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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 to modernity, perhaps even prior to Islam.[1] In essence, Thum is arguing that the identifications of the Uyghurs are not centered around a national imaginary or ethnic community, but rather it was articulated through the oral recitation and amendment of sacred texts during pilgrimages to the shrines of the “bringers of Islam” (wali). Since the arrival of Islam in the tenth century (and perhaps even before this), the telling of the stories of mythic heroism and morality tales have functioned as a kind of collective memory that, in turn, has constituted, what I refer to below, as an “indigenous sovereignty” made up of social ties to land and to a constellation of people.

In Thum’s telling of this story, a lifeworld appears without being explicitly labeled as Islamic. He argues that the Turkic people that today have come to be identified as Uyghurs in fact have a complex history of attachment to land and to faith. The texts that were recited and amended during shrine pilgrimages served as founding myths that rooted people in place, much as centralized Islamic political, legal and religious formal institutions shaped contemporaneous Islamic societies elsewhere. The geographic and political isolation of the Turkic population of Chinese Central Asia coupled with pre-Islamic animist knowledge systems allowed shrines to function as informal institutional opportunities for popular participation in communal authorship. Thum argues that this performative aspect of Uyghur Islamic cultural life led to a powerful fixing of meaning to points in space (123). Sacred spaces and the practices associated with them thus tied people to the earth and to each other in profound ways. Through this, an element of timelessness was built into places in the landscape of the desert. Places themselves became sacred, not merely sites of first encounter with a new religious system. This place-edness made the production of history extremely intimate. Through this process history was made and the personal was bound to the earth; the past came to be understood as imminent in the present. In practice, the shaykhs who tell the stories of the heroes of the past, and the pilgrims who listen and question their telling, came to understand themselves as conduits of sacred history.

Some shaykhs still know the stories, as Thum shows us through beautifully rendered ethnographic vignettes, but much of the richness of Uyghur connections to the land and the sacred past has been lost through the ongoing process of Chinese settler colonialism.

Throughout the second half of the book Thum argues that the arrival of the modern nation state in the late nineteenth century had a deep impact on the Uyghur relationship to shrines. A new emphasis on literacy and other practices of knowledge production, profoundly altered the way Uyghurs began to conceptualize their position in the modern system of nation states. Not only did the state begin to control access to shrines and regulate the authority of those who care for them, new technologies and genres of communication began to fragment an indigenous reading of the past. Thum shows how in the 1930s and 1940s, around the time of the founding of the first East Turkistan Republic, Uyghur politicians used newspapers to circulate Soviet and Chinese inspired forms of nationalist Uyghur recognition.[2] Skipping ahead to the 1980s, he notes how sacred myths of Uyghur Islamic history were taken up again in historical novels that reflected the socialist realist ethos of what had then become part of the People’s Republic of China. The heroism of the “bringers of Islam” still circulates, but now it has been shaped by modernist politics and much of the participatory nature of communal story telling has been lost. Some shaykhs still know the stories, as Thum shows us through beautifully rendered ethnographic vignettes (21-22), but much of the richness of Uyghur connections to the land and the sacred past has been lost through the ongoing process of Chinese settler colonialism.

Thum is making a number of valuable contributions to the anthropology of Islam through this work. In the broadest sense he makes us consider the importance of internal migration and storytelling as a means of forming an Islamic society without the hegemonic force of formal Islamic institutions, prior to modernization and the presence of imperial powers. Reading this through the lens of Native American scholarship on decolonization, I see the social formation that Thum is describing as a form of indigenous sovereignty, or land-based claims to local authority. This sovereignty does not depend on recognition from a nation-state, the disciplining effect of dominant Islamic discourses, or the mass-circulation of print media. Sovereignty, or what Thum refers to as “identity,” can exist in other ways.

By presenting a model of decentering Islamic knowledge production, Thum is making an argument for the importance of analysis of Islamic societies that might previously been read as peripheral to centers of Islamic knowledge and power.

