Xinjiang Traditional Culture: Not “Genocide”, but “Change & Transition”

By Xuan JIN

In recent years, many Western media have claimed that China has executed “cultural genocide” in Xinjiang, and that Uyghur culture is in danger of “extinction”. The Chinese government, by contrast, argues that Uyghur culture is well preserved and there is no suggestion of “extinction”.

So, what is the real situation of Uyghur traditional culture in nowadays? With this question, the author went to Kashgar in Xinjiang to search for the answer.

The origins of the Uyghur can be traced back to the third century B.C.. They have their own languages and scripts that have absorbed words from Turkic, Chinese, Iranian, Arabic, Russian, etc. They once believed in the coat religion, Nestor, Shamanism, Buddhism, etc. In around thousand years ago, they transited faith into Islam.

Kashgar is one of the most concentrated areas of Xinjiang Uygur. Uyghurs make up 92 percent of the population here. For a long time, Kashgar society is based on traditional animal husbandry and traditional commerce. In this environment, Uyghurs in Kashgar Region of Xinjiang have formed their own time values, work values, music culture, clothing culture and language culture, among which the working time view and traditional art are the most prominent.

The Root of Culture: Cattles, sheep and the Silk Road

First of all, the traditional animal husbandry society and the traditional business society have shaped the Uyghur’s concept of working time.

Due to the form of economic and trade production activities, Kashgar Uyghur’s view of time is both leisurely and busy.

“Leisure” comes from animal husbandry.

“My father worked in animal husbandry, and I grew up in the same environment,” said Maimaitijiang, 52, a restaurant owner. I think this kind of life is more relaxed and casual than running a shop.”

Indeed, on the one hand, in the rural areas of Kashgar, the traditional animal husbandry has shaped the life and work view of some Kashgar Uyghurs. Nomads in Central Asia have long been “living in pursuit of water and grass”. They have about four months of idle time in a year, and do not need to “get up early and work late” as farming people do. This gave birth to some Uyghur people slow rhythm, leisurely and comfortable view of time.

On the other hand, “busy” comes from traditional business.

In the Kashgar region, which is rich in fine, soft, solid and inexpensive poplar wood, a part of the Local Uyghur people uses local materials and make a living by carving wood. They inherit the “carpenter spirit” — hard work and longtime focus from generation to generation. Carpenters are paid through market transactions, and the fierce competition in the market demands that carpenters strive for perfection.

It usually takes 10-15 years to make a large and delicate piece of wood, admits Stike Toheti, an old carpenter in The Village of Peshkeran.

To sum up, the leisure of the animal husbandry and the busyness of the wood carver are the epitome of the diverse lifestyles of the Uyghur people.

Secondly, the traditional animal husbandry society has shaped the traditional art of Uyghur.

The formation of the traditional art and culture of the Uyghur people in Kashgar is closely related to the location of the Silk Road fortress and the lifestyle of animal husbandry. As early as the second and third centuries AD, along with the booming silk Road trade, traders introduced inland silk to the areas around Kashgar. In addition, due to sufficient sunlight, water abundant, rejuvenation, the conditions of the temperature rise faster, earlier of Kashgar region silkworm industry development, this is the best system of silkworm clothing fashionable conditions. In the 15th century, women wore Aidelaisi on important local festivals such as Eid al-Adha and Meat-cumin. Therefore, Aidelaisi has become one of the clothing symbols in Kashgar.

Kashgar Uyghur Aidelaisi silk | photo source: Xuan Jin

In addition to costume culture, the Uyghur musical instrument culture in Kashgar is also quite distinctive. Its traditional instruments mainly include dutar, Rewafu, Temple and Dulcimer. Similarly, the local musical instrument culture was shaped by the integration of silk Road culture and animal husbandry tradition: The Dutar, one of the oldest Musical Instruments in Xinjiang, is made from the skin and viscera of cattle and sheep; In the 14th century, Rewafu came into being and gradually became the mainstream musical instrument in Xinjiang after absorbing the musical instrument culture of many nationalities along the Silk Road.

After 2000, modern commercial activities sprang up rapidly in Kashgar, which led to the transformation of the commercial society and gradually changed the local Uyghur’s view of working hours and traditional art.

A Rethinking of Work Time: “I learned to work hard”

Before the rise of commercialization, Kashgar villagers had a more “leisurely” way of life.

At a sweets shop in Kashgar’s Bazaar, Yasen Zunong, the elder owner of the shop, recalls his youth: “I could do whatever I wanted, not work as hard as I do now.”

In fact, the exclamation of Yasen Zunong, a candy store, is closely related to the changes in Xinjiang’s overall environment in the past decade.

After 2000, in the context of the development of Western China and ethnic minority areas, Xinjiang became the focus of state economic support, and a large number of mainland enterprises invested and set up factories in the hinterland.

The shops in the Old City of Kashgar, meets tourists from around the world
Source: China House

As a result, the case of farmers turning to light industry and service industry is common in recent years. About 90 per cent of the staff of a clothing company and a small home appliance company with factories in Kashgar are migrant workers (people who have left rural fields and livestock to work in industry).

