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The Best of 2016

Perhat Khaliq speaks to the audience at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in March 2016. | Photo by Lisa Ross

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 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.

2. Äskär: an Independent Uyghur Musician

An image from Äskär Memet’s 2015 self-titled album.

Recently a Uyghur intellectual told me that the most important representations of Uyghur life are in music. Literature and film are also important but because these cultural mediums have a shorter history and smaller industry among Uyghurs, music continues to be the main mode of expression that circulates beyond intellectuals and cosmopolitan urbanites into the homes of every Uyghur family. It is because of this that most Uyghurs encounter abstract cultural concepts through music and oral poetry. Since the 1980s with the introduction of the cassette and then in the late 1990s the VCD, music has become a ubiquitous form of cultural representation. Since music has such an important place in Uyghur cultural life, in this blog we have detailed the rise of pop stars such as Abdulla, Erkin, Perhat Khaliq, Ablajan and others. But these mainstream pop singers have not always been mainstream. In fact most of them owe the start of their success to an anti-pop star—the first truly urban, heavy metal Uyghur musician, the iconoclast Äskär Memet.

3. Uyghur Comedy, Abdukerim Abliz and Cultural Citizenship

It is difficult to understate the importance of the comedy of Abdukerim Abliz, the most famous of contemporary Uyghur comedians, in Uyghur popular culture. Abdukerim is a tall distinguished-looking man from Kashgar famous for his carefully groomed mustache. Like other suave comedians (Stephen Colbert springs to mind) Abdukerim not only embodies a masculine ideal, he parodies it. Yet for all his quick-witted use of language, metaphor and jaw-line, Abdukerim has something serious to say about Uyghur society. By making them laugh he is trying to mirror how his Uyghur audiences act, talk, and think about common sense issues in Uyghur society.

4. The Uyghur Restaurant Chain Herembağ comes to America

Back in April 2015 signs of the famous Uyghur restaurant chain Herembağ (Eden/海尔巴格) began to appear on the streets of San Francisco. A few months later, a location in Fremont was opened in a renovated hot pot restaurant with promises of a third Bay-area location in San Mateo. Like their restaurant locations from Beijing to Astana, Kazakhstan, the American version of Eden serves an upscale version of the traditional Uyghur pasta, lamb and rice dishes, as well as Hui-inspired northwest specialties such as Big Plate Chicken (dapanji) and Turkish-style döner kebab. To understand how Herembağ has the ambition and resources to plan to open 10 new restaurants in North America, you have to understand how it transformed Uyghur food culture in Xinjiang.

5. Buddhist Photography on the New Silk Road

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An image from Tian Lin’s photography project in Yamalik, Ürümchi, 2004-2016

In this essay, I argue that Tian Lin’s Buddhist photography produces a politics of living otherwise. By reframing migrant life in the city Tian Lin is also demonstrating what a practice of living-with others looks like. In the following six sections I discuss how Tian Lin finds himself in the middle of the history and geography of ethnic politics between Uyghurs and Han, the resurgence of religious​ faith across China, and the emergence of documentary photography in contemporary Chinese arts. I then turn to Tian Lin’s images​ and the politics they signify. Finally I conclude the essay by summarizing Tian Lin’s photo project and what makes it significant in the art and politics of Chinese Central Asia.

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.

After praying, Muslim migrants to the city tuck their prayer rugs under their arm and stroll through the Friday bazaar.

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 former homes. In the summer of 2015 only two “nail houses” (dingzihu) owned by elderly Uyghur sheep farmers from Kashgar remained standing. By the autumn of that year they were demolished as well.

