In this entry, I'd like to describe an anecdote that does not fall into the category of typical tourist experiences but that I feel none the less revealed quite a lot about the culture and atmosphere of both Hotan and southern Xinjiang. Forgive me if my description rambles a bit, but a bit of background on both the May First holiday and Xinjiang's history will allow for a more nuanced understanding of the event we witnessed. The occasion for our trip to Xinjiang was the May-first holiday, the week surrounding International Workers Day.
Though completely forgotten or rather lamely observed in much of the West, May First is still a very big deal in China, on par with National Day in October, which marks the founding of the PRC. Students and many workers get the entire week off, and in recent years domestic tourism has become an increasingly popular way to spend the holiday. Though I feel very tempted at this point to go into a rant about mass tourism in general and Chinese tour groups in particular, I will restrain myself. I will limit my comments to saying that one of the main reasons that we decided to go to Xinjiang was to as far away from the crowds as possible.
In this goal, we succeeded almost entirely, and we were also able to see how the holiday was celebrated in one of China's most remote regions, where Communist Party rule is not necessarily looked on with favor by the independent-minded local people. The native inhabitants of Xinjiang belong to a variety of Central Asian ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Uighurs. Chinese emperors from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) on sent officials and army garrisons to strategically-located cities in Xinjiang in order to protect the Silk Road trade, and over the years Imperial China exercised fluctuating levels of control and influence on the region.
Real power usually rested with local chiefs and warlords, however, and it was not until the late 19th century that a concerted effort was made to formally incorporate the area into the Chinese state (the name Xinjiang, meaning "new territory," dates from this time). Rebellions and warlordism continued throughout the first half of the 20th century, including the formation of two briefly-independent states in the 1930s and 1940s. The Nationalist forces in Xinjiang surrendered peacefully to the Communists in 1949, and since then Xinjiang has been firmly in the grip of the government in Beijing.
Significant economic development has taken place over the past fifty years, and thanks to industrialization, infrastructure improvement, and greater educational opportunities, the standard of living has risen significantly for most people. However, many Uighurs, Kazakhs, and others feel that the central government does not respect their cultural traditions, and until the late 1970s, the practice of Islam was severely circumscribed (as was religion throughout the rest of the country). Sporadic violent incidents have occurred over the past fifteen years, and there is some evidence that a very small number of fringe separatists may have contacts with international terrorist groups. For many reasons, the central government thus sees Xinjiang as a potential source of social instability and is eager to encourage unity with and loyalty to the Chinese state.
We arrived in Hotan on the Friday afternoon before the May First holiday, and after a meal with our new-found Uighur friends and a couple of hours rest to recover from the 20-hour bus ride from Urumqi (see entry in this journal entitled "Across the Taklamakan by bus"), we decided to go for walk in the early evening. Our destination was the city's main square, a vast paved space overlooked by a similarly colossal statue of Mao shaking hands with a Uighur man who, so the story goes, made the long trek to Beijing in the early 1950s to congratulate the Great Helmsman on the triumph of the Communist revolution.
When we arrived in the square, we discovered that a large stage had been set up at the foot of the Mao statue and a performance of Uighur singing and dancing was about to begin. From what we could gather, the performers were mostly local schoolchildren, from kindergarten to high school age, who had clearly been preparing their routines for quite some time. The audience seemed to be entirely Uighur, probably parents and friends of the performers. Almost all of the performers were Uighur, and almost all of the organizers were Han. A young Han woman spotted us as we stood gawking, and she promptly ushered us to seats in the front row, kicking out the seats' previous occupants in the process.
Perhaps I am being unjustifiably uncharitable, but to me the political subtext was clear; I imagine that their thought process was something like "Look, foreigners! Let's show them how much we support Uighur culture and how happy the Uighurs are to be part of China!" The dances were an interesting mix of traditional and modern: one number featured girls wearing traditional caps and atlas silk dresses, while in another teenagers in miniskirts and high heels lip-synched to a Chinese pop song .
The most incongruous note was an English-language R&B-type song performed by three young men in baggy jeans and baseball caps turned backwards. In light of the political context I outlined above, however, the most interesting dance numbers for me were two performances that came near the end of the show. In the first one, the dancers (high school age girls) were dressed in military fatigues, and one stood in front waving a large Chinese flag in time to a recording of what was clearly some sort of patriotic song. In the second, the similarly-aged girls wore beautiful, flowing white dresses reminiscent of ballet costumes, but the theme was clearly the same; this time there were two flag-wavers, and the centerpiece was a slightly older Han woman singing another patriotic song.
The incongruity of it all was striking, reminiscent of an era of propaganda that has long vanished in the West. The fact that the performance took place on the eve of the May Holiday made the patriotic intentions of its organizers even clearer. I wish I had been able to understand the lyrics of the songs, or at least talk to some of the performers and audience members after the show. This was a case, however, in which I think a picture really was worth more than the proverbial thousand words in bringing home to me the reality of the central government's attempts to integrate Xinjiang fully into the Chinese cultural mainstream while still maintaining the official line of respect for minority cultures.