Grassy Narrows: emerging from trauma


Grassy Narrows song

Among the instructive parallels that Jing Jun makes in his portrayal of trauma in a Gansu village under Maoism is the wretched fate of a First Nation community in Grassy Narrows, northwestern Ontario—as detailed harrowingly in

  • Anastasia M. Shkilnyk, A poison stronger than love: the destruction of an Ojibwa community (1985, with an introduction by Kai Erikson). [1]

Grassy Narrows cover

The ordeals of Grassy Narrows make an extreme instance of the chronic problems faced by indigenous communities in North America and elsewhere.

Anastasia Shkilnyk (1945–­2014) was herself born to a Ukrainian refugee family in a Displaced Persons Camp, going on to study at the University of Toronto. As she found during her initial stay at Grassy Narrows from 1976 to 1979, successive disasters had compounded the vulnerability of the community.

All the indications of material poverty were there—substandard housing, the absence of running water and sewage connections, poor health, mass unemployment, low income, and welfare dependency—but something more fundamental seemed amiss.


In Chapter 1 Shkilnyk presents a gruesome catalogue of the self-mutilating disintegration of the community since the 1960s: spree drinking, child neglect and abuse, gas-sniffing, violent death, suicide, incest, gang rape. As she reflects after arriving at Grassy Narrows:

It wasn’t just the poverty of the place, the isolation, or even the lack of a decent bed that depressed me. I had seen worse material deprivation when I was working in squatter settlements around Santiago, Chile. And I had been in worse physical surroundings while working in war-devastated Ismailia on the project for the reconstruction of the Suez Canal. What struck me about Grassy Narrows was the numbness in the human spirit. There was an indifference, a listlessness, a total passivity that I could neither understand nor seem to do anything about. I had never seen such hopelessness anywhere in the Third World.

In what she describes as a “failure to thrive”,

caught in a void between two cultures, the children in this community are learning neither the basic skills of the mainstream community nor the traditional skills of the Indian way of life. […] The young have now been disinherited from the accumulated knowledge of earlier generations; at the same time, they have been dispossessed of the physical and emotional nourishment prerequisite to cognitive development.

Until the 1960s the Ojibwa

had preserved an ethos that encompassed, among other things, a deep attachment to the land and the rhythms of nature, respect for the dignity of the person, and the independence and self-sufficiency of clan-based family groups. They lived, as they had for generations, by hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering, now supplemented by occasional wage labour. The ebb and flow of life was reflected in their seasonal migrations between the winter trapping grounds and the summer encampment on the old reserve. Because of their relative isolation and limited contact with white society, the people managed to maintain considerable stability and continuity with the ancient patterns of Ojibwa life.

Chapter 2 outlines their traditional lifestyle and culture on the old reserve before the 1960s, noting gradual change. The common pattern of change throughout indigenous (and other) communities, over a long period since white contact, has been further exacerbated here by more recent relocation and ecological disaster.

Most challenges that the Ojibwa faced over this period can be traced directly or indirectly to white contact. Early encounters were mainly with the trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1873 Ojibwa chiefs (including, for the Grassy Narrows band, chief Sah-katch-eway) signed the important Treaty 3 with Queen Victoria.

But as white settlement expanded with the railroads, First Nation bands were vulnerable to the growing exploitation of native lands by logging and mining. Missionaries continued their work, recruiting youngsters to “residential schools” where they were to be assimilated and “civilised”.

In 1919 the global influenza pandemic struck the Ojibwa [2]—with medicine men powerless, this early sign of fatal defencelessness made them feel cursed. Shkilnyk cites at length the recollections of Maggie Land (b.1916)—while aware of the former community’s bond with the natural world, she recognised that there was no going back.

On the old reserve, rituals provided a sense of identity for the people of Grassy Narrows, such as naming ceremonies, the puberty vision quest, and the shaking tent ceremony. [3] Medicine men played a major role in regulating social conduct—including their use of malevolent magic. Yet

of all the symbolic observances practised on the old reserve just twenty or thirty years ago, only the rituals of death have meaning and continued relevance to the conditions of life on the new reserve.

Photos: Hiro Miyamatsu, late 1970s.

White society encroached gradually; but even as government measures increased from 1945, contacts remained quite limited until the relocation in 1963. The whole Ojibwa way of life—hunting, trapping, fishing, guiding—had been based on family ties, which were now torn apart. Both family and community bonds were eroded. As in other First Nation bands (only with alarming rapidity), with traditional livelihoods becoming untenable, new forms of wage labour were sporadic and unfamiliar; and as self-jurisdiction was eclipsed, the community found itself subject to government intervention in the form of welfare, dependent on external sources of life support. The role of chief became purely political. [4] With the shift from production to consumption, it was only from the 1960s that heavy drinking and violence became a serious problem. In the words of a former chief, “Alcohol was the white man’s poison, and now it’s ours.”

Shkilnyk discusses the role of the nearest town of Kenora, 60 miles southwest of Grassy Narrows. She notes that most of its early inhabitants were recent immigrants who worked on railway construction crews: Norwegians, Finns, Ukrainians, Yugoslavs, Poles, Scots, Irish, English, and Chinese (cf. Accordion crimes).

After a road connecting Kenora and the reserve was built in the late 1950s, it was on the town’s bars that Grassy Narrows people would descend for destructive bouts of spree drinking. Here too they encountered racist aggression and the full force of the white man’s law.

The Indians exchanged the intangible benefit of independence for the tangible benefits they received from the federal government (housing, schools, jobs, welfare, medical treatment). As the Indians accepted the goods and services offered to them by the government, they progressively lost their claim to being an independent people. Ultimately, they lost the ability to make decisions for themselves, at least within the context of the goods and services they accepted.

All this also gave rise to prejudice against them—ignoring

the historical evidence that it is the very geographic, legal, and economic segregation of Indian people from the mainstream society, combined with the erosion of the traditional economic base of Indian culture, that has led to their present dependence on government bureaucracies.

Isolated protests against discrimination (a civil rights march in 1964, and a more aggressive confrontation in 1974 by the Ojibwey Warriors Society) hardly changed attitudes—indeed, the 1974 incident prompted a backlash.

In Chapter 7 Shkilnyk details the transformation of a society in which “there was a remarkable degree of integration between spheres of activity that we label social, political, religious, and economic”; where “the people built a life based on hard work, subsistence, self-sufficiency, and independence”. She shows the process of government policies of “community development” and modernization: compulsory school attendance, sedentarisation, the promise of wage labour, even as trapping, hunting, and gardening were swiftly becoming untenable. As tourism became popular, guiding and commercial fishing would only provide a temporary resource. She goes on to discuss the economics of dependency, increasing social inequality, the ethics provided by the new economic system, undermining traditional Indian values—and diet:

In a span on only one generation, the Grassy Narrows people changed from being active producers of most of their own food to passive consumers of store-bought groceries. Their eating habits changed from a protein-rich diet of game and fish to a nutritionally inferior diet of imported food staples heavy in starch and sugar.

Again, this problem resembles that of affluent societies, but the change here has been abrupt. Shkilnyk describes the transformation of the role of women, “the silent victims of modernisation”.

As an elder summarised:

When the people moved to the new reserve, they became better-off in some ways. They got better houses, more cash, they were nearer to a road, they got better care by doctors. Life on the old reserve was much harder. People worked hard to eat; they were skinnier. Today, life is much easier, but why are so many people dying from alcohol?

Life is more easy now. But before … you could depend on your own people, and now you have to depend on the white man. The white man has taken over in all the basic things. Now the government people tell you what to do. We had a lot more freedom in the old days. We gave up the freedom to use the land in exchange for getting things from the white man. I say that freedom was not a good thing to trade.

Shkilnyk ends the chapter by posing two questions:

First, who really benefits from the kind of development set in motion in Indian communities by the federal government? Second, has this development led to the stated policy goal, namely, “the full, free, and nondiscriminatory participation of Indian people in Canadian society”?

Her answers are not encouraging.

What government policy has accomplished is to push the Indian people further away from participation in the productive activities of the nation than they have ever been, to separate them from the means of production embodied essentially in land and in the resources of the land, and to turn them into men and women who have neither land nor capital nor even a secure palce among those Canadians who exchange only their labour for a subsistence wage. The increase in the material standard of living on Indian reserves, therefore, must be seen not as a result of free and equal participation in Canadian society but as compensation, paid by the society, for the continued exclusion of Indian people from the productive processes of the nation. The ultimate hallmark of this kind of development is not participation but marginality.

Chapter 8 explores government policy and decision-making in the context of evolution of national policy, focusing on the decision to relocate and the physical planning of the new community. Like commune members in Maoist China, some likened the new reserve to a concentration camp. Still, Indian communities across Canada disintegrated whether or not they were relocated.

For a people already cast adrift from their moorings, the 1970 discovery of mercury poisoning in the river system, with long-term effects, was “the last nail in the coffin”—not only destroying their health but depriving them of their few remaining sources of livelihood (including guiding). As the Reed Paper Company sought to protect itself from culpability, and as political interests came to the fore, making court justice look remote, the community became even more hostile towards the white authorities—an imprint that Shkilnyk suggests may be “every bit as cruel and demoralizing as the poison in the river”. The net effect

was to further undermine the conditions for self-sufficiency, to intensify dependence on government support, and ultimately to accelerate the breakdown in community life.

Psychologically too, the disaster made people feel that “the land had somehow turned against them and become poisonous. […] The world of nature, not only the world of men, could no longer be trusted.” Despite considerable media publicity, their struggle for justice only “reinforced the Indians’ feeling of helplessness, apathy, and alienation”.

The limited assistance that was forthcoming for remedial and short-term projects was always extended in the spirit of charity; neither government wished its actions to be interpreted as an acknowledgement of legal, moral, or social obligation to redress injustice or to compensate for inflicted adversity.

Shkilnyk updates the story: by 1985 compensation was finally being paid. Yet

money alone will not solve all the social problems. The hope is that the settlement will be a catalyst in rebuilding community morale and helping individuals rediscover their own strength in repairing the damage done by years of neglect. At least now there is a chance for renewal, a foundation for a new beginning, so long delayed.

In a Postcript, she reflects on the catastrophe and its background, and points out the valiant efforts the people have made since the 1970s to cope with their problems. Yet

Today, over half the Indian adult population of Canada is dependent on welfare for subsistence. Only 20% of Indian children complete secondary school, compared to 75% nationwide. Indian housing conditions are abysmal; fewer than 40% of Indian houses have running water, for example, compared to over 90% in the country as a whole. There are more Indian children in the care of foster homes today than at any time since the 1960s; since 1962, there has also been a fivefold increase in the number of Indian children taken for adoption. Among those Indians who survive infancy, many will die violently; about 33% of all Indian deaths in Canada are due to violence. Indians in the 15 to 44 age-group meet with violent death at a rate that is five times the national average. And suicide rates among Indian people have been climbing steadily over the 1970s. Suicides now account for 35% of all Indian deaths in the 15 to 20 age-group, and 21% of all deaths in the 21 to 34 age-group. Suicide rates among Canadian Indians are six times the national average and are significantly higher than among Indians in the United States.

Unpacking the well-meaning yet misguided official notions of development and progress, she sees the Grassy Narrows case as both a unique and a generalized tragedy.

In the face of both the continuity of impacts stemming from almost a hundred years of internal colonialism and the added pressures generated by the relocation and the mercury pollution, it is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit that the people of Grassy Narrows have managed to survive at all. For not only has their entire way of life been rendered dysfunctional, but they have been consistently been led to believe that their culture is barbaric and that they are a primitive and inferior people.

Shkilnyk’s book is a clear and detailed exposition of a complex and traumatic subject. She was a social scientist deeply concerned for the people of Grassy Narrows; but are there any limits on what should be exposed to a wider public, when real people are trying to survive? She comments “However painful this portrait may be to a people seemingly disfigured and broken in spirit by historical circumstance, it is the price they have to pay to make us understand their case for social justice.”

Sure, to understand and remedy the problem, we have to know about it; yet conscientious as is Shkilnyk’s research, I suspect that not all will be convinced that they should still have to pay yet another price. So while her book was well received (e.g. here), other sources refrain from dwelling on all the alcohol-fuelled child abuse, of which this is an extreme instance of a common problem. Indeed, this review by David McRobert is more critical: he still finds it “a largely parasitic and partly anemic work in the tradition of liberal thought in Canada”.

In effect, what emerges from the painful passages in the book is a ringing endorsement of the ancient notion that the worst pain one can suffer is to have insight into much and power over nothing. Shkilnyk’s position throughout is truly tragic—she sees what is wrong with the community and knows how it could be better but [neither] she nor the others in government responsible for dealing with the problem seem to think that anything can be done about it. Apart from a few cryptic passages, she is unable to describe the alternative approaches that might have been  pursued by the government in resolution of the Grassy Narrows crisis. […]
In the end, one is left with the uneasy feeling that this book is too good to be true. Literally. Shkilnyk’s attempt to mass-market the pain of Grassy Narrows seems crass and one wonders what exactly the book can accomplish at this point. I hope it will be viewed as a historical treatise by the community members themselves. It is unfortunate that they have to have their personal tragedies revealed to the international community through publications of this kind in order to get the attention their horrible situation deserves.

The wider context, and the recent picture
Beyond the problems of First Nation communities (including the Inuit) and Native Americans in the USA, one thinks of ethnic minorities under modern nation-states elsewhere around the world, such as Aborigines in Australia and other nomadic populations (e.g. Kazakhs); the Jews and Roma; and traumas under Stalin (e.g. Figes, Applebaum), the Holocaust, and Mao (such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, and for the Han Chinese, China: commemorating trauma).

