Latest Posts

Images in Red: Han Culture, Uyghur Performers, Chinese New Year

While many people were watching and discussing the racial politics behind the use of black-face in a Chinese portrayal of African women during this year’s Chinese New Year gala, across Chinese Central Asia Uyghur women and children were performing another kind of ethno-racial erasure. Unlike in years past, this year Uyghurs were asked to perform their Han affinity by participating in Han cultural events. Although “Chinese New Year” is not an exclusively Han tradition, it is seen as un-Islamic and experienced as exclusively Han by most Uyghurs. In the past Uyghurs have nearly universally abstained from writing couplets and pasting them over the frames of their doors, lighting fireworks, making dumplings, and forcing their children to dress in Han traditional clothing and perform Han cultural myths.  As seen in the state media clip above and the images below, this year was different.

For Uyghurs in the diaspora outside of China these images are images of hopelessness and decimation. They are images of Chinese state terror masquerading simply as Han paternalism. They are red images of horror.

This year, according to reports that have filtered out of the region, fines were put in place for those that did not perform their fealty to the state by dressing in red and pasting couplets over the door to their house. Many Uyghurs were also asked to attend dumpling-making celebrations with their Han “older brothers” and “older sisters.” Since asking whether or not the dumplings were stuffed with pork would have been a sign of a lack of love for Han culture, many allegedly were forced to eat dumplings without asking if the meat that was used was pork. Many of those that participated in these events said that they were crying on the inside while smiling on the outside.

This year not participating in the Spring Festival was framed as resisting the love of the Chinese state. If a Uyghur refused to participate it was a sign that they were not yet broken and that they should be sent to fortified reeducation camps along with hundreds of thousands of other Uyghurs. Participating in the Year of the Dog celebrations were seen as a way of declaring that one’s primary allegiance was to the Chinese state and how much one wished to eliminate their Uyghur identity. It was a way of acknowledging that what the Chinese state had done to hundreds of thousands of fathers, brothers and sons over the past four years was justified. It was a way of demonstrating how well the state was doing in destroying the inner Uyghur “terrorist, extremist and separatist” while saving the patriotic Chinese citizen. Celebrating the Spring Festival with Han settlers and surveillance teams is particularly disturbing for Uyghurs because since the “People’s War on Terror” began in 2014 Uyghur traditional festivals that center around the Islamic calendar have been largely outlawed. It is now impossible to observe the fast during Ramadan and celebrate Rosa Heyt (or as it is referred to in Arabic: Eid al-Fitr). Likewise Qurban Heyt (Eid al-Adha) is also highly restricted. Instead the Chinese state is telling Uyghurs they must celebrate Han holidays.

A still image from one of many Uyghur Chinese New Year Celebration videos of Uyghur children celebrating Han rituals and Chinese patriotism.

For Uyghurs in the diaspora outside of China these images are images of hopelessness and decimation. They are images that hail a future in which Uyghur forms of knowledge and power are eliminated. Uyghur society itself appears to be under threat.  They are images of the current of fear that has been triggered by the reeducation camp and the hard-labor prison system. They are images of Chinese state terror masquerading simply as Han paternalism. They are red images of horror.

 

These images are ubiquitous. All Uyghurs outside of China have seen them: strange banners and couplets pasted to the doorways of their natal homes in the Uyghur homeland. Portraits of family members and Uyghur cultural figures dressed in red or carrying the Chinese flag declaring their love for Han cultural traditions and the beneficence of the state.

The Uyghur popstar Tursun Sheykh demonstrating his fealty to the state.

The Uyghur popstar Möminjan at the Uyghur version of the Chinese Spring Festival Gala.

The images also show the way Uyghur villagers have been gathered in cultural centers across the Uyghur homeland to watch the Spring Festival gala and demonstrate their love for the nation.

The images show how Uyghurs gathered with their Han “older brothers and sisters” to make dumplings.

The sheer number of the images documenting the celebrations are remarkable. Many of the activities appear to be staged for the camera and for Internet circulation. In all cases the images demonstrate that the women and children who have not been taken to the reeducation camps are loyal to the Chinese state. They also demonstrate the warm-hearted paternalism of Han state workers. It is as though the state workers feel as though they are leading by example. If they simply demonstrate how wonderful Han traditions are, Uyghurs will be able to imagine themselves as becoming Han.

