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So You Think Uyghurs Can Dance?


With the so much attention being paid to violence emanating from Xinjiang, many of you may have missed the parade of Uyghur dancers who have taken the stage on the Chinese version of “So You Think You Can Dance” (Zhongguo Hao Wudao). Not only do we have the child star turned adult tap-dancer Yusupjan, the nine-year old break-dancer Surat Taxpolat who goes by the stagename “Little Meatball”, and the teenage break dancer Umid Tursun but we also have the model family of Gulmira Memet a young dance instructor from the Xinjiang Art Institute in Ürümchi.

As in other reality TV shows featuring minority performers – such as the Kazakh performer Tasken on The Voice of China – celebrity judges use the competition stage as platform from which to model minor-to-minor connections and demonstrate the way the diversity of the Chinese population can be seen as an asset rather than a sign of lack.

Jin Xing said “I hope we can create a relationship of grand ethnic solidarity”

It is perhaps with this in mind that Gulmira selected Jin Xing – the Korean-Chinese ballet dancer who is famously transgender – to act as her coach in the contest. But unlike Tasken and A-Mei, Gulmira and Jin Xing’s relationship seems a bit predetermined. Perhaps it was the way the relationship was announced. Jin Xing said “I hope we can create a relationship of grand ethnic solidarity” (1:14). And thus a Uyghur dancer and a transgender Korean instructor demonstrated minzu datuanjie for a cheering audience.

As the narrative of the short clip above shows us, Gulmira also has a model husband and daughter. The imagery shows us that people in Ürümchi are happy and safe (3:00-4:30); that little Uyghur girls are learning Chinese (4:35); and that Uyghur families can dance (5:40).

Some Uyghur viewers of these performances say they think portrayals such as these might reinforce the stereotype that all ethnic minorities do is sing and dance. They feel as though these performers are not necessarily that talented, but instead somehow otherwise met the standards of producers of the show.

But despite these reservations many Uyghurs also seem quite proud to see people from their social position displayed in such a flattering way.

They were the most proud (as this clip of her entire performance shows) of the way Gulmira greeted the audience by first speaking to the audience using the pan-Islamic Arabic greeting Assalam Alaykum before switching to Chinese. And they loved the way she spoke to her daughter in Uyghur and how little 4-year-old Gulnaz won over the crowd by being cute.

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13 Comments

  1. I obviously don’t know the background but I don’t understand what you mean about Gulmira and the transgender dancer’s relationship being predetermined. I think it is great that she selected this dancer; she is showing that who you are doesn’t matter (even though, paradoxically, you could argue that she selected this dancer JUST because Xin Jing IS transgender and not Uyghur; maybe that is what you mean…). She is making a cultural and political point, which is great. I also like that you write about a woman here; while I as you know am a big fan of your blog I have been missing content about women. Please write more about Uyghur women’s lives; about Han women, Kazakh women, rural women, city women, all women.
    Thanks again,
    J.E.

    • CaoMengDe says

      Jenny,

      You see the difference here is that you can freely express your appreciation of the pulchritude of the Uyghur women. Whereas I as an ethnically Han male (American in nationality) if express the same sentiment, it may comes off as engaging in an unconscious exotifcation and eroticization of the minorities Other, a form of Orientalism by the Han majority.

      Of course, I don’t care about all that, and I wholly agree with your aesthetics!

  2. Hi Jenny, Thanks for your comment. When I say that Gulmira choosing Jin Xing seemed predetermined, I was writing in relation to what Jin Xing said, the sort of affective relationship between Gulmira and Jin Xing, and their social positions as national minorities. Unlike the relationship between Tasken and A-mei (which I have written about before), it didn’t appear as though Jin Xing and Gulmira shared a common bond (rather the other female judge seemed a bit more taken with Gulmira). Watching the show and seeing the way Jin Xing referenced the political rhetoric of ethnic harmony but yet remained aloof made it seem as though the selection was a bit pre-planned (most of these shows are pre-planned anyway, but maybe not so obviously). A-mei on the other hand cried as she listened to Tasken sing in his native language.In my mind the selection process had very little to do with Jin Xing being transgender (although maybe she presents herself differently because of her gender history) or having an intimate bond with Gulmira, and a lot to do with her status as an ethnic Korean. I could be wrong maybe Gulmira genuinely liked Jin Xing….

