Uyghur Diaspora Tries to Preserve Culture as China Destroys Sites

For The Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan wrote an extensive article about the efforts of the Uyghur diaspora, and particularly young Uyghurs, to preserve their culture and rebuild a community abroad. She writes that the process has not been without conflict among those within the diaspora community:

For Mukaddas Mijit, a filmmaker, ethnomusicologist, and expert on Uighur dance and music from Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, the tension between preserving elements of culture as they are and allowing them to grow and evolve is at the heart of the challenge facing Uighurs in the diaspora.

[…] Culture, she thought, could play a role in raising awareness, so she began organizing Uighur cultural events known as meshrep. This social, and traditionally male, gathering brings people together to enjoy a meal, poetry, music, and dance.

[…] Yet not everyone in the Uighur diaspora has been supportive of Mijit’s efforts, she told me. Some criticized the events for not being entirely authentic, while others questioned why the community should be focused on culture at all, as though to say, How can we focus on frivolous matters while our people are being repressed?

[…] An argument could be made that these things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Although raising awareness about what is happening to Uighurs in China is important, their persecution doesn’t alone tell the full story of who the Uighurs are, nor why people should care. By representing their culture beyond the prism of its repression, Uighurs in the diaspora are giving the world a better understanding of not only who they are, but what it stands to lose should the culture be allowed to disappear. [Source]

A report released in late September by the Australian Strategic Policy Initiative revealed efforts by China to systematically erase Uyghur and Islamic spaces in Xinjiang. The report estimated that around 8500 mosques have been completely destroyed in the last three years alone:

Using satellite imagery, we estimate that approximately 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang (65% of the total) have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, mostly since 2017. An estimated 8,500 have been demolished outright, and, for the most part, the land on which those razed mosques once sat remains vacant. A further 30% of important Islamic sacred sites (shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes, including many protected under Chinese law) have been demolished across Xinjiang, mostly since 2017, and an additional 28% have been damaged or altered in some way. [Source]

Rian Thum further explored “the spatial cleansing of Xinjiang” at Made in China Journal in August.

One of the case studies in the ASPI’s report is the Ordam shrine, one of the most important sites of Uyghur heritage. For the New York Times, Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy reported on the significance of Ordam, and its eradication:

“If you have a donkey and a cart, you load up your food and you spend three weeks to get to a shrine,” said Rian Thum, a researcher at the University of Nottingham who has studied Ordam and other shrines and their fate. “The only place I’ve seen a grown Uighur man cry was at a shrine.”

[…] “One Uighur who had managed to visit Ordam told some of the villagers nearby that she had been, and they started weeping and one asked for some dust from her jacket,” Mr. Thum recalled. “This gives a sense how important this place is to people, even when they cannot visit.”

The previous closures and bans on visits to the shrines were a prelude to a more aggressive campaign by the government.

By early 2018, the Ordam shrine, isolated in the desert and almost 50 miles from the nearest town, had been leveled, eradicating one of most important sites of Uighur heritage. Satellite images from that time showed the shrine’s mosque, prayer hall and simple housing where its custodians once lived had been razed. There is no news of what happened to the huge cooking pots where pilgrims left meat, grain and vegetables that custodians of the shrine cooked into holy meals. [Source]

Scholars of the Xinjiang region have called the forced assimilation of the Uyghur population and the destruction of cultural monuments “cultural genocide.”

For The Diplomat, Eleanor Albert wrote about Beijing’s swift defense in response to the ASPI report, which it described as “ludicrous.” During a party conference on Xinjiang policy last week, Xi Jinping called the Party’s policies in the region “entirely correct.”

Chinese officials active on Twitter have also frequently touted staged cultural performances as proof of the freedom enjoyed by Uyghur people and evidence that their culture and traditions are being preserved.

Xinjiang is not the only region in China where the government has passed policies to marginalize a minority’s cultural heritage. Last month, protests erupted in Inner Mongolia against abruptly announced language education reforms. The new policies would gradually replace Mongolian with Chinese as the language of instruction for three core subjects in bilingual schools. Eryk Bagshaw at The Sydney Morning Herald reported that locals, while unsurprised by the government’s attempts to assimilate them, opposed the urgency with which the changes were taking place:

“They will replace the content of Genghis Khan in Mongolian language with Chairman Mao in Chinese in the new textbook,” says the father of a grade three student in Inner Mongolia, who asked not to be identified because of fears of political retribution.

“It is a radical move,” says another local. “Assimilation is an inevitable natural process, which may take hundreds of years. But someone is trying to accelerate it into decades.” [Source]


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