KASHGAR — The Matang nut cake and skewered kawap (mutton), an ancient Kingdom reduced to ruins in a desert, and the simple imagery of folk singing and dancing: These are the stereotypes most Han Chinese have of the Uyghur people.
It made sense for me to travel to find out more in their native land, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China's farthest province from the ocean.
So I went there, to its southern reaches, where I walked in the labyrinth of the old town of Kashgar and witnessed the beauty and the desolation of the ancient Buddhist Kucha kingdom in Kuqa city.
But in those same old-town alleys glowing in gold, there are also Kashgar women who pull their headscarves over their faces when they unexpectedly come across strangers. This helped me understand that behind this region of confusing multiple ethnicity, labeled by the Han Chinese with simple images of festive dancing, there lies an old culture and a different recognition of the world with its own belief.
Bilingualism and alienation
Yusufu Kadir, an ethnic Uyghur, grew up at the mid-western border city of Aksu where he went to a Han Chinese school. Today, he speaks a mixture of Uyghur and Mandarin with his family.
The proportion of Uyghur children in Han Chinese schools is gradually rising from a past when only the well-to-do Uyghur could afford going to those schools. Moreover, today even these Chinese schools are adopting bilingual teaching curriculum.
"For me to go to a Han Chinese school feels less strange than sending a Chinese child to study abroad today," he notes. "As long as people communicate and exchange their ideas, people of different races mingle easily."
Still, Yusufu says the split communities weighed on him in his youth. "I gradually became an alien to my Uyghur friends, relatives and neighbors' children. Today most of my friends and colleagues are Han Chinese."
He believes the Xinjiang schools' implementation of bilingual teaching these days will avoid repeating his personal experience of feeling estranged from his own people.
Whereas in Xinjiang’s southern border towns women wear veils, it is rare to see such clothing in a big city like Urumqi. "Since ancient times, Uyghur people have embraced many kinds of religions. Each brought different dress codes of which wearing a headscarf is a leftover," Yusufu explains. "The veil came from Arabian, Iranian and Persian culture. It's a religious item rather than ethnic clothing. Traditionally, Uyghur men wear long gowns whereas women wear long skirts and a headscarf covering half of their face. It's totally different from the hijab or niqab that the Iranian or Saudi Arabian women wear."
It used to be relatively common to see a mixed marriage between the Uyghur and the Han in the 1970s and 1980s. Things have changed.
A non-Muslim who accepts to marry a Muslim will not only have to convert to the religion, but will also undergo a "purification ritual." And in any case, objections from both families usually lead to an increasingly volatile relationship for the couple in the long term, and eventually to separation.
Could such social discord reverse itself again? "No rules dictate that a mixed marriage shouldn't exist," laments Yusufu. "However, the heaviest burden that weighs on these couples comes from their own families."
Rumors and taboos
Ayiguli is a Uyghur girl who went to study in a Beijing college before returning to Xinjiang to work. It was then that she consciously started sharpening her rusty mother tongue again — and eventually married in a traditional Uyghur wedding.
Talking about the night market in Urumqi that she loves so much, Ayiguli suddenly speaks in a serious tone. "People like to exaggerate the Uyghur taboos. But in a night market here, a halal and a non-halal store can co-exist face to face without any problem. They have always been a harmonious part of the street scene here."
I was indeed a bit surprised hearing this. After all, people told me that a non-Muslim is not to touch the meat on a halal counter, otherwise one is obliged to buy it because the meat is "polluted."
"This is true. You are to avoid mentioning pigs and or eating non-halal food in front of a Uyghur," she said. "After washing hands, one should dry them so that water is not splashed around. It is absolutely forbidden to blow one’s nose or pick it in front of other people. These things should be done in the toilet. These are the basic rules. A lot of people aren’t really so strict. However Xinjiang has always been supposed to be a peaceful place as long as other people respect their customs."
In Yusufu’s opinion, a Han Chinese is more sophisticated whereas the Uyghur does not “look around the corner.” It is a point where careful handling is required when the two ethnicities interact.
After traveling around the southern border and arriving in Urumqi, a lot of tourists would consider that this city looks not much different from other major Chinese cities. However, if you cross those bustling streets and go into the little lanes behind them, you can still see that the city retains a lot of customs of Xinjiang’s various ethnic groups.
Like other Xinjiang minorities, Yusufu lives around Erdaoqiao district, just a few hundred meters away from the Islamic-style and always very lively Grand Bazaar. This is where there were a series of deadly riots pitting the Uyghurs against the Han and the Chinese police in July 2009. But Yusufu is convinced that “no matter what ethnic groups they belong to, people here have a strong desire to live peacefully.”
As a teacher these days, Yusufu is responsible for the Xinjiang students’ scholarship program for studying abroad. But he's just as focused on exchanges in her home city. “I sincerely hope that one day my Han Chinese friends will feel they no longer need my company to feel safe shopping in the Grand Bazaar.”