At the same time that these images and videos of forced celebration among those who are not yet in the prison system began to circulate, videos and stories of the forced patriotism of Uyghur detainees was also widely circulated among Uyghurs in the diaspora.

As the Uyghur linguist and educator Abduwali Ayup, who was detained for over a year in 2013, explained in a Facebook post: “This is what a Chinese (detention) center looks like. They are Uyghur detainees, they are singing ‘There is no new life without Chinese Communist Party.’ They are singing for (their) meal. This room is an ordinary cell for ordinary detainees. It is about 27 square meters, but there are at least thirty detainees. I had experienced this life for 15 months in Ürümchi, from August 20th 2013 to November 20th 2014. The police (officer) is standing with gun on that bright side monitoring the detainees. The detainees stay here 24 hours, the toilet is inside just opposite side of the door, everyone can see when you are using the toilet. It is too sad to see this again and remember those days . . . .”

This video is a reminder that most of what we can see are just the secondary effects of the real horror that is taking place in the Uyghur homeland. Performances like these call into existence a new subject population. It also pulls into view the violent paternalism of the contemporary Chinese state.

Love and Fear among Rural Uyghur Youth during the “People’s War”

This is the second of a two-part series that first appeared in Youth Circulations . The series, written by Darren Byler, with photographers Nicola Zolin and Eleanor Moseman, documents how  young  Uyghurs mourn those who have been detained or disappeared and fear that they will lose still more of their loved ones.  

Since the beginning of the “People’s War on Terror” in May 2014, the everyday life of Uyghurs has been transformed by the presence of intense security measures, regular home invasions, and the mass detention of thousands of young Uyghurs suspected of so-called religious extremism. Although many young Uyghurs are simply interested in practicing a form of pious religiosity, or what in other contexts might be referred to as a Hanafi form of Sunni Islam, the state has determined that this is a threat to the sovereignty of the Chinese nation. In order to exert its authority, the state has required that Uyghur Muslims practice their faith only as permitted by social workers and police monitors. As education policies and religious regulations demonstrate, the state would prefer that Uyghurs embrace Han cultural values and forget about their centuries-old practice of Islamic piety altogether.

This series represents the way love and fear are woven through the everyday lives of two young people, who we call Gulnar and Memetjan, and the community that surrounds them.

In order to enforce this human re-engineering project, the Uyghur homeland has been turned into a police state. Most Uyghur rural-to-urban migrants have been forced to return to their home villages, and the state has instituted strict security regulations across the Uyghur homeland in Chinese Central Asia (Ch: Xinjiang). In their hometowns, public life has been filled with imagery reminding rural Uyghurs that their way of life is being transformed. The streets are filled with Chinese flags that each home and business owner is asked to raise to demonstrate their loyalty to the Chinese state and their hatred of “bad” forms of Islam and political ideology. Checkpoints stand at the entrance of every county border, the entrance of every town, every market, every housing development. Those without the proper legal documentation are not permitted to cross these checkpoints. This means that Uyghurs who live in one part of town are sometimes not permitted to travel to the other side of town to visit relatives or buy groceries. Han settlers and tourists, on the other hand, are permitted to move through checkpoints without any restrictions.

Below, a series of recent images taken in late-summer 2017 by the photojournalist Eleanor Moseman demonstrate the effects of the security state on family life in rural areas of the Uyghur homeland. This series represents the way love and fear are woven through the everyday lives of two young people, who we call Gulnar and Memetjan, and the community that surrounds them. Many Uyghur farming families, from Turpan to Khotan, have lost a husband, son, or father to the Chinese prison system. Thus, the responsibilities of providing for families now primarily falls on women (and the men who have managed to not yet be noticed). Young people who have not yet been taken by the state mourn those who have been detained or disappeared, and they fear that they will lose still more of their loved ones.  The effects of the police state reach deep into the most intimate parts of their lives. The ongoing “war” on their way of life makes coping with the stress of trauma an unending struggle.

The great leaders of the People’s Republic of China (from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping) look over all those that walk through a local bazaar in Southern Xinjiang.

