The authors note the “heavy securitization, mass incarcerations, and attacks on local languages and other aspects of cultural identity” since 2014, with detainees in the camp system “subjected to systematic torture and rape, cultural and political indoctrination, and forced labor. Outside the detention facilities Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples are subject to a pervasive system of mass surveillance, controls on movement, forced sterilization, and family separation”. […] Regional authorities have destroyed large swathes of built heritage, including mosques, shrines and graveyards; destroyed Uyghur language books and restricted the use of Uyghur and other indigenous Turkic languages; and imprisoned hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz intellectuals and cultural leaders”.
As acknowledged in the 2021 International Criminal Court framework on cultural heritage, acts of dispossession and destruction of cultural heritage are often inseparable from—or the precursor to—acts of genocide.
Yet despite international condemnation,
UNESCO continues to acknowledge China as a protector of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz heritage in the Uyghur region through the inclusion of several items on its lists.
With “heritage” widely exploited as a tool of governance, the Chinese regime regards the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) system as
a resource to develop the tourism industry, and a propaganda tool used to present heavily stage-managed images of normality in the region. […] In the same way that mosques and shrines are closed to local communities but open for tourist business, community gatherings are transformed into glamorous stage shows purveying messages of interethnic harmony within the framework of Chinese nationhood, while local communities are terrorized and torn apart.
The report criticises UNESCO’s continuing recognition of several genres.
The Uyghur muqam The Chinese authorities supported muqam from the 1950s, and by the late 1990s there were several institutions in Ürümchi dedicated to its study, performance, and promotion. But
since 2017, several well-known professional muqam performers employed in government-supported troupes have been arbitrarily detained, along with unknown numbers of Sufi followers who performed muqam in religious contexts. The regional authorities have closed institutions previously tasked with researching the tradition, and introduced radical changes to the teaching and performance of the muqam in order to align with Xi Jinping’s policy of promoting a “pluralistic-unified” Chinese nation.
One informant stated that around 30–40% of the employees of the Xinjiang Arts Centre were sent to the camps, including celebrated performers such as Shireli Eltekin, Abduqadir Yarel, Aytulla Ela, and Sanubar Tursun. By 2022 the Xinjiang Muqam Research Office was among 160 organizations devoted to researching traditional Uyghur culture that were closed, with those remaining being used as a propaganda tool for government policy. UNESCO-inscribed heritage was now “deliberately manipulated and staged as part of a wide-ranging disinformation campaign to deny crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region”.
The performance of muqam played a role in the religious context of Sufi gatherings, which had previously survived but were now attacked, as was informal secular music-making. Whereas performers have often been released on condition that they sing songs in public praising Xi Jinping, scholars have been sentenced to longer imprisonment or “disappeared”—notably Rahile Dawut, a fine ethnographer whose work had previously gained official support.
UNESCO has supported rival programmes in both China and Kyrgystan for the Kyrgyz vocal epic manas. But in Xinjiang, again, performers and researchers have been coerced and detained, and the genre has been exploited by the Chinese regime.
The meshrep A most incisive section of the report concerns the meshrep, “an umbrella term for Uyghur community gatherings that typically include food, music, joking, and storytelling, and an informal community court”. *
Meshrep: left, singing the Dolan muqam; right, village dancing. Images courtesy of Rahile Dawut. Source.
Both before and after the nomination, grassroots community meshrep gatherings have been designated by the Chinese authorities as criminal activities, meshrep leaders and participants have been arbitrarily detained, and Uyghur communities which formerly nurtured meshrep have been uprooted. In their place, staged meshrep shows have been used as tourist entertainment and for cultural diplomacy.
As one interviewee explained,
We don’t regard meshrep as just for playing music, singing and dancing, community entertainment. It is an unofficial form of self-government, a core social structure for the Uyghur community. Meshrep helps the community to take care of its social issues. It’s an essential social gathering to preserve Uyghurs’ cultural and social existence and development.
The authors comment,
These are core values in UNESCO’s heritage framework and they are also the direct reason why the Chinese authorities have consistently and sometimes violently suppressed the grassroots practice of meshrep over the past thirty years.
They remind us of the suppression of a grassroots meshrep movement in the northern city of Gulja in the 1990s, part of the backdrop to a massacre in 1997. Still, in 2010 UNESCO ratified China’s nomination of meshrep for the ICH—which led to draconian restrictions, denying local communities the right to organise their own gatherings. And in 2014 meshrep was co-opted for “anti-religious extremism” campaigns in Aqsu prefecture (see Rachel Harris, “A weekly mäshräp to tackle religious extremism: music-making in Uyghur communities and Intangible Cultural Heritage in China”). Meshrep participants are among innumerable performers and scholars who have been detained since 2017 .
The “natural heritage” is also exploited and implicated in human rights violations. The Chinese nomination of the Tianshan (Tengritagh) mountain range as “an area of outstanding natural beauty and ecological diversity” was ratified by UNESCO in 2014. Forced relocations and suppression of protests had already begun by 2005, leading to “forcible displacement of indigenous Kazakh communities and the sale of their ancestral lands to Chinese tourist companies for commercial development”. The Uyghur karez irrigation system met a similar fate, formerly “an integral part of an ecosystem, providing water for domestic use, farm irrigation, native plants and wildlife habitats”—yet another aspect of Uyghur culture that has fallen foul of Chinese development projects. At the same time, history was being rewritten, just as with the intangible heritage.
The report’s Conclusion is devastating:
Heritage management is not an innocent celebration of culture, but a selective process that leads to hierarchies and exclusion. […] When the management of heritage is used in tandem with the hard modes of governance currently in play in the Uyghur region—ones that states and international bodies have designated a form of genocide—then the heritage system is complicit in those acts of genocide. […] China’s approach to heritage in the Uyghur region takes the heritage out of the hands of its rightful owners, by expelling communities from their ancestral lands and polluting the environment, by destroying built heritage and de-sacralizing religious traditions, and by criminalizing grassroots cultural practices, while using their staged representations to promote new political narratives. Culture bearers are dispossessed and imprisoned while their history is rewritten, and the economic benefits of heritage accrue in the hands of the ethnic majority and flow back to eastern China.
The authors list points requiring urgent intervention by the international community—including a request for the removal of muqam, meshrep, and manas from the UNESCO lists, “given the serious and substantiated evidence set out in this report that the elements no longer satisfy the criteria for inscription on those lists”.
Despite numerous instances of co-option and suppression since 1949, it’s disturbing to think that Uyghur culture somehow coexisted with Party rule for many decades before the clampdown escalated. And while Xinjiang makes a particularly shocking instance, I have always felt uncomfortable with the ICH system as applied to Han Chinese communities, promoting reified, staged performances rather than providing genuine support for cultural activity among local communities.
Mukaddas Mijit’s The Thirty Boys (Ottuz Oghul, 2022) is a fine film on Uyghur meshrep gatherings in Kazakhstan, “occupying an uneasy space, one eye towards the growing ethnic nationalism of their host country, one eye towards China’s ongoing policies of securitisation, incarceration and cultural erasure in their homeland”:
countries with high levels of support for populist, radical right parties voted more for songs from other countries that featured what the authors call “ethno-traditional” cues.
At first this may confuse the “Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati”, many of whom are doubtless devotees of “world music” in some form. But while traditional cultures, the world music scene, and Eurovision may not always be clearly distinguishable, they are not congruent; moreover, the agendas of ethnomusicologists may differ from those of performers and audiences in the societies concerned—among whom there’s a wide spectrum of tastes, amidst widely differing political contexts.
The music of “the folk” has long been regarded as a counterpart to elite culture. As Bruno Nettl observes (The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, p.406, under “Diversity and difference”), academic research tends to champion diversity, speaking out for neglected minorities. But one finds an overlap between nationalism and liberation from empires on one hand, and regional pride or Kumbaya-esque world music fusion on the other, with the lines often blurred. Nettl (p.435, under “Trying to make peace”) also observes the role of music in national and ethnic conflicts for contexts such as sporting events, political rallies, and wars.
Michael Church’s Musics lost and found makes a convenient survey. In the early days of collection, folklore was often conscripted to nationalist goals, as in east Europe (see e.g Fiddles and racism). In Franco’s Spain (Musics lost and found, pp.124–5), the culture of sub-groups (Galician, Catalonian, Basque) was downplayed; while flamenco seems to have been largely exempt, in Portugal fado was linked to fascism.
While the political allegiances of local communities may be hard to discern, in the USA and Britain the folk scene has long been associated with the left. In England, the “Christian socialist” Cecil Sharp was followed by a succession of left-leaning collectors and performers. But quite apart from the socialist heritage of British folk music, the Last Night of the Proms has become a focus of Brexit nostalgia. In the States, the Lomaxes were joined by singers like Woody Guthrie and Peggy Seeger; folk was the soundtrack for post-war protests. (In rock music, also commonly assumed to be anti-establishment, there’s a similar unease when ageing rock stars turn out reactionary—see e.g. here).
Modern nation-states have adopted a prescriptive, and proscriptive, stance towards their indigenous peoples. A classic case is the Chinese regime’s portrayals of its ethnic minorities, notably the Uyghurs (e.g. here) and Tibetans (e.g. Sister drum, and How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet). Within the socialist bloc around east Europe, whose heirs are perhaps the main breeding-ground for the ethno-trad movement, there was considerable resistance to state fakelore (tellingly evoked by Milan Kundera in The joke).
So besides the winning Eurovision entries of Ukraine, we can’t celebrate the Buranovo Babushki so innocently:
On one hand, the Eurovision voting blocs may regard each other as allies; on the other, beyond the media bubble, Brexiteers are not renowned for their enthusiasm for Balkan turbo-funk; and Greek-Turkish fusion is unlikely to feature on playlists of the far-right denizens of those countries. The Guardian article comments:
The populist radical right tends to be associated with very national narratives, a kind of inward-looking, nativist defence of domestic cultural traditions against the modernising, homogenising influence of globalisation.
