Script: Listening Plus - The culture of XingJiang

Script: Listening Plus - The culture of XingJiang

November 26, 2009
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TIM: Hi, this is listening plus. You’re with Timothy Chui and today I’ll be speaking with Paul Mozur, a freelance writer based in Asia who just got back from a month in Xinjiang. Thanks for joining us.

PAU: Thanks Tim.

TIM: So first off, where did you go in Xinjaing?

PAU: Well basically, during my trip, I spent most of the time in several large cities that surround the Takla Makan Desert which forms for the most part the southern half of Xinjiang province. Xinjiang is a huge province. It actually forms about one-sixth of China’s full land mass but specifically I went to the provincial capital which is called Urumqi and then several lesser cities including, Turpan, Hami, Hotan, Shihezi and the very famous old silk road city of Kashgar, which has been for a long time the culture centre of Xinjiang. It was in this city that most of the trade interactions from the famous Silk Road occurred.

TIM: Aside from cities where else did you go?

PAU: We tried to make it out to the country side at times so often at times we went to small villages and we also visited several tombs, called “mazars' in the Uighur language, to various saints and other pilgrims.

TIM: Now you mentioned Xinjiang is largely made up of deserts. Did you visit any oasis towns?

PAU: Yes, basically every town around the Takla Makan at one time at least was formed around an oasis. Because of global warming and desertification some of these towns are more reliant on irrigation channels that natural oases but historically speaking each of these towns are an oasis. Who are the Uighurs? The Uighurs are actually quite hard to specifically describe but they are basically a minority group who came to the area which we call Xinjiang now about 1,000 years ago when they were actually fought out of their homeland which is the current Gobi Desert by Mongol hordes. When they arrived in the Xinjiang area they settled in various oases. Today the Uighurs are considered one of China’s many ethnic minorities and they number about 8 million people. Within Xinjiang proper they comprise about 50 percent of its population. They actually are Shiite muslims, which they call imams who claim decadency from the prophet Mohammed. Today, for the most part, they work as guides and as farmers and as musicians as well as selling goods in various market places in the area.

TIM: What are the source of the ethnic tensions?

PAU: To try to be brief about it, approximately 50 years ago the population in Xinjiang was primarily Uighur. About 90 percent of Xinjiang’s population was Uighur with the remaining 10 percent comprised of other minorities and Han Chinese but over the past 50 years, actually more like 60 years, because of various incentives such as what we call the Xinjiang “Bingtwan', Han Chinese have been attracted to Xinjiang to build canals, build roads, often times the schools in Xinjiang are quite good and people from poor provinces like Sichuan and Hunan will move out with their families to find a better life. This is all well and good but for the Uighurs this has meant though the economy has developed, they have felt left out of that development. In particular, with the Han coming more and more, they’ve established their own Chinese city centres outside the Uighur city centres. Although each group comprises of about 50 percent of the population there is little mixing and much tension. In fact, the differences in culture are about as different as you can get. In terms of policies, the Chinese government hasn’t done a very good job of supporting Uighur culture though it claims to. Often times, in Uighur areas, unemployment is one of the primary problems. Many large Chinese companies which have been founded in the area will not hire Uighurs due to discrimination. On top of that, Uighur religion comes under fire from the government which up until a few years ago did not allow for any religious practice. This means the Uighur Muslims, who often times wish to celebrate their Islamic holidays or have Islamic imams at their weddings, will have to register with the government ahead of time. Understandably the Uighur are upset at this and see it as a great restriction on their culture which they are very proud. The Uighur, although before 1950 it would be hard to say they have a particular identity, in the past 50 to 60 years, they’ve become very proud of their culture as they’ve seen it endangered by the Chinese government and therefore they see the Chinese presence and increasing Chinese presence as a great threat to their own survival of their own culture. This means at times there’ve been violent reactions to Chinese rule. In particular, as we saw during the July riots, many Uighurs attempted to march peacefully in protests and when confronted by Chinese police things quickly grew violent. Today, tensions remained heightened, and as we’ve seen recently with Han demonstration in the city, both sides have their own complaints of the other and the government has done very little to step in a mediate these conflicts.

TIM: Is the government favouring one minority or group over the other?

PAU: Most Uighur would tell you they are, although many Han Chinese think because the province has developed economically, the Uighurs should be helped as wel, and they attribute the Uighurs failure to succeed more to laziness and other sort of serotypes than to any real cause but to be honest most of the policies usually favour Han Chinese, supply Han Chinese with jobs at the expense of the Uighur and those Uighurs who do try to work their way into the system often meet with much resistance from Han Chinese. On top of discrimination, there’s also a language problem because Uighurs speak their own Turkic language known as Uighur. Growing up, Uighurs usually speak Uighur which means when they go to school they have to switch to Mandarin and they usually fall behind. In college you cannot study Uighur except if you study Uighur literature and therefore many Uighurs have trouble getting into college, as a result it becomes very difficult for the Uighurs to integrate into an economy which is dominated by the Han Chinese.

TIM: Can you share with us some Uighur words you’ve picked up along your trip?

PAU: Yes, well first off, the primary thing you hear which is their greeting is 'salaam di kun', but that isn’t a Uighur phrase but an Arabic phrase which means may Allah bring you peace. Other words you often hear is “hosh', which is goodbye, 'mazar' which is the tomb, “maashed' which is a mosque, or 'musilman' which means muslim.

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