In every town in Southern Xinjiang, the red flag of China, bright red banners, and posters of Communist Party Leaders have come to dominate the aesthetic of the Uyghur public sphere. To enter a small-town bazaar, a Uyghur must show his or her state-issued ID and have all bags x-rayed by armed police dressed in riot gear. The new police presence is now a part of every facet of public life.

A woman who owns a woman’s clothing shop in a rural bazaar sits listening to the messages of a WeChat group.

At the same time that this hard infrastructure of control and surveillance is being put in place, Uyghur interpersonal communication is also increasingly being filtered through the smartphone application WeChat, which provides authorities with records of what Uyghurs say to each other and post in private chat conversations. Thousands of young Uyghurs have been arrested for things they have said or written on the Internet or because they are not actively using their phones to communicate with other Uyghurs. Many of them are accused of being “two-faced” (Ch: liang mianzi) people who perform their patriotic duty during political struggle sessions, but then privately complain about government policies with their friends. Since March of 2017, thousands of young Uyghurs between the age of 15-55 have been detained and placed in reeducation camps. Many of these young Uyghurs, particularly young men, are subsequently given 5 to 10 year prison sentences for “subverting the public order” or being “two faced.” They are told that because they are suspected of listening to unapproved Islamic teachings on pious practice or advocating that Muslims should pray five times per day, they are “extremists” and must be reformed through hard labor.

A Uyghur child sells sunflower seeds on the back streets of Ürümchi. Behind her propaganda posters from the Ürümchi Ministry of Culture describe the ideals of the political regime: civilization, harmony, prosperity, justice, rule of law, freedom, honesty, friendship, patriotism.

During our fieldwork and visits between 2014 and 2017, many Uyghurs told us that they worry that the growing number of abandoned or neglected children will have a devastating effect on Uyghur society. After one of the parents of a child are taken by the police, government workers often come to the family and take the children of the family. This removal of children from the home is referred to as a “Rectification of Islam” policy that is justified by the existence of “extremist” ideology in the home. The child is thus separated from his or her family and raised as a ward of the state. In other cases, after a father is taken, children are immediately sent to live with relatives in order to keep them “safe” from the state. Often, conditions of poverty force the children to work in the cash economy in order to earn their keep as an extra mouth. Reports indicate that the state orphanage system is overrun with children who have been taken from their parents. Many Uyghurs talk about how these children are being housed like animals.  The deepest fear of many of the Uyghur men and women we spoke with was that their children will be taken or left behind in the streets without family.

On June 24, 2017, the day Ramadan ended, locals lined up to enter a local theme park in order to celebrate Eid in a small town in Southern Xinjiang.

Time has slowed during the “People’s War.” In order to move across town or enter a local institution, ranging from gas stations to hospitals, Uyghurs must wait. On busy days, these security checks can add an hour to one’s commute or excursion to the park. Crossing a checkpoint requires that one’s ID be scanned, all bags be inspected, and that the person walk through an X-ray machine. Any sign of abnormality results in additional checks of the person’s phone, interrogations, and possible detention. These checkpoints remind people native to the region that they are always under suspicion of “extremist” beliefs and “terrorist” ideas. Often signs and slogans remind them that all of this is for their protection and well-being.

 

The mother of small countryside family walks among the fields where the family collects hay for their small farm of cattle and sheep.

The effects of the “People’s War” has been strongly felt in family life. In many small towns in the Uyghur homeland, one out of every two families is now missing a family member, most of whom are young men. Many of the young men that remain are students or police officers, though increasingly even these affiliations do not provide enough protection.

A seamstress uses the available space under a stairwell at a local bazaar. The client can wait to have the alterations or write down their phone number among those of other clients so she can call when it is complete.

 Some women have been able to escape the poverty of subsistence farming by supplementing their income with skilled labor in the cash economy. Over the duration of “the War,” incomes of Uyghurs have dropped as restrictions of work and travel have intensified and people are detained. At the same time, the need to participate in dance festivals and political celebrations have increased, giving life to some industries while stifling others.

 

Gulnar (back to viewer) talks with older women working on her family’s farm, as they stack hay that is used for their small cattle and sheep farm.

