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Cassettes, Bazaars and Saving the Nation:

The Uyghur Music Industry   in Xinjiang, China

Rachel Harris    Lecturer in Ethnomusicology, Music Dept. SOAS, London

[Craig, Timothy & King, Richard eds. Global Goes Local: Popular Culture in Asia (University of British Columbia Press, 2002, 265-83)]

"The Guest"   (Mehman)

I invited a guest into my home

Asked him to sit in the place of honor

But my guest never left

Now he´s made my home his own

-sung by Omerjan Alim

The story of the exiled Uyghur singer Kuresh Kusen  (deceased) was posted on the internet in early 1999.1 Kuresh Kusen is a singer and recording artist who performs on the Uyghur dutar or two-stringed lute. He played numerous concerts in towns around Xinjiang during the 1980s and early 1990s, and owned a small independent theatre in Urumchi. He has released several cassettes of original solo compositions. Kuresh´s political problems began in 1994 when he released his fourth cassette. One song in particular attracted the attention of the censor. "Don´t sell your land," he sang, "it has been yours for generations. If you sell your land there will be no bright future for you." What he did not make explicit, but what was clearly understood by his Uyghur audience, was who they should not sell their land to: Han Chinese immigrants into Xinjiang. I spoke to Kuresh by phone in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 1999, and he explained to me why he had recorded this song:

I performed in many towns across Xinjiang over the years. And everywhere I saw that the Uyghur peasants were very poor. They sell their land to the Chinese for cash. Soon they have spent all the cash, and then they are no better than slaves.

In 1994 Kuresh´s cassettes were confiscated by the Xinjiang authorities, his theatre was closed down, and he was forbidden to perform. In spite of this, his cassettes continued to circulate underground, and he continued to perform in defiance of the ban. In 1996 Kuresh received an unofficial warning that he was about to receive a twelve-year prison sentence for continuing to give illegal performances, and he decided to flee the country. He obtained a black market passport and moved first to Turkey and later to Kyrgyzstan. In both countries he received the protection of the immigrant Uyghur communities. Outside China he recorded more cassettes and continued to give concerts in which he openly criticised Chinese government policy in Xinjiang. In early 1999 the Kyrgyz government had reportedly come under pressure from China to repatriate Kuresh to Xinjiang to face charges.

The choice of the popular music industry as the subject of this essay enables me to address a broad range of social and political issues which are reflected and effected through the medium of popular music. For the purposes of this essay I define "popular music" as music which is primarily experienced via technological media and intended for wide dissemination. This study of popular music in Xinjiang, then, is not about the wholesale adoption of Westernised musical styles but about the diversity of local meanings and contexts of popular music, and the development and continuity of traditional musics made possible through the medium of technology. The role of the relatively inexpensive cassette technology world-wide, as a local counterforce to national and transnational control of the recording industry, is attracting increasing scholarly interest, the two classic studies being Wallis & Malm´s Big Sounds from Small Peoples2 a survey of the recording industry in small countries, and Peter Manuel´s analysis of the independent cassette industry in India, Cassette Culture.3 Increasingly, it is recognised that recorded music plays a significant role amid competing local attempts at the construction and assertion of identity. In Xinjiang, the independent cassette industry has been a significant factor in the forging of a pan-Uyghur identity, overlaying local cultural divisions in this region of oasis towns separated by great distances and, until the last few decades, accessible only by arduous overland journeys by camel train through deserts and over mountains.4

The Uyghurs

The Uyghurs, a Turkic Moslem people, are the largest ethnic minority group in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the distant Northwest of China. Until the 1930s the term Uyghur was not in general usage as an ethnonym but rather denoted a steppe kingdom on China´s northwestern borders of the eighth to ninth centuries. Chinese rule of the region has been intermittent; only during periods of great imperial strength-during parts of the Han dynasty, the Tang dynasty, and the later part of the Qing-could China exert control over the Western Regions (xiyu), as Xinjiang was known up until the late 19th century. In times of peace the oases dwellers of this region traded in the goods which passed along the Silk Road from China to the Near East, while the nomadic peoples frequently held the Chinese empire to ransom with sporadic raiding within China´s borders. Traders and settlers started to arrive from central China in significant numbers in the 18th century and maintained an uneasy coexistence with the local peoples. An independent East Turkestan Republic was established with Russian support in northern Xinjiang in the 1940s, but this was absorbed into the People´s Republic of China in 1949 after the leaders of the Republic were all killed in a plane crash over Lake Baikal on their way to meet Chairman Mao in Beijing.

In the first half of the 20th century the inhabitants of the desert oases of Xinjiang identified themselves by their home town-Kashgarlik, Turpanlik-or by their Moslem religion. Travellers in the region in this period termed them Sart or Turki.5 The concept of the Uyghur nation was first promoted by Xinjiang intellectuals in the 1930s, a period when nationalist, anti-imperialist, and reformist currents filtered into Xinjiang both from the Soviet Union to the west, and from the major Chinese cities to the east.

