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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, where 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.

Ablajan and the Subtle Politics of Uyghur Pop

The pop star Ablajan hates it when people refer to him as the “Uyghur Justin Bieber.” When I interviewed him in 2015 he said: “People just have a certain image of who I am but actually I built my image out of my own style.” He said that it was just happenstance that he and Bieber share the same aesthetic: black leather jackets, chains, a perfectly quaffed high fade. Ablajan said “Actually I cut my hair short like this before Bieber. When I saw him doing it, I was surprised. We all joked that he was copying me. Actually I haven’t seen any of his work for over two years.”

To Ablajan’s thinking, it was an older icon that drew him (and perhaps Bieber) to the style of glamorous pop he tries to emulate in his work. That icon was Michael Jackson.

He still remembers the day in 1999 when he saw the Michael Jackson video “Thriller” for the first time. It was on a big screen TV in a restaurant in Turpan. He had no idea that the video was as old as he was: 17. To him it seemed completely fresh and immediate. It felt like something he had been waiting his whole life to see. He said: “I thought right away that ‘MJ’ was my soulmate. I really identified with everything about him.” That day he started to learn Michael Jackson’s choreographies. He began to volunteer to perform whenever he could so that he could show off his new dance moves. It is no accident that Ablajan refers to himself as “AJ.”

In this short essay, I analyze how Abaljan uses a particular style of music and dance to navigate the difficult terrain of Xinjiang politics. By examining the trajectory of his work and the lyrics in one of his most recent releases, I argue that Ablajan demonstrates a careful awareness of the desires of both his audience and his censors. In doing so, he is able to continue to inspire hope in his audience of young Uyghurs.

A promotional image from Ablajan Studios.

Ablajan is an interesting figure in the Uyghur pop scene. He talks in a soft voice. He gestures with his hands constantly. He walks with a practiced coolness. Everything about him breathes celebrity. He has his own studio. His own brand. His own entourage of cool urban kids. It really does feel as though he has spent decades studying and practicing Michael Jackson’s mannerisms. Walking down the streets of Ürümchi with him and his backup dancers, little kids and their parents broke into broad smiles. He played the role of the celebrity graciously. Kneeling down with small children to take selfies, he was the fun uncle they had always adored.

Ablajan said that when he first came to the city he was really “luohou” or “backward.” He said: “In Uyghur we would say ‘mening sapayim bek nachar’ (my quality was very bad). People would just ignore me in the city. It was like they didn’t see me. Now people are really nice to me. It is totally different. Now they all notice me. Some of them don’t like me. But they all see me. Now I have to consciously be very gracious toward them or else they will think I am ‘stuck up.’ People over the age of 15 don’t approach me, but the kids always mob me.”

Here too, Ablajan’s appeal follows the trajectory of Michael Jackson’s turn toward children’s music. He said: “I really don’t know why my music is so popular with kids. Parents tell me all the time that the first word their kids say is ‘Ablajan.’” Ablajan says that he likes to perform for kids because of the spontaneous joy they bring to the music. He said he has always loved “those little people” and that ever since his very first album he has wanted to use their sense of imagination and energy in his music.

Of course, like Michael Jackson, in more recent years Ablajan has also been accused of infantilizing his music, of being stuck in a perpetual childhood. He said: “Now some people are telling me that it is not natural for a man to sing children’s music.” He said that in more recent years adults have been accosting him, telling him he is too effeminate – that entertaining children should be the domain of women.

Some of them are even more confrontational, telling him that he is misleading their children. He said, “They tell me I am teaching their children lies.” And here is where the the Uyghurness of his context and his relationship with Michael Jackson’s music appear to confront an impasse. Ablajan is attempting to be a pop star in the midst of widespread Islamic religious revival among his target audience; he is singing songs about joy and secular education in the midst of the so-called People’s War on Terror. This call to good citizenship and belonging within the Chinese nation in the midst of widespread state violence and fear often sounds like collaboration to Uyghur listeners.

Indeed, following the release of his first Chinese language record in 2012, Ablajan, like many Uyghur pop performers, has found himself put in the service of anti-religious extremism concert tours. As Uyghur society turns towards forms of Islam that frowns on music, dance and interactions with the non-Muslim world, Abalajan’s music has started to sound like the music of the state to many Uyghur listeners.

