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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 livingotherwise.com 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.”

References

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.

Uyghur Names as Signal and Noise

A Mass “Anti-Noise” Rally at Xinjiang University on May 10, 2017

On May 10, 2017, Xinjiang University, the largest university in the Uyghur Autonomous Region, held a mass rally in the school’s sports complex. Thousands of Uyghur, Han and other ethnic minority students and faculty members were asked to attend the event in order to hear Communist Party leaders discuss what they referred to as “the overall goal.” This goal was to “mobilize the masses” in the ongoing war against the “infiltration” of destabilizing Islamic forces. They emphasized that China too had joined in the so-called “Global War on Terror” by proclaiming its own “People’s War on Terror” in 2014. The “terrorists” the Party leaders were referring to were members of the ethnic minority indigenous to the southern part of the region – the Uyghurs. They were also referring to a discursive shift in official policy. This discourse first described Uyghur claims to ethno-national autonomy in the 1990s as “separatism.” Following 9/11, descriptions of the same Uyghur rights protests, and emerging forms of Islamic piety, came to be categorized as “religious extremism” and “violent terrorism.”

In order to accomplish the mission of the “People’s War on Terror,” the Party Secretary of the university Zhou Xuyong declared that all “static” (zaoyin) and “noise” (zayin) would need to be eliminated. Anyone who demonstrated the slightest resonance with unapproved Islamic ideologies was to be purified through a process of “reverse osmosis” (fan shentou). He said the goal was to create an atmosphere in which Uyghur Islamic “extremists” scurried across the street like rats while the public surrounded them screaming their disapproval and beating them in righteous anger.

What we have here is a virulent mix of metaphors attempting to signify an “overall goal,” which Uyghur human rights groups refer to as “absurd.” The overall goal appears to be one of eliminating noise and purifying minds by taking to the streets and screaming at rats. Static and noise in this case are anything that does not conform to the new standards of secularism that are being imposed on the Uyghur population. It is anything that signals a lack of loyalty, gratitude, and obedience. Noise and static are any sound that cannot be accounted for by the state and thus signals a dissonance from the main melody line of “harmonious” development.

Of course, the harmony of the state is also the sound of particular form of Chinese Islamophobia. At the school, this purification of ideology was aimed at students and faculty members who demonstrated a lack of submission. In the broader society, noise eradication is aimed at “rectifying” Islam among rural Uyghurs in Southern Xinjiang. This is accomplished by through the everyday policing of moral behavior – a type of re-engineering project. It is established through “beautification” projects that demand that Uyghur women to take off their hijab or jilbab and men shave off their beards. It is established through the mass detention of young Uyghurs in training centers across Southern Xinjiang. Young men and women are being held indefinitely while the state attempts to train them in Chinese and patriotism while preventing them from practicing their faith. Many of these young men and women have children that in some cases are now being treated as wards of the state. These children too are being “rectified.” In order to prevent themselves from becoming detainees and continue to allow their children access to school and healthcare, Uyghur parents are being asked to change the names of their children. Names, it seems, can also be read as a sign of “noise” and “static.”

List of restricted names that was circulated throughout Xinjiang in April 2017. Source of the list.

A few weeks prior to the mass rally at Xinjiang University, local authorities announced a province wide ban on 29 Uyghur names. They were determined to be a manifestation of the static and noise that stood in opposition to the harmonious melody of Chinese secular development. Some of the names on the list were unusual in the Uyghur community given their explicit appeal to political Islam. Names like Osama and Jihad stand out to Uyghurs as a referent to political resistance or religious violence. Uyghurs I spoke with said that they had never heard of a child being given such a name. In general, though, the names on the list were the names Uyghurs have used for centuries. For instance, the name Wahap has long been a common name among Uyghurs. In decades past, most people had little consciousness of the name’s relationship to the Wahhabi school of Reformist Islam. It was simply one of the many names of Allah: “servant of the all-giver

One Uyghur young man I spoke with regarding the names on the list noted the way religiosity has been a common feature of Uyghur naming for as long as he could remember. It was simply shifting in recent years. He said: “I have a friend whose daughter’s name is Muslime, but never heard of a man with the name Muslim. I think it would be quite improbable that someone would be called just Muslim. We have names like Mohemmed, Haji, Islam, and Imam. These are quite common.”

Indeed, over the years of my fieldwork in Xinjiang in 2011 and 2014, these names were not considered “noise” at all. They fit quite easily into the framework of the Chinese nation. No one considered a name such as Muhemmed or the more common local variation, Memet, subversive in the least. As Uyghur friend told me: “It is interesting that one of my great uncles was named Islam, but he was a hardcore communist from 1950s to the 1990s. At the time, the name was not a problem at all. No one would think that it has any political significance relative to the state. Now people have become much more conscious of that.”

He continued by saying that he thought the criteria for the list was inspired at least in part by their association with Arabic. This, for instance, is why Muhemmed was banned but Memet was not. He said: “I think these names are banned because most of them evoke some association with the Middle East (Medina, Suriye, Baghdat, Ezhar), high profile figures from the region (Erefat, Sadam, Osama), overt religious identification (Imam, Haji, Muslima, Islam), or very pious adherents of Islam and ardent preachers or fighters that protect the religion (Moydun, Mujahidin, Wahap, Zikirulla).”