The widespread use of the term Uyghur dates from as recently as their formal designation as an ethnic minority nationality under the People´s Republic of China (PRC) in the mid-1950s. As sinologist Dru Gladney notes in his study of the Hui Moslem Chinese, the PRC´s classificatory system of nationalities has had the long-term effect of conceptually linking scattered groups whose identity was most strongly tied to the locality and genealogy, and transforming them into broad-based self-aware communities, or "nations," linked not so much through time but across space.6 Uyghur identity as a conceptual block has now achieved an almost unquestioned status in public discourse in Xinjiang and China, reaching across the spheres of politics, history, and culture.

Uyghur Music

In the field of musicology in Xinjiang, equally, nationality has become the major category for the classification of music. Uyghur music as a broad category embraces three rather diverse traditions based on geographical divisions. The musical traditions of the Southern oasis towns of Khotan and Kashgar are thought to be more closely allied to North Indian and the classical traditions of Bukhara and Samarkand. The music of the taranchi, 18th century settlers in the Ili valley to the Northwest, developed out of the music of their home region of Kashgar, but now owes much to the musical traditions of the nomadic Kazakhs or Mongols to the north. The music of Eastern Xinjiang, centred around the city of Qumul (Hami), has more in common with Han and Hui song styles of Northwest China. The most famous genre of music to have emerged from Xinjiang is the Kashgar Muqam, a set of twelve suites.

The Uyghur Muqam is allied to the Persian and Central Asian maqam modal system; each Muqam suite is based on a particular scale and melodic pattern, but a Muqam is also characterised by its suite structure which comprises a set of vocal and instrumental pieces organised in an overall tri-partite structure, which generally begin with a meditative, free solo vocal piece and culminates in faster dance pieces.7 Other parts of Xinjiang also claim their own regional styles of Muqam. The major site for listening to music in Xinjiang is at wedding feasts where traditional or popular music may be performed as the guests eat and dance. A popular instrumental form, played on kettle drums and shawms (naghra sunay) can also be heard as part of the procession which weaves its way through the town, usually on the backs of open trucks, to fetch the bride.

Since 1949 a system of state-sponsored song-and-dance troupes has promoted a revised form of staged Uyghur music, based on the conservatory styles of China and the Soviet Union. This music, the most prominent and the most readily available of all the musical styles emanating from Xinjiang, is rather distanced from the musical traditions it claims to represent. It is also rather distanced from the people it is supposed to represent. Song-and-dance troupe music is promoted on the state-controlled media, it is performed live at state occasions, revolutionary anniversaries and for visiting delegations and tourists, it can be purchased in state-run shops on cassette and CD, but during my time in Xinjiang I never once heard it played by choice in Uyghur homes or in the bazaars which serve as barometers of popular musical taste.


The key issue in Xinjiang in the 1990s was one of rising ethnic nationalism in the region, most noticeably in the case of the Uyghur nationality. Violent incidents occurred throughout the 1990s, and the government was increasingly hard-line in its treatment of unrest, seeking to maintain control of the volatile region through a combination of military force and political education campaigns. In 1996 a "strike-hard" (yanda) campaign against ethnic "splittism" (fenlie zhuyi) and illegal religious activities was implemented in Xinjiang, promoted through the media, in compulsory study sessions in work units, and pursued vigorously by the police and through the courts. Independent sources estimate that the campaign has led to thousands of arrests and several hundred executions in the region since 1996.8 Following the execution of three Uyghur separatists in February 1997, riots broke out in several major towns in the region. In the most serious of these riots in the border town of Ghulja (Yining) in the Ili valley, independent reports estimated over 100 deaths. The fallout from these riots continued into 1999 with a series of public executions of men accused of orchestrating the riots. The local press has also reported numerous arrests in connection with bombings in Xinjiang throughout 1997 and 1998. Chinese media reports have consistently laid the blame for the unrest on the influence of foreign Islamic extremism or pan-Turkic nationalism. While there is evidence to suggest the existence of support for separatist activity originating outside the region, observers have pointed to socio-economic problems as significant factors in the unrest: the huge influx of Han Chinese immigrants into the region-from 300,000 in 1953 to nearly 5.5 million in 1990-coupled with high unemployment amongst the Uyghurs, and the perception of pervasive racial discrimination.9


A prominent statue of a (Chinese) People´s Liberation Army soldier stands in the People´s Square in Urumchi. Abdulla sings as the voice of a Uyghur soldier of the East Turkestan Republic:

Why is your statue raised up here

When we lie silent under the ground?10

The Music Industry

The independent music industry in Xinjiang arose in the early 1980s with the easing of government controls on cultural and economic life across China, which followed Deng Xiaoping´s policies of economic reforms and opening China up to foreign products and investment. As Mahammet,11 a Uyghur producer based in Urumchi, told me, cassette recorders became available for the first time in the shops at this time, and local independent producers were able to produce and market their own cassette tapes. Early production was a backroom affair. Basic equipment was used to record live performances, and producers made copies, five at a time, in their homes. Over the last few years producers have been able to make use of sophisticated recording technology in Urumchi studios and send their cassettes to the big state-owned production companies to be copied. More recently several collections of Uyghur popular music and solo albums have been released on CD.12 However, financial limitations make cheap, poor quality cassettes the norm. In 1996, a mass-produced cassette sold in the Xinjiang bazaars for six to seven yuan (about 75-85 cents US) whereas a bootlegged cassette could be purchased for three to four yuan. The industry is regulated by the Xinjiang Cultural Bureau (Wenhuating) and is subject to varying degrees of control, dependent on the current political climate.