The “nail houses” of Uyghur sheep farmers in the Ürümchi neighborhood of Heijia Shan

As a result of the demolition of Uyghur migrant housing, the neighborhood has become one of the centers of recycling in the city. Recent Han migrants from Anhui and Henan have set up fiberglass, cardboard and glass sorting spaces. They traveled thousands of kilometers to the Central Asian frontier because they heard that work for Han settlers pays well and the rent is cheap so far from the population centers of the nation. For many of them, farming back in their home provinces is no longer a tenable livelihood. On Fridays their work slows, since the Uyghur scrap-gathers who supply them are taking time off to attend the mosque.

Han migrants from Henan secure a load of washing machines to be sent to a recycling center in the Uyghur neighborhood of Heijia Shan.

Uyghur second-hand furniture and appliance sellers have built ad-hoc warehouses on the margins of the demolition zone. Next to new walls and rutted dirt pathways they arrange their wares for migrants who come for the Friday market. Camels and sheep are slaughtered and eaten — roasted on skewers over open coal-fired grills — along the same pathway. Men gather in clumps and discuss the merits of kidney medicine, the newest smart phones, and the latest news.

A camel’s head advertises the freshness of the meat for sale at the market.

Plain-clothes police also come looking for wanted men every Friday — they scan the crowd looking for who has come to pray. Since the mosque at the center of the bazaar is known to be preferred place of worship for migrants and the homeless Muslims of the city, it is watched more closely than other mosques in the city. Every few weeks warehouses and restaurants are closed due to a lack of official permits, but still the bazaar goes on in the rubble of Ürümchi’s past.

Plain-clothes police also come looking for wanted men every Friday.

This photo-essay first appeared in the 2015 Social Science Research Council’s International Dissertation Research Fellow Photo Essay Competition

Uyghur Sports and Masculinity

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).

Uyghurs near the city of Khotan at a weekly "Goat Pulling" (Oglaq-tatish) competition in 2015. Image by Darren Byler

Uyghurs in the city Khotan at a weekly “Goat Pulling” (Oglaq-tatish) competition in 2015. Photo by Darren Byler

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!”

Leaders from the Uyghur toy company Walley at the launch of the 5 million yuan research and development initiative in 2015.

Leaders from the Uyghur toy company Walley at the launch of their 5 million yuan research and development initiative in 2015.

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.

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Introducing Living Otherwise

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Tian Lin, Yamalik, Ürümchi, 2004-2016

Changes are in store for the Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia thanks to a generous fellowship from the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington. Not only have we moved from Beige Wind to a new site called Living Otherwise and transformed it into magazine-style repository, but we are also developing some new exciting larger-scale projects that highlight the arts and changing cultural systems of the city of Ürümchi and Northwest China more broadly. Over the next year we will be bringing you more long-form essays, such as the recently published piece “Ms. Munirä’s Wedding Gifts,” as well as interactive mapping projects and virtual exhibitions of Xinjiang arts and politics.

The first of these larger scale projects is a multilinear photo essay titled “Living Otherwise: Buddhist Photography on the New Silk Road.” The project tells the story of Tian Lin, a Han settler and former monk, who has developed a meditative photo practice among Uyghur squatters in the city of Ürümchi and through this become a major figure in Xinjiang arts scene.


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The essay argues that Tian Lin’s Buddhist photography produces a politics of living otherwise. Tian Lin calls viewers and participants in his projects to live with conscious awareness of radical ethnic differences and, in doing so, actively attempt to transform how people live together. By reframing migrant life in the city in imagery Tian Lin is demonstrating what a practice of living-with others looks like.

In the six sections of the project I discuss how Tian Lin finds himself in the middle of three interrelated social transformations: the unfolding history and geography of ethnic politics between Uyghurs and Han, the resurgence of religious faith across China, and the emergence of documentary photography in contemporary Chinese arts. I then turn to Tian Lin’s images and the politics they signify. Finally I conclude the essay by summarizing Tian Lin’s photo project and what makes it significant in the art and politics of Chinese Central Asia.

Thanks as always for reading the Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia. Please enjoy “Living Otherwise”!

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Tian Lin, Yamalik, Ürümchi, 2004-2016