David Brophy is a specialist in the social and political history of China’s northwest, particularly Xinjiang, and its connections with the Islamic and Russian/Soviet worlds. A former post-doctoral fellow with the Australian Centre on China in the World, he is now a lecturer at the University of Sydney. His book on the politics of Uyghur nationalism between Xinjiang and the Soviet Union in the early twentieth century will appear through Harvard University Press in 2016.—The Editors
Good news stories from Xinjiang often involve dancing. It’s an article of faith for most Han Chinese that the Uyghurs, along with the other ethnic minorities of the People’s Republic, are particularly gifted when it comes to singing and dancing, and no tour of Xinjiang is complete without a night out at a dancing restaurant. China prides itself on its support for such things, citing its recent listing of the Uyghur meshrep on UNESCO’s list of the world Intangible Cultural Heritage, as evidence of its sound custodianship of Uyghur musical and dancing traditions.
Xinjiang officials must be dismayed, then, to see a story about dancing in Xinjiang that casts them in a particularly bad light. ‘Scandal! Imams being forced to dance!’ reads the Turkish tabloid headline (see illustration), one of many such articles now spreading from sensationalist Turkish websites to the Arabic-language press and other parts of the Islamic world.
Since late last year, Beijing has launched a mobilization campaign to encourage mass dance-ins throughout Xinjiang. Mostly these take the form of competitions, and imams, as state employees, are not exempt (as the image in the Turkish press shows).
In this video, for example, we see the religious elite of Uchturfan (Wushi) performing a winning rendition of the ‘Little Apple’ 小苹果, the Chinese dance that is at the centre of the new campaign. A pop song released in May 2014, the Chopstick Brothers’ ‘Little Apple‘ might be thought of as China’s answer to the Macarena, an irritatingly catchy track with simple dance moves well suited to a mass marching formation. The original Little Apple was a cheesy love song, but the version that Uyghur farmers are now stepping to is a Uyghur translation with patriotic lyrics.
Of course, such activities are nothing new in China. It’s only a few years since the ‘Red Songs’ fad engineered by the purged Politburo member Bo Xilai. Students are organised to dance in the schoolyard before class; employees line up for warm-up activities before the day’s business; and elderly Chinese meet in public parks for sessions of yangge 秧歌, ballroom or jazz dancing. Some will say that the Little Apple mobilisation falls into a similar benign category, and are relatively harmless.
But there are particular reasons why the Chinese Communist Party might be interested in promoting public dancing in Xinjiang now. Beijing is nervous about what it considers signs of religious extremism among Uyghurs, and one of these telltale signs is a disinclination to dance. In speech at the National People’s Congress in March last year, a Xinjiang representative and deputy chairperson of the China Dancer’s Association Dilnar Abdulla gave a speech claiming that religious extremists in Xinjiang were ‘campaigning for the commoners not to sing and dance, even not permitting them to sing and dance at weddings.’
So, according to this logic, orchestrating a campaign to encourage people to dance is actually a way to get people to disavow publicly any sympathy for religious extremism. People are technically not coerced into dancing, despite what the Turkish headlines scream, but it would be a brave individual who would call attention to themselves as a potential extremist by refusing the invitation to ‘cut a rug’. Public and peer pressure is enough for most people to join in.
In her Beijing speech, Dilnar added that Islamists’ injunctions against dancing constitute ‘a major assault on our traditional culture’. In her view, and the view of many in Xinjiang, rejection of Islamist puritanism goes hand in hand with an affirmation of authentic Uyghur traditions. Given this, we might expect this public campaign to feature displays of traditional dance and music, not of Chinese pop hits.
Until recently, that seemed to be the direction that the policy was taking. In 2013, Xinjiang high schools implemented a ‘One hour-a-day of sama’ program, mobilising students for mass sama exercises. The continuation of this can be seen in a recent event in Päyziwat county, a ‘5000-person Dolan and sama dance’ performance.
Take that, terrorists!
Chinese discussions of the sama would seem to make it a perfect vehicle for encouraging popular participation in the de-radicalisation campaign. The dominant view of the sama in China borrows heavily from the Soviet approach to Islam among the Soviet Union’s Muslims. Practices which did not fit easily into a notion of ‘high’, textual Islam, were classified as ‘low’ or ‘popular’ Islam, and regarded as being ‘survivals’ (perezhitki) or ‘vestiges’ (ostatki) of pre-Islamic religions and customs. In the case of sama, this is helped by the superficial resemblance of the word sama to saman, the Manchu word from which the English term ‘shaman’ derives, as well as Chinese sàmǎnjiào 萨满教, ‘shamanism.’
Indeed, the Xinjiang Nationalities Dictionary 新疆民族辞典 entry on sama says that the word is a corruption of saman, and that the dance ‘has evolved from the ecstatic dancing of primitive-shamanic religion’. Chinese scholarly work on sama notes that in recent centuries it assumed a religious dimension, but tends to describe this as an incidental appropriation of the shamanic sama by religious groups, and not in any way an inherent element of the dance.
What better way to demonstrate the official position that Xinjiang has always been a site of the ‘blending of religions’ 宗教融合, and that Xinjiang’s Muslims practice a distinctly local form of Islam that resists assimilation to pernicious foreign standards of Islamic orthodoxy?
The problem is, however, that this is a dubious interpretation of the sama. Sama is an Arabic term, samāʿ, describing a form of Sufi ritual involving the remembrance of Allah or dhikr through dance and music. Existing in various forms across the Islamic world, the most famous practitioners of sama are Turkey’s whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi Sufi brotherhood. As is common in more sedate forms of Sufi meditation, sama dancers sometimes chant the name of Allah (or simply ‘He!’) on the beat.
If China had a more hands-off approach to culture in Xinjiang, these conflicting perceptions of sama might not be an issue. But when the state asserts the right to promote some forms of local culture and demote others, this misconception about the religious side of the sama was likely to surface at some point.
Rumor has it that late last year the mayor of Kashgar was at a sama where people were chanting ‘Allah’, unlike the state-sanctioned line-dancing versions of the sama where they do not. When he learnt what they were doing, his positive view of the sama changed. Although it is hard to confirm this, reports from Kashgar suggest that the sama has now been removed from its previously prominent position in schools, and banned in traditional locations such as the square in front of Kashgar’s main Heytkah Mosque.
Then, along comes the Little Apple, spreading inexorably from the interior like a meme. Whether or not the Kashgar mayor’s whim is entirely responsible for this, the turn to the Little Apple marks a sharp shift away from the idea that local cultural forms can be used as a bulwark against Islamic radicalism. If fads like the Little Apple continue to be spread with party-state approval, it will confirm Uyghur fears that the campaign against extremism and radicalisation is in reality a broad assault on Uyghur culture and religion.
Time will tell what will be the fate of the sama in Xinjiang. The irony is that if Chinese officials do end up displacing the sama with Chinese pop rituals like the Little Apple, they will be doing the Islamists’ work for them, and eradicating a Sufi practice that Islamic fundamentalists have long railed against.