This seems a worthy agenda—but Nettl’s comment that “ethnomusicology values a cultural mosaic, rather than forcing everyone into a melting pot” needs unpacking too. While regional diversity indeed tends to undermine narrow nationalist agendas, whatever one feels about the world-music fusion scene, it can lead to another kind of homogenizing grey-out (cf. the “Rough Guides phenomenon”, and Songlines).
However inconclusive, the Eurovision analysis makes a reminder that different performers and audiences will attribute different meanings to music (see e.g. Terylene).
Like a suburban Sisyphus doing and undoing a jigsaw, having gone to great lengths to mix up the daily sequence of my diverse topics in a stimulating fashion, it’s that time of year when I try and reassemble them into some kind of thematic order (cf. 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). In September I essayed a handy roundup of roundups, covering some of this ground; and in November I listed Some recent *MUST READ* posts. As ever, in the sidebar you can consult the tags and categories, and even the monthly archive (scrolling waaay down); the homepage still provides useful orientation.
Disturbingly, the items featured below are just a selection, but do click away on all the links…
Perhaps I can begin with a story that combines several of my interests:
Well, that’ll keep you busy—as a reward, in future perhaps I’ll try posting every three days, rather than every other day, and I might even reblog earlier posts a tad less avidly—not wishing to try your patience (“You must come over and try mine sometime”—Groucho).
So far, my dabblings in the ritual traditions of Istanbul have consisted mainly of exploring the cem ceremony of the Alevis—itself a substantial topic, both in the city (here, with sequel) and around Anatolia. In its values, gender inclusiveness, and ritual style, Alevism is closely related to Bektashi beliefs, but is quite distinct from other Sufi orders (tariqa) active in Turkey.
Naqshbandi traditions Like other tariqat, the Naqshbandi order has a wide presence around west, central, and south Asia.  It is influential in Turkey, where it is largely urban, supported by literati, bureaucrats, and merchants.There its pronouncements evince a less than liberal strain, vocally opposing perceived social decadence; opposing Westernising reforms, its leaders are critical of “heterodoxy”.
Hakan Yavuz, in his chapter “The matrix of modern Turkish Islamic movements: the Naqshbandi Sufi order”, observes that “the Sufi orders have turned out to be the major institutions for the aggregation of economic and political interests”. Focusing on Istanbul, he considers the Naqshbandis under the rubrics of inner cultivation and religious salvation, a tool for upward mobility, a network for social and political services, and a model for a community—headings that one might well apply to other orders too.
As to the Ottoman background, Sultan Mahmud II (1808–37), suspicious of charismatic popular leaders and competing loyalties within the state, banned the Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya order in Istanbul, as well as the Bektashis. But under later Sultans the Naqshbandis expanded their influence, often taking over Bektashi lodges, becoming “one of the most important forces between ruled and ruler”.
In the early years of the Republic, despite their support for Atatürk’s War of Liberation, the Naqshbandi and other Sufi lodges were banned. Still, their
ability to adjust to new situations and to develop new arguments neutralises the hostile propaganda of opponents who seek to identify the movement as fundamentalist or an “enemy” of modernity. For example, the Naqshbandis fully supported the Turkish War of Independence but protested against the radical and authoritarian secular transformation of the system by Mustafa Kemal.
Most of the eighteen rebellions against state policies between 1924 and 1938 were led by the Naqshbandiyya. But they were better able to survive persecution than some other orders.
In response to repression, most of these orders gradually transformed from strictly religious associations into competing educational and cultural informal associations with religious underpinnings. They gathered support from sections of traditional society, which regarded the Kemalist variant of secularisation as too radical and destructive for Turkey’s social fabric.
Indeed, “the post-Republican elite, which shaped the opinion and identity of the leading Muslim movements, evolved among local Naqshbandi groups in Istanbul and Anatolia”, and “the Turkish Muslim understanding of Islam is very much filtered through Naqshbandi concepts and institutions”. In modern Turkey, Naqshbandi is the most politically active of the Sufi orders; like others, they are closely involved in education, healthcare, commerce, and media promotion. Of the four main branches in Istanbul, most wealthy and influential is the lskenderpaşa, based at their Mosque in Fatih. But Hakan Yavuz argues that the remarkable adaptive powers and pragmatism of the Naqshbandi
may lead to decline, not so much because of state suppression or rivalry from other orders, but because of its smooth adaptation to capitalism and its integral involvement in Turkish politics, both of which may undermine the spiritual and cultural aspects of the order.
As he suggests, along with a reduction in the mystical and heterodox features of Islam and Sufism, Islam has been delocalised and a new, abstract, highly centralised and economically conscious faith created to cater for the modern urban population.
Dhikr On the Anatolian side of Istanbul, we visited the village of Beylerbeyi, just along the Bosphorus from Üsküdar and Kuzguncuk, to attend the Thursday evening dhikr (zikr) ritual at a Naqshbandi dergah (see here, and wiki), where Sheikh Mesud Efendi (d.1908) was influential. Set in a picturesque old quarter up the hill, the wooden building is just as fine.
The practice of collective dhikr (zikr) is intense. Among the Naqshbandiyya it is traditionally classified as either khafi “silent” or jahri “loud”; they seem to find both acceptable—see e.g. Isenbike Togan’s chapter on the historical controversy between them in Central Asia, n.1 below.
Glimpses from the women’s gallery.
Directing prostrations in a packed hall, the sheikh chanted a series of invocations, with occasional simple group responses. As the lights were switched off, the worshippers turned to sit in a circle facing the sheikh, the repetitive group invocations becoming more intense. In a segregated area on the upper floor a substantial group of women was also deeply devout, as my companions reported.
* * *
With such a very basic grounding in live ritual, I turned to YouTube for the wider picture, where several videos suggest the deeply immersive somatic experience of Naqshbandi dhikr. In her Introduction (n.1 below), Elisabeth Özdalga observes:
Many Sufi orders practice the dhikr collectively, with intensive and emotion-laden expressions, where the partakers move their bodies rhythmically as they loudly pronounce the names of Allah. The Naqshbandis are traditionally known for greater self-restraint. […] [They] have generally been regarded as more sober and orderly in their religious practices than other Sufis.
I can’t assess this as a general characterisation, but from the clips below it seems to need modifying. This substantial excerpt from a haḍra ritual in Bosnia is well annotated, featuring both Arabic qasidahs and Turkish ilahis:
Still more imbued with emotive expression are the rituals of Uyghur Naqshbandis, in a region of Central Asia that was invaded by the Chinese Communists in 1949. In retrospect, the Chinese state’s approach towards Islam in the decades before the clampdown under Xi Jinping may now appear relatively benign (see here). This zikr was recorded by Jean During in southwest Xinjiang in 1988, during a period when Uyghur traditions were enjoying an impressive revival after the end of the Cultural Revolution:
And the remarkable excerpts below show Uyghur Naqshbandis performing zikr in south Xinjiang on the eve of the Chinese campaign to obliterate Uyghur culture:
As to the Western diaspora, Naqshbandi groups meet in Europe and north America (cf. Alevi ritual), such as the Osmanli Dergahi in New York, transmitting the teachings of Shaykh Nazim Al-Haqqani (1922–2014), who moved from Istanbul to Syria, while also based in his native Cyprus (cf. wiki)—this 2017 video is among many on their YouTube site:
* * *
I’m acutely aware that outsiders like me cannot even begin to comprehend Sufi ritual. But my visit to the Naqshbandi lodge in Beylerbeyi reminded me again that (as in much Daoist and Buddhist temple ritual) the heart of ritual performance lies in The Divine Word, embodied through the pure a cappella vocal liturgy of the mosques and Sufi orders. In this case, the observance is unmediated even by percussion.
The ancient fortress, monastery of St Anthony, Egypt.
Travel writing takes many forms, fromEvliyâ Çelebi to Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, and Bruce Chatwin (for a wise survey of the genre through changing times, see this article by Barnaby Rogerson). Female authors like Dervla Murphy and Sarah Wheeler are in a minority. With added focus, generally sacrificing a certain readability, travel writing may shade into anthropology.
William Dalrymple (website; wiki) may seem like a natural successor to his travel-writing guru Patrick Leigh Fermor (see e.g. his tribute to Mani: travels in the southernPeloponnese). But whereas I find Leigh Fermor’s confident purple prose irksome, as he zigags “between sleeping on peasants’ mud floors and bursting into consular drawing-rooms or baronial halls with his letter of introduction: ‘Oh, good, there you are, just in time for the brandy’ ” (I concur with Neil Ascherson, who cites Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book Inventing Ruritania), Dalrymple’s own work is more endearing. Before going on to write distinguished scholarly tomes on Indian art and history, he hit on a winning formula with several popular travel books—including
soon became a bestseller. It describes his four-month journey along the Silk Road over the summer of 1986, before his final year as a Cambridge undergraduate—just as I was returning from my first stay in China.
In Xanadu records the impressions, prejudices, and enthusiasms of a very young, naïve and deeply Anglocentric undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self—bumptious, cocky, and self-confident, quick to judge and embarrassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations—is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can’t quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to, or at least cutting down to size, for his own good.
Indeed, “gazing at flowers from horseback” can produce trite generalisations (“Dogubayazit was full of sinister, swarthy Turks”), but his jovial tone makes for good reading.
His journey makes a cultured latter-day variant of the hippy trail that had borne fruit in leading Veronica Doubleday and John Baily to Afghanistan, where they made a base in Herat on the eve of the Russian invasion. With Dalrymple’s historical bent he reads up on early travellers’ accounts rather than on modern ethnography.
He begins at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where, having noted the sectarian divide, he takes some holy oil (which, as he notes wryly, he pours not into a goatskin flask but into a plastic phial from the Body Shop) to deliver to the site of Xanadu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan, just as Marco Polo had done in the 13th century. Following in Polo’s footsteps, * he embarks on an ambitious trek east, with two intrepid female companions in relay.