This has brought about a change in lifestyle. A migrant worker turned into an employee told us: “After working in the company, the salary is very good, of course, the requirements for us are also very high, I need to hurry to finish the work. We’re getting used to it.”

“I used to work at what time I got up, but now I have to go to work at 9 o ‘clock every day,” said Maieri Yeim, a waiter at a restaurant in the Old City of Kashgar.

From rural life to urban life, a large number of Uyghurs have changed their concept of time and become “hard-working” a lot. At the same time, their economic income has become much better.

Changes in Traditional Arts: Clothes and Music

Modern commerce has also gradually influenced the traditional art of some Uyghurs.

The commercial society has influenced the traditional clothing culture — “practicality” has increasingly become an important consideration in consumers’ decision making: “convenient to wear” and “affordable” have become people’s priority.

“Over the past two years, people have been choosing low-cost imitation adles (modern industrial fabrics that are thinner and more breathable than Aidelaisi), which take less time to wash, rather than traditional, high cost Aidelaisi,” said Sardai Tiguli, who runs a clothing workshop.

Hasyeti, 24, from downtown Kashgar, also observed: “In recent years, there have been fewer people wearing Aaidelaisi around.” Rouzi, 23, who lives in a village in Kashgar, said, “Fewer and fewer people are wearing Aidelaisi. My uncle’s family is the only people I know who are still making Aidelaisi.

In addition to costume culture, music culture is also affected: fewer young people are learning traditional instruments.

“The number of young Uyghurs who can play traditional Xinjiang Musical Instruments has decreased,” said Alijiang, a veteran owner of a musical instrument shop in Kashgar Grand Bazaar.

In 18 villages in the village of Bershkelan, I interviewed five Young Uyghurs in their 20s. I found that none of them could play traditional Uyghur instruments, nor did they know much about the history of local instruments. However, they still consider traditional Uyghur music as an important part of Their culture, and they listen traditional music most in their daily life.

Uyghur instrument Rewafu as a gift from a local Uyghur
Source: Xuan Jin

Urban and Rural Differences in “Change”

Whether it is the concept of working time or the change of traditional art, the situation is different in urban and rural areas. In general, the changes are more pronounced in cities.

Uyghur youth living in urban areas are more likely to embrace the modern business society.

Yasan Kheri (Automotive major), Rehanisha Daturi (Nursing major), and Nurmiyah (Tourism major), all college students in Kashgar City and Urumqi City, told me that they agreed with the long hours and high-pressure working style, and rarely complained about the hardships they would face in the future. “Working as a truck driver in the future will be hard, it will be tiring, but it will be worth it to live a good life,” Yasenka, an automotive major, told me. For these young, urbanized Uyghur youth, it is easier to learn new skills and adapt to a commercial, urbanized approach.

Ughur work in sewing factory
Source: Baidu

On the other hand, Uyghur, who grew up in rural areas or hold traditional notions of nomadism, have encountered more changes and challenges in the process of accepting commercialization.

One is the change in working hours. “The restaurant WHERE I work opens at 9 a.m. and closes at 11 a.m.,” said Maiziyem, a waiter at a restaurant in downtown Kashgar. Compared with the casual pace of life in rural areas, the working hours in restaurants have become longer.

Another is the diversity of skills needed in the workplace. “To open a restaurant, you need to work longer hours (in His case, from 7 am to 12 PM) and you need skills that are not available in rural life, such as staff management and financial skills,” said Maimaitijiang, owner of a restaurant near Kashgar’s Old City. It took time for him to learn this business skill.

Not death, but Rebirth

There is no doubt that traditional culture is impacted by modern commercial society. However, this by no means the demise of Uyghur traditional culture.

First of all, the older generation in the countryside is spreading the traditional culture to the next generation through words and deeds.

When asked about traditional culture such as clothing, carving and music in the countryside, a village official from a village near Kashgar said: “In the countryside, there are a lot of traditional wood carving and Aidelaisi workshops. In this village, families who make traditional Uyghur Musical Instruments even gather together as a ‘musical instrument village’.”

The village official said that although many children choose to leave the village and go to university or junior college, many remain in the village. It was they who learned from the older generation skills such as traditional tie-dye, musical instrument making and wood carving. Therefore, in rural areas, Uyghur culture is still in a relatively complete and systematic intergenerational transmission.

Second, in some cases, the transition to a commercial society has provided new opportunities for the preservation of traditional Uyghur culture — for example, traditional Musical Instruments are favored by Han Chinese consumers.

With the development of tourism, many foreigners (mainly Han Chinese) who come to Kashgar are interested in the traditional culture of Kashgar Uyghurs, so the Uyghurs also get the opportunity to promote their traditional culture to han Chinese. “More and more Han Chinese are learning traditional Musical Instruments (Dutar) in recent years,” said Alijiang, a traditional instrument maker at the Bazaar.

It must be admitted that under the impact of commercialization, the form of Uyghur cultural inheritance has been different. But whether ancient or modern, Chinese or foreign, the appearance of culture has never changed. Therefore, the change of Uyghur culture today is not so much “extinction” as “rebirth”.


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