    As for your other point regarding the lives of Uyghur women and how they are underrepresented. You are absolutely right to point this out. It is something I am aware of as a blindspot. Until now this blog has been primarily a survey of Uyghur and Han popular culture in NW China, which, if it has been accurate at all, means that Uyghur women have been underrepresented. I have highlighted the role of female singers such as Berna (http://beijingcream.com/2013/09/dispatches-from-xinjiang-gendered-futures-mother-tongue-and-berna/) and the way women are represented in Uyghur comedies (http://beijingcream.com/2013/10/dispatches-from-xinjiang-comic-tragedy-and-uyghur-women/), but Uyghurs themselves do not elevate female performers to the same extent as males. Writing women’s stories is made even more difficult given that it is not appropriate for me as a male researcher to develop close personal relationships with women. Many of my closest collaborators are thus also male.

    So given this gender politics it is difficult me to present intimate accounts of women’s lives (which is why I often highlight that what I am writing about is Uyghur masculinity).That said, other researchers such as Ildiko Beller-Hann and Cindy Huang have focused primarily on women’s lives for the same reasons.

  3. PS. In your reply, you are pointing out an important difference between your culture and mine. I am a female senior researcher (in neuroscience) and I can form close relationships/friendships with all my colleagues and collaborators, male and female, and this is considered completely normal, in fact, this is how I met my husband. It must limit you to an extent to mainly work with other males but it also gives you a different perspective than mine which can also be an advantage. It is so interesting for me, who is a foreigner who has for some reason develop a strong passion for Uyghur people and culture, to get such an insight into what happens in Xinjiang. Thank you again.
    Jenny Ekberg

  4. CaoMengDe says

    Jenny,

    I am not sure if Beige Wind is Uyghur himself but I think what 雷风 is speaking of

    “Writing women’s stories is made even more difficult given that it is not appropriate for me as a male researcher to develop close personal relationships with women”

    is referring to the social context of the current Uyghur culture (generally speaking, of course it can also be argued there is really no such thing as an unified Uyghur culture, as the difference in attitude may vary greatly depending on education level, rural vs urban, religiosity etc).

    When in Rome, do as Romans, so to speak.

    But it goes without saying that attitude toward women and their role within society, including male-female interaction,among Uyghurs differ a greatly from than say, United States.

    • Hi Jenny, CaoMengde,

      You are both pointing out some interesting things.

      1. While Uyghur pop culture representations might lead us to assume that there is some sort of bounded Uyghur culture that can be conceptualized as a whole — this is clearly not the case. All traditions are historically and geographically located and produced. They emerge out of relationships and borrowings from other ways of being. And they are further shaped by ethnicity, racism, class, gender, age, mobility, ability, distinction among many other factors.

      2. I, the main writer of this blog, am not Uyghur. I am Western, white and married. Because of my social position I feel ethically bound to consider both the sort of privilege I carry with me as well as the sort of power I have to act in the lives of underprivileged people. All of these factors play a role in how I am able to relate to Uyghurs in general and Uyghur women in particular.

      • CaoMengDe says

        雷风.

        Respect!

        I enjoy your blog immensely. Nowadays it’s hard to find a balanced view of Xinjiang and Uyghur culture in the internet space. Thank you for giving us this window to peek inside this fascinating part of the world farthest from the Ocean.

  5. Thank you, and to CaoMengDe – after I wrote my comment I realised what the author must have meant about “not appropriate” (sometimes the fact that English is my second language gets me a bit lost!)… I also worked out that he is not Uyghur, and if I am not wrong, I might even have an inkling of who he is… Thanks again for this blog which I feel is culturally sensitive and challenging at the same time.
    J.E.

  6. Pingback: The Best of the Art of Chinese Central Asia in 2014 | the art of life in chinese central asia

  7. I just came across this blog, a little late…
    But wanted to suggest a different reason for choosing Jinxing, and artistic one. Jinxing is mostly a modern dancer (with ballet training), and Gulmira in addition to training in Uyghur dance has also won international modern dance competitions. I also think it is worth noting that she has a graduate degree in dance from China’s most prestigious Dance Institution, the Beijing Dance Academy. That doesn’t negate the opinions of locals, but might help explain the positive reception she receives by the judges who are also part of the elite Beijing based danced scene.

    Either way, it was great to see the ethnic relations aspects of her time on the show analyzed.

    • Hi Alissa, Thanks for your comment — I’m sure what you are saying about Jin Xing and Gulmira’s education backgrounds was a factor. I never found a chance to ask Gulmira. Although I have crossed paths with her a few times at the XJ Arts Institute, she always seemed to have an entourage with her. Not only has she become a celebrity spokesperson for a line of Uyghur beauty products, but she is also set to star as the “Loulan Beauty” in a 50 million dollar US-Chinese film directed by Catherine Hardwick (http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/06/25/world/asia/ap-as-china-film-loulan.html?_r=0).

      From the looks of your blog, you are much more qualified to talk about Uyghurs and dance than I am. I think the role of dance in Uyghur society is fascinating so I’m excited to see what comes out of your research.

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