Yet, of course, Abalajan’s music is not this. Of course he has to consider the view of the state when he performs, particularly following the notoriety he received following his profile in Time magazine, but he is deeply concerned with bringing Uyghur cultural thought and practice to the world stage. He imagines the people outside Uyghur society see Uyghurs as traditional and backward. He said: “Actually people are just like people everywhere else. We are all contemporary people. So I wanted people in Eastern China to see that Xinjiang is not backward. We might not all be rich, but still we are developing.”

But even more than this, he wants Uyghur kids to realize their full potential as Uyghurs that are living now, in the present. He wants to inspire Uyghur children to reach for the stars. He said: “I hope that people can understand the feeling I have in my heart. Other people here might think I am crazy, but I really feel like this is my gift.”

Images from Ablajan’s official WeChat Feed

Since the early 2000s Ablajan has written over 400 songs. Many of them are aimed at inspiring young Uyghurs to bring Uyghur values into the present. In many of his songs he focuses on the games and songs Uyghur kids used to play in the countryside and reinterprets them or gives them new meaning in the urban context. One of his most recent singles called “Dear Teacher” (above, with English subtitles) doubles down on this, by privileging Uyghur language instruction (in the Uyghur version of the song) as the first and primary subject of Uyghur education.

As one Uyghur listener to the Uyghur language version of the song told me, “I was struck by how he emphasized the importance of learning the Uyghur mother tongue, although he did not explicitly frame it that way. He presented it as a subject in school, but he devoted two stanzas to that whereas other subjects received only one. It also stands in stark contrast to the way he talked about learning Chinese which was simply mentioned as one of the other languages that students need to learn. Of course, we know that all other subjects are now taught in Chinese.”

By standing up to the state’s push to transform Uyghur education into Chinese-only curriculum by beginning the song with an emphasis on the “pearls” of Uyghur language literacy (45 second mark), Ablajan is taking a stand. Although it appears to be subtle, for Uyghur listeners to the song it stands out as a small sign of refusal.

If we read the song even more closely by reading through the Chinese lyric translation Ablajan has provided, the subtly of his messaging is made more explicit.  While the Uyghur version of the first two stanzas of the song emphasizes the importance of learning one’s mother tongue, the Chinese version of the lyrics highlights the characteristics of Chinese language and Han culture by emphasizing things like strokes, pronunciation, and the Great Wall.

Below is the English translation from the Uyghur of the first two stanzas. The parts in parentheses are translations of the equivalent Chinese lyrics.

The class is language and literature,
(This class is important)
Read the texts with passion.
For each new word you encounter,
(Take a good look at the strokes of a character and pay attention to pronunciation)
I will provide the explanation.
(I will explain them now)

Learn the rules of your language,
(The text will bring us,)
Fluently read the books.
(to the nation’s glorious journey)
May your handwriting be very beautiful,
(To the Great Wall that awes the world)
May your words look like pearls.
(and to the Four Great Inventions [compass, gunpowder, papermaking, printing])

Clearly Ablajan does not need to talk about the importance of correct pronunciation of the Uyghur language to Uyghur kids who speak Uyghur as their native language. Instead, in the Chinese lyrics, Ablajan is emphasizing the assimilationist policies that now dominate Uyghur education. In doing so, he  is demonstrating a remarkable deftness in bilingualism. He is telling his potential Uyghur audience and potential state censors what they expect him to say. Thinking in terms of W.E.B Du Bois what we see here is the art of double consciousness – of being forced to perform multiple forms of self-expression for multiple audiences.

Yet, perhaps more significantly, Ablajan is also standing against the resurgence of religious education, or the refusal of Uyghur parents to send their children to Chinese language medium schools. He does this by not mentioning Islam at all even as it has come to dominate everyday life in Northwest China. The closest he comes to referencing Islamic values is when he admonishes Uyghur children to respect their elders – who he portrays as a white bearded (aq saqal) old man (2:20).

The most explicit reference in the song is still Michael Jackson (2:03). There in an homage to Jackson’s dance style he asks Uyghur children to dance with passion like the great pop icon. He is telling the current generation that the way to get through this period of Xinjiang’s history is to throw yourself at life. He is asking Uyghur children to hold onto their values, but to live for a future life in which Uyghurs are recognized on their own terms as self-determined members of the world.