The urban sound-space in the regional capital Urumchi clearly states the ethnic divide. Taped music delimits ethnic territory. The Uyghur heartland -Dongkowruk (Erdaoqiao) bazaar and the surrounding ramshackle collection of restaurants, shops and mosques, with its teeming, brightly-coloured bustle and air of poverty-is permanently awash with Uyghur pop and folk music; each shop contributes another stereo system to the din. A cassette recorder is an essential ingredient for clothing shops and small restaurants. Even some of the food stalls which congregate outside the Erdaoqiao cinema at night, selling noodles, kebabs or other local delicacies such as stuffed sheep lungs and entrails or boiled sheep´s heads, have their own source of music. Music dominates the complex of stalls which makes up the heart of Dongkowruk, where many goods from across the border to the West are on sale-dress materials from Uzbekistan, household ornaments and henna dye from Pakistan-alongside goods from around Xinjiang-hand-crafted knives, or hand-woven carpets from Khotan to the south. The bazaars are the place to hear popular music in Xinjiang, where private listening is severely restricted in the often crowded context of the family home. Bazaars function as a kind of unofficial charts; the density of advertising posters and the number of shops and restaurants playing a particular cassette provide a reliable guide to the latest hit. In contrast, in the Han shopping areas to the north of the city a new high-rise department store seems to open every week, and the latest wave of Sichuan immigrants crowds its shiny steps, peddling cheap plastic wares. These parts of town are filled with the anodyne sounds of Cantonese pop.

The Uyghur pop music scene is characterised by transience and ephemerality. The cassettes themselves have a short lifetime. Low quality cassettes and sound systems are a feature of Uyghur popular music, to the extent that the hiss of the cassette becomes an essential part of the sound. Political controls make life uncertain for the producers, while the young singers tend to burn out after a couple of years. Many of them have been destroyed through drink or drugs. Ostensibly independent, the music industry is, in fact, inextricably linked with state cultural organs. Musicians, composers, and singers are drawn almost exclusively from within the song-and-dance troupe system. Popular music is promoted through the state-controlled television. On Uyghur as well as Kazakh language channels the greater part of broadcast time is devoted to popular and new folk music and comedy skits, in studio and live performances. Inevitably, a greater degree of censorship is exercised over the medium of television than is possible over cassettes or live performances, for TV serves as the prime conductor of Urumchi-based Uyghur popular culture around the region, reaching deep into the countryside, into the homes of the richer peasants.


Singers, even the most famous, earn their bread and butter from nightly performances in Urumchi´s upmarket Uyghur restaurants. Although they draw salaries for their positions in the song-and-dance troupes, salaries have lagged far behind inflation over the last two decades and do not constitute a living wage in Xinjiang. The restaurants play an important role in urban Uyghur culture, as the major venues for sophisticated leisure, for weddings, and for discussing business. Restaurant owners are amongst the wealthier of the Uyghurs, and often lend financial support to music ventures. Wedding feasts in Urumchi are an important part of an upmarket restaurateur´s income.

Especially in the autumn months, wedding feasts are a weekly occurrence and the better-off families who frequent Urumchi´s finer restaurants may invite several hundred guests. No wedding is complete without a popular singer, a synthesizer, and perhaps a group of traditional instruments. Han fashion influence is evident in the restaurants with the use of typically Chinese round tables. Chinese-style (though of course halal) fried dishes as well as more typical Uyghur food are eaten with chopsticks. Disco lights blend with Uyghur-style decor and waitresses in traditional-style dress. Live music moves easily from folk to pop in one evening; its major function is to encourage dancing, the traditional ussul, disco, and waltzing.

Singers also organise larger conzert in Urumchi and they may tour other towns in the region. They play in state theatres, where performances mix comedy skits and music. Live performance is distinguished by incredibly high levels of sound and distortion through poor quality loudspeakers. Audiences are attentive and appreciative, and almost exclusively Uyghur. Performances act as catalysts for strong emotions. I have often seen people weep at a song, only to scream with laughter a moment later at a telling point made in a comic sketch. The authorities are particularly wary of this ability to stir up emotion in large groups of people, and are slow to give permission for large-scale performances.

