History, Music
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Singing Back to the Steppe: Kazakh Poetry Battles in Contemporary Xinjiang


Image from a government-sponsored aytis convention

On a summer evening in 2015, when I was attending a friend’s wedding after-party in a small village in Mori in Northern Xinjiang, a professional aqin – an oral poet who improvises while performing – sat next to me playing his dombra (a Kazakh two-stringed instrument). He was singing a song with the refrain: “ahaw sar qiz, pisqan darbiz, darbizingning qizilin maghan jarghiz” (Hey, fair-haired girl, you are like a ripe melon, let me cut your red ripe melon). It was clear he was directing the song at me. I felt my face begin to turn red.

I was tongue-tied. I didn’t know what to say or do. How do you respond to lyrics like that from a poet? A Kazakh girl sitting nearby tried to sooth my discomfort by making excuses for him. She said he was just joking around and that the lyrics were supposed to be funny. That is just the manner of a poet. A while later, the poet received a phone call from his leader to go entertain some visiting officials who would attend an aytis festival the next day.

This incident got me thinking a lot about the way oral tradition becomes marketized and institutionalized in Kazakh society in China, and how this process is also increasingly tied to gender construction . The way I felt baffled and embarrassed by the situation contrasted sharply with stories that I heard from the elders.

“When I was little,” a Kazakh woman in her 70s in Koktogay Altay, near the border with Mongolia, reminisced, “I would follow older girls in my village to the weddings. One time they had aytis with the other guests. One girl noticed her rival (a male poet) had a big nose, so she sang, ‘Kozingnen aynalayin tostaghanday, Murningnan sasqan adam ustaghanday, Ustinen eginning otin artip, Astina bir taypa el qistaghanday (Your eyes are as big as wooden bowls, your nose is as big as a boulder that one can grasp; we can gather firewood on the top of it, underneath a whole clan can stay in a winter camp).’

“In the next round, she saw that the man pushed his cap a bit and exposed his balding scalp. So, she kept on singing: ‘Qongghan awilimning irghanaqti, Aqqan sw irghanaqtan qulda baqti, Qoy desemde qoymading ghoy, basing’a teberim’e sirghanaqti (My hometown is in Irghanaq, the river flows down from upstream; I told you to stop but you won’t listen, look how slippery the top of your head is!)’ Hearing this, that man got angry and left, losing the poetry battle miserably.”

The other women and I laughed, amazed by the girl’s sharp witty words.

This entirely different scenario made me wonder, what had changed in the way aytis and gender relations are performed, and the way language is used? How are these three elements of Kazakh society related to each other? Aytis is a kind of verbal duel that places a premium on improvisation and contestation. It is a competitive performance in which two poets tease and banter with each other, and try to win the battle through witty, poetic expressions. The elements of improvisation and battle can be found within many Kazakh oral traditions and epic poem genres such as oral storytelling (dastan), laments (joqtaw), and wedding songs (aw-jar). Yet despite their interrelatedness, they are each set apart as standalone traditions listed as forms of Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Chinese state

“If the poet wins in Ürümchi he will be honored as the best poet in the Kazakh community and given highest-level state recognition”

The history of aytis reflects a re-spatialization of Kazakh sociocultural life under changing regimes of state power. Before the 1950s, aytis was a local and spontaneous event that occurred at weddings and other festive celebrations. Today, aytis is mostly featured as an officially organized form of cultural or tourism “festivals” organized at different administrative levels in the Kazakh-populated regions in Northern Xinjiang. Often such competitions begin at the village and county level with the winners moving on to the prefecture level, and then finally on to the level of the autonomous region itself. If the poet wins in Ürümchi he will be honored as the best poet in the Kazakh community and given highest-level state recognition.

Of course, part of what has changed the function of poetry in Kazakh society has been general large-scale social changes. Whereas before, aytis had been an important part of everyday pastoral life, particularly in the villages of herders, in the new society of the People’s Republic things began to change. Processes of de-collectivization as well as the rise of tourism, mining and hydraulic projects have quickened the sedentarization of the Kazakhs. Pastoral routes are gradually being covered and replaced by state roads and railway systems. This has significantly fragmented pastures and shrunk the pastoral cultural space, according to Yanhu Tsui in his 2015 paper, “Pastoral Routes in Altay Mountain: Shrinking Pastoral Cultural Space under Modernity.”

