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The Quest for National Unity in Uyghur Popular Song: Barren Chickens, Stray Dogs, Fake Immortals and Thieves
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Dr Joanne Smith Finley
Biddle, I; Knights, V
Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location : Between the Global and the Local
Popular and Folk Music Series
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In the climate of heightened political and religious repression which pervaded Xinjiang in the mid-90s, the role of popular song as a non-violent means of reflecting common social and political concerns became key. Yet the prospect of Uyghur national unity remained elusive. Here, five songs released in 1995 by the popular ‘new folk’ singer Ömärjan Alim are analysed as a means to explore a) the representation and reproduction of Uyghur national identity (constructed vis-à-vis the Han coloniser); and b) the quest for Uyghur national unity. Stressing Uyghur agency in their group identity construction, I examine metaphorical representations of the coloniser (the Han Chinese) and the ‘collaborator’ (those Uyghurs thought to place personal ambition above ethnic loyalty). These representations reflect popular perceptions held among disparate groups of Uyghurs across the region, thereby fusing a common sense of ‘emotional’ unity and reproducing a broad-based Uyghur national identity. Yet they also highlight the perceived barrier to Uyghur national unity - a national character grounded in political passivity and self-interest – and may thereby foster negative self-identity and low self-esteem, this perhaps explaining why certain songs are able to avoid censorship by the Chinese government. In lamenting this character trait, Alim (intentionally or not) assumes the role of ‘illuminist,’ raising popular awareness of this long-standing source of disunity and providing a timely wake-up call to Uyghurs in the 90s.
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