Musical Style

Broadly speaking, four types of music can be purchased on the independent cassette market. Locally-made recordings of traditional folk music are available in the shops. Folk music recordings are bought by the public and can sometimes be heard in urban public spaces, and especially on long-distance buses which link Urumchi to the outlying regions of Xinjiang-an audible marker of the bus´s place of origin, advertised by its driver. But according to Mahammet traditional folk music is not generally considered a viable commercial proposition. Folk music recordings are more likely to be initiated by local cultural bodies for reasons of pride in local traditions. More popular than traditional folk is what I will call new folk music. This takes the form of solo recordings of contemporary compositions, using traditional singing style and accompanied by traditional instruments; most commonly a singer accompanies himself on the two-stringed lute. Unlike the recordings of traditional folk which feature amateur folk artists, recordings of new folk usually feature professional singers drawn from within the song-and-dance troupe system, although their performance style in this context is very different from that required by the troupes. Well-known singers in this genre include Omerjan Alim from the Ili valley, Kuresh Kusen of Urumchi, and Abdurehim Heyit of Kashgar.13 Song lyrics may be drawn from well-known poets, and often address contemporary themes. Rock music has also made some inroads into the young urban market in recent years, but the biggest market by far is for synthesized pop songs on the perennial theme of romantic and often tragic love.

The synthesizer is the basis for most Uyghur pop music, with perhaps the addition of one or more traditional instruments to accompany the young star singers. Costs are kept low, according to Mahammet, by limiting the number of live performers in a recording session. Uyghur pop is influenced by popular music in other parts of Central Asia and Turkey where there are large Uyghur communities; since the early 1980s, there has been much movement to and from Xinjiang, mainly in the form of trade but also through official and unofficial cultural exchanges. Indian film music is also an influence. Musical influences impact the Uyghur pop scene in a disjunctive, more or less unpredictable way. The Xinjiang song-and-dance troupe, for example, brought back a Gypsy Kings tape from their 1994 trip to Europe. Two years later it was played endlessly in restaurants in Urumchi, and had inspired two flamenco-style pop songs.

In general, composers prefer to maintain some essential ´Uyghurness´ in their popular songs. Continuity with tradition lies in the maintenance of traditional rhythms, though the drum machine renders these somewhat inflexible, and especially in singing style and its communication of emotion. One song composer, poet and theologian, Yasin Mukhpul, told me that the expressiveness of the singing style is most important. He described Uyghur singing style in comparison to Western opera:

Uyghur singing style stresses slight tone shifts, ornamentation. This is free and according to the singer´s sense. Operatic singing style is not suitable as it is too regulated, the feeling is lost. And it comes from another tradition. Uyghur music is free, opera is ordered. A people who have suffered long oppression have soft hearts, they are easily shattered. There is much in their hearts that is unsaid. There is a special tragic note to their music, I can´t say more ... But this is not the whole story, the Uyghurs also have lively music, there are two kinds, yes, two extremes.

While one might be inclined to argue that opera is not in fact so ordered and scientific, Yasin refers here to Western opera (geju) as it is disseminated through Chinese academies, where the current rhetoric presents this Western music as an advanced and scientific art form. Yasin counters this rhetoric by arguing that "scientific" music is not necessarily the best. This kind of debate on relative values is indicative of the prevailing ethos presented through official culture in Xinjiang where Uyghur culture, and indeed by extension the Uyghur people, are perjoritised and presented as backward, feudal, even primitive in comparison with the advanced, civilised Han. The resulting negative self-image and concomitant sentiments of self-doubt and explosive anger which other writers have noted amongst Uyghur urban men14 are especially apparent in popular music-expressed by, as Yasin puts it, "a special tragic note."

Feelings of constriction and hopelessness emerge strongly in both the lyrics and the sounds of popular music, expressive of powerful undercurrents in the socio-political situation, unvoiced through official, government-sponsored culture. The standard dance repertoire learnt by students in the Xinjiang Arts College today still includes "Happy Boy," "Happy Girl" and, just to ram the point home, "Happy Homeland." Fixed smiles on the faces of the dancers remain an essential part of song-and-dance troupe performances. I think it is not stretching a point to suggest that the predominance of the "tragic note" in cassette recordings is in fact a reaction to this excess of "happiness" in official performances.

Moral Messages

Themes of popular music range from tragic love songs (which form the vast majority of songs released on cassette), to a strong political agenda expressed in veiled allusions and allegories, to expression of current social concerns, such as the imposition of corvee-style labour on peasants in south Xinjiang, or the serious problem of heroin addiction amongst Uyghur youth, which is expressed by the song "Sirliq Tuman" (Strange Smoke):

While mother was sleeping I crept out of the door

And entered into that strange smoke

I breathed in deep and flew up to heaven

I have turned all my parents´ money into strange smoke

I was seduced by pleasure

Strange smoke clouds my head

I live in a dream

I wake up and look around and all is as it was

This evil fate beckons me with open arms

For this I will cry my eyes dry

Must my mother and father suffer for this?

Must their hopes of a lifetime be shattered because of this?

Oh my mother, take me back to your breast

Save me from the strange smoke.

