Growing Up Learning Uyghur Dance

*Previously a Featured Story on Medium.com

Growing up, I had the unique, interesting, and irreconcilable experience of learning Uyghur (also Uighur) dance from my Beijing Dance Academy-trained Chinese dance teacher. A late immigrant to the states, she did not so much leave China as she came to America. In other words, when she left her mother country, she had no reason to leave behind her allegiance to her country nor disagree with what it had given her. She was, after all, one of the luckier lot to have gotten out of her rural home and into the big city of Beijing as an artist. She afterwards came to America thirsty for more opportunity and equipped with all the training and opportunity she’d already received from home. What she sought from America was not refuge, but simply more.

And so it is with this in mind that you need to understand how propaganda works, and how allegiance works.

When I was ten years old, I took my first step outside the Western world of my ballet studio and into the Eastern world of my new Chinese dance studio. My mother’s friend(’s friend’s friend) had mentioned something about a Chinese dance studio in the Sunset, the first, really, at that time. And so in an effort to keep me active and occupied, as well as to offer me more to my Chinese side, my mother brought me to that Chinese dance studio that would become the start to my passion for storytelling.

To clarify, the Chinese dance I did in particular was not the fan-dancing traditionally portrayed in Chinese New Year parades; instead, at this new dance studio I learned Chinese ethnic minority dancing — an important distinction, as ethnic minority dancing encompassed the ethnic minority groups Han China colonized. Today’s China spans 56 different ethnic minorities (where the majority is the Han), including the Tibetans, the Hui tribe, the Dai people, Inner Mongolia, and, most importantly for this piece, the Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of Western China*.

Interestingly enough, the passion I developed for Chinese dance was not due to a passion for dance at all; it was due instead to a passion for people. Whereas my experience with ballet had remained confined to the singular world of the same pirouettes and pointe shoes and first position and second position and Giselle with the flower basket and Coppélia with the fruit basket, I discovered something entirely different with Chinese ethnic dance. One day, I would learn the head tilts of the Uzbeks, another day I’d learn the horse-riding style of the Mongolians, and another I’d don the ritual silk sleeves of the Tibetans. That is, the choreography I learned as an ethnic dancer were not merely movements, but stories. In order to teach me how to properly raise my wrists like the grassland Mongolian, my dance teacher needed to first tell me the story of the Mongolians, where the horse-riding tradition came from, how they rode, why they rode, how, in the next four and a half minutes, I would be the daughter of a hunter riding off for a mere chase and the wind in my young-spirited hair*. And it was these cultural lessons that gave way to nights spent on Wikipedia and YouTube (and, I believe, gave birth to my undying love for Parts Unknown, VICE microdocs, and my third read of The Travels of Marco Polo on Friday nights).

The ethnic minority group I was most fascinated by in the dance studio was the Uyghurs, which also happened to be the last style of dance I learned before jetting off to college. Learning Uyghur dance was an out of body experience; it was every dancer’s sensory dream. Many Thursdays and Saturdays were filled with deeply intriguing cultural lessons from my dance teacher who’d spent a month in Kashgar with the local dance troupe, and she passed onto me the history of the Turkic people, the foods they ate, the way they lived in the desert, the symbolism of grapes to the oasis culture. During the first month or so of learning my new dance, my laoshi and I would improvise with Uyghur music (how could you not dance to this?!), twisting our wrists like blooming desert flowers, bobbing our heads up and down and side to side and sending electrifying eye contact across the room to each other (flirting eyes, laoshi called it), as many Uyghur dances center on young, often scandalous, love. (To this day, my mother blames my dance teacher for teaching me how to flirt, while I blame her for not teaching me anything that’s worked).

And so in that corner dance studio by Golden Gate Park in 2015, I fell in love with the Uyghurs. I fell in love with the dance style and the enthralling Tajik dance I was given (performed originally by the talented Gulmira Mamat), and I was honored to represent the Uyghur people onstage, to represent their beautiful and unknown culture — unknown because, I thought at the time, we were in America.