At my primary school we knew all about Marco Polo. He wore a turban, a stripy robe a bit like a dressing gown, and he rode a camel with only one hump. The Ladybird book which had this picture on the cover was the most heavily thumbed book on the school bookshelf. One day, my friends and I put some biscuits in a handkerchief, tied the handkerchief to a stick, and set off to China. It was an exhausting walk as there were no camels in Scotland, and by teatime we had eaten all our biscuits. There was also the problem that we were not absolutely sure where China was. It was beyond England, of that we were certain, but then we were not absolutely sure where England was either. Nonetheless we strode off manfully towards Haddington where there was a shop. We could ask there, we said. But when it began to get dark we turned around and went home for supper. After consultation we decided to put the plan on the shelf for a while. China could wait.
The trip, long unfeasible, at last looked more promising with the opening of the Karakorum Highway in 1986. In Jerusalem
the streets were filled with elderly Saga pensioners on pilgrimage from Preston; in the Via Dolorosa weeping Evangelicals sung “Kum-ba-ya” against the background of wailing muezzin. There were a few miserable-looking Presbyterians, some rotund Eastern European widows, and an Ethiopian cleric in his flowing cassock of grey serge.Pallid, short-sighted Orthodox Jews shuffled past clutching Uzi sub-machine guns. The Arabs—wearing pin-stripe for practicality, and keffiyeh to attract the tourists—had taken up station outside their shops: Rainbow Bazaar, The Omar Khayyam Souvenir Museum, Magic Coffee House, The Al-Haj Carpentry Store.
But as he notes,
This pantomime of subservience had gone on day after day for centuries. Jerusalem has always been a tourist town. The pilgrims have changed, religions have come and gone and empires with them; only the knickknack sellers remain.
Travelling through Israel by bus, he notes
the shoddy sprawl of supermarkets, warehouses, drive-in cinemas, factories, and military installations—all imposed over the old Palestinian villages, bulldozed after their inhabitants were evicted in 1948.
In Syria they go in search of traces of the Assassins, a militant wing of the heterodox Isma’ili sect in medieval times. In Aleppo he tuts at child slavery in a shoe factory, visits a nightclub (Django Reinhardt songs played by an Armenian band), and admires the architecture, commenting on the city’s long history of massacres and sieges.
They move on to Turkey, travelling northeast from Ayas to Sivas and Erzurum. His companion Laura tempers his romanticism:
“We could be the first people to see this view for hundreds of years,” I said, moved to unusual lyricism.
“Balls,” said Laura. “People come up here all the time.”
In Sivas he contrasts the styles of the Ulu Cami mosque and (above) the nearby Gök medresse. With the medieval Armenian connection looming large, they also get a lesson on the 1915 genocide.
As they near the border with revolutionary Iran, logistical challenges become ever more daunting, with Laura now equipped with a full-length black chador and headscarf. They are underwhelmed by Tabriz:
The atmosphere of Tabriz on our arrival exactly paralleled that at the time of Polo. The oil wealth of the 60s and early 70s had financed a population explosion in the town, and if the town had ever had an old-fashioned, Russian flavour [as their guidebook claimed] it had certainly lost it by the time we visited. Like any other rapidly developing town in the Third World, Tabriz was surrounded by miles of ugly urban sprawl.
They get another lesson on politics from an Armenian priest. At Sultaniya and Saveh they ponder the story of the Three Wise Men and Zoroastrianism.
Unable to attempt the northern route through Afghanistan, they keep moving southeast, cadging lifts with groups of devout Afghans until they reach Baluchi Pakistan, a welcome relief. They move on to Quetta, where Dalrymple’s great-aunt had lived as the wife of the Commander of the Western Command, India.
They recover from the ordeal of the train to Lahore by enjoying the luxurious hospitality of a Pakistani friend from Cambridge—air conditioning, baths, clean clothes, a swimming pool, and Mozart, all making a well-deserved interlude between their travails (cf. Nigel Barley on the veranda). As he bids farewell to his brisk companion Laura—a cross between Boudicea and Joyce Grenfell—his fragrant accomplice Louisa arrives for the latter leg of the journey, “dressed as if for the King’s Road”. His love for Lahore has remained a major theme of his ouevre.
Having faced more Kafkaesque bureaucracy to gain permits to enter China, they set off again. With an interlude on Alexander the Great, they cross the border into Xinjiang, rejoining the trail of Marco Polo at Tashkurgan, yet another drab border town. More ingenuity is required in order to keep moving north towards Kashgar.
There they stay at Chini Bagh, residence of George Macartney for twenty-eight years around the turn of the 20th century as the Great Game was being waged, now converted into a dowdy hotel—offering yet another illustration of decline. Kashgar in the 1980s might now seem an unspoilt paradise, but it was already the object of modernisation with Chinese characteristics, its old city walls being demolished over a long period, like those of Chinese cities such as Beijing. Still, as yet there were no cars, and few bicycles; no police surveillance on every corner or labour camps. Venturing behind the façade, they are shown the sights by Mick, a genuine 60s’ hippy who has moved on from Kabul and Goa. They find a world of bazaars and craftsmen, and admire the Id Kah mosque; they even glean further clues to the Nestorians.
Uyghur children, Keriya.
In retrospect this seems like a happy period for the Uyghurs, when despite the scars of the Cultural Revolution, cultural and religious traditions were reviving on a large scale. Along with local scholars, Sabine Trebinjac and Jean During were just starting to document the riches of Uyghur musical life.
Wedding band, Kashgar 1988, from booklet with 2-CD set Turkestan chinois/Xinjiang: musiques Ouïghoures.
Having spent ten days in Kashgar they negotiate a series of lifts to skirt the desert by the southern route via Khotan and Keriya. In Keriya they gatecrash a drunken banquet for German geologists hosted by effusive Chinese apparatchiks—which unexpectedly eases their onward progress in the company of a busload of stoned Uyghurs (hash “is to the Sinkiang People’s Autobus Company what McEwan’s Export is to British Rail”). In Charchan, exhausted, they are finally apprehended by the Public Security Bureau, who deport them by sending them by train all the way to Beijing, away from what they realise is the Lop Nor nuclear testing ground peopled by mutants.
By way of the Gansu corridor and Shaanxi, the train to Beijing takes six days, so they’re happy to graduate from Hard Seat to the luxury of Soft Sleeper.
I vowed never again to travel on a heap of coal slag, never again to stay in a hotel that smelled like a morgue, never again to use a squatter that belched up its contents over the user. I had done all that. If something needed to be proved it was proved. From now it would be a holiday cottage by the seaside, a rocking chair and some new, relaxing hobby, perhaps knitting or crochet.
After exploring Beijing by bike, and eating fourteen chocolate eclairs in three hours, they set off on one last mission north to the site of Kublai Khan’s summer capital Shangdu (Xanadu), on the steppe of what is now Inner Mongolia. Taking the train as far north as Chengde, summer palace of the Qing Manchu emperors, they again dodge the Public Security Bureau to take the bus to Duolun. Although the cops catch up with them, they finally reach their goal, where Dalrymple pours the oil from the Holy Sepulchre into the earth.
Then, rather as in the dénouement of Teddy bears’ picnic, they have to hurry back to take the plane home for the start of term.
Back at Cambridge with Louisa, “looking smug”.
* * *
While In Xanadu makes some telling observations on the societies he travels through, the people whom Dalrymple encounters often seem merely a drôle backdrop.
Far from dropping out, his youthful Long March was the start of an illustrious career. Following City of Djinns (1994), I’ve been re-reading his third book,
It’s already in a different league. By now his blend of early history and contemporary observation is more assured and thoughtful. He’s no longer a backpacking student but an accredited journalist and author, and his budget is less constrained. The people he gets to meet are more informed, and at 454 pages the book is considerably longer than In Xanadu, allowing for more detail.
Dalrymple follows the path of the 6th-century monk John Moschos, guided by his book The spiritual meadow, a diary of his travels around the Eastern Byzantine world. He embarks on a six-month journey in search of the modern descendants of the Christian Levant—different political exigencies often making a dangerous trek.
In the popular imagination, the Levant passes from a classical past to an Islamic present with hardly a break.
Yet for over three hundred years before the rise of Islam in the 7th century the Eastern Mediterranean was almost entirely Christian. The spiritual meadow
could be read less as a dead history book than as the prologue to an unfolding tragedy whose final chapter is still being written. […]
Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity’s Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity’s modern Western incarnation.
In the Middle East, the reality of continuity has always been masked by a surface impression of cataclysm.
Dalrymple had already mastered the art of the short suggestive opening sentence with In Xanadu:
It was still dark when I left Sheikh Jarrah.
And the following chapter opens:
Latakia is a filthy hole. I had forgotten how bad it was.
He opens From the holy mountain at the Orthodox monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos—with another winning opening sentence:
My cell is bare and austere. **
Moving on to Istanbul, his vignette of the Pera Palace Hotel makes an extreme contrast with Athos. He reflects on the multi-ethnic Byzantine history of Constantinople, and the gradual erosion of tolerance since the late Ottoman era. Greek and Armenian priests give him a gloomy picture of the severely reduced current circumstances of their flocks. He visits the nearby Princes’ Islands, where Greeks were in a majority until the early 20th century.
But his quest is only just beginning.
As the physical world fell into decay, thousands left their families, intent […] on becoming monks and hermits in the desert.
He moves on to Antakya (Antioch) in southeast Anatolia, going in search of clues to the early stylites. From Moschos he gathers that
visiting these pillar saints was a popular afternoon’s outing for the pious ladies of Antioch’s more fashionable suburbs. […]
It was strange: a ragged illiterate hermit being fawned over by the rich and highly educated Greco-Roman aristocracy; yet odder still was the idea of a hermit famed for his ascetic simplicity punishing himself in the finest setting money could buy. It was like holding a hunger strike in the Ritz. […]
They were men who were thought to have crossed the boundary of reality and gained direct access to the divine. It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today only sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of sceptical Western rationality.
Next he visits the frontier town of Urfa, site of ancient Edessa, another crucible of diverse faiths (including Manicheans, Zoroastrians, and Nestorians), where
Orthodoxy was only one among a considerable number of options available to the inquiring believer. […] Doctrine was still in a state of continual flux, and no one interpretation of the Christian message and no single set of gospels had yet achieved dominance over any others.