So, returning to Jing Jun, he did well to draw a parallel with Grassy Narrows in his study of a demoralised community under Maoism amidst ecological and social destruction. As he wrote:

Turning memories of suffering into a source of cultural revitalisation is an extremely difficult task. In a sensitive ethnography describing the removal of an Ojibwa community to a new, alien, and polluted reserve in Canada, Anastasia Shkilnyk reports that members of this community have a quite unified memory of what caused the destruction of their homeland. There is also a pervasive agreement that on the old reserve life was characterised by close family ties, communal support, moral principles, and traditional norms of social and sexual interactions. But such memories only serve to accentuate the agony of a deeply wounded culture, they provide scant defence against increasing rates of child abuse, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, gang rape, and murder. While this deplorable situation is related to the internal decay of the traditional social order that followed resettlement, it is exacerbated by external forces of racial hostility, bureaucratic indifference, job discrimination, cultural stereotypes, and a long history of defeats since the greater Ojibwa community’s initial encounter with Europeans. In contrast to the Jewish experience, what we see in the Ojibwa case is that collective memory and communal mourning do not suffice to turn pain into any positive energy; what remains is full-blown despair.

Of course, areas of “affluent” Western society are seriously dysfunctional too. Shkilnyk concludes by observing:

For one thing, we now know that there are communities that can become unraveled to such an extent that the people in them lose much of their sense of self-worth and well-being, sometimes even their will to survive, and begin to spin off in directions of their own and die, literally or figuratively. For another, we know that this can happen when people are subjected to fundamental change, at a rate far beyond their ability to cope, in every single aspect of their culture simultaneously. In this process of total intrusion, if they also lose the hold on their spiritual selves, their vision of the future, and their hope of regaining some measure of control over their circumstances, then life itself ceases to have meaning. In this sense, Grassy Narrows serves as a poignant example of how fragile a society can be, and how we as humans may respond to conditions of unprecedented stress by destroying ourselves.

It may well be that Grassy Narrows also represents a microcosm, greatly magnified and concentrated in time and space, of the destructive processes at work in our own society. Is it not possible that the pressures that crippled the people of Grassy Narrows are the same pressures that, much more slowly and covertly, are crippling us as well?

The struggles of society elsewhere, and of alienated youth, suggest general lessons about individual and collective trauma—the former (as Ericson comments) more readily mended than the latter. Still, in Western society the post-war rebuilding continued, largely oblivious to the sufferings of indigenous peoples like the Ojibwa. Shkilnyk’s story casts a disturbing light on the energy that we celebrate since the 1960s; and it all seems a world away from the civil rights movement, or indeed the violence and depression of the Cultural Revolution.

Recent attention to Grassy Narrows (e.g. here) focuses on mercury poisoning; but social issues continue—see e.g. this report from 2016.

Steve Fobister (1952–2018), the most respected chief in modern times, who campaigned tirelessly for his fractured community to be compensated, died of the long-term effects of mercury poisoning in 2018.

But it seems that the more recent picture may not be not altogether desolate; and if even partial recovery is possible, then that too deserves study and publicity. A more encouraging update is

  • Anna J. Willow, Strong hearts, native lands: the cultural and political landscape of Anishinaabe anti-clearcutting activism (2012).

While world music fans rightly celebrate the cultures of the Inuit, or the Australian Aborigines, or the Uyghurs, where can expressive culture possibly come into all this? We have to consider it within the context of the decimation of society.

Just one instance of the recent Ojibwa ritual tradition in north Wisconsin:

And as young people in Grassy Narrows try to make sense of their lives, it’s worth ending on a note of hope—here’s Home to me (2016):

The story now prompts me to explore Native American cultures further—starting here, moving on to the Navajo and the Ghost Dance.


[1] For introductions, see the Canadian Encyclopedia and wiki entries, both more discreet. The community’s own site focuses on continuing efforts to gain compensation for the ecological disaster. For a range of reports from CBC, see here; for a general introduction to the Ojibwa, here.

[2] For the vulnerability of First Nation bands during the present pandemic, see e.g. here.

[3] For some recordings of Ojibwa music, click on sidebar menu here; for Minnesota, see Michael D. McNally, Ojibwe singers: hymns, grief and a native culture in motion (2000). All this is part of the major field of studies on changing Native American musical cultures—from Frances Densmore, George Herzog, and Marius Barbeau to Bruno Nettl, Alan Merriam, David McAllester, and Charlotte Frisbie (To Name But A Few). See e.g. the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians (along with Helen Myers’ overview in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies, pp.404–18), the Garland encyclopedia of world music, and various dedicated bibliographies. Note also the Inuit: some links here.

[4] Here one may find a certain resemblance to the intrusion of the modern state into rural China since the Republican era, as the traditional moral and political leadership of village affairs was replaced by appointees answerable to the wider secular government; for Hebei, see e.g. Prasenjit Duara, here.


Chinese-Russian Muslims: the Dungan people


Dungan 2

Source: wiki.

Among the many ethnic minorities of the former Soviet Union (see e.g. Cheremis, Chuvash, and Kazakhs), the Dungan people are Chinese Hui Muslims who fled in waves from Shaanxi and Gansu in northwest China by way of Xinjiang, following the uprisings of the 1870s. Mainly living in Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, by 2003 they numbered around 100,000. Along with their traditional customs they preserved their original Chinese dialects, using Cyrillic instead of Chinese characters.

* * *

In the West, knowledge of the Dungan people sets forth from the work of the remarkable Svetlana Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer, great-granddaughter of the composer.* The following is adapted from this post. I do hope she’s been writing her memoirs.

Her father Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff, a high-ranking officer in the Czarist army, had fled to China after the 1917 Revolution. After the fall of St Petersburg he joined the Russian community in Harbin in northeast China, where Svetlana was born in 1931.

Later the family moved to the capital Peking, where the young Svetlana received a mixed Russian–Chinese education. During the Japanese occupation of Peking the family took refuge in the southwestern province of Yunnan, where they were eventually granted Chinese citizenship.

In 1945, after the retreat of the Japanese, the family returned to Peking. Svetlana’s second father, the last governor of Kamchatka under Czarist rule, took up a professorship of history at Tsinghua University. Svetlana enrolled at the Catholic Fu Jen University in Peking and became one of the rare foreigners studying and living among the local Chinese students, witnessing violent clashes between Communist and Nationalist troops. She was present during the siege of the campus by Communist troops, and was forced to attend anti-foreigner and anti-missionary campaigns under Mao Zedong.

Following the 1949 Communist revolution, the Rimsky-Korsakoffs were stripped of their Chinese nationality. A period of economic and psychological hardship began for the family. The father was forced to quit his professorship of history for ideological reasons, and to teach Russian instead. In the 1950s the family fled China by boat, along with the last missionaries expelled from China. Svetlana was now stateless, a plight that would only end many years later when she received Australian citizenship.

In 1960 she enrolled in the master’s programme for Asian languages at Georgetown University, Washington. Hoping to study Chinese proverbs, she sought the advice of Fr Paul Serruys, professor of Chinese philology at the university. But once he learned of Svetlana’s mixed Russian-Chinese background, Serruys promptly steered her to work on the language of the Dungan minority. In 1965 Svetlana submitted her master’s dissertation The Dungan dialect: introduction and morphology—the first scholarly work on the Dungans in the West. Virtually no other written materials on them were available in the West, and no fieldwork had yet been done among the Dungans themselves.

SvetlanaAfter Georgetown, Svetlana began teaching Chinese at Australian National University (Canberra) as she worked on a PhD. While still engaged in projects on early Chinese literature, her fascination with the Dungans remained.

In 1977, she embarked on the first of several stays with the Dungans, who were then living in kolkhoz collectives in the Kyrghyz and Kazakh republics. Svetlana shared their daily life, attending their weddings and funerals and recording their language. In the 1980s she also worked with the “national Dungan poet” Iasyr Shivaza.

Among her publications on the Dungans are

  • Soviet Dungan kolkhozes in the Kirghiz S.S.R. and the Kazakh S.S.R., Oriental monograph series, 25, Canberra (1980)
  • “Soviet Dungan nationalism: a few comments on their origin and language”, Monumenta Serica 33 (1977–8).
  • Karakunuz : An Early Settlement of the Chinese Muslims in Russia“, Asian folklore studies 51 (1992), citing impressive early Russian ethnographies as well as later fieldwork under the USSR, with an Appendix on her own visits in 1977, 1985, and 1991.

Dungan 1

Karakunuz (renamed Masanchin in 1965), Kazakhstan, 1991, from Dyer, ibid.
Much as I’d like to offer a photo of the Dungans during the Soviet period, media images revolve predictably around weddings and cuisine.

More recently the Dungans feature in the work of scholars of the Hui Muslims, such as Dru Gladney, Jonathan Lipman, and Ha Guangtian. Inside the PRC, while the Uyghurs bear the brunt of recent persecutions, the Hui Muslims are not exempt.

On the cultural front, Vibeke Børdahl kindly alerts me to the work of the Russian sinologist Boris Riftin (1932–2012) on Dungan folktales, notably

  • Li Fuqing 李福清 [Boris Riftin], Donggan minjian gushi chuanshuo ji 東干民間故事傳說集 [Collection of Dungan folktales and legends] (2011, translated from original 1977 Russian edition), reviewed in CHINOPERL 31 (2012), along with the tribute
  • Rostislav Berezkin, “Academician Boris L’vovich Riftin (1932–2012): the extraordinary life of a brilliant scholar”.

Riftin first visited the Dungans in 1950, going on to work as a volunteer there in 1953—a period when ethnography of the changing times would have been instructive, yet impossible.

As ever, what interests me in particular here is the lives of people, and their culture, through the turbulent, distressing period of Stalin’s regime (cf. The Ukraine famineThe whisperers, Svetlana Alexievich, and again the Kazakh famine); I’d like to read details of the early years of the revolution, the Great Purge, the Great Patriotic War and the aftermath. But it seems that such stories for the Dungans remain elusive.

Even in 2020 a violent ethnic clash occurred that resulted in more cross-border flight:


With thanks to Beth McKillop.


* For a superfluous yet wonderful link, do listen to my violin teacher Hugh Maguire’s 1964 recording of Scheherazade with Pierre Monteux and the LSO.



Another Uyghur film-maker


In Xinjiang, the Uyghur people, and their whole culture, remain under severe repression. Still no news emerges of the great anthropologist Rahilä Dawut (see also Uyghur tag, notably Ashiq: the last troubadour, Uyghur culture in crisis, and Uyghur drum-and-shawm).

The Uyghur dancer, film-maker, and anthropologist Mukaddas Mijit, based in France since 2003, has a creative engagement with the beleaguered culture of her homeland. Do consult her website, and her YouTube channel,

Among her short films, I note this documentary on the Centre for Muqam Transmission in Qumul, inaugurated in 2009 with UNESCO support, some years before the clampdown. The Centre, like others of its kind, makes a classic instance of staged commodification, a world away from Uyghur folk culture—showing how the Chinese state attempts to sanitise it through reification, under the insidious banner of “safeguarding”:

One senses the reservations of the senior muqam masters recruited to the Centre. What has become of such flagships for Uyghur culture amidst the current genocide?

It’s not that an autonomous Uyghur nation wouldn’t be capable of such reification. Such initiatives have long been common among independent nations in Central Asia and elsewhere.

Here’s Mukaddas Mijit’s artistic tribute to her parents’ hometown of Ghulja—long among the flashpoints for ethnic tension in the region, and the site of a 1997 massacre:

She also pays attention to Uyghur rock music—here’s the band Qetig, recorded in Urumqi:

Meanwhile the fate of Uyghur culture at the grassroots—life-cycle observances, pilgrimages, and village celebrations like the mäshräp—looks bleak.

For a recent conference at SOAS on “Surveillance and repression of Muslim minorities: Xinjiang and beyond”, click here.







Compound surnames in Chinese and English

Left: Sima Qian; right: Zhuge Liang.

For China, besides my post on alternating single and double given names by generation, there are also some intriguing double surnames, often deriving from northern ethnic minorities.

Of the many that were used in early history, some have fallen out of use, with clans often adopting single surnames—a process that took place over a long period, unlike the rapidly changing fashions in given names. Double surnames still quite common are Ouyang 歐陽, Shangguan 上官, Sima 司馬 and Situ 司徒; less so are Zhuge 諸葛, Xiahou 夏侯, Huangfu 皇甫, Huyan 呼延, and Zhongli 鍾離. Oh, and Chenggong 成公.

Left: Ouyang Xiu; right: Zhongli Quan.

Among ethnic minorities, longer compound surnames are still common, adapted to Chinese style, such as the Manchu Qing imperial clan Aisin Gioro. But with the Han chauvinism of the current CCP this is changing too—for Uyghur names under the current clampdown in Xinjiang, see e.g. this article.

* * *

For the Han Chinese double-barrelled surnames I can’t discern potential for satire, as we class-conscious English like to do for Posh Upper-Class Twits—whether fictional characters like Gussie Fink-Nottle and Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, and Monty Python’s Vivian Smith-Smythe-Smith, Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris, Nigel Incubator-Jones, Gervaise Brook-Hamster, and Oliver St. John-Mollusc:

or real people who really should be fictional, like Jacob Rees-Mogg. There is latitude in the use of the hyphen. Indeed, why stop at two surnames? This wiki article also considers international naming practices, including Germany and Iberia. As Silly Names go, it’s hard to beat Leone Sextus Denys Oswolf Fraudatifilius Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet Tollemache-Tollemache, British captain who died in World War One. 

Now the Riff-Raff [sic] are getting in on the act too, with young sporting luminaries such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and the wonderful Katarina Johnson-Thompson, who soars high above the recumbent Tree-Frog.

In a rather different category is the litany of middle names for Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson as documented by Stewart Lee, which grows almost weekly.

See here for more on How to be English.



The Kazakh famine

Trauma and memory


The famine in Ukraine of the early 1930s (see posts under Life behind the Iron curtain: a roundup) was publicised abroad by early journalists like Gareth Jones, and later through the work of the Ukrainian diaspora and scholars like Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum.

But from 1931 to 1934 there was widespread dearth throughout the Soviet Union; the Ukraine holodomor has largely eclipsed other devastating famines in the North Caucasus and the Volga, and notably further east in Kazakhstan—a vast territory the size of continental Europe. It makes an important piece of the grisly jigsaw filling in the troubled histories of Russia, Xinjiang, and China (see e.g. here); and it also relates to the commemoration and recognition of guilt in Germany (see e.g. here).