Soon, I would find out they are considered unknowns in China, too, because of a quiet, unspoken project called cultural dilution or, in more truthful terms, genocide. You might have seen some social media posts recently about Uyghur concentration camps that produce goods for companies like Apple, Nike, and Volkswagen (though often without their knowledge, doesn’t implicate them any less), the infamous behind-the-scenes photo of a Uyghur labor camp during Mulan filming, the TikTok of a girl doing a mock makeup tutorial really to talk about the abuse of Uyghurs (her videos then went under investigation in China), Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil being kicked off the team and censored from Chinese television for speaking out about the labor camps, or other news articles floating around that have since lost traction because of the myriad of other human rights violations the world is still dealing with. If you’re interested in a refresher or overview of the current Uyghur situation and China’s response (or lack thereof), John Oliver has a clear and comprehensive video worth checking out.

All of the above examples I’ve mentioned are all within the last year. In other words, before this past year, little to no news coverage existed on the Uyghur situation due to a terribly deft China. I distinctly remember scouring Google for hours when I was younger, trying to learn more about the Uyghurs, innocently looking for information merely to learn the language and instead stumbling on a handful of outdated articles about human rights violations that were quickly buried. Not much existed on the Uyghurs past the first two pages of Google. Even now, little news of the Uyghur re-education camps make it onto mainstream news, and China is bleeding the culture out of the Xinjiang region quickly and quietly as we speak.

What feels irreconcilable about learning Uyghur dance growing up is that the appreciation of the culture never crossed into a holistic education of its people. My dance teacher taught me the culture of the people, but only through a starkly removed (censored) lens that mentioned nothing of the people as they are now. She told me about them as she herself learned about them in a censored China. I learned about how the Uyghurs once lived and danced, about the people who were once the most lucrative and essential middlemen at the crossroads of the Silk Roads, but I didn’t learn about the region’s ugly, violent, and irreparable conquest that came later.

Some might posit that ethnic minority dance studies exists as a tool of propaganda used by China to convince the Chinese people and even the ethnic groups themselves that they are being represented. After all, every year the country’s nationally broadcast Chinese New Year Gala sets aside a short performance for a display of all its “beautiful and honorable” minority groups, featuring people like the Uyghurs and the Tibetans. How can the West accuse our country of genocide when we celebrate these minority groups with their dances onstage, acknowledging their existence as part of China? And how dare these groups ask for more, ask for independence, even, from a country taking care of them and celebrating them? What do these minorities provide in return? Revolution? And so China will put them on variety shows and singing shows and dance shows and continue to create the illusion that all is well, while in reality every corner of the street in Xinjiang is patrolled by government soldiers and surveillance cameras cataloguing their every step.

I grew up learning Uyghur dance, and I grew up learning of the Uyghur people. But I did not grow up learning of China. I never thought to question why I was learning Turkic dance in Chinese dance class; I never fully comprehended my dancing as a direct result of imperialism. Unknowingly, I was proud of performing Uyghur dance. I was proud that my heritage, that Chinese ethnic dance, represented 56 different minority groups, that I could associate myself with the Uyghurs, proudly so, as a Chinese person.

And then imperialism set in, and I saw the problem. My dance teacher, inculcated at a young age in a regime with a twisted dogma of “unity,” recognized Uyghurs and Dai people and Tibetans alike as part of the Chinese collective, not distinctive groups with their own right to govern themselves. Just as the Americans overtook the native Ohlone and the Cherokee and the Navajo and the Sioux, the Chinese overtook the Uyghurs. Just as the Americans bled out the indigenous people who barely have a spoken language anymore, the Chinese are silently and quickly diluting Uyghur blood from Western China, or the East Turkestan they once were before imperialism. In fact, the name of the Uyghur region in China, Xinjiang, literally translates to “New Frontier.” Xinjiang was China’s last large conquest (amidst the transition from the Qing Dynasty to Modern China), and it is also one of the largest land conquests in the country’s history.