In modern times, after waves of incidents, the whole region had been purged of Armenians in 1915 (though for a detailed recent ethnography, note Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation). He learns of the ongoing neglect of Armenian monuments, and the political constraints on archaeology.
Suriani woman at the fortress church of Ein Wardo.
Diyarbakir, Dalrymple’s next stop, was now the centre of the Turkish army’s struggle with the PKK (cf. Some Kurdish bards). Braving a succession of checkpoints, Dalrymple manages to reach the ancient Suriani Orthodox monastery of Mar Gabriel, now much reduced but still functioning, as well as the fortified village of Ein Wardo, stronghold of Suriani defence against the Ottoman and Kurdish troops in 1915—an Assyrian genocide was under way at the same time as that of the Armenians.
“I believe there is a very large Nestorian community in … is there somewhere in London called Ealing?”
“Yes, I think that’s right,” said George. “It was in Ealing that the current Nestorian Patriarch was crowned. There should be far more Nestorians in London than here. Ealing has the largest Nestorian community in Europe.”
Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century: go in search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find that they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.
After another fraught journey into Syria, then a relatively safe haven for Christians, he reaches Aleppo, with notes on another faded grand hotel that appealed to a former generation of English travellers:
The inexplicably horrible food, the decaying neo-Gothic architecture, the deep baths and the uncomfortable beds: no wonder Lawrence and his contemporaries felt so much at home here—the Baron is a perfect replica of some particularly Spartan English public school strangely displaced to the deserts of the Middle East.
Exploring the countryside, he notes the role of monks and holy men in quelling evil spirits, a tradition that still continues. He visits the convent of Seidnaya (previously visited by Colin Thubron), with Muslims praying together with Christians.
Back in Aleppo, he finds a church where the monks still sing Urfalee chant, “apparently the most ancient form of Christian music still being sung anywhere in the world” (cf. Chant and beyond). As Dalrymple fishes for a simple, exotic soundbite on the style, the Italian scholar Gianmaria Malacrida offers careful caveats—which I admire as much as I admire Dalrymple for citing them.
Click here for his update on the cultural damage in the early days of the Syrian civil war.
En route to Lebanon, he is struck by the surreal roadside artwork:
Perhaps strangest of all were the unlikely lines of hoardings that rose above the forbidding ruins lining the highway:a smiling Claudia Schiffer stretched out leopard-like in Salvatore Ferragamo next to a yellow sandstone French colonial villa so riddled with great round shrapnel-holes it resembled an outsize slice of Emmental; the Marlboro cowboy with his ten-gallon hat and herd of steers beaming out over an apocalyptic wasteland of shattered tower blocks; a metal tube of Bodymist—un beau corps sans effort—set against a carbon-black skeleton of twisted metal that had once been a filling station. […]
It was like a morality tale, spiralling downwards through one of the world’s greatest monuments to human frailty, a huge vortex of greed and envy, resentment and intolerance, hatred and materialism, a five-mile-long slalom of shellholes and designer labels, heavy artillery and glossy boutiques.
In Beirut he gains insights from the historian Kemal Salibi, who directs him to Leila Badr, an archaeologist who gives him leads to Byzantine remnants around the city. And he consults the journalist Robert Fisk, “a chronic war junkie” who gives him some valuable, if dodgy, contacts. He learns more of the Maronites, Christian supremacists who emerged from the civil war “with their reputation for ruthlessness, barbarity, and political incompetence enormously enhanced”. The trail leads him to the Maronite town of Bsharri, once famed for its saints, now for its warlords. It was soon to become a scenic tourist destination, not least as the birthplace of Khalil Gibran—whose bequest of the royalties from The prophet had led to a bitter war between rival Maronite clans. Back in Beirut, Dalrymple visits a camp for Christian refugees from Palestine.
Continuing south by a tortuous route into Israel, he gives a succinct introduction to the modern history of the occupation of the West Bank. He delves further into the Armenian history of Jerusalem, and (as in Turkey) learns more about the highly politicised world of archaeology in Israel. He expounds the history of St George, on whom the English have no monopoly.
As the various Christian populations of the Middle East seek sanctuary abroad, without them
the most important shrines in the Christian world will be left as museum pieces, preserved only for the curiosity of tourists. Christianity will no longer exist in the Holy Land as a living faith; a vast vacuum will exist in the very heart of Christendom. As the Archbishop of Canterbury recently warned, the area, “once centre of a strong Christian presence,” risks becoming “a theme park”, devoid of Christians “within fifteen years”.
The monastery of Mar Saba.
Dalrymple enters the desert of the West Bank—once a rather densely populated terrain of monks and monasteries. Staying at Mar Saba, the only living monastery there, he admires their austere regime, but is less impressed by the inedible food. Again recalling Mount Athos, his descriptions of monastic rituals are always evocative (see below).
Ever the historian, he visits the chapel of St John Damascene, whose refutation of heresies The Fount of knowledge makes a critique of Islam—as a new, if heretical, form of Christianity:
What Damascene wrote in this cave was largely responsible for saving Byzantium from the ban against sacred art that has always been part of Islam and Judaism. Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.
And he draws our attention to the prayer niche, “another of those features of the early Christian world which has been lost to modern Western Christianity, yet which is still preserved in Islam”.
His explorations of Egypt start in Alexandria, long deserted by its Greek, Jewish, and Armenian entrepreneurs. Dalrymple visits an abandoned synagogue, and finds the gathering place of the city’s last Greeks.
He offers a vignette on the 1895 discovery of ancient papyrus fragments at Oxyrhynchus by the British archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt, remarkable not just for their classical texts but for their rich archive of Byzantine correspondence and administrative documents, revealing the lives of ordinary people.
In the desert southeast of Cairo he reaches the Coptic Orthodox monastery of St Anthony, still flourishing. Again, the 3rd-century hermit monk was pursued by a fan club of fashionable intelligentsia. By the early 5th century some seven hundred monasteries filled the desert between Jerusalem and the southern border of the Byzantine Empire.
In contrast to medieval Western monks, the Egyptian desert fathers also tended to reject the concept of learning, the worship of knowledge for its own sake. St Anthony was particularly scathing about books, proclaiming that “in the person whose mind is sound there is no need for letters”. […] Many of St Anthony’s Coptic followers emulated his example, preferring a life of hard manual labour and long hours of prayer to one of study.
Unlike the other monasteries on Dalrymple’s journey, St Anthony’s continues to attract young monks—literate, often university graduates, and keen students of arid farming techniques. Dalyrymple finds them “kind, gentle men, much more modest and reasonable than the bristling Greek brigands of Mar Saba or their sometimes fanatical brethren on Mount Athos”. He gives another vivid depiction of vespers:
Now, as if from nowhere, at least sixty monks had materialised in the nave and all were chanting loudly in a deep, rumbling plainchant quite different from the elusive, bitterwseet melodies of Gregorian chant or the angular, quickfire vespers of the Greeks. Individually the gentlest of men, the Copts at prayer made a massive, dense, booming sound, each stanza sung by the monastic cantor echoed by a thundering barrage of massed male voices. The wall of sound reverberated around the church, bouncing off the squinches of the dome, crashing onto the mud-brick roof then down again like a lead weight into the nave. Yet despite its heaviness, there was nothing harsh or brutal about the Coptic chant, the swelling notes of the refrain resolving to give the whole threnody a tragic, desolate air, as if all the distilled deprivations of generations of monks were being enunciated and offered up, at once an agonised atonement for the sins of mankind and exorcism foretelling the terrors of the night to come. […]
There was a moment of silence as the monks marched from the middle of the nave, through the swirling incense, to a long lectern near the sanctuary where a line of ancient bound vellum lectionaries lay open. There the brethren split into groups. Quietly at first, those on the north began singing a verse of the psalm of the day, those to the south answering them, the volume gradually rising, the stiff, illuminated pages of the service books all turning together as the chant thundered on into the late evening, accompanied now by an occasional clash of cymbals or an ecstatic ringing of triangles. As the service progressed and the tempo of the singing rose, novices swung their thuribles and the great cumulus clouds of frankincense coagulated into a thick white fog in the body of the nave…
I’d love to find videos of such rituals.
After five days in the seclusion of St Anthony’s, he is horrified by the mundane chaos of Cairo, and soon moves on in search of more desert monasteries. He eventually gains permission to visit the province of Asyut, centre of Egypt’s Coptic population, but closed to foreigners since the Islamist insurgency. The prospects seem gloomy, with Copts migrating, first to the anonymity of the cities, and then abroad. With an armed guard he reaches the fortified Coptic Abbey of Deir al-Muharraq, which had recently been attacked. As the convoy moves on to Kharga, an even more remote area, he reflects on the different problems confronting Christians around the Middle East:
In southeast Turkey the Syrian Christians were caught in the crossfire of a civil war, a distinct ethnic group trodden underfoot in the scrummage between two rival nationalisms, one Kurdish, the other Turkish. Here it was their ethnicity as much as their religion which counted against the Christians; they were not Kurds and not Turks, therefore they did not fit in. In Lebanon, the Maronites had reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing: their failure to compromise with the country’s Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians and a proportional diminution of Maronite power. The dilemma of the Palestinian Christians was quite different again. Their problem was that, like their Muslim compatriots, they were Arabs in a Jewish state, and as such suffered as second-class citizens in their own country, regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters. However, unlike most of the Muslims, they were educated professionals and found it relatively easy to emigrate, which they did, en masse. Very few were now left. Only in Egypt was the Christian population unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, and even there such violent fundamentalism was strictly limited to specific Cairo suburbs and a number of towns and villages in Upper Egypt, even if some degree of discrimination was evident across the country.
* * *
Dalrymple’s work exemplifies why many foreigners are attracted to the Mystic East, in search of grand architecture and the vestiges of ancient civilisations. Sometimes his work reads like a more dependable modern rebranding of Gurdjeff and the Truth Seekers; but his highly readable blending of early history, spiritual quest, and current affairs is really most impressive.
