For those without access to YouTube, the film is also available here at Critical Commons.
Co-written with Aynur Kadir, PhD Candidate, Simon Fraser University
Back in April 2016 the daughter of a well-to-do Uyghur border official in Kashgar, a woman known now simply as Ms. Munirä, got married. Like many weddings of wealthy Uyghurs, it was an ostentatious affair. Since Uyghur weddings are often seen as the joining of two families, it is important that each family demonstrates their wealth and prestige. One of the key moments of this demonstration is when the bride wealth which is given to the bride’s family by the groom’s family is announced to the attendees of the wedding at a party that proceeds the wedding called a “big tea” (or chong chay). In many cases this is a low-key affair. But in some cases, as in Ms. Munirä’s case, it takes on the appearance of luxury product exhibition. In an extravaganza such as this, an announcer called a “box opener” (snaduq echish) proclaims to all in attendance what has been given and what makes the quality of the gift extra special while a relative displays her family’s contribution to the wedding.
Within days, the Uyghur Internet was filled with responses from Uyghurs across the province mocking the pompous display of wealth.
At Ms. Munirä’s wedding the gifts were even more exquisite than usual. Not only was there jewelry and luxury items of all sorts, but as kicker to the performance, there was a bundle of 10,000 dollars in brand-new 100 dollar bills. The wealth of Ms. Munirä’s new husband’s family was on display for everyone to see. As the announcer went down the list, someone filmed the conspicuous theatrics with a cellular phone and shared it on social media.
Within days, the Uyghur Internet was filled with responses from Uyghurs across the province mocking the pompous display of wealth. They offered up Disney toys, diapers, German flashlights, French perfume boxes and Amway shampoo citing the European and American origins of the commodities just as the announcer had at Ms. Munirä’s wedding. Whatever they had on hand they said they would give to Ms. Munirä: toilet paper, “air” burning capsules, pairs of sunglasses, a diaper, a Java textbook, an earwax picker, a football, five kilos of gold, a set of “German” false teeth, a giant stuffed banana, a pacifier.
Marriage as a Changing Uyghur Institution
The virtual gift giving was a way of lashing out at the corruption many people feel is endemic in Xinjiang society and Chinese society as a whole. It was a way of noting the way some Uyghurs fawn over foreign products. It was also a way of engaging in the changing dynamics in contemporary Uyghur marriages themselves.
Mocking Ms. Munirä’s wedding was a way of identifying what they did and did not want to be.
As anthropologist Rune Steenberg has noted, over the past several decades marriage ceremonies have been a key site of Uyghur social reproduction and control. Steenberg argues that Uyghur marriage has been transformed in interaction with state structures, economic developments and religious concerns. He notes that as urban Uyghurs, in places like Kashgar, have turned to reformist forms of Islam, many Uyghurs have begun to push for “simple” weddings that oppose ostentatious displays of wealth and elaborate music and dancing parties – a form of Islamic ritual that the state opposes by requiring music and dancing at all Uyghur weddings.
At the same time though, Uyghurs have continued to privilege marriages to those that are socially close to them. Many people believe that their in-laws should share not only similar class positions but also a common heritage. Participating in weddings are thus a key site in Uyghur social identification processes, even as forms of marriage ceremonies themselves are shifting. Mocking Ms. Munirä’s wedding was a way of identifying what they did not want to be – even as they recognized that her wedding was a model of Uyghur cultural and economic success.
Ms. Munirä as a Social Media Meme
Within 24 hours Ms. Munirä’s wedding gifts became a Uyghur Internet sensation. Many young people produced short satirical videos directed at the model of “tradition” projected by Ms. Munirä’s family. It is interesting to note that these sarcastic short videos do not show the faces of the people producing them. Instead they secure their anonymity while mocking the intonations and formality of the Ms. Munirä’s relative and the “box opener” with their voices. They also zero in on the way prestige is carried by particular objects in the bride wealth and how wealth is marked by a closeness to Western or non-Chinese forms of prosperity.
In addition to these short films centered around Ms. Munirä as a social meme, several poems, articles and a podcast were also produced to bring more nuanced critique to the subject. Some participants in the public debate argued that mockery of Ms. Munirä and her family was vindictive. They said it was symptomatic of Uyghur social tendencies to become over-involved in the lives of others. They critiqued the producers of these videos for fostering a culture of gossip and ill-will. Others still said that these satirical videos were made out of a spirit of jealousy.
It was the divorcing of this wealth competition from its original social context that enabled it to become a social meme.
In general, however, the central focus of the online discussion was on the meaning of “tradition.” As many people noted, putting together an exquisite bride wealth and announcing its contents in front of guests is a common practice at Uyghur weddings. Since the 1980s and the arrival of economic reforms it has offered many wealthy families a space in which to “show off.” Many argued that behind this “showing off” is a hidden competition among wealthy, stay-at-home wives. It is their chance to shine; a marker of their success as Uyghur women. It offers them a chance to display their social power by leveraging what is often their husband’s wealth in a way to attain social privilege.
This competition occurs among a certain segment of society rather than the broader Uyghur community. What the circulation of the original video does is take a model example of small-scale elite social competition to a much broader audience. In fact, it was the divorcing of this wealth competition from its original social context that enabled it to become a social meme. In many cases such competitions occur only within a close-knit “tea circle” of only a dozen or so women.
