Author: Darren Byler (雷风)

Imagining Re-Engineered Muslims in Northwest China

While perusing the news from Northwest China in mid-April 2017, I came across a story about a Uyghur official who refused to smoke cigarettes in front of other devout Uyghurs. The Communist Party leader was publicly shamed and demoted for his failure to remain resolute in his “commitment to secularization.” Smoking, the state declared, was a personal choice that must be protected.By this logic, an individual’s right to smoke is thus a fundamental form of freedom: freedom to consume the secular. Smoking, like secularism, is a manifestation of the norms of Chinese citizenship. Any attempt at limiting it, in favor of respecting religious practices, is symptomatic of a social malady. The story, published by the Associated Press on April 11, 2017, reminded me of my own experiences of smoking with Uyghur friends. It made me think of a time when I was smoking cigarettes with a Uyghur friend as we wandered the back streets of Kashgar. We were on the prowl for late-night bowls of hand-pulled noodles or laghman. As we walked down an alleyway …

Book Review: The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History

This review first appeared in the journal Milestones: Commentary on the Islamic World on March 1, 2017 Rian Thum, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, Harvard University Press, 2014, 336 pp. Historical scholarship on the Uyghurs often focuses on the imperial ambitions of the states that surrounded Chinese Central Asia and, in turn, the political intrigue that surrounded the emissaries of those states. Instead of asking how Uyghurs themselves imagined their community, these studies focus on relations of conquest and resistance and the gravity of wealth and power. Of course, the colonial domination of the Uyghurs is an important part of their history, but it is not the beginning of their story. Rian Thum’s work seeks to amplify how Uyghurs themselves imagined their community prior to the state, prior to modernity, perhaps even prior to Islam. Drawing on an ethnography of oral traditions and an extensive archive of sacred texts from shrines across the Uyghur homeland, Rian Thum’s work does something different. It seeks to amplify how Uyghurs themselves imagined their community prior to the state, prior …

The Best of 2016

It has been something of a slow production year here at the Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia. Dissertation writing, conference travel and website development have taken some time away from producing new content. Yet we did have a chance to be a part of Perhat Khaliq’s first visit to the United States. And over the past year we have published a few new pieces, including a long-form photo essay on the work of the Xinjiang-based Han Buddhist photographer Tian Lin and an in-depth essay on the way Uyghur young people are using  social media to critique government elites and ostentatious displays of wealth. Both of these two projects were two of our top five pieces in 2016. Below is a list of our top five most popular posts for the past year. Thanks as always for reading! 1. Ms. Munirä’s Wedding Gifts: Trolling Uyghur Elite Society 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 …

The Art of the Bazaar: A Photo Essay

Every Friday Muslim migrant men fill the streets surrounding the mosque in the Ürümchi neighborhood of Black First Mountain (Heijia Shan). They come to pray. After the noonday (zohr) prayers and straining to hear the weekly message from the imam, they tuck their rugs under their arms and buy their meat for the week. Thousands come, Uyghurs from the countryside who are in the city working as day laborers in demolition sites or hawking goods on the streets, to perform their ritual ablutions and stroll through one of Ürümchi’s last remaining bazaars. For centuries bazaars and mosques have been a linked ritual space for Muslims in Chinese Central Asia. Following the protests and subsequent violence of 2009, this neighborhood was one of the first areas targeted for urban cleansing. The degraded housing of the nearly 10,000 Uyghur migrants in the neighborhood was leveled. Each family was registered or forced to leave. Those who were not expelled from the city were offered partially-subsidized housing in newly built 20-story apartment buildings as compensation for the loss of their …