How Uyghur cultural practices are being politicized and co-opted in Xinjiang
This article examines the inscription of meshrep (mäshräp), an important Uyghur cultural practice, on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage and its subsequent co-optation by the Chinese government to ‘counter-extremism’ and promote national integration.
Professor Rachel Harris
Expressive culture – music, dance, and other performances – is central to the production and sustainment of community and identity among the Turkic-speaking Uyghur people of modern-day Xinjiang.
Mäshräp is a unique performance gathering that involves music, dance, storytelling, jokes, games, ritual punishment and other performance arts; it binds Uyghur communities together in acts of social reciprocity and through the transmission of social rules and norms.
Islamic culture and values were central to Mäshräp in Xinjiang and became more pronounced during the Islamic revival of the 1990s, where religion came to the fore as a mechanism for the assertion of Uyghur identity and community.
In parts of Xinjiang, Mäshräp was used to counter endemic social problems in the Uyghur community, including youth alcoholism, drug abuse and crime, through the propagation of a pious Muslim lifestyle.
As ‘culture fever’ and nationalism took hold in Reform-era China, the Chinese government began inscribing tangible and intangible cultural heritage items on various UNESCO preservation lists.
The national government in Beijing sees participation in the heritage domain as a tool of soft power on the national and international stage while local governments see it as economic capital especially in its potential to attract tourism.
In restive frontier regions like Xinjiang, the chief goal of cultural heritage and tourism policies are the incorporation of ethnic minorities into China’s national story.
Yet there is a growing disconnect between UNESCO—a massive international organization headquartered in Paris—and the small, disparate communities that are targeted by its efforts, and can have locally maintained traditions commodified and transformed against their will.
The Chinese state situates itself as the protector of cultural heritage, with top-down initiatives to ‘protect and promote’ ethnic heritages that can actually disempower local communities.
When mäshräp was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2010, it was sanitised, commodified and secularized, stripping it clean of the religious and community aspects of its practices.
Official representations of mäshräp – including large-scale, carefully choreographed performances at key political events – has replaced grassroots, community practices, with mäshräp now viewed as an international cultural asset to be deployed as part of state-led soft diplomacy initiatives.
In Xinjiang, the Chinese government now speaks about ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ mäshräp, with local authorities employing mäshräp as a vehicle for ‘tackling extremism’ and ‘promoting ethnic unity’.
China’s ‘safeguarding’ of the mäshräp thus involves separating the practice from its community roots and promoting versions that represent the national community at the expense of local communities.
Rachel Harris’ article “‘A Weekly Mäshräp to Tackle Extremism’: Music-making in Uyghur communities and intangible cultural heritage in China” was published in the journal of Ethnomusicology, 61.1 (Winter 2020), pp. 23-55. Read the full article here.
To learn more about mäshräp and efforts to revitalise and study this Uyghur intangible cultural heritage practice in Kazakhstan visit the website of the Uyghur Meshrep Project.