Last week we wrote about our most popular posts written in 2015. But what about pieces from the ALCCA archive that deserved more attention then they received over the past year? For all of you readers who are new to The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, here is a list of our most overlooked pieces in 2015.
Although much can be said about the way Abdulla’s poetic voice corresponds with his deep literacy in Uyghur culture, clearly he does much more than lean on the traditions of the past. Although this attention to cultural symbolism and spiritual ritual are an important aspect of his public persona, Abdulla is also deeply engaged in the everyday life of increasingly urban Northwest China. In order to understand the depth of his appeal, here we outline the themes which emerge from his catalog and analyze one of these themes.
Watching the leaked surveillance video of two men walking with a sea of migrant workers in front of the train station in Ürümchi makes your blood turn cold. You want to look away but you can’t. You want to understand what was going through the minds of those men with their hats pulled low as they moved in step with the crowd – but you can’t. Only after the shock of the fireball and the smoke clears can you stop looking, but then you can’t un-see it. You can only play it over and over in your mind.
Hong Qi discovered Bob Dylan in 2001. That was the year he heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” for the first time. Speaking in an interview a decade later, he said he liked Dylan’s confidence — the feeling he evoked with his broken voice. Although Hong Qi says his English is “very bad,” the imagery in Dylan’s lyrics touched him deeply. Over the past decade, he says he has become a Dylan fan. “I like all his songs, all of his fascinating imagery. I respect his political stance. My songwriting is influenced by him.”
Chen Zhifeng is a “self-made” billionaire, founder of the Western Regions Photography Society, and a major force in Xinjiang’s art scene. He is part of a newly minted cohort of Xinjiang capitalists: the Xinjiang 8 (or 9) nouveau riche, who have taken advantage of Chinese-Central Asian market development and the post-Reform oil and gas economy.Yet, unlike some other Xinjiang elites, Chen has reinvested his wealth in Xinjiang. Although he was born in Hubei and came to Xinjiang as the result of a military assignment in 1981, Chen has taken on the cultural genealogy of Xinjiang history with a fierce amount bravado and pride.
Luo Lin’s voice and melodies are extremely catchy. In a true sense of the term, he catalyzes — that is, he channels energy toward, and thereby accelerates — an aspirational ethos for many migrant workers in Northwest China. I have also noted that Uyghurs often resist his catalytic charge by jealously guarding their indigenous cultural heritage. Yet, clearly, critiquing Luo Lin’s “Dao Lang” persona does not deny the very real force of his voice. He is an immensely talented performer; he has proved himself to be very adept at tuning in to desires particular to a Chinese rendering of an alien environment inhabited by displaced people.
In the wake of the horrific violence in Kunming on March 1, 2014, Uyghurs around the country have taken to Chinese-language social media to create distance between themselves and the killing of the innocent. The celebrity of Uyghur-Han ethnic friendship, the Guizhou kebab-seller-turned-philanthropist Alimjan (A-li-mu-jiang), put it best. Echoing the massively popular Indian-American film My Name is Khan, Alimjan said “My name is Jiang and I am not a terrorist.” Many people also expressed empathy with those who experienced personal loss and pain on March 1, by writing on their weixin accounts “We are all Kunming people today.”
Due to the widespread repetition of these failures for many Uyghur listeners the sweet sounds of “Harmonious Xinjiang” infuse the atmosphere with a sickening feeling of decay and loss; it creates an aural “scent” in the air which empties joy out of smiles and reminds them of the horrors of the summer of 2009 when violence infused the streets of Northwestern cities.
A Uyghur friend of mine thought the Expo mascot looked more like a dancing mule than a Heavenly Horse Star. He said, “It is really cute, but I don’t think it can have children.” Maybe he’s right. Maybe the expo’s goal of fostering “mutual development” and “person-to-person” communication will fail to fix Xinjiang’s many problems. But that’s not going to stop the powers that be from betting a lot of money on the dancing mule. Already more than 50 billion dollars worth of contracts have come out of the past week of showing and telling.
Due to various political, economic reasons many young Uyghurs are obsessed with going elsewhere; many dream of places where the even the trash on the streets is made of gold. A Uyghur acquaintance of mine told me recently that he would rather drive a taxi or do other manual work than take up a relatively prestigious job in Xinjiang. For many people, going abroad, especially to North America or Europe is already a mark of a huge personal success. Those who successfully become naturalized citizens of Western countries will receive a hero’s welcome upon their return to their homeland. Möminjan portrays the way these successes are mixed with the failure by directing young Uyghurs to consider the realities of a life abroad and treasure what is most important: their families.
Xu Xin’s monumental 2010 film, Karamay, is a meditation on the relationship humans have to the failings of ideology-driven Modernist political projects in our current historical moment. Using long-takes and repetitive framing shot during visits to Xinjiang in 2007, Xu Xin draws out the long duration of trauma and feelings of injustice. With the exception of a minority of Uyghurs and Kazakhs, the majority of Mandarin speakers featured in this award-winning 356-minute film came from elsewhere.