Documenting the destruction of Uyghur and Kirghiz culture in China

Society & Culture

Uyghur scholar and poet Aziz Isa Elkun has watched in anger as the Chinese government has waged war on the traditional music, dance, and poetry of his village home, and all the Turkic cultures of Xinjiang.

Happier times: A screenshot from a video of Aziz Isa Elkun's 2006 homecoming shindig.

The year is 2006.

The heat of the day has gone and the tables are bulging with rice and freshly slaughtered mutton.

Uyghur academic and poet Aziz Isa Elkun’s homecoming shindig in Shayar County’s Talliqbulung Village is in full swing. His childhood friends have thrown a party under a spreading vine to fete him and his new family after many years of absence in the U.K. Their exiled brother is welcomed in the traditional way of the far-flung desert community: People dance the night away; men belt out well-loved melodies on traditional instruments. A small child beats time with his Uyghur tambourine, the dap.

Elkun’s black-and-white home-movie camera captured the scene.

Fast-forward to the winter of 2020. Everything has changed. Flicking through Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, Elkun spots familiar faces from the past. But then he realizes to his horror that every one of his childhood musician friends are now in the “Red” so-called “reeducation camp.” No longer farmers, the video captures them on Chinese TV under a giant Mao poster, playing revolutionary songs eulogizing the Great Leader. They are strumming the same instruments as in 2006, but a mock-up village Chinese teahouse is their stage. With all the vigor they can muster, they are praising the Communist Party and the “New China” in Chinese, their newly acquired “national language.”

Elkun spliced the 2006 and 2020 videos together and posted the discomfiting result to Twitter.

Elkun’s village itself is silent. Many men, young and old, have vanished to lengthy prison sentences, and Uyghur Meshrep, their national song and dance parties, are forbidden.

Aziz Isa Elkun, and his wife, Rachel Harris, a fellow at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, have recently published their latest paper addressing these and other such scenarios and calling on the international community to step in before Uyghur culture is gone forever.

Commissioned by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, The Complicity of Heritage; Cultural Heritage and Genocide in the Uyghur Region exposes the systematic destruction of every mainstay of Uyghur traditional life since 2014 under the watch of former Xinjiang leader Chén Quánguó 陈全国, and the dismantling of key UNESCO-approved heritage markers in the Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kirghiz homeland.

Not only on Beijing’s watch, but also that of UNESCO, at least five globally recognized beacons of Turkic intangible heritage are being erased in the region, and the international guardian of world culture is showing no signs of stepping in.

According to UNESCO’s own criteria, the deliberate targeting of Uyghur culture in Xinjiang constitutes “strategic cultural cleansing” and a precursor to genocide. The International Criminal Court, too, takes a stern view of crimes “against and affecting cultural heritage,” the violation of which can “shatter the delicate mosaic” of “common bonds and shared heritage” according to its June 2021 report “Policy and Cultural Heritage.”

But, as Elkun and Harris note, these very crimes are being committed as UNESCO looks on.

Turkic culture in the region has come under an ax wielded by the Chinese Communist Party since Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 “war on terror” was stepped up in 2016. The campaign has included mass roundups, and a raft of laws outlawing everything from long skirts, beards, and Islamic names to daily prayers, fasting, and having relatives in a “forbidden” — usually Islamic — country. Together with large-scale destruction of mosques and sacred sites, equally significant intangible entities such as music, folklore, dance, and ancestral land ownership have been laid waste in Xi’s drive to blur the differences between Xinjiang’s Turkic races and the majority Han nation.

According to Elkun and Harris, Xi is on a mission to purge Xinjiang’s past by doing away with separate and unique national cultures. His “correct view of history” is that the diverse nationalities within the P.R.C. have already been blending over thousands of years, and are no longer distinct. They are now, according to Xi, a “pluralistic-unitary Chinese nation” (多元一体中华民族).

By examining five internationally and UNESCO-recognized cultural beacons that are under threat in the Turkic region, Harris and Elkun set out to prove that these have been not only subject to systematic destruction, but also sacrificed to Han Chinese tourism and commercialism, and hijacked to promote the government’s own version of history and culture, in direct contravention of UNESCO conventions — conventions signed up to by Beijing when it agreed to act as their protector.

