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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.