Written by Yasin Mukhpul, this song goes on to describe the protagonist´s shame as he steals from his mother´s purse for his next fix. Evidently this is not a song like Ebenezer Good by the Shaman or the Beatles´ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, songs which explore and delight in the effects of drug taking. This is a strongly didactic piece which warns against the social evils of heroin and which, according to Yasin Mukhpul, could reduce its listeners to tears. This didactic tendency is often apparent in Uyghur popular music. Another more traditional style song by the singer Omerjan upbraids Uyghur women for a recent fashion termed chai: going out to restaurants in all-women groups where they may-according to Uyghur men with whom I spoke-indulge in such scandalous behaviour as drinking a little sweet wine, or even asking men at neighbouring tables to dance. As Peter Manuel has also noted in his study of Indian cassette culture,15 the music industry is male-dominated. Although further investigation is needed into the role of women in popular music in Xinjiang, the women singers whom I encountered in Xinjiang were invariably introduced somewhat ambiguously as the meimei or "little sister" of the male producer or song writer with whom they worked.

Although there are several respected professional women performers in the song-and-dance troupe system, I met no independent female singer-songwriters of the stature of Abdulla or Omerjan.

Influence also comes to Xinjiang directly from Beijing rock stars like Cui Jian or the heavy metal group Tang Dynasty (Tang Chao), especially on the more recent phenomenon of Uyghur rock music. A Uyghur heavy metal band, Grey Wolf (Huilang), was popular in Beijing in the early 1990s, singing mainly in Chinese, but probably for this same reason they gained little popularity in Xinjiang. In 1996, two bands formed in Urumchi to bring rock music to the Uyghur market, Taklamakan and Riwayet, or "Legend". According to the members of "Legend," the legend referred to by their name is a tale of the exodus of the Uyghur people who were wandering lost in the desert and were led to a fertile land by a wolf. High-pitched wavering notes played on the electric guitar in their title song "Legend" are intended to represent the cries of the wolf. With this song the band is playing on the edge of what is permissible in Xinjiang, especially since the wolf is a well-known pan-Turkic symbol.

Another amusing example of cross-cultural musical mixing is a reggae version of a folksong from the southern city of Khotan, called "Qatlama" (Onion Bread) adapted by the guitarist Shireli. Songs by artists like Shireli-who is also responsible for one of the Uyghur flamenco pieces mentioned above-illustrate the way that urban Uyghur musicians are sampling traditional music and producing something that nonetheless has a strongly Western, or perhaps global, sound.

At this point I would like to present brief sketches of two major players in the independent music industry. The first is Abdulla, an actor and popular singer who has recently set up one of Xinjiang´s first rock groups, Taklamakan.

Abdulla-Uyghur Rock

Abdulla  is a charismatic figure with a particularly strong following among urban youth; he is, as it were, the Cui Jian of the Uyghurs. Abdulla trained as an actor and, aside from his music career, is known for his role in a number of television comic skits which play on issues of Uyghur identity. He began his musical career in soft popular songs and gained a following before moving into the more contentious field of rock music. His stance has already attracted the attention of the authorities, and it remains to be seen if rock music, with its connotations of rebellion, will be tolerated in Xinjiang. In an interview in 1996, Abdulla was forthright about his beliefs, the power of his music, and his political situation:

Today people need strong meat. Our folk music is great, but it is too soft, it cannot speak anger. Western instruments are strong and hard, with them we can express our meaning. Traditional instruments are too weak ... Usually people over 40 dislike such [rock music], but they came to our concert and they were moved to cry. When I sang the rock version of the Dolan Muqam16 even the haji [those who have been to Mecca, religious orthodox] jumped out of their seats and danced!

This setting of the traditional Dolan Muqam in a rock format, released by Abdulla in 1996, is one of the more successful attempts to interpret traditional Uyghur music in new styles. The song begins with an original recording of a folk singer from the Dolan region singing his own rendition of the Muqam, accompanying himself on the two-stringed lute. The melodic patterns of the lute are gradually taken over by the electric guitar and Abdulla´s voice enters, modeled on the traditional melody and singing the original lyrics. His vocal style, however, is considerably sweeter than the nasal tone of the folk singer. A rock drum kit stands in for the traditional hand-held dap frame drums. The basic tri-partite structure of the Muqam is retained but considerably shortened. It is noteworthy that Abdulla is an urban Urumchi-based professional performer. Although his family are Dolan Uyghurs, he is distanced from the village culture which is the home of the Dolan Muqam. His attitude to the raw materials of traditional music which he reworks according to a highly Westernised or global popular aesthetic is perhaps not so far removed from that of Western musicians who sample "exotic" music for the World Music market. An anecdote recounted by Anwar about the recording of this song demonstrates the distance between traditional musicians, like those sampled at the beginning of this track, and professional performers like Abdulla. While the recording studio has become the natural home of the professional singers, Anwar recalled the discomfort, even overt fear, of the two village musicians from southern Xinjiang as they encountered the studio´s recording equipment, and their astonishment at hearing their music played back to them for the first time.

In spite of, or perhaps because of this cultural distance, Abdulla presents an agenda which is overtly political, as evinced by the lyrics of his song entitled "Shukur," which Taklamakan performed in an Urumchi concert in 1996, leading immediately to political problems with the Xinjiang Cultural Bureau.


I go to drink and am slapped on the face and I say, I am content

The desert is full of stones; more are piled on and I say, I am content

All our ancestors left us is this gratitude.