FWIW, all this reminds me why I really don’t like travelling. It’s not really that I have any sense of “belonging” in London; but I’m averse to being a stranger, an ignorant foreigner unable to communicate. If I’m going to go somewhere, I want to stay there a bit, and get to know at least the basics of what makes the society tick. In China, “hit-and-run” missions can be useful, such as Yang Yinliu’s Hunan survey in 1956, or our reccies of south Fujian (1986/1990), north Shanxi (1992), and the plain south of Beijing; but I’ve relished making a base in one village, and with one family. Indeed, Dalrymple perhaps reached a similar conclusion, having made his home in Delhi since 1989, producing erudite (and always accessible) studies on the art and history of the Indian subcontinent.
* * *
Dalrymple has also written and presented several TV series. In From the holy mountain he himself exposed the long history of bitter conflict in the region (Moschos makes clear “the horrifying, almost apocalyptic nature of the destruction he witnessed around him”), exacerbated in a polarised modern world; so while he might have chosen to join the media in focusing on the gloomy outlook, with all the irreconcilable schisms, instead he prefers to preach a contrasting gospel—the shared roots, diversity, and historical tolerance of Christianity and Islam.
The exigencies of commercial TV suggest that I shouldn’t mark them down too much for including some of the Usual Suspects like the Whirling Dervishes (cf. Bektashi–Alevi ritual, 1). But hey, I continue to churn out armchair vignettes of world music—so “I can’t talk”…
It’s hard to keep up with publications on the Uyghur genocide. James Millward offers a useful selection of readings, leading to this bibliography.
Among several fine scholars is the anthropologist Darren Byler, who has recently published several works. His Terror capitalism: Uyghur dispossession and masculinity in a Chinese city (2022; interview here) is a major study. A more succinct account, but just as incisive, is
In the camps: life in China’s high-tech penal colony (2022).
Detailed case studies of the nightmares endured by innocent people illustrate the web of checkpoints, digital surveillance, and facial recognition, operated by private technology companies and police contractors; and the mass internment projects that are aimed not at a small number of criminals but at the entire Muslim population.
The surveillance system itself produced assumptions of guilt, of pre-criminality. As the system manufactured these claims, many Muslims were made to hide their moral objections by wearing masks of loyalty to the state programme. Those who lacked these masks were dehumanised under the lights and cameras of the camps. They were transformed by plastic stools, electric batons, and automated cruelty. They were trained to sit still, cower when appropriate, to accept beatings silently, to sing loudly, to always smile, and to say “Yes!” to every command. They were conditioned not to register the smell of excrement, fear, and sweat that came with the open buckets used as toilets, the crush of unwashed bodies in cramped space, and their terror of the guards. They stopped noticing the glare of bright lights in the middle of the night. They stopped feeling their constant hunger. They stopped thinking about the distant future or the past.
Smartphones, which became common from 2005, seemed a blessing, allowing people to share information widely—all the more once WeChat became popular from 2010. Sharing knowledge with Islamic communities abroad was just one aspect of this. This soon turned into a “phone disaster”, as state scrutiny of the device became a major tool in its “War on Terror”.
As Byler discovers, the chain of guilt leads to tech companies in the USA, and within the PRC to the forced labour of factories both in Xinjiang and in the Chinese heartland. Meanwhile camp guards, technicians, and “teachers”—Han Chinese, Uyghur, and Kazakh—were also desensitised, although many were deeply traumatised. A Muslim women, conscripted from her primary school job to teach Chinese to camp inmates, soon realised that this assignment was no ordinary “training centre”. Finding her first “pupils” were handcuffed elderly men with beards, without thinking, she used the traditional greeting “Assalamu alaykum”.
When she said this, the students froze. “They looked terrified. I realised I had said something wrong. I introduced myself and started the class. I just stared at the blackboard, and didn’t turn back to look at their faces. I couldn’t turn around because some detainees were sobbing. Some of the old men’s beards were wet from crying. I tried to compose myself. I didn’t look back at all during the class. I just kept writing and erasing the characters on the blackboard.
Gradually she acclimatises to the performance demanded of her. The staff too are under constant scrutiny, their every movement recorded on camera, their own phones monitored.
The violence of functioning within the camp system wore her down. Violating the personhood of others resulted in a violation of her own sense of dignity and self-worth.
Relatives of the disappeared lived in fear too. Family separation has become endemic; “in some Uyghur-majority areas, as many as 70% of children up through age five are now held in Mandarin-medium ‘Kindness Kindergartens’ while their parents are in prisons, camps, or factories“. On the rare occasions when inmates were permitted supervised family visits, it was even more painful to have to go through the charade of pretending that everything was fine.
Those who are eventually released from the camps, cowed into subservience, often find themselves coerced into forced labour as factory workers for Han Chinese companies. The fruits of their labour are sold around the world. Propaganda praises such enterprise as “poverty alleviation” for a backward people, whereby they acquire “life skills”, workers are entirely deprived of legal protections, forming a captive underclass.
One camp survivor observed,
We often became hopeless. Sometimes we really felt hatred towards the Chinese people, to the point where I would catch myself thinking that I could kill Chinese government workers just to feel something. But then I think about all the Han Chinese people I’ve met who also criticise Xi Jinping, who curse him. So I can’t blame the Chinese people for this; they are victims too.
Finally Byler turns to the global picture. He notes that the surveillance system of Xinjiang is an extreme, “perfected” instance of those deployed around the world, and developed in the West at companies such as at his own base in Seattle, with Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, Google, Adobe all deeply implicated.
The management of Covid is also implicated in such systems:
The ability of Seattle, Kansas City, and Seoul to respond as rapidly as they have to the pandemic relies in part on the way systems of oppression in Northwest China have opened up a space to train biometric surveillance algorithms. The protection of others depends on […] ignoring the dehumanisation of thousands of detainees and unfree workers.
Byler notes the potential of such technology to further entrench racialization in the USA.
The algorithms make it appear normal that black men or Uyghurs are disproportionately detected by these systems. They stop the police, and those they protect, from recognising that surveillance is always about controlling and disciplining people that do not fit into the vision of those in power. The world, not China alone, has a problem with surveillance.
For Michael Dillon’s LRB review of In the camps and other recent works, click here.
* * *
A more wide-ranging study is
Darren Byler, Ivan Franceschini, and Nicholas Loubere (eds), Xinjiang Year Zero(2022; free download here).
The volume is an outgrowth of the Made in China Journal, where several of the essays were originally published. The Preface by Andrea Pitzer, and the editors’ Introduction, spell out some of the main themes: camps, surveillance, technology, labour exploitation, and global connections. Aimed at the whole society, ethnic cleansing criminalises the everyday lives of Muslims in Xinjiang.
The book is in three broad sections. Part One, “Discursive roots”, traces historical factors.Ye Hui, “Nation building as epistemic violence”, situates the repression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang in the history of global imperialism, outlining how the dispossession of populations in Xinjiang today is an effect of secular nation-building. Zenab Ahmed, “Revolution and state formation as oasis storytelling in Xinjiang”, analyses assimilationist policies targeting Uyghur spirituality and mythic storytelling. Guldana Salimjan, “Blood lineage”, traces how conceptions of racial purity and authenticity have shaped national consciousness throughout the history of the PRC. David Brophy, “Good and bad Muslims in Xinjiang”, examines how Beijing taps into global discourses of counter-radicalisation emerging from the US-led War on Terror. In “Imprisoning the open air: preventive policing as community detention in northwestern China”, Darren Byler digs into how counterinsurgency strategies developed in the USA, Israel, and Europe have been adapted for “community policing” in Xinjiang.
Part Two, “Settler colonialism”, situates the case of contemporary Xinjiang in a longer-run history of Han settler colonialism. Tom Cliff’s photo essay “Oil and water” depicts the lives of Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang. Guldana Salimjan, “Recruiting loyal stabilisers: on the banality of carceral colonialism in Xinjiang”, details the ongoing human transfer project in Xinjiang through the banal language of recruitment and employment. In “Triple dispossession in northwestern China”, Sam Tynen explores multiple forms of everyday dispossession and displacement of Uyghurs outside the camps. Timothy Grose, “Replace and rebuild: Chinese colonial housing in Uyghur communities”, outlines the ways in which Uyghur spaces are being reorganised, resulting in the disruption of conceptions of home; as in other colonial projects, “civilising” the indigenous population entails destroying their tradition. Rian Thum, “The spatial cleansing of Xinjiang: Mazar desecration in context”, details the meaning and implications of the destruction of three of the most revered sacred and historical sites in Xinjiang (see also Shrine festivals of the Uyghurs), as well as the desecration of graveyards. Guldana Salimjan, “Camp land: settler ecotourism and Kazakh removal in contemporary Xinjiang”, explains how the discourses and practices of ecotourism are used to justify the removal of Kazakh communities. Darren Byler, “Factories of Turkic Muslim internment”, shows how the internment camps are producing cheap labour for the factories moving to Xinjiang to take advantage of the situation.
Tourists entering the new Kashgar Old City, 2015.
Part Three, “Global connections”, concerns the global nature of mass detention and the emergence of a high-tech surveillance state in Xinjiang. Nicholas Loubere and Stefan Brehm, “The global age of the algorithm: social credit, Xinjiang, and the financialisation of governance in China”, draw connections between experiments with “social credit” and broader global processes of financialised inclusion, reflecting on what this means for social control. Darren Byler, “Surveillance, data police, and digital enclosure in Xinjiang’s ‘Safe Cities’ ” explores how Xinjiang’s “Safe Cities” are facilitating forms of surveillance and digital enclosure. Gerald Roche, “Transnational carceral capitalism and private paramilitaries in Xinjiang and beyond” examines the role of an international private security firm in Xinjiang, considering how the global security industry precipitates the circulation of methods and technologies of control in China and beyond. Séagh Kehoe, “Chinese feminism, Tibet, and Xinjiang”, looks at the plight of women and ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang from the perspective of the Chinese and international feminist movements. Nitasha Kaul, “China: Xinjiang; India: Kashmir”, compares China and India in their treatment of “othered” populations in Xinjiang and Kashmir (which share a border).