Conquest had already addressed the topic in chapter 9 of his 1986 book The harvest of sorrow (1986), “Central Asia and the Kazakh tragedy”. Now we have two major books to help supplement the picture: [1]

  • Robert Kindler, Stalin’s nomads: power and famine in Kazakhstan (translated by Cynthia Klohr, 2018; German original, 2014)
  • Sarah Cameron, The hungry steppe: famine, violence, and the making of Soviet Kazakhstan (2018)

It is no easy task to unravel the threads of forced collectivization, famine, and all the social changes that they entailed. In Central Asia, the state’s attempts to implement socialism were further complicated by their mission to permanently sedentarise nomads. While I look forward to reading Cameron’s book, here I’ll discuss that of Kindler.

Central Asia since the 1990s

Central Asia since the 1990s.

In his Introduction Kindler summarizes the main themes.

More than a third of all Kazakhs died, or a fourth of Kazakhstan’s entire population. People died of hunger or disease, were shot, or slain. Hundreds of thousands were displaced; some turned to begging or banditry. Social nets fell apart. As the nomads’ herds were confiscated and depleted, the economy of the steppe collapsed. […]

Clans were replaced by kolkhozes, brigades, and other collectives that produced and distributed indispensable resources. People became dependent on the institutions of the Soviet state. […] It was Sovietization by hunger.

These initiatives “threw the region into chaos, causing mass flight, civil war, and an unprecedented shortage of food”.

As Kindler observes, Soviet modernity made no provision for pastoralists. Nomads were difficult to tax and difficult to supervise, thwarting the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Citing James Scott, he notes that

the probability of catastrophe grows when authoritarian leaders use such methods on societies that are unable to ward off radical change. […] But the road from theoretical sedentism to real permanent settlement was long, arduous, and paved with suffering.

For the competing groups within Kazakh society,

collectivization and sedentarization gave them opportunities to advocate their own particular interests. […] Different levels of loyalty [to the Soviet state] were often difficult to distinguish.

While the whole system was built on confusion and terror, violence, omnipresent throughout the USSR under Stalin, was not a simple two-sided war between the state and the people. As later in China,

The Soviet project to rebuild society rested on the generation of perceived differences. […] Stalin pitted various institutions against each other to keep them under control.

Kindler unpacks the inadequacies of analyses of famine:

Students of the Soviet famine of 1932–33 have often focused on the social, political, and economic causes of famine and its demographic consequences. Much of this research has suggested that under the circumstances of food shortage, frustrated people had no influence on the events dictated to them. People affected by famine were mostly depicted as vague, passive, helpless victims with almost no agency. What happens to people who starve, how they behave when threatened with death, and what it means to survive a food shortage have seldom been described. Rarely do we read that people confronted with starvation become self-centered and asocial. Post-Soviet historiography in particular has cultivated the myth that peasants and nomads formed mutually supportive groups to master the crisis collectively, but that, unfortunately, they failed.

It takes time for food shortages to wreak devastation. Citing Amartya Sen on “food entitlement decline”, Kindler suggests a broader approach going beyond economic analyses. Strategies to cope with vulnerability; even in extremis, when a crisis becomes so great that it can no longer be met with the instruments normally employed in such situations, people are not merely victims. Still, by the early 1930s the Kazakhs had lost much of their capacity to resist external threats. Hunger may not have been premeditated, but it broke the nomads’ resistance.

Kindler disputes the popular theory of deliberate genocide that has become common for Ukraine. He notes the inevitable bias of the text-based, largely Soviet and Russian, sources; naturally we have few written accounts from the largely oral, illiterate culture of the nomads themselves. Even major sources that he utilises in the Kazakh archives still only contain the nomads’ own views as mediated by others.

Chapter 1, “Kazakh nomads and Russian colonial power”, shows that in the hierarchical traditional Kazakh society, the term kulak was no more relevant than for other cultures in the Soviet Union. Waves of state sedentarising policies predated the revolution but escalated. In 1916 the conflict between peasant settlers and nomads erupted in a major uprising, with hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs fleeing to China. Civil war soon followed, bringing anarchy and starvation.

In Chapter 2, “Soviet rule in the steppe”, Kindler shows how the Communists gradually expanded their power by destroying the old clans, at the cost of deeply alienating the people. But as later in rural China, there were severe obstacles to the reach of the state:

Many party members were technically and politically illiterate: they could neither read nor write. When documents could not be translated into Kazakh, the most rational solution for aul leaders was simply to gather, acknowledge, and then ignore them.

Alliances between indigenous leaders and the Communists were fragile.

Kindler goes on to explore the process of sedentarization. As later with the Chinese peasantry, the thorny issue of “raising the cultural level” of the nomads loomed; the Bolsheviks considered them “backward”, their whole culture “inferior”. But their efforts to transform the nomads’ customs by addressing issues in hygiene, and the status of women, were largely fruitless.

Source: Central State Archive of Video and Photo Documents of the Republic of Kazakhstan (courtesy of Zhanbolat Mamay), via Sarah Cameron.

The leadership only briefly countenanced the warnings of experts that nomadism was the only form of productivity on the steppe, and that to transform it would be to destroy the economy. State power depended on limiting mobility.

As the conflict between nomads and settlers intensified, Russian farmers also suffered. With land reform, many were forcibly deported in a reign of terror led by Georgii Safarov. Resistance in 1920 was crushed: as one report commented, “These evacuees are almost exclusively women and children. There are no men among them; the men have almost all been executed”. The Kazakhs saw land reform as an opportunity for revenge for the massacre of 1916.

Land reform came to a halt soon after Safarov was demoted in 1922. Meanwhile unyielding grain procurements led to another famine in 1921–22, when conservative estimates suggest that over 400,000 died. As the pendulum swung again, a fragile peace obtained. Kazakhs were given preferential treatment over settlers migrating to the region, but the latter put up a fight, and with Party leaders unable to reconcile the disparate interests, by 1928 settler migration was once again condoned.

In 1925, as Filipp Goloschekin was installed as the first Party Secretary of the region, conflict, repression, and purges escalated. Kindler goes on to unpack the complex competing networks among clans and within the Party leadership. Kazakhs within the Party were often marginalized, as mere figureheads—a pattern later all too common among the minority regions of the PRC.

Chapter 3, “Collectivization and sedentarization”, shows how central policies continued to impact on the regional picture. In the wake of the national Great Terror of 1927–28, the Great Turn of 1929, implemented with violence, initiated the destruction of the private sector. Confiscations and requisitions of grain and livestock from pastoralists soon led to destitution. Many fled across the border to Xinjiang, as they had often done before. But “collectivization was not only a war of the state against the people, it was also a war of the folk against itself”.

Both peasants and nomads had to pay. In the winter of 1929–30 hell broke loose in Soviet villages, with brutal raids. The task of the young activists sent by the central leadership to implement the brutal decree, often with no experience of either rural or nomadic life, was also unenviable:

Emissaries from the Soviet regime were threatened, beaten, tortured, and murdered when they collected tributes or tried to force people to join the kolkhozes.

1929 ganbu

While many of them had been successfully educated to believe in their task, not all were crusaders for the cause.

Numerous reports of the men’s enormous consumption of alcohol and their excessive carousing perhaps indicate that many suffered emotionally from the strain of their duties.

In March 1930 Stalin briefly put a brake on coercive collectivization—immediately prompting mass defections as well as further agricultural ravages. But even while 20,000 “kulak” families were deported from Kazakhstan, the region had to accommodate 30,000 “kulak” households from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. As the catastrophe escalated, herds were destroyed: by 1933 over 90% of all livestock had been lost. “Sedentarization through expropriation turned nomads into refugees and beggars.” Settlements were decreed on land unsuitable for cultivation; lack of materials made building work fruitless. Chaotic measures took a terrible toll.

Nomads would also have to make way for the vast network of labour camps for victims of repression from elsewhere, that was being planned from 1930.

In Chapter 4, “Civil war and flight”, Kindler shows the tenuity of Bolshevik rule if Kazakhs could manage to mobilize in resistance. By 1930 the long hostility of both nomads and peasants to state policies escalated into a fragmented civil war—Kindler again unpacking diverse motives for popular violence. Some Muslim groups waged holy war and sought to establish sharia law. Brutal revolts were brutally suppressed; after September 1931 serious uprisings ceased.


Amidst the vast coercive displacements of the whole Soviet people, the indigenous Kazakh population was inundated with outsiders, including many inmates from labour camps. While nomads always depended on mobility, they now resorted to more radical migration across borders, with a vast exodus of refugees. While state policies eased somewhat after 1935, with nomadism tacitly condoned again, the pattern of cross-border migration would continue over a long period—and in both directions.

Warfare was intense in the Sino-Soviet borderland. Many Kazakhs fled by arduous routes to the Chinese-held province of Xinjiang; but there too, complex power struggles were under way, with smugglers, spies, and bandits among the population. [2] Nomads were accustomed to moving between borders, and there had been major flights in 1916 and 1928. Soviet forces carried out several massacres. For those Kazakhs who managed to reach Xinjiang, starvation was a danger there too.

Within the Soviet borders many Kazakhs also fled to Turkmen and Uzbek territory, as well as western Siberia. Unwelcome in such regions that Soviet policies had also reduced to desperation, they often became beggars.

Chapter 5, “Famine”, most lengthy and harrowing of all, opens starkly:

Between 1930 and 1934 at least a quarter of Kazakhstan’s total population perished.

Famine was widespread throughout the Soviet Union, not just in Kazakhstan and Ukraine but in North Caucasus and the Volga region. Other ethnic minorities within these regions also starved. But relief was secondary to the central goals of procurement and collectivization: the crisis reached its peak following the introductions of measures contrived to reduce it.

The catastrophe had unfolded gradually, but in the midst of armed struggles and mass migration, reports of famine multiplied from 1930. As solidarity and social cohesion dwindled, no-one could escape violence and its consequences. Children were orphaned or abandoned. Kindler cites documents describing cannibalism, and tellingly discusses the very countenance of starvation:

Going hungry radically changes people. They do not suddenly become recognizable victims. Over a longer period of time their figures, facial features, and ultimately their natures begin to change. Death by starvation is not sudden and unexpected. It announces itself gradually over days, weeks, even months. […] The hungry lose weight and look haggard and boney. Their skin loses suppleness and becomes pale. Muscles atrophy and warp posture. The starving often become apathetic and passive toward their environment. Finally they lose interest in anything except food. Starvation blocks out all other emotions and and induces a condition in which people tend to develop extreme forms of what, under other circumstances, they would consider their “normal” behaviour.

The faces of the starving frighten and horrify others. Their countenances speak of imminent death. Others may feel as if the radical change in facial expression comes from a loss of individuality and personality.

He cites the shocked reports of officials on the disaster.

But after experiencing the initial horror most people became complacent and callous. No-one could handle such constant confrontation with misery. […] The majority gradually became accustomed to the starving around them and resigned to accepting it. The longer they were confronted with hungry people, the less it bothered them. […]

Rejection of the starving often enough turned into overt hostility. […] The starving formed society’s lowest stratum. They were chased off, threatened, and often killed. They were strangers and beggars. Refugees were part of an undifferentiated gray mass with no future and a past that interested no-one.

As with the later Chinese famine,

It is no coincidence and it was not for a lack of camera equipment that there are few photographs of starving people in Kazakhstan. The catastrophe had no countenance and it was to be given none.

The food distribution points set up by the authorities were sites to which the starving were banished and left to die, reflecting “what characterized the Soviet Union as a whole: the conviction that useless people must be cleared away and disposed of as waste”. Violent ethnic tensions increased further. Officials too were vulnerable, concerned only for their own survival in a fragile pecking order. For the Soviet leadership the famine was an opportunity to subordinate the Kazakh nomads and peasants once and for all.

By late 1933 minor policy adjustments gradually led to the end of the worst sufferings. Despite resistance from both the Kazakh leadership and refugees, refugees began to be repatriated. Even people who had fled to Xinjiang, itself in the grip of civil war, planned to return. Still, with provisions for returnees quite inadequate, the death count continued to rise in 1934. A repressive system of internal passports was introduced. Those who had somehow survived now had to resign themselves to the kolkhoz.

In Chapter 6, “Soviet nomadism”, Kindler describes the aftermath. While plans for sedentarization continued, nomadism was now partially tolerated; the size of herds gradually increased, although only a minority would now be under the control of the kolkhozes. The leadership even began to accept national customs and folklore, at least in commodified form—as ever, I’m keen to see local reports on any such grassroots revival. Conditions on Kazakh-run kolkhozes were yet worse than those managed by Russians, and their performances poorer. Kolkhozes often became fictitious entities, lacking permanent buildings.

This standoff continued until the chaos unleashed by the Great Terror of 1937–38. In Kazakhstan regaining control over livestock breeding became a focus, resulting in further expropriations. And the region now became one of the major destinations for mass deportation:

Entire ethnic groups like Armenians, Koreans, and later Germans and Chechens populated the “special settlements” and the Kazakh branches of the Gulag, including above all the gigantic Karlag.

As the plan to “make the steppe arable” was left to prisoners and slave-labourers, the gulag came to form the backbone of Soviet power in central Kazakhstan (see e.g. here and here), a major part of the fatally warped economy. In One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Solzhenitsyn describes his time in Kazakh gulags in the early 1950s. Between 1931 and 1959 over one million “enemies of the people” laboured in the Karlag.

The war that erupted when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 caused grievous losses throughout the bloodlands of the western regions. It also marked a renaissance for Kazakh nomadism, although many livestock froze or starved to death. After the Great Victory, agronomists and ethnologists gave attention to ways of making migratory animal husbandry serve the interests of the socialist economy. “Soviet status was no longer bound to a sedentary way of life”.

In the brief but important final Chapter 7, “Legacy”, Kindler reflects:

Kazakhstan’s present multi-ethnic society is largely a product of Stalinism, forged by the nomads who managed to survive the famine and by the victims of Stalin’s mass deportations who were settled there.

As he explains,

Moral behaviour became perilous during the famine. Many people had no choice but to abet the corrupt system. The distinction between victim and perpetrator was blurred and, even in retrospect, we cannot clearly separate one from the other. A society that deemed the individual worthless and made the collective the greatest good stamped a verdict of guilty on anyone who valued his own life. […]

The crisis did not erode Soviet structures, it strengthened them by making individual survival almost completely dependent on Soviet mechanisms of order and distribution. Whoever survived the famine did so by the grace of the state that had caused it in the first place.