This is how Ablajan sees himself. He said: “I don’t see myself as an ethnic singer. I am just a singer. Of course, I am proud of being a Uyghur. And I carry that in my heart all the time. But I don’t see myself as only restricted to ethnic music. I dream of sharing the stage with world famous singers everywhere.”

Yet despite his disavowal of ethnicity as primary guide in his music, it is nevertheless impossible not see that he is entangled in a complicated political moment. And it is hard to take him at his word when he says things like, “Actually I am just a singer not a politician. I only know about music.”




An Introduction to The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia

Graffiti in the rubble of the Uyghur migrant neighborhood of Heijia Shan, or Black Shell Mountain, after it became the site of urban cleansing in 2014.

I first came to Xinjiang in 2001. At the time I was in the second year of an undergraduate program in photojournalism in my home state of Ohio. As part of my training I had the opportunity to travel throughout China, from Shenyang to Lhasa. It gave me a chance to try to understand the breadth and diversity of the space and get a feel for a profession and a country that would have a large impact on my life. Eventually I ended up in Kashgar. I had never seen anything like it: vibrant street life, warm and embracing friendships, a vibrant folk music scene, desert landscapes and Sufi shrines. The history of the place felt alive and vivid, but also fragile.

It was also the only place in China where Han taxi drivers, shop keepers and hotel clerks assumed I, a white German-American, was a local Uyghur. That misrecognition, like the built environment, was also instructive. It taught me something about privilege and passing; and what the racial politics of Xinjiang might feel like for someone being dispossessed of their homeland. It was the first time in my life that a stranger shooed me away as if I was a stray dog simply because of the color of my skin and the shape of my nose.

After I returned to the States and began studying the history of China and Central Asia in earnest, I came to understand that although this region had long been associated, to varying degrees, with China, Pakistan and Central Asia, the proportion of Han settlers did not reach more than ten percent of Xinjiang’s population until the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Since then, the number of Han migrants and settlers in the region has grown to nearly 10 million, producing a feeling of “occupation” among some native Uyghur and Kazakh inhabitants; at the same time, these settlers from Henan, Anhui, Sichuan, Gansu and elsewhere now also call this province home and feel as though they are playing a vital role in strengthening the nation.

Over the past two decades Xinjiang has become one of the primary destinations of internal Han migration

Over the past two decades Xinjiang has become one of the primary destinations of internal Han migration.

During years of language training in Chinese and Uyghur and fieldwork in Xinjiang, it became clear to me that over the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been displaced by the state-facilitated development of industrial farming, coal and oil extraction, and urban construction. As wealth accrues in the hands of a small number of Uyghur officials and an emerging class of Han settlers, tens of thousands of young Uyghurs are leaving their villages for a new life in urban centers. In new oil cities, such as Ürümchi, many of them struggle to find low-waged jobs in the food, service and retail industries, while at the same time dodging widespread harassment from urban police and urban cleansing projects put in motion after the violence of July 5, 2009. Kazakhs too are coming to the city in increasing numbers, as the state attempts to control their ability to earn a livelihood as herders in the north. In addition, Han migrants are arriving and taking up lucrative housing development and infrastructure jobs that are denied to Uyghur and Kazakh workers. The long-term research project I developed out of my growing interest in Northwest China addressed this contentious environment by considering how Uyghur, Kazakh and Han urbanites strive to narrate their futures and maintain a sense of stability when confronted with conflict.


Neither dominant Western media discourses of political violence nor official Chinese descriptions of “harmonious” modern development adequately address the lived experience and cultural life of people in Xinjiang. By highlighting Uyghur, Kazakh and Han cultural practices and objects, this column will strive to demonstrate the skillful ways in which marginalized people work out meaning in their lives.

Throughout the years I spent in Xinjiang and my ongoing visits to the region, two themes have emerged as critical in amplifying the voices of native Uyghur and Kazakh artists and Han migrant voices and visions.

First, there exists a politics of representation that consistently works against the community’s efforts to be heard and understood. On the one hand, artistic visions are often co-opted by the state and used to promote a patriotic Chinese agenda that simultaneously ignores the precariousness of marginalized people and makes them the target of blame when violence occurs. On the other hand, creative voices are overwhelmed by a focus on human rights abuses and narratives of victimization and terrorism in accounts from non-Chinese media.