In the Conclusion, the editors update the story and note important issues that the international community needs to address. An Appendix gives a detailed timeline since 2009.
Scholarship on the PRC can no longer ignore such impressive research on the repression in Xinjiang and elsewhere—which must continue to be highlighted among the many current alarms around the world.
This is the latest in my series on Uyghur culture, with posts listed here.
As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.
Some essential posts:
A selection of nine anagram tales from Nicolas Robertson’s fantastical series
If I leave my own town, will anyone visit me? If I wander in the town of orphans, will anyone visit me? I have drunk the nectar of love, overflowed like a boiling pot If I abandon this world, will anyone visit me?
— from Nawa muqam
Having relished live music from Afghanistan, Georgia, Iran, and Anatolia at the Wigmore Hall for the launch of Musics lost and found, it was good to catch up with Uyghur musicking in London last Saturday for a concert at St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield—the oldest parish church in London, well worth a visit on its own.
The concert, in aid of the Tarim Network for the global Uyghur youth community, featured Rahima Mahmut and the Silk Road Collective of Uyghur Music and Culture, together with Uzbek musicians led by the master percussionist Abbos Kosimov on doira frame drums—illustrating a shared culture. The livestream (mirrored!) is on Facebook.
Spoken introductions were provided by singer Rahima Mahmut of the World Uyghur Congress, and Rachel Harris of SOAS (dutar), whose meticulous research covers the range of Uyghur culture and its current eradication (see here, and here).
Abbos Kosimov (website; You Tube channel) is enthralling. No mere virtuoso, he’s a sensitive ensemble player, relishing his rapport with the fine rubab/dutar player Sardor Mirzakhojaev. After a charming number on qairoq castanets, in the second half he launched into an astounding party-piece, culminating in polyrhythms on three frame-drums at once.
It was the most inspiring drumming I’ve heard since Asaf Sirkis accompanying Krzysztof Urbanski for Polish jazz at POSK… And I’m in the mood for frame-drums since my recent trip to Istanbul, having found some Uzbek/Kirghiz ones at Mustafa Bey’s instrument shop in Kanlica as gifts for friends’ children.
Uyghur music was represented by excerpts from the muqam, and regional folk songs; Dostonbek Mirzakarimov played an undulating solo on Uzbek ney flute. The second half opened with a lively Uzbek dance from Rashid Shadat, and ended with Uyghurs and others from the audience dancing gracefully in the aisle.
Until a few years ago, activities like those of the London Uyghur Ensemble were inspired by a vibrant muqam scene in Xinjiang, nourished by exchanges with outstanding musicians there such as Abdulla Mäjnun and Sanubar Tursun. Now that Uyghur culture in the homeland has been brutally repressed and all contact cut off, the activities of diaspora groups take on a greater significance.
Tarred as I am by the brush of specialising in China, my interest in Tibetan and Uyghur cultures is merely that of an outsider. But having written a series of posts on Tibet, it seems suitable to round up my readings on Uyghur culture—and its recent decimation—with a selection from the Uyghur tag in the sidebar.
This year’s CHIMEconference (details here), with the broad theme of “Chinese music and memory”, is to be held remotely from Prague in two instalments on 1st–3rd and 8th–10th September.
Among the contributors—from both within and outside China—some will address notation (generally an over-subscribed topic) and early history (a rather safe theme, although currently being subjected to the ideology of the PRC). Also featured are folk-song, the qin zither (another niche scene rarely considered in the light of the social traumas of Maoism), the music of the Cultural Revolution, and the inescapable Intangible Cultural Heritage. More promising are Zhu Chuyi’s “ ‘Mother, I am sorry I was born a girl’: sonic, somatic, and traumatic memories in Tujia bridal laments”, and Liu Chang’s “Dakou cassettes, scar literature, and the memory of a traumatic past” (the latter proposal no longer appearing).
Here I’d like to broaden the topic in ways that may appear to be outside the remit of the conference, gathering together several of my blog posts. But we might start with a reminder of aperçus by two weighty pundits:
Music! Music! Is it nothing but the sound of bells and drums?—Confucius
There is no such thing as art that is detached from or independent of politics—Mao Zedong
Soundscape is never autonomous: it’s a window on society (see posts under Society and soundscape). Yet by comparison with countries where regime change has enabled necessary commemoration of painful episodes (see e.g. Sachsenhausen), within China acknowledgement and public scrutiny of the crimes of Maoism are notably absent. For references to some fine work, see Cultural Revolutions, including Jing Jun’s The temple of memories and Erik Mueggler’s The age of wild ghosts; among much discussion (at least outside China), two works on remembering and forgetting the traumatic past are reviewed here. For the dissimulation and duplicity inculcated in the USSR, see e.g. The whisperers.
Hilltop burial, Shaanbei 1999. My photo.
A major theme in people’s lives is suffering—as highlighted by Guo Yuhua in her fine ethnography of a poor Shaanbei hill village Shoukurende jiangshu 受苦人的講述 [Narratives of the sufferers], where she managed to elicit the peasants’ own painful memories of the whole Maoist era.
Particularly harrowing cases are the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Great Leap Backward, and the concurrent famines. The horrors of the Jiabiangou labour camp in Gansu have been exposed in long documentaries, Wang Bing’s Dead Souls and Ai Xiaoming’s Jiabiangou elegy.
My film Notes from the yellow earth (DVD with Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei) contains a lengthy sequence (§B) from a similar funeral—filmed in a village with its own traumatic memories. One might hear the playing of such shawm bands as merely “mournful”—indeed, that’s why younger urban dwellers are reluctant to hear them, associating the sound with death. And of course the style and repertoire of these bands took shape long before Maoism, based on earlier historical suffering. But we can only hear “early music” with our own modern ears.
Within the context of Dead souls the bleakness of the soundscape really hits home, suggesting how very visceral is the way that the style evokes the trauma of ruined lives and painful memory—slow, with wailing timbre and the “blue” scale of jiadiao, the two shawms in stark unison occasionally splintering into octave heterophony. Wang Bing’s scene should be compulsory viewing for anyone still struggling (despite my best efforts) to comprehend the relevance of shawm bands. Similarly, since I often note the importance of Daoist ritual in Gansu, its labour camps might form one aspect of our accounts of ritual life there.
The people shown in these documentaries are just those who anyone doing research in China will encounter—whether working on social or cultural life. This is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.
Like the German and Russian “soul”, suffering in China isn’t timeless: it is embodied in the lives and deaths of real people in real time. People dying since I began fieldwork in the 1980s all had traumatic histories; at the grave their memories, and those of their families, are covered over merely in dry earth, ritual specialists only performing a token exorcism that doesn’t obviate the need for a deeper accommodation with the past.
Ritual studies too are often perceived as a society-free zone, retreating into early history without reference to modern tribulations. As I showed in my post Ritual studies mildly censored, anxiety over documenting the Maoist past continues. As we submitted a translation of Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family to a Chinese publisher, one sentence proved tricky:
… religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.
Precisely by modifying it they proved my point—by feeling it’d be rash to admit that it was a sensitive issue, they revealingly confirmed that it was!
Thus south of Beijing in the ritual association of Gaoluo village by the 1990s, it was easy to air publicly the vocal liturgy and instrumental melodies that young recruits like Cai An had learned on the eve of the Great Leap, and during the brief revival between the famine and the Four Cleanups; but traumatic memories of the campaigns themselves remained unvoiced.
Arguments for maintaining the stability of the state, avoiding “chaos”, are paltry compared to the duty to commemorate, to learn from history—for Europe, UK, the USA, all around the world. Elsewhere too we find belated recognition of the sufferings of Indigenous peoples around the world, and the legacy of colonialism and genocide.
aptly dedicated to the fine anthropologist and film-maker Rahile Dawut, who is among countless Uyghurs “disappeared” into the “re-education” camp system.
Integrating expressive culture, religion, society, and politics, it’s complemented by the website http://www.soundislamchina.org, where we can find audio and video examples discussed in the text.
Though Rachel has been unable to return to Xinjiang since 2012, alongside others like Rian Thum and Darren Byler, she has been assiduously documenting the whole cataclysm there with a whole series of articles, some of which form the basis for chapters in this volume. Since then too, her research has benefitted from the perspectives of visiting Uyghur communities in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Indeed, even her fieldwork in Xinjiang from 2006 to 2012 was hampered by tensions that came to a head with the protests and inter-ethnic violence of 2009 in Urümchi. Since 2016 for Xinjiang Uyghurs to have any contact with relatives and friends abroad has become highly dangerous.
After a long period of research on the largely masculine worlds of the muqam and Uyghur pop music, Rachel turned late to the less visible world of female culture, studying a group of pious women in a village in southern Xinjiang who recite the Qur’an and intone zikr religious formulas. Their schedule was busy, including calendrical and life-cycle rituals, rituals for the dead, and to heal sickness, for individual families and the whole community. The village women were “immersed in a perpetual cycle of reciprocal hospitality and mutual aid. […] Moral propriety and communal responsibility were intertwined with being a good Muslim.”
By contrast with media images, these women were not isolated, but highly networked and responsive to social change. They continued practising, often clandestinely, throughout the Maoist era, becoming more open after the 1980s’ reforms—until being suppressed since 2014.