The first intangible heritage treasure listed by UNESCO was the “Uyghur Muqam of Xinjiang” in 2008. This wide-ranging musical repertoire, spanning not only folk ballads but also classical Uyghur poems, and involving a variety of handmade musical instruments and myriad dancing styles, is integral to the Uyghur identity. The classical “Twelve Muqam” consists of more than 300 pieces and is performed over 20 hours in 12 instrumental and vocal suites.

By 2017, many prominent Muqam performers had been detained, only to reappear from their internment after a few years singing the praises of Xi Jinping and his ethnic policies. By February 2022, 160 institutions devoted to Uyghur history and culture — including Muqam research — have been closed. All formal and informal musical gatherings have been banned, but public performances for tourists, visiting dignitaries, and journalists in a revised bilingual incarnation are de rigueur, paraded on national television as a sign that the traditions have been preserved for posterity.

In 2009, Manas — the Kirghiz oral epic poetry tradition — was claimed by China and accepted by UNESCO as worthy of listing. In 2022, it was appropriated by Chinese government organizations, which used it to promote the “pluralistic unity” of the Chinese nation and prove that in fact “Chinese civilization” was the root of all cultures within the Uyghur region.

Mambetturdu Mambetakun, an ethnic Kirghiz and a leading researcher in the Manas field, disappeared in 2018 and has not been seen since.

The P.R.C. agreed in 2010 that bulwarks of Uyghur culture such as Elkun’s homecoming party enshrined in Meshrep rituals were in urgent need of preservation. This, one of the most important carriers of Uyghur traditions, has now been banned with no reference to UNESCO, and many of its proponents arrested and jailed indefinitely. These events, which in their heyday included music, dance, drama, folk arts, acrobatics, oral literature, and games, together with an element of “informal justice” mediating conflicts, maintaining moral standards, and cultural education, were once deemed by China as worthy of urgent preservation. Beijing agreed, but now they are no more and their champions have been disappeared.

The “outstanding” beauty and superlative natural features of the Tengri Tagh mountain range (Tianshan or Celestial Mountains) earned the 1,760 kilometers (1,093 miles) of red bed canyons, high peaks and glaciers, wetlands, meadows, and steppe a place in the UNESCO records in 2013. The mountains form a natural border between China and Kyrgyzstan, and are home to herders whose rights were enshrined in the application for World Heritage status. But since the listing, Kazakh pasture has been requisitioned with little or no compensation, the land sold to Chinese so-called “ecotourism” companies. All protests have been squashed.

The Uyghur region’s unique underground Karez irrigation system, whereby water is channeled via ancient hand-dug tunnels from the Tengri Tagh Mountains to the arid Turpan basin below, has been pending on the World Heritage Tentative List since 2008. But there is a danger that it might disappear altogether before attaining fully preserved status. Despite Beijing’s attempts to protect the Karez in the 1980s and crediting Uyghurs involved historically in their creation, now, regardless of scientific evidence to the contrary, a “New China” narrative has emerged whereby Chinese “ditch and well” drilling technology from the Central Plains is claimed as responsible for their creation.

There were more than 1,000 Karez in Turpan during the 1950s, but overdrilling of power wells, climate change, underinvestment, and remodeling of villages for ease of surveillance has left only 20 to 30 containing water. Toxic waste and pollution of the Karez system caused by one of China’s largest car battery manufacturers built directly above two Karez systems have also wreaked havoc.

Harris and Elkun are dismayed at the inaction shown by UNESCO vis-à-vis Xinjiang and want every item on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list revisited.

Member states should demand that Muqam, Meshrep, and Manas be removed given the overwhelming evidence of their failure to satisfy UNESCO criteria. As far as they are concerned, attacks on cultural objects cannot be disentangled from the fate of the indigenous people.

For Elkun, writing the paper was more than an academic exercise. Speaking to The China Project, he said he was still “reeling from the shock” of seeing his childhood playmates in the reeducation camp and realizing how far Communist Party influence had reached into every crevice of Uyghur life. His heart “was broken” to see his “simple farmer friends” being used as “tools” to spread Party propaganda. “I can imagine how much they struggled to play these Chinese Communist revolutionary songs,” he said.

“Our village was deep in the desert, 15 kilometers [9.3 miles] from the nearest settlement,” Elkun said. “The scale of cultural erosion and genocide is terrifying…I am so angry. Why can’t they leave these people alone?”