriting, his screaming guitars and glam rock visage to Xinjiang soccer. His dueling Mandarin and Uyghur lyrics push forward the totemic spirit claimed by many Uyghurs: children of the wolf rather than of the dragon.

As you can see below in the translation from the Uyghur, throughout the lyrics he code-switches between Uyghur and Chinese registers (the Chinese variation is marked by parentheses). Although these differences are mostly minor, for Uyghur listeners they announce a fierce pride, an unflinching belief in the champion ethos of Uyghurs which is not fully formed in the Chinese.

The Xinjiang Soccer Song
Because of you, because you are on this green grassland,
The original bravery (true potential) of heroes can be revealed,
Here on this green pasture (field),
The courage (ferocity) of the wolf can be revealed here,
The greatness (heroism) of our forbearers can be shown here,
Our voice will spread all over the earth,
Today we stand here tell you who we are,
We allow you to taste the spirit of champions
(Meshrep music)

The wildness of Uyghur bodies is often thought of as common-sense in Chinese social science discourse. Uyghurs themselves have often internalized this civilizing discourse. As Liu Yi, deputy director of the Xinjiang Sports Bureau, has recently noted in discussing how similar Uyghurs are to Brazilians: “Wherever you go in Xinjiang, you see children happily playing soccer on all types of surfaces, such as dirt patches and grassland. They even play in their bare feet. They just love it.”

In a recent interview (9-minute mark in the video at top), top soccer commentator and earnest humanitarian Liu Jianhong said that he must admit that the bodies of minorities in Xinjiang (he knew there were more than Uyghur – but wasn’t quite sure who they were) are “relatively good.” “It is in their genes,” he said. “They like this bodily contact, they like confrontational sports; we Han people, we train our kids to walk, not run. They (minorities) probably don’t have this in their culture…. Two kids can just run out and wrestle. This is a true expression of natural masculinity.” Over the next few minutes he and Askar discuss how the funding structure and national markets are really the only thing that holds Uyghur soccer development back.

From my vantage point, it is easy to feel drawn to Liu Jianhong – to see him as a good-hearted man. Nevertheless, the way he expresses the wildness of Uyghur bodies also seems symptomatic of a wider misrecognition of Uyghur intelligence. Since so few Uyghurs succeed in the Chinese world of science, technology, industry and academia, it is often assumed that they don’t have the aptitude for anything other than sports, performance and violence. Yet as I argued last week, the structure of the social world is often a driver of Uyghur life-goals rather than cultural aptitude. Techniques of the body are not mediated to such a thick extent by language and culture, so therefore they may appear as natural.

When Äskär claims ownership of the wolf as the ethos of Uyghurs, the wolf he speaks of is not one that is defined in opposition to sheep. Rather it is a wolf that has a space in which to move freely despite difficult odds; a wolf that led Uyghurs from Mongolia to their oases in Northwest China 1500 years ago. One can only hope that someday Uyghur football players will allow us to glimpse the spirit of those champion wolves.

Filed under: sports


Dr. Darren Byler is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University where he teaches and writes about social theory, urban ethnography and the technopolitics of life in Chinese Central Asia. He also writes a regular column on state violence and Uyghur decolonization for SupChina.

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