China’s Ethnic Song and Dance

May 31, 2013 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Articles by

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 Google+ 0 LinkedIn 0 Email -- 0 Flares ×

In China’s worst single outburst of ethnic violence in four years, 21 people died last month in the far western region of Xinjiang. But never mind that. According to the deputy governor of Xinjiang, Shi Dagang, the region’s Muslim Uighur population is far too busy treating guests “to meat and wine, with song and dance” to create any problems. In fact, Shi insisted to reporters this week, “The ethnic minorities are simple-hearted and honest, very kind and unaffected. They love guests.”

Chinese officials like to paint a picture of China as one big happy multicultural family. To that end, the state pushes the stereotype that ethnic minorities are little more than entertainers who sing and dance in bright costumes.

Song-and-dance minority troupes regularly appear on state television — often singing in Mandarin rather than their native tongue. The performances are ramped up for important events. I attended the televised Chinese Communist Party’s 60th anniversary gala in 2009 and watched party leaders in suits listen stiffly to minority singers while pretty young women modeled ethnic hats.

There are 55 state-defined minority groups in China; the dominant Han Chinese make up the large majority. But just over 60 years ago many of the minority groupings as we know them today — which make up roughly 8 percent of the population — did not exist.

The purpose of defining ethnic minorities, a process that began in the early 1950s, was to unite China behind the Han Communist leaders. More than 400 separate groups applied for minority status but many were lumped together. The official line states that it was during this time that ethnic minorities “won emancipation and personal freedom and became masters of their homelands and their destinies.”

Unsurprisingly, Chinese media are less interested in showcasing genuine ethnic minority culture than in using portrayals of happy, traditional ethnic minorities as entertainment to boost Han rule. As Zang Xiaowei, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Sheffield, explained to me this week, the state media aim to “strengthen Han ethnicity for nation-building purposes.”

Ethnic demarcations can of course be useful — even to those being defined. Ethnic minorities enjoy privileges unavailable to many Han, such as the right to have more than one child. And over the last three decades, many ethnic minorities have been assimilated into mainstream culture, moving from countryside to city, where the benefits of the country’s economic boom are greatest.

Typecasts based on ethnicity can also shape opportunities. Many minorities turn the stereotypes to their advantage by making a livelihood in ethnic tourism. Others go into performance as a career choice. At one acclaimed modern dance company in Beijing, the vast majority of dancers are from ethnic minorities. When introducing themselves many state their ethnicity in the same breath as their name.

But when minorities attempt to venture outside the zones of tourism and entertainment, many hit a wall, a problem exacerbated in more restive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.

A Uighur acquaintance of mine living in Beijing told me this week: “I went to college. I got a degree. I speak Mandarin. But if I apply for a job in Urumqi they don’t want me.’’ He was referring to the regional capital of Xinjiang, his native city. “I was born in the city and the other candidate is from somewhere 2,000 kilometers away. Why not me? Why him? Because he’s Han.”

Statistics back this up. In 2008 the energy industry generated 57 percent of Xinjiang’s G.D.P. But only 1 percent of its work force is Uighur, the rest are mostly Han Chinese who have immigrated to Xinjiang to work. Such stark inequality was a major cause of the 2009 riots in Xinjiang, in which nearly 200 people died.

Ethnic minority singers who enjoy national-level success avoid such subjects. Hit songs like “I Want to Go to Tibet,” by the Mongolian singer Wulan Tuoya, portray destinations like Tibet, Inner Mongolia or Xinjiang as picturesque tourist hot spots rather than hubs of unrest.

Still, minorities don’t always sing and dance to the tune that the state writes for them. Earlier this month I attended a gig in Beijing in which Xinjiang’s top rock band, Askar Grey Wolf, played to a packed crowd. The band, which marries traditional melodies from the old Silk Road with modern beats, plays subtly subversive music. Among other things they are outspoken about preserving Urumqi’s historic old town, which is being bulldozed fast as modernization advances.

But ethnic expression can be risky. A Uighur fan at the gig recalled a concert in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar in which Askar Grey Wolf played before 20,000 people. The frontman, Askar Mamat, held up his hands and shouted out: “Uighurs, cheers!” Immediately, the power was cut and Askar spent a night in jail. The authorities said the show was over.

Click here to view the original article

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 Google+ 0 LinkedIn 0 Email -- 0 Flares ×