Monday, December 08, 2014

When cultural barriers become cultural barricades

Snow on the ground at the Arts Institute
I left Urumqi about a month earlier than I had planned. It was a decision I grappled with for days. At first leaving felt premature, like I was giving up, like throwing in the towel because things got hard. Indeed, after the cushiness and glamour of life in Hong Kong, Urumqi was a stark contrast—gray dusty buildings against gray skies, freezing weather (coupled with a broken heater), a diet that consists primarily of starch and oily lamb dishes.

(Here's some listening for the rest of the post--first, a recording of a Uyghur music troupe touring in Urumqi; second, the Hami ghijak, a now-rarely played Uyghur instrument; and third, a muqam performance).

What struck me far beyond these superficial adjustments, however, was the unease that permeates the city and infects the populace. From my first day in Urumqi the divides that estrange the Han and Uyghur ethnic populations were tangible; for one, armed military police and tanks omnipresent at bus and train stations, shopping centers, mosques, and other major public areas were blatant reminders of past violence that has erupted as a result of tensions.

As a third-party observer, I was privy to the racism and xenophobia coming from both Hans and Uyghurs. I heard the rampant discrimination against Uyghurs, whether it was the Han taxi driver telling me that “Uyghurs are bad in the head,” implying that they have psychological predilection for being evil people, my Han acquaintances warning me that Uyghurs were backwards and to watch my belongings and guard my safety around Uyghurs, getting evicted from a predominantly Han nightclub for “dancing while Uyghur,” or hearing countless instances of police intimidation of Uyghurs, often arbitrarily through late-night “house calls.” Uyghur men are by default assumed to be terrorists, and are disallowed everything from the right to grow facial hair to privacy in their own homes in the name of counter-terrorism. Perhaps the most disturbing is what we don’t hear—the ongoing incidents outside of the city that don’t make the news, whispers and rumors of the clashes whose true catalysts and body counts we will likely never know.

Uyghur musicians lecture on muqam performance 
At the same time, it became increasingly clear that the Uyghurs around me were extremely disdainful of Han Chinese people, who they consider to be haram, or culturally and spiritually dirty (opposite of halal), because they are secular and eat pork. I found that Uyghurs tend to self-segregate, often only eating in restaurants run by Uyghurs (or at least Muslims) even when they travel to other cities. The Uyghurs I encountered didn’t consider themselves to have any Han friends (or even seem open to the possibility), and avoided speaking Mandarin except as necessary—even mocking the language among themselves. There’s even a term, mínkǎohàn (民考汉), that refers to Uyghurs who have studied at Han-run schools and speak Mandarin as their first language (sometimes better than, or instead of, Uyghur language)—they are often looked down upon by other Uyghurs, viewed as traitors to their own people, for selling out to their cultural oppressors.

It’s harder to fault the Uyghurs for this disdain—they are largely unwilling participants in the manipulation, and some argue diminution, of their own culture and customs. It’s not that Uyghur culture isn’t without flaws—for example, being a woman in Uyghur society is extremely oppressive in its own ways, including being valued based on one’s virginity, having to forfeit a career for a marriage (that almost inevitably will be marked by the husband’s marital dalliances), or hearing a lifetime of Uyghur idioms proclaiming the stupidity of the female sex. Beyond that, more conservative forms of Islam that prohibit music and dancing, for instance, are entering certain Uyghur communities in Xinjiang (much to the dismay of the musicians I spoke with).

Regardless, the current relationship between the Han and Uyghur populations, fraught with suspicion and mistrust, seems seriously flawed. “You could hardly find two more different groups of people,” a researcher told me. (This particular researcher speculates that at this rate Xinjiang could devolve into a Chechnya-like situation). I don’t think that the cultural differences between Hans and Uyghurs are actually the root of the problem; instead, I think that ignorant and rigid approaches toward multiculturalism (in particular an increasingly segregated education system) are supplanting efforts towards the mutual understanding that would lay the foundation for a success relationship.

It would be wrong to say that there is no future for Xinjiang Uyghurs musically; however, the traditional ways in which musicians have created music and thrived as artists certainly seem in jeopardy. Musical evolution that deviates from traditional modes of expression is a phenomenon arguably seen in all music cultures; the fact remains that artists will continue to be exposed to outside influences and new techniques and want to use them to create new, distinct modes of expression. In the case of Xinjiang, however, musical evolution is largely manipulated by overarching political motivations, and music does feel like it’s being used as a tool of mass distraction and pacification. To quote an earlier post:
This politically-informed gauge of what will be well-received, what’s appropriate, and what sends the “correct message” is shaping the Uyghur musical canon….It is degrading when an entire group of people is reduced to a few token songs and dances with funny hats.
Limitations on the content of songs and the size and number of Uyghur music concerts, as well as the dominance of state-sponsored platforms for musical performance (such as national “ethnic music” competitions and the annual nationally televised New Year’s Gala), artificially control the market for Uyghur music. (For instance, a Uyghur musician was severely punished for writing a song called “Mother Tongue,” which encouraged Uyghurs to learn their native language.) Illegal downloading of music de-incentivizes musicians from recording their work, and musicians scratch together a living working the wedding, club, and restaurant scene, which these days is hardly lucrative. Piracy and the difficulties of making it in the music industry are issues facing musicians in the States as well, the difference being that the government doesn’t control one’s ability to produce and consume music. Maybe one’s electro-grunge cyber-folk band that sings exclusively about promoting an agrarian society won’t gain traction with the mainstream public, but it won’t be because local officials are threatening the audience base or publishing dictates about permissible music tastes.

I write this post as a critical observer. I won't be so bold as to assert that I have clear-cut solutions (indeed, I would be skeptical of anyone claiming she did); however, I would argue that music doesn’t mask the unease in Xinjiang, but rather, upon close inspection, exposes the tensions pervading every aspect of society in the region. Perhaps the only suggestion I’ll make here is that in terms of the Han-Uyghur relationship, as with music, there should be a lot more listening and a lot less conducting.
A muqam ensemble