So, this kind of behavior is not new to us Americans; we live on land that was never ours to begin with. Though, it is worth mentioning that what we are witnessing between America and China are two different forms of cultural erasure. America pursued a more direct approach by slaughtering masses of bison, the very life force of the native tribes, to starve the natives and eventually corner them into reservations barely sustainable (especially as seen during the pandemic). One of the most unfortunate consequences of reservation life is that it carries with it the necessity to get out; those who make it out to the “real” America will be unlikely to return in order to survive (or to fight for change), dwindling the numbers of the very people who rightfully own the land they are fleeing to. The American government systematically starved and bled out the natives and continues to do so now. They let them die a slow death of their people and their culture, and it’s as if they were never on the land at all.

China takes a more discreet but systematic approach to dilution, forcibly converting Uyghurs, the most active dissenters to Chinese rule, into Chinese people. As opposed to America, China is not interested in occupying the Uyghur land so much as it is interested in retaining it — the true masculinity of war. (Relinquishing such sizable land would lead to a domino effect that would scatter all its land from East Turkestan to Tibet to Hong Kong — which we’ve seen will clearly never be on its own, no matter how many deaths need to occur — , reducing China to a small territory like the United Kingdom, which had once ruled more than a third of the world.) Rather than pushing out the native Uyghurs like the Americans sought to do, China seeks to absorb them. In a twisted scheme of “assimilation,” China has implemented re-education camps to teach Uyghur children and adults to speak only Chinese and punish those who speak their native Turkic tongue. To communicate in their own language is to plot, to conspire, to disrespect the country they are living in. In fact, when China first secured its conquest, it sought to repopulate Xinjiang by offering incentives to Han Chinese people to move to Xinjiang and intermarry, systematically diluting the bloodline.

Native Chinese people refuse to acknowledge the existence of this systematic genocide or the re-education camps they choose to believe are generous government-funded schools. If Chinese people do acknowledge the heavy security and surveillance patrolling Xinjiang, they will likely assert it is the rightful thing to do to a region of “terrorists” — another unfortunate case of Islamophobia — , and they will not hesitate to bring up the Ürümqi riots of 2009 that led to Facebook’s instant banning in China.

Today, Xinjiang is one of the most heavily policed and dystopian states in the world. With every voice of dissent, from within and without, China has only clamped down harder on the region’s censorship and ramped up re-education efforts and the concentration camps. Part truth and part paranoia has led the Chinese government to believe potential interference from the Taliban, and nearly every home in Xinjiang has a government security camera mounted on the front door to track every resident’s entry and exit. Resistance leader Rebiya Kadeer went into Witness Protection with the American government’s interference (less out of support for the cause and more to leverage political capital against China), and even a rare glance at a native Uyghur on the news will send shockwaves down your spine, as you see the distance of their gaze, the tragedy in the eyes of a Central Asian people that merely seek to be remembered for who they are, merely seek to be called East Turkestan instead of China’s New Frontier, merely want to teach their children their native language and reclaim a self that shouldn’t have to go extinct for a country’s mere desire to be Bigger Than The Rest.

*The inhabitants of the Xinjiang region are a Central Asian people with relations to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. (Core high school memory includes the varsity quarterback who sat next to me in Junior Year Ethics & Religion and said, “Kyrgyzstan isn’t real, they just made that up for a movie.”)

*You might be surprised to learn that Turandot, the classic opera featuring Luciano Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” was actually based on the story of Mongol warrior-princess Khutulun. (I found it terribly ironic that my Chinese mother’s favorite opera, a Western production, was actually Eastern in origin without our knowledge — nor the opera’s acknowledgement).

Writer based in San Francisco. Stanford ’20.