Like many young Uyghurs, Gulnar comes from a family of three siblings. In the past, rural ethnic minorities were permitted to have more than one child, so most Uyghur families had three. This policy has recently been changed to restrict Uyghur family size to two permitted children while Han families are now also permitted to have two children. Most Uyghur families in the countryside can only afford to allow one sibling to finish high school and go to college. Other siblings must remain at home, working to provide for the immediate family. Now with so many men gone, those who have not yet been taken behind “the black gate” (qara derwaza) have been forced to work even harder to simply get by, leaving school aspirations behind.

Gulnar begins to braid her friend’s hair to soothe her crying during a very quiet private conversation in an unfinished room of the family’s house.

These days, as families live with the anxiety that accompanies the detention of their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers, there are many tear-filled conversations among women. Often they find solidarity in working together and sharing each other’s pain.

Gulnar sleeps under the blanket that was made for her by a local boy who has been detained for over 6 months because of questionable material on his cellphone.

Even though the women who remain free try to comfort each other, they know there is nothing they can do for their loved ones who have been taken. Life goes on, even though people feel as though they are living in a state of emergency. In Gulnar’s case, this means she has to cope with the absence of her boyfriend. Gulnar’s mother has attempted to convince her not to love this young man, not because of his supposed “extremism,” but because he comes from a family that is even poorer than theirs. But the young man was Gulnar’s best friend. She feels that she can stay close to him by holding on to the blanket he made just for her.

A four-year old Uyghur kisses the image of her father from a DVD of family photographs taken during the previous decade.

This young child, a relative of Gulnar’s, has not seen her father for nearly 6 months. He was detained for worshipping at a local mosque. The family has no idea when, or if ever, he will be released. In many cases, the families of the detained or disappeared are not able to visit or contact their loved ones. Often, asking too much about the case can result in additional detentions, since questioning the authorities is seen as a sign of a lack of patriotism and a lack of submission.

A young Uyghur girl plays a game on her parent’s phone in order to pass the time in the countryside of Xinjiang.

Many Uyghur children are growing up with the absence of one or more parents or close relatives. If they are able to stay with their families, they are considered “lucky.” All students in the Uyghur homeland now attend schools that are taught in Mandarin. They are regularly asked to report on the activities of their parents by their school teachers. Many parents worry that the next generation of Uyghurs will not be able to speak Uyghur or appreciate Uyghur cultural and religious values. At the same time, the violence these children have experienced has made them deeply aware of the power of the state. Many of them, like their parents, are quite fearful.

Memetjan (a pseudonym) writes in his friends’ names on his wedding invitation. There will be two celebrations hosted by his family: His parents choose the guests for the more formal family celebration, and he chooses the guests for the more informal celebration of dinner, dancing, and singing.

Many young Uyghurs prefer to delay marriage and go to the city as students or as migrant workers. But given the restrictions on travel and the need for more young men to work on farms, many potential students and migrants are forced to redirect their life paths. In Memetjan’s case (pictured above), his parents insisted that he work on the family farm and marry a young woman from their local village. He was forced to break up with his long-term girlfriend, who moved away to pursue opportunities beyond the life of a farmer.

A mother and daughter dance together at Memetjan’s wedding celebration. Generally, men and women do not dance a waltz style dance unless they are related to each other, but now there is also simply an absence of men at many of these events.

During the “People’s War,” the state began to monitor Uyghur weddings to make sure they were not too Islamic. Memetjan’s wedding was thus a lavish affair rather than a “simple” ceremony endorsed by more pious Islamic believers. Music and dancing is required by officials who attend and monitor weddings for any signs of “extremist” religiosity. Often, musicians are required to attend multiple weddings each weekend during the summer wedding season to make sure that each wedding meets the standard of the “People’s War.” As young people start their families, the stress of caring for loved ones and providing for one’s family is amplified. Young men like Memetjan must be very careful not to present themselves as suspicious in any way during the regular inspections of their new home by local security forces. They must always participate in the mandatory political education meetings and patriotic dance parties that are held by the local officials. Failure to do so means the loss of all that the two families have sacrificed to bring a young couple together.

In a newly finished house the family built for this occasion, Memetjan shares a bowl of noodles and mutton with his new wife the morning after the final wedding celebration in the countryside of Xinjiang.