Abdulla explained to me:

Shukur is an Arab word. It means, say, you hit me and I say "could be worse, at least you didn´t kill me" ... It´s about the Uyghur people´s passivity ... They nearly threw me out of my work unit after this song. They threatened my wife with expulsion as well. They said I was "influencing the unity of the peoples". They said I shouldn´t sing songs that move people.

This kind of wake-up call to the Uyghur people has direct antecedents in the nationalist writings of Uyghur intellectuals in the 1930s, for example the poem "Uyghur Awaken" (Oyghan) by Abdukhaliq Uyghur, a writer and political activist who was executed by the Chinese governor in 1932. The poem was republished in 1985 and became widely known in Xinjiang:

Stand up, I say

Raise your head and wipe your eyes

I worry for your lives

So I am calling you to awaken.17

This combination of moral didacticism and nationalist exhortations, apparent in much of contemporary Uyghur music, links it more closely to the National Folksong Singing Movement of Republican-era China than to any trends apparent in the pop and rock scene in China´s major cities today, where individualism, escapism, and personal rebellion are more common themes. Theorists of the Folksong Movement of 1920s China linked the singing of Chinese folksongs (although these were usually revised, modernised folksongs on the Russian model) to the assertion of national identity and the revival of national pride in the face of Japanese and Western imperialist pressure.18 This direct linking of music to social reforms has, of course, also been a central tenet of China´s official cultural policy.

Although the message which Abdulla took pains to communicate to me was a strongly nationalist one, of all the bands currently playing in Xinjiang he and his band Taklamakan are actually the most strongly oriented towards Han Chinese pop culture and the wider market outside Xinjiang. Taklamakan have released several of their songs in the Chinese language as well as in Uyghur, and Abdulla is well-known in Taiwan through an album entitled Laizi shamode sheng (Sounds from the Great Desert). It is perhaps not surprising that this most mediated and Westernised example of Uyghur music has been marketed outside Xinjiang as the original sounds of the desert.

Omerjan-The New Folk

In contrast with Abdulla, the famous singer Omerjan from the Ili valley directs his music more exclusively at the Uyghur market. Omerjan sings traditional-style songs accompanying himself on the lute. His lyrics often touch on contemporary themes in Uyghur life. Anwar, the sound engineer in an impressively equipped and privately owned recording studio in Urumchi, spoke to me about the significance of Omerjan´s music:

We recorded his last cassette Qaldi Iz (Traces). People were so used to the poor quality of his previous recordings that when they first heard this they said, "This isn´t Omerjan!" What a joke! This cassette has sold around 100,000 copies ... that is huge, it´s big even by standards of the Han pop music market ... Why such a hit? He has a solid audience, he crosses boundaries of city and country, intellectual and peasant ... Omerjan has caught the heart of the Uyghur peasants, that´s 90% of the population. He is popular because his words are direct, easily understood. He uses peasant language, proverbs. There´s a double meaning in every word ... it´s not necessarily political, but it´s usually read that way.

Below are two short examples of Omerjan´s poetics, taken from two songs released on Traces.

"Apple Tree"

When a tree is covered with ripe fruit it bows down Don´t be proud

Those who stand tall and bear no fruit take the fruit of others

Don´t be proud

We live our lives unequal but in the grave all are the same dust ...


This is a tragic time

How miserable we are

You said, "Raise the sleeping earth" ...

These songs are dedicated to, and quote from, the influential historian and poet, Abdurehim Otkur. Abdurehim Otkur worked as a playwright and journalist before the Communist take-over in 1949, when he was arrested and imprisoned until the late 1970s. He died of cancer in May 1995. Otkur´s funeral in Urumchi was a huge and emotional affair. His supporters paraded the coffin through the city streets and crowds lined the roads with public demonstrations of grief. Abdurehim Otkur published three important novels after his release and political rehabilitation, which represent an attempt to reconstruct the history of the Uyghur people.

The first, entitled "Iz" (Traces), is prefaced by a poem which makes explicit the need for the Uyghurs to rediscover their history from the traces or tracks left by their ancestors in the desert sands of the Taklamakan. For a people whose national identity arguably began to take shape only in the 1930s, Otkur´s historical novels have played a very significant role in the creation of a national consciousness. The music industry picks up on this movement among Uyghur urban intellectuals and disseminates it widely across the region through popular song.

Apart from Abdurehim Otkur, other nationalist symbols have also been celebrated on cassette. The origin of mummified Caucasian-type bodies dating back thousands of years-6,000 years, it was first suggested-found in the Taklamakan desert near Lop Nor has become a deeply contentious issue. Uyghurs have claimed these bodies to be the ancestors of the Uyghurs and asserted that they are proof that the Uyghur nation has 6,000 years of history, thus equalling the Chinese claim to longevity of its civilisation. If Uyghur culture is as ancient as Chinese culture, the argument goes, then how can it be of lesser value?19 A cassette celebrating one mummified body of a woman, dubbed by Uyghurs the "Beauty of Lop Nur" (Kiroran Guzili) and claimed as the mother of the Uyghur nation, was released by Uyghur singer-songwriter Zahir Burkhan in 1993. The cassette employs a highly emotive sound language, beginning with the wind blowing across the desert over a baby´s crying. In a more recent case a Uyghur athlete, Adiljan, entered the record books in 1997 when he crossed the Yangtze river at the Three Gorges on a tightrope. On his return to Urumchi he was feted as a national hero and paraded around the streets. Immediately a rather mediocre pop cassette was released, celebrating, or perhaps cashing in on, the success and popularity of this new symbol of Uyghur national pride.20

