Excerpts from an essay on Uyghur sports cowritten by Parhat Ablet and Darren Byler. It first appeared in Pop Culture in Asia and Oceania published by ABC-CLIO/Greenwood (2016).
Traditional Uyghur sports can be thought of as two interrelated categories – children’s games, traditional competitions – both of which are played primarily by men and boys. From “goat-pulling” on horseback to “rabbit-pulling” on sleds, Uyghur traditional sports are part of the weave of everyday life from youth to middle-age. Over the past two decades the increase in formal education in the Uyghur homeland of Southern Xinjiang coupled with the spread of television and Internet media has led to a greater popularity of Western sports such as soccer, basketball and boxing. Yet despite the recent overlay of Western sports, the traditional games and competitions of rural Uyghur life continue to play an important, yet diminishing, role in Uyghur masculinity.
A prominent feature of Uyghur children’s games is that everyday objects are turned into tools of play. The team sport known variously as chukchuk-kaltek, gaga, or walley (hereafter walley) that is played universally by Uyghur young men from Ghulja to Khotan, employs locally produced items – two sticks – and a sophisticated set of rules similar to baseball. It centers around a small “home” circle in the dirt called a koyla that has a small hole in the middle of it. Into this hole, players diagonally insert a small stick made of mulberry or apricot wood. This small stick (approximately 6 inches in length) is then hit with a bigger stick which is often made out of a softer wood such as poplar – the hitting end of the larger stick is shaped slightly into a paddle shape.
The main actions in the game are first smacking the small stick making it bounce into the air and then slapping it away into the field of play where defenders are waiting to catch it with a hat or with their bare hands. If the stick lands the opposing team tries to throw the small stick to hit the big stick which is now lying in the koyla. If the defender fails to hit it, the original hitter is given an opportunity to hit the small stick again from wherever it lands. If the defender cannot catch the stick after the second hit, he is punished. He is forced to run with the little stick back to the koyla yelling the word “walley” with a single breath.
Winning has to do with the pride that comes from making a player yell walley while a player from the opposing team goads him with the stick.
Walley is often played by a mix of boys and young adults ranging between the ages 7 to 20. As with many traditional Uyghur sports winning is not as closely related with the number of points accrued. Instead winning has to do with the pride that comes from making a player from the other team yell walley all the way to the koyla while a player from the opposing team goads him with the stick. Like many Uyghur group activities the pride that comes from performing well, as well as the shame that comes from being defeated is an essential to learning the proper performance of masculinity.
Interestingly, the most successful Uyghur toy company has also used the name of the game as the title of its company: Walley. Established in 2014 the company has invested over 5 million yuan in research and development of Uyghur toys for Uyghur children. Their slogan is “Walley is here for the children, Walley is here for whole nation!”
Two of the most important traditional Uyghur adult sports also revolve around a performance of masculinity. For instance Uyghur wrestlers use their arm strength and upper body to throw their opponents on to the ground. Each wrestler maintains a hold on the other wrestler’s belt. It is important that neither of the wrestlers attempt any “tricks” such as tripping or kicking. Even grabbing the arm of the opponent is considered “lady-like.” The key to wrestling well is not just winning but also losing with dignity.
Another important traditional sport among Uyghur men is Oglaq-tatish (Buzkashi in Farsi). The game features a competition between two teams mounted on horses and wrestling over a headless young goat. The aim of the game is hoisting the goat into an elevated goal. The best players usually ride the fastest and strongest horses. They often build a social reputation around their passion for the game; although they may not be very wealthy they will spend the majority of their income on the care of their horse and set aside long amounts of time in preparation for the game.
The sport is thus becoming a source of conspicuous consumption for a few local elites and less a source of village pride.
In most rural settings this game was traditionally set up as a competition between villages or neighborhoods. In the winter, kids sometimes mimic the game of the adults by taking sleds out onto the ice on frozen ponds and “dragging” a dead rabbit in team competitions. As the rural countryside is developing under China’s “Open Up the West” policy, the sport is also changing in other ways. In places such as Khotan and Kashgar prefectures, many wealthy participants in the sport are now sourcing their horses in international locations such as Russia and Turkmenistan. These horses can cost anywhere between 30 to 100 thousand dollars. The sport is thus becoming a source of conspicuous consumption for a few local elites and less a source of village pride. Yet despite these changes, the danger and raw masculine energy of the sport remains constant.