Marriages between young Uyghurs in their early twenties are arranged by the two families. Once the terms have been reached between the two families, young couples are permitted to spend several weeks getting to know each other. Marriage is seen as gradual process of building alliances between families. If the marriage is successful, the two families will help each other through economic adversity and political trouble.

After days of celebrations, a Memetjan’s bride is presented with gold jewelry in her husband’s home.

Because of “the War,” young people are married in particular ways and times in their lives that are at least in part beyond their choosing. These marriages are also part of Uyghur tradition and a way of reproducing Uyghur sociality in spite of the conditions of the police state.

Still wearing the dress she wore for the wedding that had happened earlier in the day, a woman fills the cattle trough of the family farm.

Despite dominant feelings of fear and loss, Uyghurs still find way to live. Like people everywhere, Uyghurs are resilient. Over the past decades of gradually intensifying cultural dispossession and state domination, they have adapted and found ways to live. For now, those who are free still have their language, their songs, and each other. In their shared precariousness, they find love and comfort even as they lose their rights and their autonomy.

Eleanor Moseman is a Shanghai-based photographer and storyteller. Her work has been published internationally in PBS Newshour and The Atlantic, and has been featured on Nikon’s Learn & Explore website. For more on her work, visit her portfolio.

Uyghur Migrant Life in the City During the “People’s War”

This is the first of a two-part series that first appeared in Youth Circulations . The series, written by Darren Byler, with photographers Nicola Zolin and Eleanor Moseman, documents how the bodies of migrants are marked, just as their communities are erased, in the often unconsidered spaces of China’s “People’s War on Terror.”

In May 2014 the Chinese state declared a “People’s War on Terror.” This war was directed at what was perceived to be the Islamic “extremism” of young Uyghur men and women. Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim minority group that is indigenous to Chinese Central Asia, or what in colonial terms is referred to as “the New Dominion” (Xinjiang). This vast area of the nation, whose borders stretch from Tibet to Afghanistan to Mongolia, is the source of nearly 20 percent of China’s oil and natural gas. It is also a central node on China’s New Silk Road initiative, which seeks to expand China’s influence throughout Western Asia. Increasingly the eleven million Uyghurs who call the southern part of this region their homeland are seen as an obstacle in China’s vision of the future.

The new “People’s War” was a response to forms of Uyghur resistance to the Chinese state. Some of these acts of resistance were violent attacks on police and Han settlers, but the vast majority were simply protests over land-seizures, discrimination, arrests without due-process and police shootings. Before the “war” began, one of the primary ways that young Uyghurs resisted the increasing control of the state was by moving. Hundreds of thousands left their rural villages where policing is very intense and job opportunities are rare. They came to the capital city of the region, Ürümchi, in search of urban freedom and the promise of a better life.

When the new “war” was introduced the freedom that the city seemed to promise began to disappear. Below are a series of images taken by the photojournalist Nicola Zolin when he visited me during my long-term fieldwork on migrant life in the city from 2014 to 2015. These images demonstrate that the “war” was manifested in multiple ways. It produced a sharp rise in securitization and, in turn, it began to mark the bodies of Uyghur migrants. It accelerated the erasure of Uyghur communities across the city and increased the precariousness of the Uyghur economic stability. At the same time, it allowed Han economic investment in the city to continue, further solidifying the region as a center of the Chinese political economy.

Cameras are ubiquitouos all around Urumqi and especially in the Uyghur inhabited district of Erdiaqiao

Even before the “war” was implemented, hundreds of thousands of short-circuit cameras were installed throughout the Uyghur sections of the city. Dozens of police officers manned control centers where they began to observe the movements of young, rural-origin Uyghurs. They became a major source of information for the state as it began to implement the policies of the “war.”

Military controls the train station of Urumqi, where in April 2014 new incidents took place

The military police were also deployed in key transportation sites, assuring the Han settler population that business would be allowed to continue as normal and increasing levels of fear among the Uyghur population of the city. 


Signs posted throughout Uyghur sections of the city.

In September 2015 posters appeared throughout the Uyghur section of the city legislating the type of clothing and personal appearance that was permitted by the state. All signs of reformist religious practices were outlawed. The posters also described the sorts of rewards that were given to Uyghurs who assisted the police in arresting religious “extremists.”


The rubble of Uyghur migrant housing surrounds a neighborhood mosque.