This resulted in complex processes of adaptation and psychological repression. […] Many Soviet citizens who had survived hunger, terror, and war, went on to live under the strain and stress of the Soviet system. They learned to cope with the tension and bury the dark sides of their past. […]

Victory in the Great Patriotic War blocked the tragedy of famine out of the collective memory of Kazakh society.

After the death of Stalin, in the mid-1950s many migrants poured into the steppe in response to Kruschev’s Virgin Lands Campaign—which though an economic failure and an ecological disaster, further integrated Kazakhstan into the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile I note that after the 1949 Communist victory in China, many Kazakhs and Uyghurs fled to the Soviet Union, particularly in the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Backward: a major exodus took place in 1962. And in Xinjiang today, while the Uyghurs bear the brunt of the brutal clampdown as their whole culture is assaulted, Kazakhs and other “minority” peoples are also suffering in a pervasive new gulag network.

Kindler explains the partial reclaiming of Kazakhstan’s history in recent decades:

After decades, it was finally perestroika that enabled the mention of famine in Kazakhstan. […] But due to the challenges of life under ongoing social transformation the topic was soon abandoned. After a short phase of public commemoration and rehabilitation between 1988 and 1993, coming to terms with the past once again became the domain of historians whose findings were barely noticed outside the small world of academic research.

This suited the new national narrative of independent Kazakhstan (for the current human rights situation, see here). A monument to victims of the famine, set up in 1992, was only completed in 2017. Commemorations finally increased from 2012. But with the example of Ukraine in mind, the authorities have remained wary:

The oasis of stability that the leaders of Kazakhstan like to present may then soon prove to be fictitious.

By now the urban–rural divide between Russian and Kazakh was even clearer. Kindler shows how the narrative of Kazakh victims impedes the study of the famine, downplaying the role of Kazakhs themselves in the disaster and silencing those who suffered. However, Kindler suggests that the interests of rulers and ruled might in some ways coincide:

Where no-one spoke about dying and suffering, no-one asked about personal responsibility and guilt. Silence held people together. When no-one spoke out, it was not only for fear of the regime. It also suppressed awareness of one’s own involvement. Excluding the victims meant including everyone else and doing so far beyond the end of the famine itself.

As in China (see this post on commemorating the abuses of Maoism), “forced trust” bound Soviet leaders and citizens together. People continued carefully to observe taboos: “the rules prescribed not only what was said, but what was not said as well.” Meanwhile in Germany the recognition of trauma took place more openly. Finally Kindler refrains from suggesting answers:

In light of Kazakh society’s instability, was it a rational strategy for coming to terms with the past to ignore the problematic aspects of the country’s own history? Does it suffice to label the famine a “national tragedy”, like a natural disaster, and leave it at that? Or is it time for Kazakhstan to explore its own responsibility for the outbreak of famine?

Note this recent documentary by Zhanbolat Mamay, Zulmat: mass hunger in Kazakhstan:

Now I look forward to reading Sarah Cameron’s book too.

For both nomadic and sedentary populations, Soviet policies led to extreme suffering. The whole period was a nightmare. With my focus on China I find it all the more tragic that some twenty-five years later, the CCP allowed this same disaster, with similar causes and consequences, to befall over forty million Chinese people. Wherever we do fieldwork, people still have to live with the memory of such traumas.

For the destruction of a First Nation community in Canada, see here.


[1] Both works are reviewed here; Cameron’s work here and here, as well as this substantial lecture. See also here and here; and note Alun Thomas, Nomads and Soviet rule: Central Asia under Lenin and Stalin (2018). For further comparative studies, see Famine: Ukraine and China, under “Comparisons, figures”.

[2] For the perspective of Uyghur culture, see Rachel Harris, The making of a musical canon in Central Asia, pp.29–33.

Uyghur culture in crisis

My love’s flames, I have become a beggar, indeed Allah
Before the whole world I stand alone, indeed Allah
I have suffered for an age, Allah, my patience is ended, Allah
I have become a moth drawn to the beauty of your face, indeed Allah
Oh lovers, your desire, Allah, my heart is addicted, Allah
I revel in your pleasure, Allah, I have become a drunkard, Allah
In the city, Allah, I have become a wine shop boy, indeed Allah
Before the whole world, Allah, I have been ruined, indeed Allah

—from Chahargah muqam, fifth mäshräp,
translated by Rachel Harris.

I’ve already featured Uyghur culture in Ashiq: the last troubadour, shrine festivals, and drum-and-shawm bands, I began writing this post with the simple idea of sharing an exquisite free-tempo prelude from the great muqam suites; but, as often, it has grown into more wide-ranging reflections.

In particular, since I noted the perceived crisis of “serious music” in the West, the current plight of Uyghur culture makes an extreme instance of crisis—to which the muqam’s lyrics of religious anguish make a sadly fitting commentary.

The muqam
I’ve been revisiting

  • Rachel Harris, The making of a musical canon in Chinese Central Asia (2008),

a book that seems even more important now that virtually all of the culture she describes, which having been tolerated (and in its official manifestations even supported) by the Chinese state for more than half a century, is now being ruthlessly extinguished. [1]


Over an economical 157 pages, Harris pinpoints a range of major issues.

Throughout the course of the 20th century, as newly formed nations have sought to assert and formalise their national identity, they have typically acquired a range of identifiable national aspects. Thus we find in this new period new musical canons springing up across the world. These canons, however, cannot be dismissed as arbitrary collections of works imposed on the public by the authorities. They acquire deep resonance and meaning, both as national symbols and as musical repertories imbued with aesthetic value.

The Chinese state has invested large sums of money in a succession of projects to preserve and develop [sic!] the Twelve Muqam, and it uses these projects to showcase the positive aspects of its minority policies on the national and international stage.

Describing the wider project on minority cultures, she comments:

Subject to processes of “reform and ordering”, dance styles were transformed into group choreographies, songs were transcribed and fixed, scales and musical instruments standardized, and a nation-wide system of professional performers was put in place, trained in arts academies, and organized into state-sponsored performing troupes.

These versions are disseminated through live performance, TV and radio, publications and recordings. Still, while documenting the official urban troupes, Harris never loses sight of local folk traditions. She also places the Uyghur muqam within the wider context of Central Asian muqam families (notably in Chapter 5).

Perhaps I should now use the past tense in this section:

The muqam are large-scale suites consisting of sung poetry, stories, dance tunes, and instrumental sections. Lyrics by both the major Central Asian poets and folk poetry. Religious mendicants also perform versions of the songs, and drum-and-shawm bands play the instrumental melodies. All this music is traditionally handed down without notation.

The titles of the muqam denote modal attributes, while the names of the pieces within them denote rhythmic patterns. Its tripartite outline subsumes numerous subsections:

  • chong näghmä, a lengthy suite of sung pieces with märghul instrumental interludes
  • dastan: a sequence of folk narrative songs, again with märghul
  • mäshräp: faster dance pieces, sung to folk lyrics.

One fascinating theme of Chapter 2 is how canonisation predates the PRC initiatives, with Uyghur troupes in the Soviet Central Asian states formalising the repertoire as early as the 1920s under the influence of Soviet ideology.


From Wong, “The value of missing tunes”.

In China under the PRC, the 1951 and 1954 recordings of the Kashgar master Turdi Akhun (1881–1956) formed the basis of transcriptions by the Beijing-based scholar Wan Tongshu, published in 1960, and went on to become the core of the whole glossy edifice of the official Twelve Muqam. [2]

So it seems strange that these celebrated recordings (apart from a brief section on the CD with a 2007 book) have remained under a cloak of secrecy. Doubtless Turdi Akhun’s performing style was less polished than that of the state troupes, but archive recordings of Chinese music [sic] from the pre-Cultural Revolution era have been issued.

Wan Tongshu also headed a new state-supported Muqam Research Working Group, which in 1957 organised a three-month fieldtrip to the southern region. Another leading Han Chinese scholar working on the muqam in the 1950s was Jian Qihua, whose transcriptions of the “Ili variant” were belatedly published in 1998. The official song-and-dance troupe in Urumchi began performing sections of these arrangements until the Cultural Revolution disrupted traditional activity. Meanwhile similar initiatives, producing composite versions of the muqam, were under way beyond the borders of China.

Ozhal coverIn Xinjiang the liberalisations following the collapse of the commune system from 1979 allowed the resumption of both folk activity and official research. Furthering the work that had begun in the 1950s, a Muqam Research Committee was formed in 1979, soon incorporated into the Xinjiang Muqam Ensemble. They went on to produce major series of recordings and transcriptions. Meanwhile the compilation of the Anthology provided a major new stimulus to fieldwork.

The 16th-century princess Amannisa Khan, subject of a popular 1993 film, was now claimed as an early fieldworker and compiler of the muqam, providing a fanciful historical cachet. Chinese state support for the muqam continued despite the increasing tensions that followed 9/11.


Reminding us that the musicians and researchers involved in such projects are real people with real lives, Chapter 3 is a vivid portrait of the eccentric musician Abdulla Mäjnun (b.1946). Indeed, the word mäjnun denotes an ashiq religious mendicant and a fool, a sarang: intoxicated and infatuated. Though he identified strongly with the ashiq, and was an outsider in the official Xinjiang Muqam Ensemble troupe where he was employed, he had learned to consider himself not a muqamchi, a term to describe an accomplished folk performer (cf. the Chinese minjian yiren), but a “muqam expert”, a more prestigious term with connotations of science, modern scholarship, and the urban world. In the professional musical circles of Urumchi, where drinking culture loomed large, he was in a league of his own.

Harris gives lively vignettes of a trip with him back to his native Khotan, observing his prestige and capacity for liquor. She concludes:

On one level Mäjnun’s conversations are revealing because he is so clearly engaged in strategically deploying the range of different metaphors at his disposal. On another level Mäjnun is interesting precisely because he embodies that collision of metaphors which I delineated in my discussion of Uyghur music histories: the disreputable, uncontrolled aspects of music and creativity in Uyghur tradition which sit uncomfortably with the notion of “national traditions” and the canon.

Abdulla Mäjnun is heard, solo, on the CD with the book, notably in some intimate muqaddime preludes. For these he favours the diltar, a combination of dutar and satar that he himself invented, “a cross between a double-necked electric guitar and a cathedral, or perhaps, rather, a mosque.” He also features on the CD Majnun: classical traditions of the Uyghurs.

Harris mentions Sabine Trebinjac’s brief biographies of female beggar musicians such as Shāyrnisa Khan,

living in Kashgar in the 1980s, who had had four husbands. Her husbands had disapproved of her begging, but she suffered from a sickness, and had to sing and play daily, in front of the mosque or at festivals, or on pilgrimage. She was a member of Naqshbandi Sufi group, and also took part in regular zikr rituals.

Such accounts, like my own for Han Chinese folk musicians, contrast with the compulsory image presented in Chinese biographies, in which folk musicians “selflessly present their art”, the vicissitudes of their lives under modern regimes largely ignored.

Contrary to the current tendency to regard the Twelve Muqam as something isolated and essentially different from the song repertoire (“classical” versus “folk”), in practice the two have often been mixed together, and it is common practice to follow the muqaddime with a suite of folk songs.

Chapter 4 gives details of the musical structure of the competing, evolving versions, showing that in the diversity of traditional performance, both the musical and lyrical repository of the so-called Twelve Muqam have long been combined in different ways.

A mounting body of evidence suggests that the Twelve Muqam have existed less as an actual body of music and more as a kind of idealised framework surrounding a much more fluid oral tradition, from which individual musicians would learn and perform different parts, and into which musicians might slot their own local repertoires and compositions.

After an astute historical introduction, Harris shows the links between the mäshräp sections of the muqam with hikmät prayers of Sufi religious mendicants. She notes the Muqam Research Committee’s ongoing quest for another Turdi Akhun among the folk:

They were not above pulling in ashiq they found begging in the bazaar to see if they might possess the holy grail of previously undiscovered parts of the repertoire. Mäjnun told me one morning as I arrived for my lesson:

We found an ashiq on the street this morning, playing sapaya [wood or horn percussion sticks set with metal rings]. We brought him to the Muqam Ensemble to see what he could do, but he was all mixed up, he played a bit of Chābayyat then followed into Ushshaq.

She goes on to give a diachronic analysis of renditions of the muqaddime preludes:

If there is any vestige of an improvised tradition in the Twelve Muqam, then it would be these muqäddimä sections, which are structured like an exploration of the mode.

As she notes,

Traditionally the lead vocalist would accompany himself, but specialisation in professional training has meant that these roles are separated in the troupes.

Sensibly, she gives reductive outline transcriptions, rather than the etic versions of other publications; indeed, I favour this method for traditional Han Chinese melody. Despite the importance of notation for the canonisation project, among Uyghur performers its influence is limited.

In orchestration too, Harris notes the contrast between folk and professional ideals, citing Ted Levin on the Bukharan Shash Maqām—the “limpid filigree” of the traditional small ensemble versus the “bloated heterophony” of the large-scale professional versions.

The muqaddime
In my post Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham I gave a little introduction to free-tempo preludes around the world. The Uyghur muqaddime are most wonderful accompanied by the resonant satar long-necked bowed lute. I am particularly entranced by the intense muqaddime of Özhal muqam—perhaps because of its tonal variety, with new scales, featuring a flat 7th and sharp 4th, introduced gradually. Here’s a 1997 recording:

My afflicted soul heads towards the Valley of Insanity
I hope this already wretched life of mine will break
The gravedigger who ignores the candle of my tomb
Will surely have his house and rags burnt by its sparks
Do not ask where I go—I have no choice
I have surrendered choice to the hands of Destiny
The rose-coloured tears have dried up, leaving but a withered face
The tyranny of Fate has exchanged my spring with autumn
My people, together with my beloved, gave me much trouble
What will become of me if I resolve to leave them behind?
Anyone’s chest will ache for my condition, when they see
My face smeared with blood from the broken pieces of my bosom
Peace is impossible until one abandons the world
Nawai, burn my existence, and deliver me
Way, derdim ah!

