Saturday, 23 July 2011

Xinjiang - saying goodbye to the Music of Central Asia

Xinjiang is approximately 7 times the size of Britain and almost 4 times the size of California.  It has one sixth of China's land area but, with over 20 million people, barely a sixtieth of China's population.  As usual, when I'm writing my final blog post, I feel that there is so much more I could learn about this region of the world, but the time has come to say goodbye!

A summary of the topics

My learning experience about Xinjiang has given me an opportunity to learn about the history of the region and the politics of Xinjiang versus East Turkestan.  I've also learned a lot about the geography of the region and the diversity of its landscape.  Not just deserts and mountains, but the Turfan Depression, the Dzungarian steppe and the fertile Ili Valley.  I learned how to cook Dà pán jī and how to make my own noodles.  I learned about Khoja Iparhan, the Fragrant concubine and how the Occident represented adventure and exoticism to the Chinese, similar to the way that the Orient was perceived by 19th century Europeans.  I learned about the magical qualities of Jade, how important this stone has been in the development of Chinese history and China's relationship with the people on its Western borders.  I learned about the Uyghur language and where it sits in the Turkic language family.  The Indo-European mummies of Tarim gave me an opportunity to explore the origins of race and the specific nature of racism in China.

Other areas of interest

Again, there are many other things I've learned during the past month or so, but not had time to write a blog post about.  I'll try to summarise these below so, if you're interested in finding out more, I'd encourage you to do some research into topics that I have only had a chance to scratch the surface of.  These include:

Uyghur demonstration in Helsinki, July 2011
- the history of Islam in China, including the Chinese muslims, the Hui people.
- K2, the second highest mountain in the world, which is situated on Xinjiang's southern border.
- Nuclear testing in the Taklamakan desert
- the Tocharians, their language and culture.
- the Parthians and the origin of the phrase 'a Parthian (or parting) shot'
- the story of the Chinese princess who gave away the secret of silk
- the Legend of Prester John
- Wuer Kaixi, a Uyghur who was one of the student leaders during the Tiananmen rebellion
- the role of Eunuchs in the Chinese Imperial court
- the symbolism of oleaster
- the Taiping rebellion (hopefully I'll be able to come back to this one!)
- the story of Yakub Beg and his independent Kashgaria in the 1860's
- George Hunter and the China Inland Mission
- the Xinjiang Military Region Production and Construction Corps "August First" Field Army Swearing to Defend the Thought of Mao Zedong to the Death - probably the longest name ever for a military regiment (I wonder if they used an acronym?)
- the claim that there were (or even are) gulags in Xinjiang
The Jiayuguan Gate by Richard Towell
- the Jiayuguan Gate in the Great Wall of China, often the last sight of China for exiles heading West.
- the Manchus of the Ili Valley
- the development of the Han Chinese city of Shihezi, just north of the capital Urumqi.
- the Uyghur diaspora and the challenges faced by the East Turkestan 'government in exile'
- the cause of goitre, attributed to the lime and magnesia salts of the southern Taklamakan
- the lake monster of Kanas
- the story of Tutuqash and the Mangqys

As you can imagine, I could have gone on blogging about Xinjiang for some time to come!

The sound of Central Asia

One topic I do want to draw your attention to is the rich musical traditions of Xinjiang and Central Asia, in general.  When I was preparing to go to Uzbekistan, I bought a CD of classical Uzbek and Tajik music, which I played over and over again, as I was packing my bags and getting ready for my 'big adverture' on the other side of the world!  Whilst the musical traditions of Central Asia have a lot in common with music throughout the Islamic world, I couldn't help noticing the influence of, what I perceived to be, Chinese music, on the music of Uzbekistan.  I think it was the sound of wind instruments, like the surnay (known as in shawm English, an ancestor of the oboe) that made me think Central Asian music sounded slightly Chinese.
Two shawms or surnay by tomfbh

The chanting that is so common in the Central Asian classical tradition sounds very much like chanting throughout the Arab world - but the solo singing, especially that of female artists, has a pitch that wouldn't sound out of place in a Chinese Opera.  As with everything else in Xinjiang, I think the music is an end result of centuries of cultural interaction.  Whether or not the wind instruments came from China, or the drums came from India or Arabia, Central Asian music has a sound that is pretty unique - it can sound both Western and Eastern, Islamic and Oriental.

The most popular form of traditional music in Xinjiang is a style called Muqam, a set of 12 musical suites, which is usually grouped into three parts; the muqaddime or introduction, the dastan or narrative songs, usually with a set text and the meshrep which is a faster beat and gets people dancing at weddings!  It's a shame I've not had time to delve deeper into the music of Xinjiang but, if you're interested in finding out more, the website of the London Uyghur Ensemble has more information about Uyghur music than I could ever give you.  As well as links to recordings of various instruments, their website also has great research documents by Rachel Harris, who is a Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at London's School of Oriental and African studies

I'm going to leave you with a video from YouTube, which features a performance by the London Uyghur Ensemble.  It's a recording of the Penjigah Muqam, which is popular in the Ili Valley.  The picture quality isn't great, but the most important thing is to sit back, listen and enjoy!



On Learning about the World next month, Y . . .


Image credits:

The photo of the Uyghur demonstrators in Helsinki was posted by Amnesty International Finland - you can find out more about this demonstration on their flickr stream and see a news report on the situation in Xinjiang at their website


The photo of the Jiayuguan Gate (aka Jiayu Pass) was shared with the world by flickruser Richard Towell - you can see more information about Richard at his profile page on Flickr

The image of the surnay/shawms was posted on flickr by tomfbh - you can see more of Tom's photos at his flickr photostream
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