The new “war” also accelerated urban cleansing projects that targeted Uyghur informal settlements throughout the Uyghur sections of the city. As a result of these projects and a new racialized passbook system (bianminka), hundreds of thousands of Uyghur migrants without legal support were forced to leave the city and return to their rural villages. When they returned to the countryside many of them were arrested under the suspicion that they had.

An older Uyghur man and young children.

As a result of these processes, fewer and fewer young Uyghurs from the countryside remained on the streets. In their place, grandparents and children populated the streets. Only Uyghurs who had legal support were able to continue to live without fear of expulsion and arrest in the city.

Uyghur men gather to pray on a Friday in 2014.

Over time, popular religious practice of pious forms of Islam were outlawed and replaced with calls to patriotism, celebrations of the Chinese flag and adulation of the current Chinese president Xi Jinping. As of the summer of 2017, the central Uyghur mosque pictured above began to feature a prominent Chinese flag.

Uyghur young men cross the street in front of limousine that is used in marriage celebrations and other social events.

As a result of the “People’s War on Terror,” many young Uyghurs with rural backgrounds came to experience urban life as a kind of life on the run. They were forced to constantly dodge police checkpoints where their IDs and passbooks were examined and their phones searched for all types of religious messages. At the same time, the capitalist development of the province continued unchecked. Although, many Han inhabitants of the city also complained about the presence of the police, many Han citizens continued to find high-paying, stable jobs with the support of the Chinese state. Han citizens were inconvenienced by the rise in policing, but Uyghur migrants bore the brunt of new restrictions and institutionalized discrimination.

Uyghur and Han shoppers at the local Carrefour supermarket.

Uyghur migrants were increasingly forced to participate in the Chinese commercial economy as opportunities for Uyghurs to buy and sell locally-produced halal products were increasingly restricted by the state. The dramatic inflation of basic staples that has resulted from the arrival of Han settlers that are supported by direct investment from the state and the revenue generated by oil and natural gas production, meant that many underemployed Uyghurs began to struggle to put bread on the table and pay for the cost of housing.

An older Uyghur woman warms her hands over a coal fire.

Many rural origin Uyghurs attempted to get by within the cash economy by selling products on the streets without vender permits. They learned to be mobile and dodge police patrolling the streets.

A young Uyghur restaurant worker roasts meat over an open fire.

Young, low-income Uyghur migrants often attempted to find service sector jobs that gave them legal protection against expulsion. But these positions were also precarious as the state began attempting to arrest all Uyghurs who had practiced any unapproved forms of Islam over the past decade. Any Uyghur who was accused of praying five times per day, studying the Quran in an unapproved study group, listening to unapproved Islamic teachings, or studying Arabic was subject to indefinite detention. Often employers and coworkers were asked to expose those who they suspected of practicing unapproved forms of Islam.

Newly built freeways in the city.

At the same time, the city continued to expand and grow. New high-rise buildings were under construction and high-speed infrastructure projects were built at break-neck speed. Although some of the new commodity housing remained unoccupied, many wealthy Han settlers from the Eastern Regions of the country continued to invest in the region. They often saw it as a site of expansion of Chinese economic power. For many Han, the sense of threat they feel from Uyghur resistance was softened by the assurance they felt from the Chinese police and military presence.

A Uyghur young man walks by a government sponsored sign promoting Xinjiang economic development.

For many Chinese citizens, Chinese Central Asia is thought of as an inalienable part of China. Classical Chinese novels such as Journey to the West and standard education texts describe the region as a historical part of the nation; the landscape is well-within the boundaries of their national “imagined community.” In popular culture, the region is often represented as a site of indescribable natural beauty, and the Uyghur inhabitants of the region are described as uncivilized and dangerous. Because of this perception of Uyghur “savagery,” many Chinese citizens whole-heartedly support the “People’s War on Terror” in which the state is attempting to eliminate much of Uyghur society through a human re-engineering project. In this way, the conquest of the Uyghur homeland is turned into an essential part of China’s New Silk Road – a way of connecting Han settlers with new markets, new resources and a larger presence on the world stage.

Nicola Zolin is a photojournalist and writer interested in the social and environmental transformations at the borders of Europe, Middle East and Asia. He is currently based between Rome and Athens. Visit his portfolio here.

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.