Behind the scenes during the production of a Uyghur film in Ürümchi, 2015

Second, my partners in Xinjiang have identified the need to situate the contemporary arts scene in the context of history, culture and place. In order to shift the discourse away from the “peaceful development” of ethnic solidarity (from Chinese state media) and oppressive violence (from non-Chinese media) toward the work of living and making meaning in the midst of social precariousness, it is necessary to amplify autonomous narratives that arise from the work of Uyghur and Han artists.

This site explores novel ways of presenting social precariousness, practices of cultural expression and forms of ethics that emerge in the midst of political crises. It will do so through the lens of Han, Kazakh and Uyghur migrant responses to urban development in the city of Ürümchi in Northwest China.

An edited version of this piece first appeared as an introduction to a new column at Radii. This column syndicates the content that appears here at every two weeks.

Salvage Freedom

This book response first appeared as part of the series Bateson Book Forum: The Mushroom at the End of the World for the journal Cultural Anthropology.

It is hard to know what to start thinking with in a book as rich with ideas as Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World. What struck me the most though, was a middle section on “Freedom . . .” Here and in the pages that surround it, Tsing writes that the way Southeast Asian refugee immigrants and white Vietnam War vets pick mushrooms in Oregon might be conceptualized as a practice of salvage accumulation. Tsing argues that such a practice produces sites of life that are “simultaneously inside and outside of capitalism” (Tsing 2015, 63). In these pericapitalist worlds, people produce irregular forms of freedom. Importantly, she notes, this is not the liberal freedom of rational individual choice; rather, it is a form of freedom haunted by forms of power “held in abeyance” (Tsing 2015, 76). When mushroom pickers in Oregon speak of freedom, they are speaking of freedom from the drudgery of wage labor, apartment life, property restrictions, and the violence of urban policing. The freedom of salvage accumulation thus becomes “both a way to move on and a way to remember” (Tsing 2015, 79). The freedom of the picker is the freedom to search where and when the picker wants; it is freedom from ownership and freedom from surveillance.

An image of the jade fields near Hotan, from Carolyn Drake’s art project Wild Pigeon. The image is inscribed and illustrated by a Han jade cutter: “Jade is a person’s best friend, that is how it has been up until now. And jade is life. If you hold jade in your hand, lightly, gently, touch it and stoke it, again and again. It is just like the soothing sensation you get from smooth skin or a soft heart. You will find that jade is alive. It has a body temperature, heartbeat, it contains nutrient-rich water. Jade can understand your heart and mind. The jade that you have held in your hands will retain a part of your soul, aren’t I right?” Image courtesy of Carolyn Drake.

In a corner of China, several thousand kilometers from the Yunnan forests Tsing writes about in the second half of her book, I have lived with another group of pickers. They are Uyghurs who scavenge the dry river valleys near Yaken and Hotan on the border with Afghanistan for jade. Armed with hoes, these young Muslim men sort through rocks for months, avoiding the thousands of Han settlers and state-owned corporations that have come in the Jade Rush that has overtaken their homeland. After filling a fanny pack with stones they go to the city, dodging the many police checkpoints that stand between them and the regional capital Ürümchi. If they are seen by the police, they will be sent back or arrested. They will be caught up in the so-called People’s War on Terror, which targets young Uyghur men and thrives on indefinite detention and labor camps. Yet if these young men do manage to arrive in the city, they too, like the mushroom pickers, speak of a kind of freedom.

One of these jade pickers, a friend I call Hasen, said: “In Ürümchi everything seems free. You can do business freely, you can pray freely, you can communicate freely, you can live freely. In Yaken, none of this is possible. There, when you walk into the bazaar in town, the police always stop you and ask for your ID. Everyone is always monitoring what you do; it is hard to make any money because no one has any money or any opportunity to make any money.” His voice grew soft, and pulling his hands up to his face, he added, “They try to control you.” I asked if he felt scared to go back to Yaken. He said:

Actually, I have to go back next week because I am being forced to go. The Yaken police have been calling me every day telling me that I must come back. They say that if I stay here, they will alert the Ürümchi police and have me arrested. I don’t have any choice. Lots of my friends have gone back to Yaken because the police told them to come, and now they don’t exist. I don’t know where they are. No one knows. They have disappeared.