In order to draw out the work Thum is doing here it is helpful to see his work in contradistinction from other historical-anthropological investigations of the of Islamic societies, such as Brinkley Messick’s 1992 ethnography The Calligraphic State. In his study, Messick considers the relationship between writing and political-religious authority in Yemen from the late nineteenth century to the present. He argues that the use of texts, such as legal contracts and religious commentaries formed a discourse that sustained a complex social collectivity. Thum does something similar by focusing on the way manuscripts were deployed in shrine contexts, but unlike Messick he shows that in the Northwest China popular religious authority was not dependent on a formal education or legal systems. Instead people across a wide geographic space understood their history through the oral telling and textual amending of mythic stories of the past. By presenting a model of decentering Islamic knowledge production, Thum is making an argument for the importance of analysis of Islamic societies that might previously been read as peripheral to centers of Islamic knowledge and power. His reading of space, performance and the genealogy of religious authority thus has much to offer as a point of comparison to other deemphasized locations across the Islamic world.

Reading this through the lens of Native American scholarship on decolonization, I see the social formation that Thum is describing as a form of indigenous sovereignty, or land-based claims to local authority.

Methodologically, Thum is indebted to the genealogical approach of his advisor Engseng Ho. In The Graves of Tarim (2006), Ho narrates a decentered movement of a collectivity over hundreds of years around the Indian Ocean. He examines points of exchange that centered around writing and relatedness that allowed the Hadrami Yemeni descendants of Prophet Muhammad to find feelings of belonging in three distinct regions around the ocean and yet maintain cosmopolitan connections between these regional communities. As in Thum’s work, Ho draws out the tension between anthropology and history to uncover the way religion can bind people to place and across time and space. Thum builds on this approach by reading claims to space through points of encounter at shrines and in texts to argue that what has come to be understood as Uyghur identity was first built out of embodied encounters with the past. Thum’s multi-sited, multi-modal methodology thus shapes the way his theorization of social complexity emerges from the book.

From the perspective of an anthropology of the Uyghur present, Thum’s signal contribution is his forceful argument for the prior-ness of Uyghur sovereignty and religious authority. He is purposefully asking us not to think about the emergence of Uyghur identity in relation to Chinese, Russian or British imperial power or anti-colonial resistance. What Thum is presenting, is a genealogy of a Uyghur insistence on sacred space through a refusal to be reduced to a modernist ethnic identity. As scholars of decolonization such as Audra Simpson (2014) and Carol McGranahan (2016) have noted, “refusal is not another word for resistance.” Rather, unlike resistance to the state, it rejects external state and institutional structures in favor of the prior-ness of indigenous sociality. They, like Thum, argue that this insistence on a prior-ness to the state is social and affiliative in the way it calls a community into existence. There is a willfulness here. A politics of laying claim to the sociality that underlies human relationships.

Thum’s signal contribution is his forceful argument for the prior-ness of Uyghur sovereignty and religious authority. What Thum is presenting is a genealogy of a Uyghur insistence on sacred space, and through this, a refusal to be reduced to a modernist ethnic identity.

Given the sacred routes of their history, Uyghurs can thus see themselves as engaged with a prior system of knowledge, even as they inhabit the Chinese world of the colonizer. Since their history is not dependent on recognition from the state, an insistence on sacred historical spaces helps explain how limited forms of sovereignty persist despite efforts by the state to eliminate them. Understanding the role of shrines and oral traditions in shaping the Uyghur experience of the world gives us a sense of the stakes involved in preserving shrines both in form and function. Now as the Chinese state converts these sacred spaces into sites of consumption for Han tourists we see the sovereignty of the Uyghurs being challenged. Considering the deeply embedded nature of this older form of local Islam also demonstrates the importance for thinking carefully about what is at stake as large numbers of the Uyghur population begin to turn toward new Reformist or Salafi forms of Islam.

[1] In taking this approach Thum is following in the methodological trajectory of Ildikó Bellér-Hann’s Community matters in Xinjiang, 1880-1949: towards a historical anthropology of the Uyghur (Brill, 2008).

[2] For an excellent account of this transformation see David Brophy’s Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia-China Frontier (Harvard University Press, 2016).

Works Cited

Ho, Engseng. (2006). The graves of Tarim: genealogy and mobility across the Indian Ocean. Vol. 3. Univ of California Press.

McGranahan, Carole. (2016). “Theorizing Refusal: An Introduction.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 3: 319–325. http://dx.doi.org/10.14506/ca31.3.01

Messick, Brinkley. (1992). The calligraphic state: Textual domination and history in a Muslim society. Vol. 16. Univ of California Press.

Simpson, Audra. (2014). Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

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.