A further element in the story is the specificity of the Kashgar derivation of the competition. Relative to Uyghurs in Northern Xinjiang, Uyghurs in Eastern China or even overseas, the version of the wedding bride wealth exhibition among wealthy socialites is quite accentuated. When Uyghurs from other geographic locations viewed the videos many of them were drawn to reflect on the larger debate in Uyghur society, namely the “contradiction between tradition and modernity.” Since many view Kashgar as a major source of Uyghur tradition, many viewers asked whether or not spending that much money and showing off was really an aspect of Uyghur tradition more generally. This sort of pressure to display one’s wealth has also become a major issue for many young men. In order to be seen as suitable for marriage they feel as though they will need to match the wealth displayed by the bride’s family. If a groom’s family can assemble a lavish bride wealth, they can gain social prestige and an upper hand in the marriage. By “paying” so much for a bride, a groom’s family could guarantee the submission of the bride and her family and the longevity of the marriage.
Mediating Uyghur Life Through Social Media
In general, social media is becoming a public forum in which people are able to contest and debate their own position on things like “tradition” and social stratification. As one commentator noted there have been four big historical online events in Uyghur society over the past year. Ms. Munirä is the fourth big video debate.
First, we had the “Fight Between Ziwide and Ali.” This was the debate between the pop psychologist Ali and a university psychology professor named Ziwide after Ali claimed to have more knowledge than Yusup Khas Hajip, the classic Turkic philosopher from the 11th century. In a two hour long talk at Beijing Nationalities University, he argued that since he knows several different languages and lives in our present society he can contribute more to the Uyghur community than Yusup who was alive long ago. Professor Ziwide opposed him, saying he was being disrespectful to tradition and classical philosophy. People took sides immediately producing videos and articles which continued this debate for quite a few weeks.
Second, there was a video of a guy who said ‘We, guys from Ghulja (Yinning) don’t usually marry girls from Ürümchi or Karamay’ (because girls from these cities are stereotypically progressive and liberal while Ghulja guys are thought to be stereotypically masculine, chauvinistic, macho and funny). Immediately after he posted this there were numerous short videos discussing this issue. Finally, he made a public announcement video apologizing for perpetuating this stereotype.
Third, there was the ‘Dress of Muba.’ This debate was centered on a girl who was filmed by her friend from behind. In the video you can see that her dress is a very revealing cocktail-style dress which bared much of her back. Right after the circulation of this video, there were numerous videos that discussing how her dress was inappropriate and a violation of Uyghur traditions. This was followed by some discussion of why her friend posted Muba’s video without her permission. Rumors began to circulate that Muba almost committed suicide as a result of these rumors. This debate revolved around the proper division between public and private life, as well as ownership of video images in the age of social media.
In the end, this is often a conversation about the unanswerable question of what is mean to be Uyghur in contemporary Northwest China.
Interestingly all four of these discussions occurred online and involved larger debates regarding the tensions between Uyghur tradition and secular modernity; public morality and individual choice. Since state-controlled mainstream media does not deal with social issues in very direct ways, social media, Wechat in particular, is becoming a major space for debates in the Uyghur community. While many people simultaneously identify to varying degrees as a traditional Uyghur, a contemporary Chinese, and a religious Muslim person, responses to these issues are a reflection of which identifier is felt as more dominant. In the end, this is often a conversation about the unanswerable question of what is mean to be Uyghur in contemporary Northwest China.
As is the case throughout China, people really don’t have much concern about ownership rights issues, especially in social media. Copyright infringement is a new idea that during the communist-era was seen as antithetical to socialist equality. Today, the value of preserving individual rights to intellectual property is not a view many people hold dearly. Instead they feel that circulating videos without permission is fine – the test of whether to do so or not has to do with whether or not they find them interesting and politically correct. The, at least partially, unintended consequences of this sharing is their potential to trigger a viral reception as a large-scale social meme.
Many Uyghurs relished watching the videos that responded to Ms. Munirä’s viral video. Young women saw them as a way of ridiculing the intense pressure they often feel to present themselves in particular ways at weddings. It was a cathartic experience to laugh at the competition many of them feel between themselves to marry well.
Young men who watched these videos often spoke of the ways in which they feel pressured to provide economically for their brides and their families. They also resented the emphasis that is placed on marrying someone from an appropriate class background. Many of them also read the videos as a commentary on Uyghur attachments to the prestige of Western brands. It used to be that brides would receive a locally-made rugs and household items as well as a modest amount of gold jewelry on their wedding day.
Many viewers of Ms. Munirä’s wedding gifts videos believe that dragging this conspicuous consumption into the spotlight has the potential to produce positive social change.
In the months that followed, open discussion of Ms. Munirä’s wedding gifts was banned on public forums. Her father after all was a powerful man in Xinjiang society. But the commentary continued to circulate privately. Rumors have begun to circulate that her father is now the target of one of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption investigations. People have also been sympathetic toward Munirä’s position in the affair. Not only did these videos ruin Munirä’s wedding but they also ruined her family’s lives. As a result, the debate regarding the tension between public vs private life has continued. Some have said that this semi-private event should not have been subject to widespread public debate from the beginning.
But, of course, this position has been met with critique. After all, wealthy Uyghurs nearly always invite a lot of people to their weddings and make an exhibition of their wealth. In this case, the wealth of Ms. Munirä’s social circle ended up impressing more people than they anticipated. Many viewers of Ms. Munirä’s wedding gifts videos believe that dragging this conspicuous consumption into the spotlight has the potential to produce positive social change. By highlighting the wealth and privilege of the elites and questioning the changing shape of the Uyghur moral economy, they hope to see a new awareness of what Uyghur society is becoming.