The development of tourism and industry raised the demand for the construction of modern highway and roads, many of which either built on or cut through previous pastoral routes. The herders are gradually pushed out of the routes they have been taking for centuries. Many highway accidents happened since they had to take the roads during migration.

One effect of this is that over the past sixty years, society has been reorganized from a nominally kin-based community (awil) to modern administrative divisions such as village, county, and city. This has also contributed to a gradual shift in Kazakh people’s priorities from village and clan identification to ethnic identification. The occasions where aytis used to occur – life-cycle celebrations such as weddings and circumcisions – have become less awil-based. They now center around the host’s personal, kin-based, and professional networks fostered through work and school.

This shift in identification from the local to the imagined community of the ethnic group has led to a general acceptance of the fame that is attached to the Intangible Cultural Heritage label. The accompanying government support has also contributed to the elevation of aytis and instigated a surge in aytis cultural production. In almost every Kazakh populated area, aytis now plays a significant role in promoting local tourism, attracting foreign investment, and propagandizing ethnic unity. Most important of all, for Kazakh people themselves, aytis boosts their sense of ethnic pride, and reestablishes a cultural-linguistic space of their own.

With the shift in the role of aytis, poets have also become subject to state patronage and institutionalized with the formation of a brick and mortar aytis school in Kuitun City in Northern Xinjiang. Many poets have been given government jobs in local cultural departments. Those who can’t gain access to state jobs take freelance jobs of wedding hosts and perform betashar (the veil-lifting ritual in Kazakh weddings) ( performed only by men). These positions are also quite lucrative due to the more and more extravagant Kazakh wedding consumption. Often poets earn between 300~500 RMB at one event in rural areas, in a few cases in Ürümchi, the price even went up to 800~ 3,000 RMB (120 to 440 USD) , with people criticizing their “hustling” with “cunning, beautiful words.” As a staff member in the Shinggil County Cultural Museum told me, the famous poet Qurmanbek Zeytinhazy (1941-2011) protested the growing list of poets being labeled as aytis preservers by a local Intangible Cultural Heritage office.

“How can there be so many poets these days?” he said. “You gotta stop making people poets!”

Then he began crossing out names when no one was looking. Qurmanbek’s vision that “real” poets should be like the articulate, outspoken poets of Kazakh legend is probably too lofty an ideal today.

“They held signs indicating their places of origin, as if it was the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Altay, Tarbagatay, Shawan, Ghulja, Mori, Barkol – nearly every Kazakh community in Xinjiang was represented”

In fact, the struggle over “authenticity” is a crucial part of Kazakh society in post-Mao China. It is this that leads me back to the discussion of gender.

When performing on the public stage in front of the entire Kazakh community in Xinjiang, the poets’ performance of gender and cultural authenticity of Kazakhness is an important part of winning the hearts of the judge and audience. Kazakhness in aytis discourse are thus a co-construction between the three parties. In many cases, an anxiety related to poetic authenticity is related to the performance of Kazakh masculinity and what it means to be a “real” Kazakh man in contemporary China. In their performances, male poets often refer to historical heroes, remember their ancestors, and swear to carry on their spirits and heritage. Female poets get bonus points by demonstrating their femininity, purity, and virtues.

Often, worries over authenticity underlie gender performances and the way they function as an important marker of ethnic identity. Anxiety regarding “women gone bad” or the way “modern life deteriorates people’s minds” are a more and more frequent refrain in the aytis discourse. Male poets celebrate their Kazakhness and in doing so gain a measure of cultural capital by stressing the importance of sticking to “tradition” in this volatile era, while female poets are forced to walk a tight rope of balancing playful bantering and female modesty.

Leaving aside gender tension, aytis is still an important platform for the poets to converge in voicing social criticism despite surveillance and censorship. While including formulaic slogans praising “ethnic unity” and promoting “positive energy” in their performance, the poets also subtly speak of the grim issues that Kazakh herders are facing at present, such as dropping livestock prices, decreasing Kazakh schools, fewer and fewer young people in aytis audiences, and so on.

