All posts filed under: History

Singing Back to the Steppe: Kazakh Poetry Battles in Contemporary Xinjiang

  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 …

Uyghur Names as Signal and Noise

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 …

Book Review: The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History

This review first appeared in the journal Milestones: Commentary on the Islamic World on March 1, 2017 Rian Thum, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, Harvard University Press, 2014, 336 pp. Historical scholarship on the Uyghurs often focuses on the imperial ambitions of the states that surrounded Chinese Central Asia and, in turn, the political intrigue that surrounded the emissaries of those states. Instead of asking how Uyghurs themselves imagined their community, these studies focus on relations of conquest and resistance and the gravity of wealth and power. Of course, the colonial domination of the Uyghurs is an important part of their history, but it is not the beginning of their story. Rian Thum’s work seeks to amplify how Uyghurs themselves imagined their community prior to the state, prior to modernity, perhaps even prior to Islam. Drawing on an ethnography of oral traditions and an extensive archive of sacred texts from shrines across the Uyghur homeland, Rian Thum’s work does something different. It seeks to amplify how Uyghurs themselves imagined their community prior to the state, prior …

Why are Uyghurs so Good at English?

Ever since Kasim Abdurehim, the founder of the private English school Atlan, took third place in the national English speaking contest in 2004, Uyghurs have found their way into the final rounds of almost every major English speaking competition in the nation. This year was no exception. The main difference is that now Uyghurs are learning how to be confident in their English ability at a younger age. It is because of people like Kasim and dozens of other award winning role models that kids like 14 year-old Tughluk Tursunjan feel confident on a national stage. Although Uyghurs represent less than one percent of China’s population, they still consistently beat Han contestants from the best schools in the country. Tughluk, who was this year’s winner of the Junior High School division of the “Outlook of Hope” contest on CCTV was taught by an English instructor named Nemo, a young Uyghur man who teaches at the Web English school in downtown Ürümchi. It was Nemo who coached him on how to speak with commanding gestures and …