Censorship and Control

In 1995, the state responded to the increasing politicisation of the independent music industry. The Xinjiang government began to implement a crackdown on the cultural market, which tied into the "strike-hard" anti-dissidence campaign. Media reports linked prostitution, gambling, and illegal publications as targets of the crackdown. The campaign led to several arrests and fines for illegal production, and many producers were forced out of business. By 1996, only two or three independent producers were left in Urumchi. Stringent new controls on the Uyghur recording industry were set up, forcing producers to check with the Cultural Bureau for "problems" with the lyrics. While formerly producers could profit from the free market and purchase copyright from companies across China, regulations introduced in 1995 require that cassettes in the Uyghur language be published only by the Xinjiang Recording Co. or the Beijing-based Nationalities Recording Co. Business is hard. During the months that I knew him, Mahammet had two cassettes whose approval was being held up because of "religious problems," while in August 1996, Abdulla´s planned concert tour of Ili with the rock group Taklamakan was suddenly denied permission. Clearly, such uncertainties have a negative impact financially on the industry, but in late 1996 the market continued to be vibrant and, according to Anwar, had found interesting ways to adapt to the impact of censorship:

We thought that Traces would never pass the censor, but it did ... The music producers have a selling strategy: when a cassette is about to come out, they flood the shops with posters and say, "We think they are going to ban this one." Everyone gets interested. Then they bring out a lot of copies, and say, "Buy quickly before the censor has second thoughts." If a thing is banned people assume it must be interesting.


The Uyghur music industry is actively contributing to the solidification of a pan-Uyghur identity, both intellectually through the ideas and themes promoted through song lyrics, and musically through the widespread dissemination of new styles of music, both synthesized pop and the new folk music. The sense of the Uyghur community is being effectively redrawn through popular music. Popular music serves as a homogenizing force at the regional level, linking the separate oasis cultures and embodying and responding to regional preoccupations. The music industry serves in particular to crystallize themes and concerns within the urban intellectual community and disseminate them across the region. Here a very different pattern emerges from the familiar models of popular culture in the West. Many Uyghur popular songs contain a distinctly didactic message, while others highlight the hardships endured by Uyghur peasants. A strong sense of attempts to "save the nation" emerges through these songs, or at least attempts by the educated elite to direct, educate, and protect the wider Uyghur community. Clearly nationalism is a driving force amongst many recording musicians, but it would wrong to over-emphasize the politicized aspect of Uyghur popular music. The vast majority of cassettes in Xinjiang´s bazaars purvey sentimental love songs.

Classic analyses of popular culture have suggested that the changed musical habits resulting from the rise of recorded music lead to a fragmented society of atomized families, listening to piped music in their isolated homes.21 Rather the reverse seems to be true in Xinjiang, where the restaurants and shops of the bazaar serve as important social centres for listening to popular music. The rise of the cassette industry reflects and parallels the advent of modernity of Xinjiang, which began only as recently as 1979, and which brought with it most notably a greater emphasis on urban culture. The musical styles recorded and marketed on cassette provide reflections of a society in transition. As such they may be seen, as ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel has suggested, as "authentic hybrids," and should not be simply dismissed for their departure from tradition. They reflect the musical tastes and the social preoccupations of large Uyghur audiences that the Chinese state media clearly fail to cater to. Evidently the whole context of popular music is far removed from traditional music-making, and it remains to be seen what impact the advent of cassettes is having on the practice of traditional music in Xinjiang. Although popular recorded music draws on many aspects of traditional music, it is above all an urban phenomenon, and village musicians are effectively alienated from it.

There are strong forces other than nationalism at work on the cassette industry and, as I have indicated, the market is one of them. Musical representations of Uyghur identity are packaged and sold in diverse ways to diverse audiences. Market forces and nationalist sentiment may work in harmony, as Anwar´s comment on playing the market suggests, or they may collide. It is noteworthy that the young Urummchi-based intellectuals like Abdulla are the most strident in their nationalist rhetoric, but they are also the most oriented towards the wider Chinese pop culture and towards the Chinese market. Such dual identity, I would suggest, is typical of young ethnic minority intellectuals in China. While Abdulla represents Xinjiang to the outside world, the internal market favors the more localized sounds of Omerjan who, while he develops new modes of musical dissemination, still, as Anwar suggests, speaks the language of the peasants. It has been suggested of low-tech media like the cassette industry that oppositional tendencies are intrinsic to the medium.22 In Xinjiang, as I have delineated, there are numerous examples of highly politicized statements being made through popular song and disseminated on cassette.