Footage from the 4th Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Aytis Festival, which was held in a Chinese Communist Party concert hall in Ürümchi in August 2015

“A talent for poetry is a gift from God, you cannot learn it from school”

On August 2015, the 4th Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Poetry Battle Convention was held in a Chinese Communist Party concert hall in Ürümchi (see to video). The front rows were reserved for party officials, intellectuals, journalists, judges, and poets. The audience was composed largely of people who resided in or were visiting Ürümchi. The majority of them were middle-aged or elderly Kazakhs. After sitting through long, tedious official formal speeches, the poets walked onto the stage wearing beautiful Kazakh costumes replete with elaborate embroidery. They held signs indicating their places of origin, as if it was the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Altay, Tarbagatay, Shawan, Ghulja, Mori, Barkol – nearly every Kazakh community in Xinjiang was represented. During the contests, each pair of poets was given 20 minutes for their aytis before the judges showed their scores.

After the preliminary rounds of 14 pairs, four poets were selected for the finals, and would continue the competition the next day. During the intermission, I overheard two elders talking about how nice it would be if this would have been held on the jaylaw (summer pasture) like it used to be, as more people would have come, enjoyed the breeze, drank fermented horse milk, and listened to aytis to the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. This reminded me of how, the week prior, as I was leaving a village in Haba Altay, I had mentioned that I was going back to Ürümchi to attend the provincial-level aytis convention. People there listened with a bit jealousy and admiration. I immediately realized that they couldn’t often travel to enjoy this sort of cultural event. Provincial-level aytis events that host the best poets are held mainly in urban areas and broadcasted via TV networks for common herders and farmers living in the countryside. An elderly poet that I know calls them the “okimeting aytisi” (the government’s aytis).

Aytis nowadays are not aytis really,” she said. “Now poets prepare for that 20 minutes when they are on the stage. Back in the day, we were not restricted in time. One only goes down once he or she is defeated and has nothing more to say. A talent for poetry is a gift from God, you cannot learn it from school.”

“Performing at a theater hall facing an aging audience, the poets bemoan on the stage, ‘Dear elders, where are your grandchildren? How can we develop aytis under these conditions?’”

Certain idiomatic words and phrases in Kazakh aytis are not easily translated into other languages; for example, words having to do with cultural beliefs, such as aq, or white, symbolize something auspicious, or words with rich historical significance such as alash (a battle cry that unites all Kazakh clans). Today it also refers to the Alash Nationalist Party, the first Kazakhstan political group that resisted Russian settlement. These words with their nomadic connotations carry with them a form of currency that is most appreciated within a Kazakh language environment.

Among audiences of outsiders, its power dissipates. Along these lines, the scholar Wang Xiaobing has written about how Kazakh poets were invited to perform aytis in Germany. Due to the lack of interaction from the non-Kazakh speaking audience, the poets‘ performance of the aytis was notably affected. Although the poets were frustrated, they nevertheless strove to encourage each other to continue the performance. Occasionally they poked fun at their own experiences of cultural shock in Germany, as well as their Chinese supervisors being overly watchful of their whereabouts. Yet no matter how funny their rhymes were the audience did not respond. The collective effervescence that usually accompanies aytis was missing.

What Wang’s account tells us is that Kazakh aytis is what anthropologist Richard Bauman might call “situated behavior.” Poets in fact actively engage with the audience’s reaction in the performance, as they decide whether to proceed on a certain line of verbal attack or not. One of the keys to aytis humor is its rhyme. Often sense-for-sense translation compromises the rhyme, rhythm and timing of the punchline, and thus cannot fully convey the specific pastoral cultural experience and historical significance of certain expressions. The intense, fast-paced live performance also places a high demand on the audience’s Kazakh language skills, and makes simultaneous translation virtually impossible to demonstrate the ongoing dynamism between the poets and audience.