Abdulla Mäjnun was especially devoted to Chahargah muqam, said to be for the ashiq (CD #7, which he played with tears running down his cheeks). But all the muqaddime are exquisite—here’s a transcription of Nawa, from the climax (äwäj): [3]


Chapter 6 explores the impact of canonisation, not least the inclusion of the “Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam” in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) since 2005. She discusses the impact at grass-roots level of efforts to “rescue” local traditions:

To what extent had these efforts established hegemony over local practices? Had rural musicians adopted the officially promoted repertoire or were they maintaining local traditions, and how did these traditions relate to the official repertoire? What plans had been drawn up as part of the UNESCO plan, and how were they being put into action?

Among the local traditions, the “raw, macho sounds” of the Dolan muqam were now elevated to become a folk counterpart to the official professional version. But other local folk styles were fragile and perishable; and as in other parts of the world, any official promotion played little part in their evolution. Harris describes the impact of the independent recording industry, finding the cassettes of performers like Abliz Shakir more significant an influence than those of the official troupes:

The failure of the Muqam Ensemble to capture the popular imagination lies in a combination of aesthetic and political considerations. Firstly the state-run ensemble is arguably too closely associated with the Chinese regime for their performances to be popularly adopted as Uyghur nationalist icons. Secondly, amateur musicians were deterred by the complexity of the chong näghmä section, and by the heavy orchestral-choral arrangements. In fact these aesthetic and political considerations are inseparable, as the ensemble aesthetic—one which is modelled on transnational models of canonic, national traditions—is itself representative of the state. Abliz Shakir’s recordings, released through the independent recording industry and sold on stalls in the bazaars, signalling another kind of authenticity in their performance style, and perhaps aided by the performer’s own ambivalent relationship with the authorities, achieved a far greater popularity.

She notes

concerns about the possibility of negative impact following the UNESCO bid, with local muqam traditions becoming increasingly commercialised and exploited in Xinjiang’s exploding tourism market.

She illustrates the complexities of local activity with a vivid description of a village mäshräp festivity. Indeed, the mäshräp always made an implausible candidate for the ICH: having been commodified by the state it has recently been coopted into the sinister form of the “mäshräp to tackle religious extremism“. [4]

In conclusion Harris comments:

If the few surviving local traditions of Twelve Muqam, which are all too lacking the glamour and musical sophistication of the recorded versions recorded by star performers, are to be locally revived and maintained then they must somehow achieve greater relevance to local musicians and audiences.

But as she stresses, the canonised Twelve Muqam are only one aspect of the whole muqam tradition, elements of which may be found in a wide range of Uyghur musicking. Or rather could be found, until 2016.

Among the scholars whom Harris cites is the Han-Chinese Zhou Ji (1943–2008), who by the 1980s was the leading figure in Uyghur music research. A native of Jiangsu province, in the critical times of 1959, aged 16, he set off to Xinjiang in response to the state’s call to “support the frontier regions”. He remained based there for the rest of his life; from 1985 he was employed at the Xinjiang Arts Research Unit in Urumchi, which he went on to lead. Thoroughly immersed in Uyghur culture (not least its drinking culture), Zhou Ji was highly regarded in the Uyghur musical world. [5] Chief editor of the Xinjiang volumes of the Anthology, he took the folk ritual life of the Uyghurs seriously—note his major 1999 book on Islamic ritual music of the Uyghurs—[6] and even studied female ritual specialists and their repertoires. While he was inevitably involved with official promotions such as the ICH, Harris notes that he dared to publicly voice a number of criticisms concerning the canonisation project.

Zhou Ji

Zhou Ji with Uyghur musicians.

But it was Uyghurs who formed the core of researchers before and since the Cultural Revolution. More recently, scholars such as the anthropologist Rahilä Dawut—also supported within the academic apparatus of the Chinese state—furthered scholarly work.


Rahilä Dawut.

The current devastation
Harris’s book was published in 2009, at a time when Uyghur cultural life was still much in evidence despite growing restrictions since 9/11; Uyghur, Chinese, and foreign scholars were still able to do fieldwork. Apart from local traditions such as shrine festivals and pilgrimages, the state (for all its ideological motives) was still actively promoting Uyghur culture.

And then, from 2016, came the repression—in which musicians like Sanubar Tursun and academics like Rahilä Dawut are among innumerable casualties. The ruthless current assault is being diligently documented in the media, such as

As centuries of magnificent lyrics are erased, sporadic official performances set to secular Chinese texts now reduces the muqam to flagrant propaganda, mere political rituals of loyalty to a Han nationalist vision of the Chinese state.

I used to think that such demonstrations of state power were tangential to folk life, but in the current plight of the Uyghurs, with the whole culture—architecture, religious life, clothing, hair styles, food, language—being purged, little else may remain.

Despite all the difficulties of maintaining Uyghur culture since 1949, and the political tensions that state performers, and Uyghur and Chinese scholars, had to negotiate, the scene before 2016 now seems almost unimaginable. Both urban and rural, folk and academic life, even the state-sanctioned versions of Uyghur culture, have been decimated.

The current campaign to obliterate Uyghur culture is an affront to humanity.


[1] For her numerous other publications, see, with further material under Note also Nathan Light, Intimate heritage: creating Uyghur song in Xinjiang (2008). Among many recordings, note the 2-CD set of local folk groups by Jean During and Sabine Trebinjac, Turkestan chinois/Xinjiang: musiques Ouïgoure (1990).

[2] See also Chuen-Fung Wong, “The value of missing tunes: scholarship on Uyghur minority music in northwest China”, Fontes Artis Musicae 56.3 (2009).

[3] For a complete version of the Özhal suite, click here (for the jarring exoticised visuals, “an imagined idyll of the past”, see Harris, pp.91–2). Since I never got to master its muqaddime with the London-based singer Rahime Mahmut—my attempts to learn the satar being even more inept than my limited abilities on ghijak—I was happy to hear her performing it (with ud!) at the 2019 Muslim news awards for excellence (from 10.38). Abdulla Mäjnun plays the Nawa muqaddime on the CD, #6; for another version, click here; and for the complete suite, here.

[4] See Rachel Harris, ” ‘A weekly meshrep to tackle religious extremism’: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang”, in Roberts and Bovingdon (eds), “Develop the West”: Chinese state development and Uyghur cultural resilience, adaptation, and cooptation in Xinjiang (2018).

[5] Tributes, mainly from Chinese musicologists, are assembled in a commemorative volume edited by Tian Qing 田青, Mukamu weini songxing: Zhou Ji jinian wenji 木卡姆为你送行:周吉纪念文集 (2009).

[6] Zhongguo Xinjiang Weiwuerzu Yisilanjiaode liyi yinyue 中国新疆维吾尔族伊斯兰教礼仪音乐—a title that could not be published today; it’s still visible online in the PRC, though no longer for order.


Smiling in China


Relaxing in the scripture hall between rituals, Yanggao. From my film.

A brief introduction to the origins and history of smiling by Antony Manstead leads me to ponder China. As even a glance at wiki tells us, it turns out to be just as complicated as all others kinds of human behaviour. Here are some preliminary, random notes, awaiting a more thorough study.

Manstead concludes:

Turning points in social practices over time, such as the emergence of dentistry in 18th-century France, the rise of the advertising industry in 20th-century America, changes in social norms regarding the appropriateness of emotional displays and changes in immigration have all contributed to observable differences in how and when we smile.

Another report comments:

One common Russian proverb translates as “smiling with no reason is a sign of stupidity”, while a government leaflet on working in Norway warns that you’ve been in the country too long if you assume smiling strangers are drunk, insane, or American.

Smiles have been classified under many headings, such as fearful, miserable, dampened, embarrassed, qualified, compliance, coordination response, listener response, contempt, angry-enjoyment, fake, flirtatious, and the famous Duchenne smile.

Laughter may seem like a more spontaneous reaction, but it too may be classified under a variety of headings (etiquette, nervous, cruel, and so on). Laughing from amusement is not the same as smiling as a habitual social lubricant, a sign of good will.

Bill Bryson notes how humour is basic to social interaction in Britain. In a passage of Notes from a small island from which I’ve already cited, he observes:

Watch any two Britons in conversation and see how long it is before they smile or laugh over some joke or pleasantry. I once shared a railway compartment between Dunkirk and Brussels with two French-speaking businessmen who were obviously old friends or colleagues. They talked genially the whole journey, but not once in over two hours did I see either of them raise a flicker of a smile. You could imagine the same thing with Germans or Swiss or Spaniards or even Italians, but with Britons—never.

This may be a pertinent comment on the British bourgeoisie, but it will only take us a moment to realize that their habits are anything but universal. We need to unpack different contexts and moments in social interaction—degrees of acquaintance, between friends and within the family; initial greetings and sustained conversation, formal situations, propaganda, and so on.

Bryson’s typical British scenario will not only involve friendly smiles upon meeting, but the whole opening exchange too is likely to take a jocular form. However, the voluntary “social” smile—a form of social signalling—is variable across cultures. Age, class, and economics are clearly important factors: even in Britain, teenagers and poor people don’t feel such a need to express friendliness thus. Smiling is by no means a simple indicator of happiness, but in much of the world—poor societies and war zones, for instance—there’s not much to be happy about. Under state socialism, propaganda only blurs the issue; it’d be interesting to explore how the experience transformed personal interaction. For the USSR, the work of Orlando Figes provides material. None of this maps precisely onto the global happiness index…

Like Bryson in Britain, among friends in China I often marvel at their humour; but even observing their social life as a fly on the wall rather than in my exchanges with them, I find much less smiling as social lubricant. Still, again, this is no simple matter.

One would seek to consider diverse social groups, both urban and rural—for the latter, peasants, cadres, entrepreneurs, teachers, traders, vagrants, and so on (for some instances from my own fieldwork, see here).

So here I’m more interested in the incidence of smiling within social groups. However, while outsiders in urban contexts may be able to observe social interaction without intruding on the scene, in smaller rural communities they—whether foreign or Chinese—may not make reliable observers. The arrival of a stranger in such a setting may cause anxiety; but even long-term acquaintance doesn’t bestow insider status. I also think of this wonderful story from Liu Xin. Maybe rural insiders like Mobo Gao would have pertinent remarks.

It will be even harder to document historical change. I look forward to an erudite tome on smiling in the late Tang dynasty. Even analyzing smiles through the 1930s, 1950s, and 1990s may prove difficult, with much of the material based on images rather than ethnography. Under Maoism, as in the Soviet bloc, humour was commonly expressed in the form of bitter jokes (e.g. here, with links; many more instances under Chinese jokes).

For rural China I noted the lack of terms like hello, thankyou, please, and sorry (Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.23–4, cf. here). By contrast with the British jocular small-talk about the weather, a common rural Chinese greeting is: “Have you eaten?”—suggesting a historical anxiety about famine.

Meanwhile the sullen, automatic, negative response “Meiyou” from shop assistants, still standard in the 1980s, began to give way to more friendly exchanges by the 1990s.

As has been well documented, smiling for portraits developed only quite recently even in the West. In China, putting on your best face for the camera has rarely been perceived as requiring a happy smile; posed photos there still typically show serious, unsmiling subjects. This used to bemuse me. While I try to take informal photos, we have also taken many posed group pictures of ritual specialists (see posts under Local ritual), which rarely show anyone smiling.

Qiao family 1962

The Qiao family, Yulin city 1962, in a lull between major social traumas. Showing a range of expressions, it hardly contributes to the discussion—I just love the image.

Photos from the Maoist era (and indeed since), showing workers and peasants smiling or engaged in their work, with no hint of conflict or coercion, are clearly flawed evidence (see e.g. this chapter by Covell Myskens). Most flagrant are images of ethnic minorities singing and dancing—not least the shameful recent CCP propaganda of Uyghurs singing “If you’re happy and you know it”, worthy of Terezin.

Happy Uyghurs

More recently photographers sometimes encourage a smile with the Chinese version of “Cheese!”: “Qiezi!” (aubergine).

Since we’re discussing social interaction here, film footage should be a major database, though again the degree of intrusion of the outsider on the scene will be an element. Apart from documentary, verité feature films are worth considering, such as The blue kite, The story of Qiuju or the work of Jia Zhangke.

Besides class, we should consider gender. Rural women tend not to interact in public, still less with men. Outside the family, smiling may be perceived as indecorous, and their behaviour is highly reserved. Again, one seeks to document their daily interactions among each other. At the same time, social media and the selfie have produced new poses.

As I said, these are just a few preliminary thoughts. Anyway, we obviously have to guard against taking traits that are familiar within the narrow confines of our own society as some kind of benchmark. As I write, the All Black haka shows a distinctive form of social greeting…




Uyghur drum-and-shawm

ordam 1

From Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, Music of the Ordam shrine festival.

To follow my posts on shawms in south Asia and Lorestan, travelling northeast (if one could, via Afghanistan), one reaches Xinjiang, where shawm bands are also common.

The Uyghur tag in the sidebar includes my review of the film Ashiq: the last troubadour, and a post on mazar shrine festivals and the disappearance of the scholar Rahilä Dawut. Deplorably, since 2016 much of the rich culture of the Uyghurs seems to have become a historical subject.

The muqam suites are mainly sung and danced to the accompaniment of plucked and bowed strings, but they are also part of the repertoire of naghra-sunay bands, with paired kettle-drums and shawm. As elsewhere, these bands perform mainly for life-cycle events (notably weddings), calendrical rituals, and shop openings. The CD

contains brief tracks (#1 and #12), as well as a lengthier excerpt from the Charigah muqam as played in Turpan (#8)—including a “limping” metre of 17 beats divided 7+6+6.

Incidentally, here’s an excerpt from Charigah muqam as performed in Khotan by Chistiyya Sufis (for more, see here):

Here’s a 2006 clip of a naghra-sunay group in Kashgar playing Shadiyana to accompany sama dance at the Heyitgah mosque (longer audio here):

For more, see the “Sounding Islam China” channel on YouTube. [1]

As always, studying such music soon leads us to consider the wider ritual culture—not least the great pilgrimages to mazar Sufi shrine festivals, at which bakhshi ritual healers who attend the mazar also play naghra-sunay. Again, we are drawn to the fine work of the anthropologist and film-maker Rahilä Dawut—and her outrageous detention. 

ordam 2

It’s not just the religious life of Xinjiang that is being destroyed, it’s the whole culture. See also Uyghur culture in crisis.


