Transforming Uyghur domestic space
China’s "Three News" housing campaign in Xinjiang
Dr Tim Grose
Uyghur homes in rural southern Xinjiang are similar to those of Muslims in the Fergana Valley in Central Asia.
Typically constructed of mud-brick and timber, the home includes a courtyard and outdoor pavilion with trellises of lush vegetation. The house’s interior is commonly divided into a formal entertaining room, common rooms, bedrooms, and kitchen.
The Chinese government has been seeking to “civilize” Uyghur homes and communities for decades – with the destruction and reordering of Kashgar’s fabled “old town” attracting global attention.
As thousands of Uyghurs were being sent off to “transformation through re-education centres,” Party officials redoubled their efforts to transform Uyghur domestic space in the name of President Xi Jinping’s “beautiful China” initiative.
The supa, or raised earthen platform, sits at the centre of Uyghur domestic life and hospitality and marks the house’s place of honour. It is decorated with long rectangular cushions and cylinder-shaped pillows.
In some houses, a niche (Uyghur mehrab) is carved in the wall facing the direction of Mecca and with special religious items like the Qur’an placed inside.
Beginning in early 2018, party officials announced the “Three News” campaign (三新活动), with detailed instructions on how to advocate for a “new lifestyle,” establish a “new atmosphere,” and construct a “new order” in rural villages across southern Xinjiang.
Nearly four hundred thousand “impoverished families” were slated to have their homes transformed and “beautified”.
The new architectural blueprint for Uyghur homes is government-built housing in rural Han-majority villages in eastern and central China.
The floor plan has three clearly demarcated spaces for living, rearing and growing.
Yet the transformation of the internal living area required demolishing the supa and filling in sacred mehrab.
These were replaced by new tables, sofas, desks, beds, and other furniture often donated by Party cadres and other government minders.
The standardising and ordering of Uyghur domestic space is not purely aesthetic in nature but also intended to alter Uyghur behaviour, even thoughts. Newly arranged spaces and pieces of furniture constantly and subconsciously condition Uyghurs.
Over time, they seek to fundamentally alter Uyghur concepts of space, the home, and social order.
This strategy replicates similar colonial programmes in Europe, Australia and the United States, where new standards of living are used to acculturate and assimilate ethnic minority populations.
Yet in Xinjiang the demand for change is backed up with a constant threat of state violence, including detention in the region’s vast network of extrajudicial concentration camps.
This threat of state violence leads to what Grose labels “authoritarian reflectiveness”, a fatalist acceptance of the need to transform, and compels most Uyghur residents to conform with state demands, with those few who dare to resist facing public shame and ostracisation.
Timothy A. Grose’s article “If you don’t know how, just learn: Chinese housing and the transformation of Uyghur domestic space” was published in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies on 6 July 2020.