Many of the Uyghurs I spoke with about the list said that they feel as though the list is an attempt to further eliminate even the appearance of religiosity. One of them told me: “I think by putting a few names that most people would strongly disapprove of (such as Jihad and Osama) on the list, they are trying to put other common names in the same common category of problematic names.” Continuing on, he argued that “by retroactively associating some common names with extremism and banning them, they are reinforcing the very thing that they are trying to eradicate.” That is, by associating common Uyghur names with religious extremism, the state is arguing that the “noise” problem is larger in scale than even Uyghurs imagined. Many Uyghurs are now being told that their names have become a social issue.

***

In general, it appears as though the naming restriction was addressed toward the parents of young children and infants. If the child received one of the banned names, they would be rendered a legal non-person by the state. They would not be given household registration or an ID card. They would not be permitted to attend school. All legal rights would be canceled until the child’s name was rectified.

But what happens if an adult has a banned name? Based on reports I have received from Uyghurs in Southern Xinjiang, in some cases adults too are being forced or pressured to change their names. For instance, in a case I am familiar with a thirty-year-old woman whose name was on the list was coerced into changing her name to something “harmonious” such as Patigul. Often, in adult cases, name changes are something the person initiates on their own in an effort to avoid trouble at work and demonstrate their loyalty to the state.

These new restrictions on naming are particularly onerous for Uyghur men, since traditionally Uyghurs have stressed that the names of male children should be found in the Quran and, at times, be associated with the grandparents of the child. When parents go about selecting a name, they often consult with a local imam. The imam in turn is tasked with verifying the origin of the name in question and conferring the name onto the child during a ceremony that occurs seven days after the child’s birth. Uyghurs I interviewed regarding the importance of naming practices noted that choosing a name was often seen not only as a marker of religious piety but also a way of maintaining ties to familial tradition. Since Uyghurs take on the given name of their father as their surnames, family names shift with each generation. It is important to name children in way that reflects the family lineage, so that the names of ancestors are carried forward into the present. These new restriction on naming throws this rite of passage into question. Imams are now being asked to direct parents away from names that reflect religious piety no matter the familial legacy of those names. Parents are thus explicitly being asked to cease reproducing many of the Islamic social norms that have dominated Uyghur society for centuries.


A detail from another list of banned names that has been circulated recently in Khotan Prefecture. The banned boys names are as follows: 1. Billadin (Bin-Laden), 2. Sadam, 3. Huseyin (Hussain), 4. Erafat, 5. Mujayit, 9. Seyulla, 10. Guldulla, 11. Seyidin, 12. Zikrulla, 13. Nesrulla. Banned girls names are as follows: 1. Asanet, 2. Muslime, 3. Mukhlise, 4. Munise, 5. A’ishe.

Though the state has inserted its will even further into the personal lives of its Uyghur subjects in an effort to “purify” their minds and eliminate unwanted noise pollution many Uyghurs I spoke with feel as though it will not have the effect the state intends. One young man I spoke with argued that he was “sure people would come up with other not yet banned subversive names since naming has now been constructed as a battle field by the state.” This sentiment reinforces the way the act of naming is political.

Scholars such as Barry Larkin (2008) who write about the effects of noise in media infrastructures, discuss noise as a kind of flexible signal. It is a sound out of place. It does not conform to normalized rules of communication and thus is available for interpretation. Noise can thus be read as a kind of pollution or it can communicate something more. It could be read as something sinister, as something harmful to the dominant regime of truth. By attempting to control the naming of Uyghur children by determining what names are unharmonious and what ones are not, the state is in fact signaling the political import of names. Noise in this case is thus also a signal. Names and the process of naming are able to carry messages or signals. The state’s reading of these messages as non-harmonious noise signals to Uyghurs that what they may have thought as a non-political cultural and religious practice are in fact tactics for submitting and refusing to submit to the sovereignty of the state.

By rendering 29 Uyghur names a kind of noise, the state is opening them up to contestation and, given the totalitarian force of the state, erasure. If a name is recognized as noise, it can throw into question the citizenship rights of the carrier of the name. Children with banned names are no longer seen as fully human and as having a life that matters. Their parents, by association, are subject to indefinite detention and as a result the children are subject to removal from their home and renaming by the state. The sight and sound of Uyghur Muslim identification in general is thus subject to regulation. Uyghur citizenship rights in China appear to depend on the “purification” process laid out by the “overall goal” of the state and it’s so-called People’s War on Terror. Yet, of course, Uyghurs are Muslim. The vast majority of their bodies will never pass as Han, nor will their way of knowing and being in the world be eliminated in their life time. Thinking about the history of “final solutions” that seem to rhyme with the current “overall goal” perpetuated by the Chinese state, one is forced to think of the type of “cultural elimination” discussed by scholars of settler-colonialism around the world (see Wolfe 2006). It is now a question of speed. How soon will noise and static be eliminated in Northwest China?

This essay first appeared in the journal Milestones: Commentary on the Islamic World.

Works Cited:

Barry Larkin (2008) Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham: Duke University Press.

Patrick Wolfe. (2006). “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 387-409.