[1] For transcriptions, in addition to the instrumental volumes of the Anthology for Xinjiang, see e.g. Xinjiang guchuiyue: Weiwuer suona he nagela hezou taoqu 新疆鼓吹乐: 维吾尔唢呐和纳格拉合奏套曲 [Drumming-and-blowing music from Xinjiang: suites for sunay and naghra] (Shandong wenyi cbs, 2002, 186 pp.), with introduction by Jian Qihua 简其华, and transcriptions based on recordings by him and Mao Jizeng 毛继增 from 1962 to 1963.


Shrine festivals of the Uyghurs: Rahilä Dawut


Rahilä Dawut.

I note two conspicuous, inevitable absences from the recent Shanghai festival of films on music ethnography.

One is the work of Liu Xiangchen, a Han-Chinese director who has long documented the cultures of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Only three years ago, the Centre for Ritual Music at Shanghai was able to hold an event at which his film Ashiq: the last troubadour was screened in full; and in 2017 he attended a screening at SOAS. Yet in this short time the climate has changed radically.

Infinitely more distressing is the case of the distinguished Uyghur anthropologist and film-maker Rahilä Dawut, who (along with countless others in Xinjiang) was “disappeared” in 2017 amidst the excalation of the tragic, all-pervading war now being waged on Uyghur culture; her whereabouts remain unknown.

As with most if not all other detained academics and artists, this is not a question of engaging in some kind of “subversive” activity: as Darren Byler notes in his fine tribute, Dawut’s work has long been celebrated within the Chinese academic and political system.

Here’s a compelling appeal from her daughter:

See also here. Among Rahilä Dawut’s writings in English are:

  • Rachel Harris and Rahilä Dawut, Mazar festivals of the Uyghurs: music, Islam and the Chinese state”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 11.1 (Red ritual: ritual music and Communism, 2002)
  • Rahile Dawut, Lisa Ross, Beth R. Citron and Alexander Papas, Living shrines of Uyghur China (2013)
  • Rahile Dawut, “Ordam mazar: a meeting place for different practices and belief systems in culturally diverse Xinjiang” [sic], in Ildikó Bellér-Hann, Birgit N. Schlyter and Jun Sugawara (eds) Kashgar revisited: Uyghur studies in memory of Ambassador Gunnar Jarring (2016)
  • Rahile Dawut, “Mazar pilgrimage among the Uyghurs”, in Rahile Dawut and Jun Sugawara (eds), Mazar: studies on Islamic sacred sites in Central Eurasia (2016).
  • Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, “Music of the Ordam shrine festival” (here, part of a useful site).

See also

  • Rian Thum, The sacred routes of Uyghur history (2014).
ordam 2

From Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, “Music of the ordam shrine festival”.

In her conscientious research, Dawut documented at least two hundred local Sufi mazar festivals throughout Xinjiang. As in festivals everywhere (see also Calendrical rituals), a diverse cast of performers attends the mazar: alongside dastan story‐telling, muqam, and zikr rituals (with separate groups of male and büwi female ritual specialists), bakhshi ritual healers also play naghra-sunay drums and shawm

“Mazar and political authority”, the final section of Mazar festivals of the Uyghurs” (2002), now looks both prophetic and dated. The authors note that state authorities have long taken a suspicious attitude to such cults, but under the PRC they were rarely a target of systematic attack until recently.

The uneven situation across Xinjiang suggests that local decisions, rather than consistent state intervention, control the mazar. […]

In contexts less visible to the outside world, particularly in the case of the large-scale mazar festivals, policy has become more hard-line in recent years. The Ordam festival was first banned under the PRC in 1958 following the national Anti-Rightist campaign, a time when traditional cultural activities across the country but especially in Xinjiang began to be strongly circumscribed. The festival was revived after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the early 1980s, and at its high point in the mid-1980s it was attracting some 20,000 people each day. However, as Xinjiang’s political situation became increasingly tense during the 1990s, policy towards the mazar festivals became caught up in fears of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and Uyghur separatism, which are regularly equated in government terminology with violence and terrorism. This problem was undoubtedly instrumental in the new ban on the Ordam imposed in 1997.

In other parts of Xinjiang local authorities have preferred to implement policies of regulation and support, ensuring a degree of government control over the festivals.

Discussing official opposition to the mazar, they write:

It is less any real political threat that the mazar festivals may pose, and more the “disorderly” nature of their sights and sounds, which prove so alarming to the authorities. A few Uyghur scholars have recently dared to suggest that the banning of the mazar festivals fuels popular resentment against the authorities and have called for a redrawing of the line between “illegal religious activities” and the “folk customs” of the Uyghurs. There is currently little space for debate of such issues in Xinjiang and, sadly, it appears increasingly likely in the international climate at the time of writing, following America’s declaration of a “global war against terrorism”, that the space for such debate will become yet more limited.

Despite this sensitive background, the mazar pilgrimages, and Uyghur culture generally, managed to continued activity over the following years, and scholars like Rahilä Dawut were still able to pursue their researchHere, for instance, you can find a series of videos of dastan story-tellers that she and her students filmed in 2009 and 2010. The Imam Asim shrine was still attracting pilgrims too, but it was among many shrines and mosques razed since 2016, and as the brutal recent clampdown has intensified the fate of Uyghur culture—and Uyghurs who study it—looks bleak.

shrine 2010

Imam Asim shrine festival, 2010. Photo: Rian Thum.

See also Uyghur drum-and-shawmUyghur culture in crisis, and Uyghur tag.


Update on Uyghur culture


While I am tarred by the brush of studying Han Chinese cultures—themselves long accustomed to state brutality—the traditions of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang also feature in several of my posts, collected under this tag. Now painfully aware that my review of the film Ashiq: the last troubadour already needs revisiting in the light of the recent cultural genocide in Xinjiang—reminiscent of Stalin’s nationalist purges yet much more efficiently hi-tech and far-reaching—I’ve just done a distressing update to that post, with some further links.

Yet again this illustrates the vacuous, duplicitous claims of heritage pundits (note this post), whose reified presentations (for the Han Chinese too, if less fragrantly destructive) serve mainly to consolidate the ideological agenda of the modern state. But such polite, subtle manipulations are now rendered brutally obsolete.

Other posts under the Uyghur theme should also be read with this picture in mind.

Taco taco taco burrito


Wondering how to get to grips with additive metres?
Awed by the complexities of flamenco palmas?
Despair not, help is at hand!

As a prelude to aksak “limping” metres, we might start with quintuple metres, which go far back, even in WAM. By the baroque period there are niche examples by composers such as Schmelzer, and they feature in 19th-century Russian music—a most popular instance being the “limping waltz” of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony (2+3).

This reminds me of two other subversions of the waltz, albeit in regular triple metre: the 2nd movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (cf. here and here), and Ravel’s La valse, a “surreal nightmarish vision of a decaying society through a broken kaleidoscope”, as I said in my Ravel page. Elsewhere Ravel was partial to additive metres, such as in his piano trio, and the 5/8 Bacchanale finale of Daphnis and Chloé (both also featured on that page).

Quintuplets, of course, are something else altogether; as are the creative use of additive rhythms in minimalism (see also examples from Reich and Meredith).

From Tchaikovsky we might graduate to

  • the Pearl and Dean theme (which we may hear as two groups each of 3+3+2; or for a Bulgarian, perhaps two fast groups of 3+3+3+3+2+2)
  • Un homme et une femme (after the three upbeats, 3+3+2+2: the first two 3s, in the original “Dabadabada, badabadaba”, were later remembered as “Chabadabada“, a word that entered the language to denote alternating male and female candidates in electoral lists!)
  • and Lalo Schifrin’s theme to Mission impossible (5/4, with a duplet over the first 2 beats).

If you can hum along to such easy examples, then that’s a good start in mastering the intricacies of so-called aksak metres around east Europe and the Middle East…

Indeed, Take five was inspired by hearing Turkish musicians. Rather more challenging is the opening section of Blue Rondo à la Turk (2+2+2+3):

Note the helpful BTL comment there (only without the punctuation!):

Taco, taco, taco, burrito. Taco, taco, taco, burrito. Taco, taco, taco, burrito.
[SJ: not to be confused with potato, potato]

Still, that’s a rather crude, mechanical usage, the melody merely marking out the metre in regular quavers—whereas further east, melodic rhythms are infinitely varied within the basic metre.

Admittedly, the additive patterns of the Rite of spring have been transcribed in 4/4—was it really Boulez who had this drôle idea?! Cf. Slonimsky‘s help for Koussevitzky, here). Indeed, the scores for both the Pearl and Dean and Un homme et une femme tunes were written in duple metres.

And Max Richter’s welcome recomposition of the Four Seasons mixes in some great limping 7/8 bars (2+2+3—just the two tacos before the burrito today, thanks waiter) (from 1.14):

An intriguing instance is I say a little prayer, with its quirky insertion of a triple-time bar in the chorus—which no-one apparently even has to think about.

* * *

But all this is mere child’s play compared to folk music. Though such metres are quite widespread, Bartók, Brailiou et al. coined the term “Bulgarian rhythm”.


Some instances of “Bulgarian rhythm”, found here; see also here.

A classic essay is

  • Constantin Brăiloiu, “Aksak rhythm” (in Brăiloiu, Problems of ethnomusicology, 133–67, based on a 1951 lecture),

which contains far more detailed schemata. His work followed that of

  • Bela Bartók, “The so-called Bulgarian rhythm” (1938).

A transcription by Bartók of a Turkish zurna–davul shawm band shows how, over the basic metre, melodic and percussion rhythms seriously thicken the plot:

aksak 2

The whole repertoire of players like Ivo Papazov is based on aksak metres:

I don’t think I’m quite ready for Sedi donka (Plovdivsko horo), a 25-beat pattern divided

    7             7                 11
3+2+2 | 3+2+2  | 2+2+3+2+2

For more on the diverse musical cultures of Bulgaria and environs, see here. And for a wide-ranging discussion, see

  • John Blacking, “Irregular rhythms: movement, dance, music, and ritual”, ch.3 of A common-sense view of all music (1987).

Back with Merrie England, there’s a fascinating article:

* * *

Further east, an example from the muqam of the beleaguered Uyghurs of Xinjiang is sadly topical (see this useful site). A common metre consists of one long beat divided into two equal stresses, followed by two regular beats—which we might notate cumbersomely as


with the initial duplet over a notional 3/8 unit:

Some sections add another duple unit, like this dastan from Chebiyat muqam (actually a duplet over 3/8,  followed by 3/4):


And some muqam have still more metrically complex segments to explore.

As with many world genres, the Uyghurs have no tradition of notation, and seem to have no terminology for such metres (though see Rachel Harris’s chapter in Harris and Stokes (eds.), Theory and Practice in the Music of the Islamic World). As with flamenco, this kind of thing is only an issue for those (like me) hampered by a visual classical education. The trick is to internalize it in the body—and to dispense with notation. Let’s remember that much of this music accompanies dance.

Uyghur musical traditions are part of a rich culture that is currently being systematically erased in Xinjiang.



Taming the Uyghur “heritage”

I’ve ranted in many posts about the iniquities of “heritage“, particularly (though not only) for China. As if the commodification, reification, and secularization of local Han Chinese cultures isn’t bad enough, it’s still worse for minority traditions such as those of the Tibetans and Uyghurs, for whom the political agenda to sinicize and tame is even clearer.

On the cultural aspect of the repression of the Uyghurs (muqam, meshrep and so on), I’ve just added a link to an excellent detailed recent report on the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang, both under my main theoretical discussion Edible, Intangible, dodgy and in my film review Ashiq: the last troubadour. Note also Uyghur culture in crisis.


A brief guide to Chinese fiddles

Further to the delights of Indian and world fiddles, I write this partly as a reminder to myself, while I enjoy an unlikely renaissance in my playing of the “mellifluous” erhu fiddle (see also here).

For Chinese instrumental music, I’ve showed how the conservatoire solos are merely the tip of the iceberg. The great majority of instruments are played not solo but as part of ensembles, not on the concert platform but as part of social life. Bowed strings mainly accompany vocal music—the ritual genres that I study in north China are dominated by wind and percussion ensembles (the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here, making a useful introduction).

So ironically, the four solo instruments (pipa, zheng, qin, and erhu) that dominate the popular image of “national music” are rather rare in the countryside. But even if it’s bowed fiddles (“friction chordophones”, ha) you’re after, don’t limit yourselves to the erhu. Much as I love fine renditions like this, there’s a wide range, to rank alongside all the variety of world fiddles.

One guide, mainly useful for historical sources on early fiddles (huqin, xiqin, and so on), is the 1999 book

  • Xiang Yang 项阳, Zhongguo gongxian yueqi shi 中国弓弦乐器史 [A history of Chinese bowed string instruments].

For illustrated introductions, see e.g. Zhongguo yueqi tujian 中国乐器图鉴, pp.236–73. For folk practice in modern times one should look to field reports on local traditions, setting forth from the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples (for leads, see my book Folk music of China).

Suzhou Daoist Zhou Zufu on tiqin and banhu fiddles, UK 1994.

On a journey south, passing the tiqin of Kunqu and Daoist groups of south Jiangsu, regional traditions along the southeast coast have several types. The nanyin of south Fujian and the ensembles of Chaozhou (areas that are nearby yet culturally very different) use distinct fiddles (both written as erxian 二弦).

Wang Axin 1990

Nanyin ensemble, Wang Axin on erxian. Quanzhou 1990.

The exquisite Hokkien tradition of nanyin (nanguan) of south Fujian and Taiwan uses a core chamber ensemble of pipa and sanxian plucked lutes, xiao, end-blown flute, and erxian fiddle—all regionally distinctive versions. The large repertoire of long slow sustained ballads somewhat resembles the last page of Mahler 9 elevated into a whole genre. The pipa and xiao are focal to the group, but the erxian is also amazing, demanding extraordinary bow control, full of inflection. For an introduction to expressive cultures around Fujian, see here.

Putian 1990

Fiddles in Shiyin 十音 ensemble. Puxi village, Quanzhou 1990.