The seven chapters flow compellingly in an escalating sequence of tragedy, moving from poor villages to labour camps
.Chapter 1 is an exemplary exposition of the main themes, adding to our material on society and soundscape, always striking just the right balance between cross-cultural theory and grassroots fieldwork. The chapter opens with insightful sonic vignettes:
The massive development of recent decades in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China has brought rapid advances in infra-structure, the wholesale extraction of natural resources, and large-scale Han Chinese immigration into a region until recently dominated by Turkic Muslim peoples, the most numerous of whom are the Uyghurs. This development has wrought huge changes, not only in the landscape but also in the soundscape. By 2012, coal mines and oil refineries had come to dominate the desert landscape, and heavy trucks thundered up and down the new highways transporting minerals and building materials. In Xinjiang’s provincial cities, bulldozers rumbled over demolition sites and mud-brick shacks crashed to the ground, fracturing precarious communities of Uyghur rural migrants. The thudding of pile drivers echoed around the high-rise residential developments that were shooting up in their place. In the manicured town squares, the evening soundscape became carnivalesque. Groups of Han Chinese women performed American line dancing or Chinese yang’ge dancing to techno soundtracks that competed with tinny music from children’s fairground rides. In the Muslim graveyard in Ürümchi, there was an audible hum from the electricity pylons and the mass of wires that passed overhead; relatives complained that the noise was disturbing the sleep of the dead. In the Uyghur villages of the rural south, the roar of motorbikes had all but replaced the groan of the donkeys, and the nights throbbed to the sound of water pumps as farmers took advantage of cheap electricity to pump water to their cotton fields. The village loudspeaker, that supreme sonic marker of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, was once again filling the village streets with a mixture of popular songs and news of the latest political campaigns.
But just as important is silence: “equally important for an understanding of the soundscape are the sounds that are not heard, sounds that do not circulate in the public sphere”—such as the call to prayer. Even the women’s religious gatherings, the main subject of the book, were held furtively behind closed doors. And by 2018 people didn’t even dare to talk (cf. The whisperers).
Rachel introduces the religious history of the Uyghurs, and the revival since the reforms of the 1980s, noting increasing piety among local communities, and placing it within the wider context of transnational flows of Islamic ideologies and practice, notably activity within Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But already on the eve of 9/11 even the most routine of Muslim practices were coming to be targeted by the Chinese state in campaigns against “extremism” and “separatism”. Nor were Uyghur communities unified in their faith, with a growing debate around stricter forms of Wahhabism. She notes the interpretation of religious revivals as a response among marginalised and deprived people to the upheavals prompted by the introduction of globalized capitalism.
She presents fine perspectives on “Why sound?”, “Is it music?”, and “Thinking about music”, and among “Contested soundscapes”, she draws attention to gendered aspects. With “music”, singing, and dancing all subject to scrutiny within Uyghur communities themselves, she highlights the experience of the participants, and notes the social circulation of religious media via recordings and the internet, finding similarities with the transmission of pop music.
As an interlude, a village woman tells her story in 2009, growing up under the Maoist commune system, and her experiences since the 1980s’ reforms, cautiously taking part in the village’s ritual events. Rachel reflects on the account in Chapter 2, which focuses on the khätmä healing ritual, also used for commemorating the dead. She explores the role of büwi, the senior ritual specialist who leads the women in reciting and weeping in trance. The role is often hereditary, but one of Rachel’s mentors had begun her path after a dream, like many spirit mediums in China (see e.g. here, with many links) and further afield.
The authority for their learning is often conferred by a period of study with male ritual specialists. Some identify as tariqa, people of the path, and she traces the connection with Sufi lodges and the wider history of organised Sufism.
Rachel gives a detailed account of a khätmä ritual she attended in 2009, alternating surah verses in the Qur’an and zikr short repeated phrases of prayers. With the affective power of sound more important than lexical meaning, she focuses on bodily, rhythmic entrainment, as well as ishq (divine love, passion) and därd (suffering), expressed through weeping (some links here), which she explores with yet another detailed cross-cultural analysis. As one büwi commented on watching the video of the climax of the ritual:
The oil is sizzling in the pot [qazan kizip kätti]. Their love for Allah is so strong that they can’t stop themselves crying, just like the pot on the stove. When the oil is hot, you must throw in the meat otherwise the oil will catch fre. It’s just like that. Then you must put in the vegetables, otherwise the meat will burn. So just like that the women cry a lot. . . . Their love [ishq] for Allah is like the hot oil in the pot, their love for Allah is so strong.
She notes that
reciting the khätmä and weeping not only is for alleviating one’s own sin but can also serve as an act of intercession on behalf of the families of the deceased, or even for the whole community.
Chapter 3 discusses the hikmät sung prayers of the women’s rituals, the complex interactions of text and performance, and debates over style. Acknowledging the work of Chinese musicologist Zhou Ji (see here, under “The muqaddime“), she again gets to the heart of religious practice. She describes a healing ritual in 2012, when the political climate was already tense; and a 2015 ritual across the Kazakh border, with insightful comments on the modern history of the region (cf. The Kazakh famine).
Chapter 4 continues to incorporate material from Uyghur communities beyond Xinjiang, exploring patterns of circulation of Qur’anic recitation, and how they are discussed and strategically deployed in public spaces, digital media, and daily practice.
Under the more relaxed conditions of the 1980s and 90s, travel and trade helped satisfy the longing for engagement with the Muslim heartlands in the Middle East. The growing influence of Saudi and Egyptian styles of recitation as heard on media platforms brought a certain dilution of local styles, which was not always welcome. Rachel’s attuned ear notes both the tajwid rules for recitation, including nasal timbre, and the taste for reverb in recordings.
She makes adroit comparisons with modal improvisation and changing styles in Egypt and Indonesia. With all this in mind, she looks again at the vocal style of the khätmä ritual in her adoptive village in south Xinjiang, in another detailed analysis of a “spiritual aesthetic in transition”. She notes the apparent contradiction in the rural büwi incorporating the Saudi style, which preaches against the “superstitious” Sufi practices that they represent. While she notes that “many observers of the Islamic world have pitted supposedly tolerant and hybrid forms of local Islam against the purifying practices of reformist individuals and groups”, the distinction is far from clear-cut. While internalising their marginality,
For them, mimicking the sounds of Salafism did not necessarily denote an adoption of Salafi ideology. For Aynisa, as for other reciters, rather than indexing rival ideologies, what both the Egyptian and Saudi styles indexed was modernity.
felt the need to make herself strong and to make herself modern, in part in response to pressure from state religious policies, in part in response to criticism of her own practice by Uyghur reformists. Cyborglike, magpielike, she mimetically absorbed and deployed foreign styles of recitation within a very local form of ritual, using them to resist backward status and to lay claim to alternative styles of modernity.
After another interlude translating the anonymous satirical poem “They’ll arrest you” posted on WeChat in 2014, showing clearly that the campaign’s true target was normal moral behaviour for Uyghurs, Chapter 5,“Mobile Islam: mediation and circulation”, explores depictions of religion and Uyghur identity (not least through the sensory, affective experiences of images and sound) that thrived briefly on social media platforms, and the complex debates among Uyghurs about how to be a good Muslim—in particular a good, modest Muslim woman. With state repression escalating after the 2009 unrest (fed by the Global War on Terror), virtually any form of Uyghur behaviour became vulnerable to accusations of “religious extremism”, and debate was silenced. Countering the state discourse, she notes:
Together these phenomena helped to produce new structures of feeling within Uyghur society that may be best characterized as a crisis of suffering—both personally and collectively experienced—to which only Islam, in different guises, could provide a solution through its capacity to enable personal and collective transformation. For the majority, this spiritual awakening and quest for greater religious knowledge, and the projects of practice and self-discipline impelled by their new faith, were primarily personal. For some, they converged with experiences of the increasingly repressive state policies and took on a more overtly political dimension.
In July 2014 violent confrontations in Yarkand county in southern Xinjiang began with a police raid on an “illegal religious gathering” by a group of village women. Rachel returns to the ubiquitous theme of därd suffering, now denoting national as well as spiritual pain, and expressed in religious worship and pop music alike. The latter often took the traditional—and transnational—a cappella form of anashid, sung poetry in praise of Allah, only in a breathy popular style remote from the nasality of tajwid recitation. Though their main theme was the call to prayer, Rachel confronts the radical message of some of these items. And with typically instructive cross-cultural examples, she contemplates the power of rumour.
Agents of the state reacted with horror at the spread of what they perceived as alien, antimodern, and hence threatening ways of being, and they invoked the globally circulating trope of Islamic terror, which enabled new violence to be unleashed against the supposed terrorists and against the Uyghur people, who were now coming to be collectively defined by this trope.
Chapter 6, “Song and dance and the sonic territorization of Xinjiang”,notes people’s alienation from the formal musical performances promoted by state media since the intensification of campaigns since 2014. The chapter opens by unpacking Little apple, a bizarrely kitsch video adopted nationally by the security forces to promote stability and ethnic unity. Rachel utilizes research on Tibet. Uyghur culture and the Chinese state have irreconcilable images of the landscape; noting the rebuilding, and bulldozing, of sites like Kashgar and Qumul to bolster the Chinese agenda, she discusses sonic territoralisation. Since 2015 the soundscape of urban Xinjiang has been dominated by Chinese propaganda songs, evoking the mass propaganda of the Maoist era—cue for further instructive introductions to Muzak and shopping malls, and to the use of sound in warfare.
She now discusses the campaign against religious extremism in detail.
Rather than targeting the small number of people who might reasonably be judged vulnerable to radicalization and violent action, the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang sought to eliminate all visible and audible expressions of Islamic faith—veiling, beards, public prayer, fasting, religious gatherings, instruction, and media—from the landscape and soundscape.
Among the targets were visible signs of religiosity, including women’s clothing. “By 2016, veils and beards had disappeared from the landscape.” Also to be eliminated was “noise”—meaning Muslim noise, inside unofficial mosques, in restaurants and family homes, and on social media. Listening was dangerous.
Again we are reminded of the debate within Uyghur communities with a discussion of the proper observance of weddings. But the state now fabricated a simplified and misleading opposition: “foreign” religious extremism versus “traditional” song and dance.
To replace Muslim noise, the commodified Chinese song-and-dance style was heavily promoted. In another fascinating discussion Rachel unpacks the meanings of smiling in such performances—by contrast with the Uyghur emphasis on weeping.
If China’s professional minority performers had long been accustomed to smiling to service the requirements of nation building, the unfolding of the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang made it clear that it was no longer sufcient for paid professionals to smile; now ordinary Uyghurs from schoolchildren to büwis were required to silence their weeping and publicly demonstrate their happiness. From 2015 on, local cultural bureaus across Xinjiang organized villagers to participate in song-and-dance performances, mass dancing displays, weekly sessions for singing revolutionary songs, and weekly mäshräp gatherings in order to counter extremism.