In Altay prefecture in Northern Xinjiang where I have conducted my fieldwork, many middle-aged or elderly women helped take care of the grandchildren, whose parents either work in the cities or herd livestock in the mountains. Many were considering giving up herding and moving to the cities for better education and employment opportunities for their children. However, in the bilingual schools in the cities, Mandarin Chinese is the major language of instruction, the lingua franca among the multiethnic student and faculty body. Kazakh elders often express concern for their grandchildren’s Kazakh language. A lot of times, the intergenerational dialogue is in two languages, with the elders speaking in Kazakh and the young answering in Chinese. The elders are taken aback by how fast their grandchildren learn Chinese through TV and the Internet, even though they speak to them in Kazakh every day. Some children’s parents share Kazakhstan-produced cartoons and make their children watch and learn Kazakh language at home.

As scholar Leanne Simpson in her article “Land as Pedagogy” has argued, there is an intimate relationship between bodies and land, and this connection is crucial for indigenous ways of teaching, learning, and understanding. “The land . . . is both context and process,” Simpson writes, “The process of coming to know is learner-led and profoundly spiritual in nature.” She follows writer and historian Vine Deloria’s emphasis that Indigenous education must come through the land, occur in an Indigenous context using Indigenous processes. If experience is generated from learning and doing on the land, how will a new generation deprived of pastoral cultural space and knowledge appreciate and understand aytis?

Keith Basso, in the article “Speaking with Names,” writes about how the Western Apache’s experience of their ancestors comes through the place they live and through the utterance of place names. This has me thinking that aytis is also grassland-based. It is learned and comprehended within the family, the community, and in relation to all aspects of the environment. Aytis poets are inspired by mountains, rivers, lakes; they constantly make metaphors out of livestock, wildlife, the changing climate; or they commemorate the heroes and sages who fought for the land and named the Kazakh space. The speech act of aytis animates emotional associations of ancestors, history, and social memory. Aytis produces mental images of a particular geographical locations and like Basso’s Western Apache example “evoke prior texts of historical events and sagas, and affirm the values and validity of traditional moral percepts.” However, for a community going through drastic socio-cultural and educational mode shifting, generational gaps have become an undertone in various aspects of family and cultural life of the Kazakhs. Performing at a theater hall facing an aging audience, the poets bemoan on the stage, “Dear elders, where are your grandchildren? How can we develop aytis under these conditions?”

Hey, fair-haired girl, you are like a ripe melon, let me cut your red ripe melon 

My encounter, then, was not just a random case of sexism. With the shrinking pastoral cultural space and drastic social changes threatening the core of nomadic epistemology in Kazakh language, knowledge, and morality, aytis in urban spaces now plays a significant role in sustaining the oral tradition and improvisation in the Kazakh world. The poet at the wedding was putting me, an urban Kazakh woman who has lived in the city my whole life, in my place by embarrassing me in (what in his mind was) a playful way. This experience is symptomatic of the way gender has become contested ground in the production of Kazakhness in the face of Chinese modernity, urbanization, and globalization.

Can preserving and safeguarding intangible cultural heritage sustain cultural transmission? Can any local culture or folk art be readily translated and consumed by a global audience? Are state recognition and commodification the saviors? Aytis is a notable example of the interrelatedness of people, land, poetics, and language. For Kazakhs in Xinjiang today, it is becoming overburdened with the role of carrying fading nomadic values and knowledge through the use the pastoral lexicon. It must also carry the feeling of ethnic pride and memories of freedom roaming the steppe, as well as gender and kinship protocols.

Although aytis is best performed and appreciated by Kazakh audiences who have a collective understanding of these experiences and forms of knowledge, it is becoming more and more difficult to keep the tradition alive. Due to the increasing threats of environmental change, shifts in grassland ownership, and resource-extracting development projects, Kazakhs are finding themselves immersed in a new society. Perhaps aytis preservation can only be meaningful when aytis returns to their community and pastures, and the relationship between land, people, knowledge, and poetry are reexamined.

This essay first appeared on the website Radii. Guldana Salimjan is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia. Using feminist, oral history, and memory studies methods, she examines the embodied practice of Kazakh social memory as well as societal changes from socialist collectivization to post-Mao China. Her research interests include performance, anthropology of ritual and oral tradition, indigenous knowledge, and environmental justice.


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