Chaozhou blind

Blind instrument-maker Cai Qiuzong (b.1947) on touxian, Dahao town, Shantou 1990.

Guangdong province has several other fiddle types, such as the yehu, and the Cantonese gaohu.

If strings are better known in south China, note that wind and percussion ensembles are just as common there. But northern fiddles are also varied, such as the banhu, huhu (some played with metal rings on the left finger, as in the photos below) and sihu, the Beijing-opera fiddle jinghu, and zhuihu and ruyigou in Henan and Shandong. What most of these fiddles have in common is a gritty timbre, quite far from the suave polished ideal of the conservatoire erhu.

WWQ 2001

yingxian 硬弦 fiddle from Xi’an puppet ensemble: Huang Yuying (b.1932), Xi’an 2001.

XJY 2003

Fiddles accompanying opera, Xujiayuan temple fair, Yanggao 2003. Dodgy screenshot from my film Doing Things, with 2007 book Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi.

An honorable mention too for bowed zithers (zhaqin and so on) played in various traditions north and south. Not to mention all the diverse fiddles among the ethnic minorities— Mongolian morin khuur, Uyghur satar and ghijak, and so on.

Of course, one may end up specializing, but musicians are versatile: they pick up various instruments in order to learn how to take part in the social activity of musicking. The repertoires of such regional traditions took shape long before the modern standardizations of “national music”.

Indeed, outside the conservatoires and apart from the children of the urban bourgeoisie, the only bowed fiddle that’s not at all popular is the erhu! It has commonly been added to ensembles accompanying regional vocal genres since around the 1920s, but remains subsidiary. As always, we should rejoice in regional diversity.

Zooming out, see here for an introduction to the sidebar tag fiddles.


Indian and world fiddles

The other day, just before my alarming rendition of Bach on the erhu, I went to an enthralling concert of Carnatic violin by the sisters M. Lalitha and M. Nandini at the Bhavan Centre in West London, a lively centre for the Indian community.

How mesmerizing Indian music can be, unfolding naturally with grace and fluency! Learning such oral traditions is aided by memorizing sargam solfeggio. Tuning the strings in open fifths (like G–D–g–d, often used in world fiddle styles— actually, here they commonly have five strings) lends the violin a wonderful sonority (cf. Keef’s excited epiphany).

The ideal in many cultures is for instruments of all kinds to imitate the voice—I love the way Wu Mei decorates the vocal liturgy of the Li band on the guanzi oboe, for instance. It was by chance that I ended up playing the violin in WAM, but we can all appreciate the link between the voice and bowed lutes (or should I say friction chordophones? No you bloody shouldn’tThe Plain People of Ireland) by extending our interests to other world genres. OK, for us WAM fiddlers embarking on Mahler 5 there may be no clear benefits to this, but why don’t we all learn the rudiments of Indian style and technique too? However rigorous a training in rag may be, it can’t be as arid and painful as ploughing through sodding Ševčík studies—it’s amazing we didn’t all give up.

The Bhavan audience was sadly thin on the ground, but it’s the magic of the rapport that counts. It reminds me of a Mozart Requiem tour of Italy with John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s. For some reason we ended up doing a gig at a dingy cinema in the sleepy town of Terni on a Sunday afternoon, performing for a tiny audience that barely outnumbered the massed orchestral and choral forces. Nonetheless, with stellar singers like Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter, it was one of our most moving performances.

At the risk of sounding like Away from it all (“the one thing that Venice truly lacks is leprechauns“), here’s a random but inspiring sample of some further riches of world fiddling—needless to say, it’s all about technique at the service of the music, which in turn stems from its social use…

Still with the exquisite gamak styles of India, here’s a Hindustani female dynasty:

And then there’s the wonderful sarangi—click here for a fine website.

I outline some of the diverse bowed lutes of China here; the erhu is the least traditional of them, but you must hear this astounding playing. See also here.

Irish fiddling can be irresistible:

Some unaccompanied Bach (on violin instead of cello, for a change):

And Transylvanian bands (see mainly here):

From Iran, here’s Mohammad Reza Lotfi on kamancheh:

Kamancha playing from Azerbaijan is amazing too. I used to have a clip here of an Azeri party—complete with mobile phones, naff yet tasteful accompaniment, and no fancy fakelore costumes. But it’s disappeared, so we’ll have to settle for a reified official concert version:

And here’s a stellar gathering of players, all with their own distinctive styles (with thanks to Jeffrey Werbock, himself a fine exponent of Azeri music):

For the Uyghurs of Xinjiang (useful site here), besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar—played here in a more natural setting:

And the Uyghurs use “our” violin just as expressively too, as on this track— from a cassette by the renowned singer Abliz Shakir in the early 1990s:

Some of these genres are explored in the fine projects Growing into music and The music of Central Asia.

That’s a start. I leave jazz fiddling to another post… For yet more, see fiddles tag in the sidebar, introduced here.

Ashiq: the last troubadour

*Distressing update*

After all these years when the common response to a comment on the Uyghurs of Xinjiang was “The WHAT of WHAT?”, their new-found global fame is yet more unfortunate. It’s hard to believe now that the screening of this film, less than two years ago, came at a time when the Uyghurs were little known, when films like this could still be made about groups that were still active, and still seemed relevant; when dedicated Uyghur scholars and performers still had room to maintain their culture. Following their pervasive silencing since then, among a host of fine articles on the appalling current situation in Xinjiang, see here, and here, including Rachel Harris’s comments on the disappearance of Sanubar Tursun. Among many articles on the distinguished ethnographer and film-maker Rahilä Dawut, another victim of the purge, is this. For more, see Shrine festivals of the UyghursUyghur drum-and-shawm, and Uyghur culture in crisis..

I’ve left the review below as I first wrote it.

* * *

In my little list of ethnographic films, I mentioned Liu Xiangchen 刘湘晨, an outstanding film-maker based in Urumqi in Xinjiang. On Monday at SOAS, as part of a conference on Islamic soundscapes in China (itself part of an excellent project[1] he attended a screening of his Ashiq: the last troubadour (2010, 122 mins), one of several films by him on various ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

Filmed mainly between 2003 and 2007, Liu’s four-hour version of Ashiq was shown last year at the splendid Shanghai Centre for Ritual Music, with a detailed discussion (which, ominously, has since disappeared from the web).

Here’s an 8-minute trailer:

and an introduction.

The “exotic” ethnic minorities are always a more popular research topic than the somewhat mundane Han Chinese; I would say, only I’d sound like the UKIPs, that the Han Chinese have become a minority in their own country—which would be just as absurd, given that, in the face of vast Han Chinese immigration to Xinjiang, it is precisely the Uyghurs who feel threatened. But I envy scholars of the minorities the stunning scenery, and the costumes—and if they no longer wear them, they’re used to being asked to put them on for the cameras…

I’m now a little confused about what ashiq actually means among the Uyghurs. Simply stated, they are Sufi mendicants who congregate at the shrines of Islamic saints. From the YouTube blurb:

Some ashiq are ironworkers, others are beggars, merchants, grave diggers, barbers, woman ashiq, Sheikh (the Islamic clergy) and so on.

As Rachel Harris notes, [2] the term may be a rather modern usage for people once more commonly known as dervishes or qalandar. It’s taxonomy again.

Liu described them as marginalized, a minority themselves, but it looks like a substantial phenomenon. And marginalization is their very raison d’être: they thrive on flouting social norms (cf. Merriam). The subtitle “the last troubadour” seems unsuitable, not only since the use of a (largely secular) term like troubadour is hardly useful, but because the film doesn’t seem to show that they are dying out. Maybe they are, but it repeats a mantra chanted by anthropologists since early times, claiming to have discovered a pristine tradition that is endangered, rather than noting constant change.

For an outsider, the film, like that of De Martino in south Italy, may also shock. For the total novice, it will just amaze: didn’t the CCP destroy religion over sixty years ago—all the more in Xinjiang or Tibet? At least it shows what a huge task the CCP faces. Are we to celebrate the slow spread of state education and modernization?

The nomination of the ashiq for Intangible Cultural Heritage status is captioned early in the film without comment, though (like that of the Uyghur meshrep) [3] it will seem so very incongruous; perhaps it serves as a kind of amulet to protect the film from official criticism. As with the Han Chinese, a majority of genres selected for the ICH are grounded in ritual, impossible to reconcile with the state’s goals without destroying them—which may indeed be the idea. It is the duty of the ethnographer to reflect such micro-societies faithfully, like any other. It goes without saying that it is no use to regard them purely as “musical cultures” detached from their social roots.

The conceit of academic objectivity may make ethnographers seem to refrain from either celebration or criticism, yet at the same time (to return to De Martino), some may be shocked, pondering the link between religion and poverty—an obstacle to those social changes that can genuinely improve people’s lives, health, life-expectancy, and so on?

I gave an instance for the Han Chinese in my Shaanbei book (p.86):

Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and one main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.

One doesn’t have to be a Maoist apparatchik to worry about this. Observers will draw their own conclusions.

Returning to the Uyghurs, the gender issue is sobering too. There’s one fine scene of a group of female ashiq, but as Rachel Harris (whose next book, including a study of female religious groups, I await eagerly) pointed out at the screening, only a female film-maker could get proper access to such groups—like Rahilä Dawut (on whom see here).

The film suggests so many complex issues. It gives full coverage to songs, and texts, not just sonic icing on the cake. The ashiq aren’t big on cake, but some weed helps them commune.

Their basic accompaniment is the sapaye, paired sticks pierced with metal rings, played in a kind of stylized self-flagellation, notable in various degrees in both Islamic and Han Chinese ritual cultures (for one gory instance from Fujian, see Ken Dean’s film Bored in heaven).

The tear-stained faces of the ashiq as they sing may remind us that the expression of suffering is a quasi-universal feature of music-making. But it’s always culturally mediated, with differing implications; Rachel Harris again explores the significance of “performative tears” both for Uyghur and other cultures (for the Bach Passions, see here).

The sudden, startling, introduction of scenes from the bustling modern capital of Urumqi is effective. I didn’t pick up hints to change in the rural scene, which must be constantly occurring too, so the film may seem merely to suggest a contrast between (“backward”?) rural traditions and harsh urban commodification. But the structure works well, right down to the final scenes with a birth and a death, the latter in an extraordinary landscape.

I pen these thoughts as a mere outsider. Talking of which, one also wonders how all this relates to the old rejection of ethnographic outsiders, summarized by Nettl as “You will never understand our music”. But here, as with the late great Zhou Ji 周吉 (1943–2008), one of the consultants on the film, Uyghurs seem to have few reservations about certain Han Chinese (or Westerners, indeed) documenting their lives—as long as they are clearly in sympathy and willing to engage fully. Liu Xiangchen, though not himself Uyghur, was also advised by Dilmurat Omar of the Institute of Ethnology and Sociology at Xinjiang Normal University.


[1] I am grateful to Rachel Harris, estimable authority on Uyghur culture and music, for pointing me towards several sources. As usual, it goes without saying that I am entirely responsible for my interpretations here.
[2] “Theory and practice in contemporary Central Asian Maqām traditions” (forthcoming).
[3] Note this important report. See also Rachel Harris, “ ‘A weekly meshrep to tackle religious extremism’: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang” (forthcoming).

Festivals: the official—folk continuum

The upcoming CHIME conference in LA (29 March to 2 April), presided over by the excellent Helen Rees, looks like a fine event, though I can’t make it. The theme this time is festivals.

Gansu miaohui FKTemple procession, Xincheng, south Gansu, June 1997. [1]
Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Of course, festivals and pilgrimages all over the world are a major theme of ethnography: not just Uyghur meshreps and mazar, and Tibetan monastery festivals, but Indian melas, Sufi festivals, the Mediterranean (Andalucian fiestas, south Italy…), Moroccan ahouach, you name it. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s 1994 book Musiques en fête is charmant, with wise and vivid words about Morocco, Sardinia, and Romania (¡¿BTW, why do French books put the list of contents at the back?! ¡¿Typical Gallic contrariness?!)

To adopt the metaphor of “the whole dragon” again, there is a long continuum between folk festivals, based on ritual (often calendrical) observances, and secular events for a largely urban audience.

So I too am going to link up diverse themes like temple fairs, ritual, famine, village names, Eurovision, and propaganda. It does make sense, though—trust me, I’m a doctor.

Traditional events in China`
Funeral rituals have been my main topic in China for thirty years, but of course it’s not easy to plan visits much in advance. The calendrical dates of temple fairs (often known as miaohui) may seem easier to anticipate. Again, scholars of religion tend to home in on their specifically religious elements, as in the great jiao Offering—though note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven. But like funerals they are multivalent, embracing all kinds of activity: ritual, opera, folk-song, pop, commerce, “hosting” and “red-hot sociality” (Chau!)…

Apart from my 2007 and 2009 books, names like Zhao Shiyu, Guo Yuhua, Wang Mingming, Yue Yongyi, Stephan FeuchtwangAdam Chau, and Wu Fan spring to mind. The knack is to detail both sacred and secular aspects of temple fairs.

But the dates of calendrical rituals, like temple fairs, may not be easily vouchsafed to the outsider either. The temple fairs on the Houshan mountains in Yixian county southwest of Beijing, mainly in the 3rd and 7th moons, are much less well known than those of Miaofengshan, but they also draw huge crowds, both local and from further afield.

To work all this out you have to spend time around the villages of Liujing and Matou in the foothills around Houshan, and then observe who goes where when and does what. Although Chinese villagers are a rich source of ritual and musical information (far more than any silent library), they often speak prescriptively rather than descriptively, telling us on what occasions a jiao Offering ritual should be performed, whether or not is has been performed since the 1940s. They don’t necessarily volunteer information on change, preferring (like some officials and scholars) to present their traditions as constant, eternal—even if contexts and repertoires have evidently changed in their lifetime. On our first visit to Liujing we rather assumed that villagers’ descriptions of ritual pilgrimages related to “the past”— but we soon found that they were very much alive.

The Songs-for-winds associations: propaganda and catastrophe
What got me “thinking” (I use the word loosely) about all this was that 1950 visit to Tianjin of the “Songs-for-winds” band from Ziwei village, in what later became Dingxian county.