The mäshräp had long been a contested and regionally variable forum—see her 2020 article, also bearing on the incongruous attempt to gain UNESCO status under the Intangible Cultural Heritage; and in similar vein, “You shall sing and dance: contested ‘safeguarding’ of Uyghur Intangible Cultural Heritage”, Asian ethnicity 21.4 (2020), by an anonymous (apparently Uyghur) scholar.
Again referencing the Maoist era, another focus of the campaigns was singing “Red Songs”, which even religious personnel were required to perform.
With the Uyghur diaspora responding by declaring such performances haram, Rachel has to clarify that “music”, song and dance, including muqam and the songs of the ashiq Sufi mendicants, had long co-existed with more orthodox, austere modes of religious expression, constituting another historical object of debate among Uyghurs. And even the staged song-and-dance style had a history going back to the early 20th century: “a rejection of this culture implied, in the view of many urban intellectuals, a rejection of the development of the modern Uyghur nation”.
Such issues were hotly debated on Uyghur forums in exile.
It was in this context, with music and Islam in Uyghur culture fixed into positions of opposition, and musical performance deployed as a tool of control by the state, that Uyghur pop singers like those mentioned in chapter 5 fled the country, arrived in Turkey “repenting of their sins”—sins that might well have included performing patriotic or revolutionary songs praising the Chinese Communist Party—and atoned for these sins recording radical anashid supporting the mujahidin.
The Xinjiang campaigns were an attempt to replace one form of embodied practice with another—secular, modern, patriotic. While Rachel notes that such compulsory gatherings weren’t invariably experienced as the imposition of an alien sonic regime,
the fact that these experiences of singing and dancing were coercive and underpinned by state violence was completely consistent with past precedent, and this juxtaposition of song and dance and state violence would come still more sharply into focus in the new context of the mass internment camps that were already under construction across the region.
And so the reeducation techniques in the camps are the subject of Chapter 7, “Erasure and trauma”. Among much coverage, this too is a masterly account.
By 2017 the campaigns had extended way beyond the religious sphere.
Increasingly the term “religious extremism” seemed to serve as a gloss for Uyghur culture and identity, which was now regarded as a “virus” in need of eradication.
Again, coercive musical performance played a key role in the reeducation programme of the camps. I remain unclear how making inmates sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” for foreign journalists might ever be expected to convince anyone—I suppose it’s more of a demonstration of power.
The chapter continues with an astute discussion of trauma, subsuming the Cultural Revolution and other societies.
Rachel finds the binding theme of repetition—in Red Songs and forced confessions, as in zikr and repeating the shahadah 72,000 times for a death ritual. She reads the securitisation of Xinjiang as a colonial project, prompting further global comparisons. Yet—or thus,
we should not assume for one moment that the effects of the anti-religious-extremism campaign in Xinjiang will be a permanent erasure of the religious sensibilities and the cultural identity of its subjects and to rewire them as patriotic automatons.
Simple acts of remembering “suggest the inevitable failure of state projects of social reengineering”.
She adopts scholars’ metaphor of the palimpsest to evoke unsuccessful attempts to erase previous layers.
Far from internalizing understandings of their culture and faith as an infectious disease that led inexorably to terrorist violence, I suggest that Uyghurs are well accustomed to the periodic and transient nature of political campaigns, and they know how to attune themselves to the requirements of the present.
While it will hardly console those grieving over bulldozed gravelands or mourning their loved ones, it’s a remarkably far-sighted and optimistic conclusion.
* * *
While some sections on Islamic transmission are highly technical, Rachel has a gift for integrating theory with ethnographic detail. In all, despite pertinent reminders in the later chapters, Xinjiang faces firmly west, not east: Han Chinese culture may be highly visible, and audible, in the towns, but here it hardly appears except (as Barnett observes for Tibet) as an “inanimate or malignant force”. In Xinjiang and further afield, the whole culture is dominated by the diverse practices of Islam—which are precisely what the Chinese state is now trying to erase.
For a comparable case, see posts under the Tibet tag. These themes should never have been considered marginal in studies of the PRC, and now they seem all the more urgent.
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). 
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 —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.  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.  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.
Critiques 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.
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):
 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.
 For the vulnerability of First Nation bands during the present pandemic, see e.g. here.
 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 dictionaryof 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.
 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.
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. Victor Mair pursues the Dungan language here, with links.
After 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 (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.
And now Kenneth J. Yin is publishing major collections in English translation:
Dungan folktales and legends (2021)
Mystical forest: collected poems and short stories of Dungan ethnographer Ali Dzhon (2023),
with more to follow.
* * *
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 famine, The 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.
In Xinjiang, the Uyghur people, and their whole culture, remain under severe repression. Still no news emerges of the great anthropologist Rahilä Dawut.
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 Mukaddas Mijit’s recent film on Uyghur meshrep in Kazakhstan, see note here.
For a conference at SOAS on “Surveillance and repression of Muslim minorities: Xinjiang and beyond”, click here.
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 and Geshu 哥舒.
The latter surname was Turkic in origin. 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.
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: 
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.
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.
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.  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?
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.
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 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. 
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. 
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.
In 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 Anthologyprovided 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; note e.g. the taksim and amanedhes of Asia Minor. The Uyghur muqaddime are most wonderful accompanied by the resonant satar long-necked bowed lute. I am particularly entranced by the intensemuqaddime 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 piecesof my bosom Peaceis 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): 
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.
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“. 
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.  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— 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 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.
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.
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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. Note also Rachel’s recent book Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam.
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.
 See also Chuen-Fung Wong, “The value of missing tunes: scholarship on Uyghur minority music in northwest China”, Fontes Artis Musicae 56.3 (2009).
 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.
 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).
 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).
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.
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.
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.
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…
China 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.
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.
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…
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—for links to posts on shawms around the world (China, Tibet, south Asia, the Middle East, north Africa, Europe), click here.
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
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.
 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.
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 troubadourwas 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 escalation of the tragic, all-pervading war that the Chinese state is now waging 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.
See also e.g. here, and this 2021 article in Elle.
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).
Rian Thum, The sacred routes of Uyghur history (2014), and this recent article.
From Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, “Music of the ordam shrine festival”.
In her conscientious research, Dawut documented at least two hundred local Sufi mazarfestivals 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 research. Here, 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.
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.
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 Pathétiquesymphony (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, perhaps inspired by the Basque zortzico dance, Ravel was partial to additive metres—such as in his piano trio, and the quintuple-time Bacchanale finale of Daphnis and Chloé (both also featured on that page, the latter from 45.29). And Messiaen was most partial to complex yet catchy additive rhythms.
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…
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 in the first movement of Winter, 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 1.18):
Further east, an example from the muqamof the beleaguered Uyghurs of Xinjiang is sadly topical. 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 internalise 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 (see roundup here).
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.
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).
Nanyin ensemble, Wang Axin on erxian. Quanzhou 1990, my photo.
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.
Fiddles in Shiyin 十音 ensemble. Puxi village, Quanzhou 1990.
Blind instrument-maker Cai Qiuzong (b.1947) on touxian, Dahao town, Shantou 1990.
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.
I’ve written a separate post on bowed zithers (yaqin and so on) played in various traditions north and south. Not to mention all the diverse fiddles among the ethnic minorities— Mongolian morin khuur, Uyghursatar and ghijak, and so on.
Of course, one may end up specialising, 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 standardisations of “national music”.
Indeed, outside the conservatoires and apart from the children of the urban bourgeoisie, the only bowed fiddle that’s not 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.
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’t—The 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 gamakstyles of India, here’s a Hindustani female dynasty (cf. Rāg Malkauns):
And then there’s the wonderful sarangi—click here and here for the remarkable work of Nicolas Magriel.
I outline some of the diverse bowed lutes of China here; the erhu is theleast traditional of them, but you must hear this astounding playing. See also here.
The Korean haegeum is distinctive:
Irish fiddling can be irresistible (for more from Liz Carroll, listen to Dear Old Erin’s Islehere):
Some unaccompanied Bach (on violin instead of cello, for a change):
Poland has some fine fiddle traditions too—here’s Stanisław Klejnas, from a village near Łódź:
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):
Note also the lyra of Crete and the Pontic Greeks. And here’s a taksim on violin by Salih Baysal (1973):
For the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar (featured in a wonderful muqaddime prelude here), but they use “our” violin just as expressively too, as on this track— from a cassette by the renowned singer Abliz Shakir in the early 1990s:
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. Click here for remarkable videos of Sufi Naqshbandi ritual among the Uyghurs. For more, see my roundup of posts on Uyghur culture.
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)  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).
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 actuallymeans 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,  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)  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, summarised 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.
 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.  “Theory and practice in contemporary Central Asian maqām traditions” (forthcoming).  Note this important report. See also under Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam.
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!)…
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.  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.
Secular New Year’s huahui parade, Langfang city, 1991.
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.  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.
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.
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.” 
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 (for the resulting volume, see here).
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.
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
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, 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 e.g. 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. The ambience and acoustic of churches makes a fine setting, the Daoists’ sheng mouth-organs filling the Peterskirche in Heidelberg on our 2013 tour (cf. Buildings and music):
The Li family Daoist band in concert, Heidelberg April 2013.
Still, 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.
For thoughts on the theme of the 2021 CHIME conference, see here.
 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.  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.  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. http://mjlsh.usc.cuhk.edu.hk/book.aspx?cid=6&tid=184&pid=2269. For the model commune of Greater Quanshan in Shanxi, precursor of Dazhai, and temporary “home” to the Li family Daoists, see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.122–3, and here, under “Famine in China”.  Also reported by Henry Kissinger in Newsweek, 3rd March 1997, p.31.
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.
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 sixth 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 sixth 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.
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 fifth 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 sixth 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 (see here, here, and here) and 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! And the exquisite expositions of dhrupad!!!