The attempts of the Chinese government to control and censor the industry have not been entirely successful. This is in part due to the nature of the medium: cheap recordable cassettes circulate easily from hand to hand. The cross-border aspect of Uyghur culture is another factor. As the case of Kuresh Kusen demonstrates, musical activities in Uyghur communities beyond China´s borders are also being used to make political points, and cassettes recorded outside Xinjiang are easily smuggled across China´s borders. Another difficulty for the censor is the interpretation of meaning in popular songs. Uyghur songs employ metaphors and oblique references which are frequently interpreted as political statements by listeners. Multiple interpretations are possible; songs may be ascribed meaning which were not even intended by the authors. The ascription of meaning is itself a site of political struggle, and the most difficult one for national governments to control.

It is now twenty years since China began its experiment with a more open society and a market economy, and abandoned its unique control over the media. In that time ethnic nationalism and unrest in Xinjiang have become acute, and it has not been hard for conservative politicians to link separatist activity directly to policies of liberalization. As repeated crackdowns on the cassette industry indicate, Uyghur popular music is viewed by the government as likely to promote ethnic antagonism. A tension between the freedom to assert local identity and diversity, and the tendency to exacerbate antagonisms is intrinsic to the cassette industry as a low-tech, easily affordable, localized medium. But from my brief survey of the Uyghur cassette industry I would argue that, far from fanning the fires of ethnic tension, cassette recordings are providing an outlet for legitimate social and political concerns in Xinjiang precisely because the possibilities for open debate in other media are so limited.

(The end)


1. "Kuresh Sultan." Posted on the Uighur-l list, February 3, 1999. Kurash performs under the name Kuresh Kusen, but his surname is Sultan.

2. Roger Wallis and Krister Malm, Big Sounds from Small Peoples: The Music Industry in Small Countries (London: Constable, 1984).

3. Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in Northern India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

4. This paper is based on fieldwork conducted in Xinjiang in 1995-1996 supplemented by more recent secondary sources, and is the result of a preliminary exploration of the music scene in Urumchi. A larger-scale project on the Uyghur recording industry is planned.

5. See, for example, the very entertaining account of their long sojourn in Xinjiang by the missionaries Cable & French, in Mildred Cable and Francesca French, The Gobi Desert (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1942).

6. Dru Gladney, "The Ethnogenesis of the Uighur," Central Asian Survey (1990), p. 328.

7. Few studies of traditional music in Xinjiang are available in Western languages. See: Jean During and Sabine Trebinjac, Introduction au Muqam Ouigour (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, 1991), for an introduction to the classical tradition of the Kashgar Muqam; Trebinjac & During (1990) for recordings of the Muqam and other Uyghur folk music. See also Rachel Harris, "Music, Identity and Representation: Ethnic Minority Music in Xinjiang, China," Ph.D. thesis (University of London, 1998( for a study of traditional music in the Ili valley.

8. See recent Amnesty International reports (1999( which detail widespread incidents of arrests, torture and executions of political prisoners in Xinjiang.

9. Population figures from Linda Benson and Ingvar Svanberg China´s Last Nomads: The History and Culture of China´s Kazaks. (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1998). A detailed survey of ethnic conflict in the region up to 1998 is also contained in this book.

10. This song was banned in Xinjiang. Its lyrics were dictated to me by the author.

11. Names cited in this paper have been changed except where musicians are already well-known.

12. For example, Qara Koz (1996) and Taklimakan (1996).

13. Abdurehim Heyit was interviewed in Kashgar by an American journalist in early 1999. See: Neil Strauss, "A Folk Star in China Blends Song and Protest," International Herald Tribune, 2 September 1999.

14. Justin Rudelson, Oasis Identities (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989(.

15. Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in Northern India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

16. The Dolan Muqam refers to a set of traditional suites incorporating singing and instruments which are unique to the Dolan Uyghurs of southern Xinjiang. The roots of the Dolan people are contended, but it is generally recognised that their culture is significantly different from the surrounding Uyghur culture in the south. The Dolan Muqam has attracted interest from musicologists in recent years due to the complex interweaving of the semi-improvised instrumental lines.

17. Justin Rudelson, Oasis Identities (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), p. 153.

18. See Isabel K. F. Wong, "Geming Gequ: Songs for the Education of the Masses." In Bonnie McDougall, ed., Popular Chinese Literature and the Performing Arts in the People´s Republic of China 1949-1979 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984( for an introduction to "folksong singing to save the nation" in 1920s China.

19. A Nova documentary broadcast in 1998 attempted to cover the discovery of these mummies in Xinjiang, and became mired in political problems. These culminated when the TV team arranged to film the exhumation of one of the bodies in the desert. As the film rolled a headless body was revealed. The body had been dug up, decapitated and reburied by local officials who were reluctant-the program-makers suggested-to sanction the recording for foreign TV of 3,000 year-old "European" features being revealed in the depths of Chinese territory. Extraordinary measures, certainly, but the officials may well have been concerned at the program-makers´ rather far-fetched attempts to link these bodies to ancient "European" culture, with the implication of Western influence on early Chinese culture.

20. Thanks to Cristina Cesaro for drawing my attention to this event.

21. Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry (New edition. London: Routledge, 1991).

22. Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in Northern India.

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