The Central Conservatoire (as it was then) was then still based at Tianjin, of course. The work of Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe on the Songs-for-winds may be considered a prelude to that on the more solemn ritual style of the Beijing temples that Yang undertook from 1952, a topic that was to expand vastly after 1986. But the Songs-for-winds groups, more popular than the ritual style that is my main focus, are worth a little detour here.

We should bear in mind that such wind ensembles were quite unfamiliar to southerners like Yang and Cao. Having invited the Ziwei band to the conservatoire, they recorded their repertoire on a Webster wire recorder. The band went back some six generations, and under the leadership of the celebrated Wang Chengkui, they had invited the great wind player Yang Yuanheng  to teach them in the winters of 1945 and 1946. Yang Yuanheng, a former Daoist priest in a little temple in Anping county, was himself appointed professor of guanzi oboe at the conservatoire in 1950. [2] Yang Yuanheng, like the Buddhist monk Haibo, was a major influence on many shengguan ritual associations in the area: we would hear their names from many village associations.

Yang and Cao’s monograph on the Ziwei band, published in 1952,  consists mainly of transcriptions, with little of the social detail that they covered for the Wuxi Daoists or Yang’s 1956 Hunan fieldtrip. Ziwei would go on to supply wind players to many state troupes for decades to come.

Langfang huahui 1991

Secular New Year’s huahui parade, Langfang city, 1991.

Adapted from my Folk music of China (p.196):

During the 1958 Great Leap Forward (or Backward, as it’s known), Dingxian and particularly Xushui counties became model counties for the relentless drive to full communization. [3] At the height of the Leap back in August 1958, Chairman Mao visited communes there. In Dasigexiang district just southeast of Xushui county-town, Dasigezhuang village was now renamed the 4th August brigade. Notable for its revolutionary fervour at this time was the “Great Leap Forward Songs-for winds association” of Qianminzhuang brigade in Xushui, which performed for this visit.

The propaganda of the Leap makes a stark contrast with the grim realities of the period, with villages throughout the area suffering from crop failure, famine, and social disruption.

Our visit to Qianminzhuang in 1993 was the only time I’ve ever had a police escort—to take me there for a change, not to drag me away! Predictably, such an effusive welcome for me as a “foreign guest” indicated close supervision and censorship of our fieldwork.

QMZ band 1993

QMZ pose 1993

Striking a pose with the leaders, Qianminzhuang 1993

In 1995 we visited some of the senior musicians independently, with much more useful results.

Xushui’s favoured status did nothing to prevent many starving to death there in 1960—but just near Qianminzhuang, the Gaozhuang ritual association still managed to restart in 1961. Religion revived in China precisely at moments of political crisis such as the famines of 1960 and the Cultural Revolution, albeit with great difficulty. It may provide solace, or a focus for resistance—both against Maoism and later against the insecurities ensuing its demise.

The Gaozhuang ritual association was one of many in Xushui villages that used, and use, the older more solemn shengguan style. Ritual associations throughout the area commonly claim transmission from either Buddhist monks (heshangjing 和尚經) or Daoist priests (laodaojing 老道經)—the Gaozhuang association is Buddhist-transmitted. In another common taxonomy, the association divides into “front altar” (qiantan, the shengguan instrumental ensemble, and “rear altar” (houtan, vocal liturgy).

Despite its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religion, notably the cult of the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu. Associations there commonly hang out ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings (Shiwang) or Water and Land (Shuilu) series, and they use “precious scrolls” and other ritual manuals. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the pilgrimage to Houshan. Even the revolutionary Qianminzhuang band told us that their former tradition was to recite the scriptures, performing only as a social duty for funerals, not for weddings. And certainly not to accompany mendacious parades to report a bumper harvest…

In 1994 the Gaozhuang association built an Ancestral Hall to Venerable Mother (Laomu citang), occupying about one mu, stylish and grand. It cost around 60,000 kuai to build; the stele lists 132 donors, who gave from 50 up to 3,000 kuai. The altar has Wusheng laomu in the centre, Wangmu niangniang and Songzi niangniang to the right, Cangu niangniang and Houtu niangniang to the left.

Gaozhuang citang

The village Party Secretary told us that sources of support included incense money from the Great Tent Association (Dapeng hui, a common term in the area for a ritual association) and from the temple, and money from fortune-telling and curing illness. He reflected, “A dozen or so women kept on coming to see me about building a temple. I had no choice—the brigade couldn’t refuse, so I gave them a plot of land. Believing in the gods and having a temple is no bad thing, it’s not as if you stop production if you believe in it!”

In all, the flamboyant (and readily secularized) Songs-for-winds style remains a common image of wind bands on the Hebei plain, but since all our fieldwork through the 1990s it is clear that ritual practice, with its more solemn shengguan instrumental style, is both older and more common. It is resilient too. This persistence of tradition, both in religious and musical practice, is all the more striking in such a once-revolutionary county as Xushui.

Mao was impressively modest about his limited success when he admitted to Nixon in 1972:

“I haven’t been able to change [China]—I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Peking.”  [4]

But he wasn’t modest enough: in some ways even a county so near Beijing, such a focus of the revolution, has remained resistant to Maoist ideology, predating and outliving it. Still, disruption was severe. For more on Xushui, see here.

Official festivals in the 1950s
Meanwhile, the new government, in its own way, was promoting local culture through the medium of regional folk festivals (diaoyan, huiyan). First, local festivals were held to select representatives for major performances in the regional capitals. Some laicized priests were even assembled to perform as “troupes“, sometimes for the first time in many years—such as Baiyunshan Daoists (1955), Wudangshan Daoists (1956 and 1957), Wutaishan Buddhists (1958). For such performances, inevitably, their shengguan instrumental music was plucked out of its ritual context. I haven’t heard stories as distressing as the fate that befell kobzari blind minstrels in Ukraine when summoned for an official festival in the early 1930s; but folk ritual specialists were still anxious about performing for officials around 1980.

These festivals served partly as auditions for the state song-and-dance troupes then expanding all over China. Daoist and Buddhist ritual specialists had a deserved reputation as outstanding instrumentalists. Many, like our very own Li Qing (my book pp.113–25), were recruited as musicians to state troupes around 1958—and then sent home again as the state apparatus collapsed in 1962.

While such festivals stimulated the collection and documentation of folk music, we must balance this with the ongoing assaults on its traditional context. The background ( beginning from the 1940s) was campaigns against “feudal superstition”, terrifying public executions of sectarians, and the destruction of temple life.

The reform era
Urban festivals featuring rural groups—perhaps related to a conference—make a convenient recourse for busy academics into whose holidays they fit nicely. From the 1980s, the secular arts festivals of the Maoist era were remoulded into more glossy events. In 1990 the Li family Daoists took part in a festival of religious music in Beijing.

By the 21st century the new ideology was confirmed in the regular staged “living fossil” presentations of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The latter project, with its whole bureaucratic workings, has now become a major research topic on its own, at the expense of studies of the local traditions that it is supposed to assist (my book pp.331–3). Note also the Qujiaying bandwagon.

I tend to steer clear of conferences, but in May 2016, as a pretext for going to hang out yet again with Li Manshan in Shanxi for a couple of weeks, I accepted an invitation to take part in a conference celebrating the 80th birthday of my esteemed teacher Yuan Jingfang in Beijing. It was a déjà-vu experience. Apart from a sequence of eulogies, the event also featured staged performances from three representatives of Yuan Jingfang’s long-term research areas: the Hanzhuang ritual association from Xiongxian in Hebei (near Xushui), the Zhihua temple group, and a ritual band from near Xi’an.

Hanzhuang 1993

Filming the Hanzhuang association in their ritual tent, 1993 (photo: Xue Yibing). Rear centre: two frames of ten-gong yunluo.

It made me feel my age, reminding me of all our visits to these very groups between 1986 and 2001. Taking time out of the conference to chat with the Hanzhuang group outside by the lake, we recalled their kindly association leader Xie Yongxiang 解永祥, father of the present leader, and another of those wise sheng masters. We had learned a lot from him in 1993 and 1995.

Xie Yongxiang 1995

Xie Yongxiang, 1995

But returning to the conference—the object of admiration, inevitably, was their “music”, detached from its enduring social context. I already missed hanging out with Li Manshan in the scripture hall.

All the glossy stage presentation has many Western parallels—flamenco on the Terry Wogan show (remind me to do more on flamenco in due course), WOMAD, Songlines, prizes, urbane discourse explaining its “cultural value” to outsiders… The fancy costumes and dry ice of many Chinese events are reminiscent of Eurovision; they may seem like a Disneyland version of the Chinese heritage.

That photo comes from a recent ICH “performance” of the Baiyunshan Daoists, no less.

Now, I adore opportunities to present the Li family Daoist band on the concert platform (see this post and a whole related series of Vignettes from May 2017), but while it is of course a compromise, we take care not to tart them up—we can hardly do otherwise, so solemn is their demeanour.

Hberg 2012

The Li family Daoist band in concert, Heidelberg April 2013.

And their regular “rice-bowl”—day in, day out— is always performing funerals for their local, not global, clientele.

What is dodgy is when people begin mistaking the staged events for the Real Thing, or some kind of ideal. Urbanites may do so, but villagers know better. Of course those staged events are themselves a legitimate, and popular, object of scholarly analysis. But I worry that it creates a fait accompli, like the way that in old-school WAM musicology the Great Composers were the main story (as deconstructed by McClary, Small, Nettl)—“this is what we find, so it must reflect the real picture, and so this is the object of study”. As always, “modern” secular performance doesn’t replace traditional activity: they co-exist.

The CHIME conference in LA will doubtless turn up many instances of what I’m struggling not to call “contested negotiation”. Anyway, staged events can give us a lead, rather like using the photos in the Anthology, otherwise flawed, to draw us towards folk activity.



[1] For more, see Frank Kouwenhoven, “Love songs and temple festivals in northwest China: musical laughter in the face of adversity”, in Frank Kouwenhoven and James Kippen eds., Music, dance and the art of seduction.
[2] For this whole section, see my Folk music of China, pp.48–52, 195–203; “Chinese ritual music under Mao and Deng”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 8 (1999): 27–66; “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003): 287–337. See also my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.166–7, 183–4, 188–90.
[3] As correctives to all the Xushui propaganda, see e.g. the brilliant works of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Chinese village, socialist state and Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China—describing a commune not far from Xushui. Note Chinese village, socialist state, pp.215–20; Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, pp.40, 47–9, 68–70; and estimable analysis online in Chinese, e.g. For the model commune of Greater Quanshan in Shanxi, precursor of Dazhai, and temporary “home” to the Li family Daoists, see my book, pp.122–3, and here, under “Famine in China”.
[4] Also reported by Henry Kissinger in Newsweek, 3rd March 1997, p.31.

Headgear: a tough choice

Just when you thought these jokes couldn’t get any more niche, here’s one from the so-called Xinjiang Autonomous Region in west China, where ethnic tensions are intense. The indigenous Uyghurs (who are Muslim) and the immigrant Han Chinese are often at loggerheads; there’s also a milder minority population of Hui Chinese Muslims, who wear a distinctive white cloth cap. After one recent wave of ethnic violence, this story did the rounds:

A young Hui guy in Urumqi is desperate. “What am I supposed to do? If I wear my cap, I get beaten up by the Chinese. If I take it off, I get beaten up by the Uyghurs!”

For a distressing update on the situation in Xinjiang, see here.

Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham

WAGZ score

Hesi prelude and opening of Qi Yan Hui suite: score showing melodic outline in gongche solfeggio, West An’gezhuang village, Xiongxian county, Hebei.

It was Yoyo Ma who put me onto playing the Preludes of Bach cello suites as a kind of alap. Actually, that’s how he introduced the Allemande, the second movement of the 6th suite, playing it al fresco as thanks for our group of helpers at the amazing Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road in 2002, which he was curating.

As I come to adapt the Bach cello suites for violin, I consider how to play the opening two movements of the 6th suite on their own. Should I play the Allemande first, as a kind of alap? Or else take Bach’s opening movement with majesty rather than virtuosity, at an exploratory rather than hectic pace, as a kind of prelude to the alap of the Allemande… Either way can work.

Prelude and Allemande, 6th cello suite, manuscript of Anna Magdalena Bach.

For wise words on, not to say wonderful renditions of, the cello suites, we can turn to Steven Isserlis (click here for the CD set). Here he is playing the 5th suite (the Prelude here unambiguously meditative, like both the later Allemande and Sarabande):

For another Bach Allemande that seems to suit an alap-esque style, see here.

My brilliant friend Paola Zannoni likens the bariolage of the Prelude to the marranzanu Sicilian jew’s harp. The 6th suite, of course [sic—Ed.], was written for a five-string cello, but—in the current spirit of austerity—I make do with four.

While learning Bach (or indeed shengguan ritual melodies), one has to take care not to take a wrong turning. Like driving in Birmingham, if you take a false exit then you can find yourself going round in circles for hours.


Anyway, free-tempo movements (known as sanban 散板 in educated Chinese) are more commonly associated with solo genres like folk-song and qin—unlikely bedfellows. Apart from alap, one thinks of Middle Eastern taksim, or the Uyghur muqaddime (the singing of the latter ideally accompanied by the wonderful satar long-necked bowed lute). In these genres, the term “free-tempo” isn’t precise, since they do indeed have a underlying pulse.

Slow ensemble preludes called pai’r are also an exquisite feature of the lengthy suites of Buddhist and Daoist ritual shengguan ensembles. As with shengguan suites altogether, the pai’r in Hebei (see e.g. here, under West An’gezhuang) are best heard with a small ensemble, like the fantastic group of Gaoqiao village in Bazhou (audio playlist #8, from Plucking the Winds, CD #14—see commentary; this movement actually follows the opening pai’r, but itself opens with its own lengthy sanban prelude), where the heterophony of the four melodic instrument types can be best appreciated.

Such preludes are also a feature of ritual suites around Xi’an. But they are strangely absent from the suites of Daoist ritual repertoires in north Shanxi like those of the Li family—which are otherwise clearly related to the suites of old Beijing, still played in Hebei.

And don’t miss Aretha’s extraordinary alap to Amazing Grace!