Hasen buried his head in his hands. His eyes filled with tears, but he didn’t cry. He continued quietly:

There is no freedom in this world. For Uyghurs, life is very difficult and we have no freedom. I don’t even know what I am accused of, but I must accept their judgment. I have no choice. Where there is no freedom there is tension (jiddiy weziyet); where there is tension there are incidents; where there are incidents there are police; where there are police there is no freedom.

* * *

What is the freedom Hasen is describing here? How is it related to the various types of freedom that Tsing describes among the mushroom pickers in Open Ticket, Oregon?

In other conversations, Hasen told me that he dreamed of traveling abroad, of seeing the world, but he knew that none of these things would happen. He has said that his smartphone offered him the freedom to know, to move and live as he felt he should as a Muslim. The WeChat app on his phone allowed him to teach Islam to others, which he felt was something that gave his life meaning.

Unlike the mushroom pickers, Hasen’s freedom was not haunted by wage labor, for he had never had a job of that sort. For him, freedom was haunted by poverty and state violence. He was escaping the control of the police and finding an Islamic identity through the freedom that came from picking jade, peddling the stones to Han jewelers in the city and buying access to the Internet. As in Tsing’s case, Hasen’s was a kind of pericapitalist freedom, a means of escape and of remembering the dignity of autonomy. Hasen said that he had no long-term economic plan. He was trying to survive and maintain his Muslim identity. This was his only plan.

Tsing (2015, 126) argues that what held the pickers together in Open Ticket, Oregon was “a spirit they called freedom.” Freedom from control was exchanged with advocates of market freedom. Freedom, in fact, was the value that was added through the exchange of mushrooms.  Money and mushrooms were “parts of the freedom that pickers, buyers, and field agents treasure” (Tsing 2015, 127).

Thinking about this reminds me of another site of salvage: trash pickers in the garbage dumps in Rio de Janeiro. Writing about these spaces, Kathleen Millar (2014, 35) argues that those who work in these spaces do so as a means of achieving a type of “relational autonomy.” This, like Tsing’s illiberal freedom, is not autonomy in the mode of individualist self-actualization. Rather, it is an autonomy premised on shared social belonging and interdependence. People work in these spaces sorting trash when they need to; they share resources when they do not. The freedom of this flexibility produces a politics that does not depend on a better tomorrow. Precarity is thus lived not solely as a condition of anxiety, but as a shared making-do. Perhaps it is not too bold to suggest that salvage freedom, as demonstrated by Uyghur jade pickers, Brazilian trash pickers, and Oregonian mushroom pickers, produces adaptive forms of relational autonomy.

* * *

Are the freedoms we are talking about in these instances of informal labor, of picking through capitalist ruins, responses to shared or, at least, rhyming feelings of social precarity? Yes, I think so. But there is also a differential distribution of pain and belonging. The variegated effects of race, class, colonialism and citizenship are not erased by salvage freedom. Uyghur jade pickers who want to escape poverty and to belong to a global Muslim community despite a terrifying People’s War on Terror are not identical to Brazilian trash pickers who are detached from a better future. Moreover, the horizon of freedom for these two groups is not the same as that of white American Vietnam War vets or Southeast Asian refugee immigrants in Oregon. Yet, just as Tsing notes about the diversity of freedoms that coalesce in Open Ticket, I suggest that there is a shared spirit of pericapitalist freedom at work in each of these cases. Although they are attached to different political formations and felt with different levels of intensity, these freedoms rhyme with each other. In each case, we are seeing people finding ways to survive.

As much as capitalism produces a singular grind of accumulation through dispossession, it is, as Tsing shows us, also a complex assemblage. In the rubble of that assemblage, salvage life continues to overflow and find its freedom, at least for a time. Some of this overflow thrives like mushrooms and some of it spreads like grass. As Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet (1997, 30) remind us in their reading of Henry Miller: “Grass only exists between the great non-cultivated spaces. It fills in the voids. It grows between—among the other things. The flower is beautiful, the cabbage is useful, the poppy makes you crazy. But grass is overflowing, it is a lesson in morality.”


Deleuze, Gilles, and Claire Parnet. 1987. Dialogues. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Columbia University Press.

Millar, Kathleen. 2014. “The Precarious Present: Wageless Labor and Disrupted Life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 1: 32–53.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.