The Future of Uyghur Dance, as Characterized by 玉米提, Facing Chinese “Re-Education”

Final Project Proposal – Houston Scott (史休思)

Topic: Uyghur Dance Facing Chinese Re-Education


Occupying the remote tundras and plateaus of northwestern China, resides a small ethnic Muslim minority population known as the Uyghurs. Uyghur history, in sum, is the story of small nomadic tribes who migrated from the Altai Mountains to greater Mongolia and the Tarim Basin. These nomadic groups left their original homelands due to fierce competition with rival forces in Central Asia. Eventually, these groups coalesced into a single ethnic identity, called the Uyghurs, and became civil servants administering the Mongol Empire. Details of the Uyghur’s ethnic origins are disputed by current Uyghur and Chinese historians. Uyghur historians maintain that Uyghurs are the original inhabitants of Xinjiang, (the province in modern-day China with a majority Uyghur population) having lived there for over 9,000 years, while Chinese historians insist the Uyghurs came to Xinjiang from Mongolia in the ninth century, replacing the then dominate Han Chinese, who had controlled Xinjiang since the Han dynasty.

When Mao Zedong’s communist victory over Chinese Nationalists occurred in 1949, Xinjiang, which had prior belonged to the Second East Turkestan Republic, professed loyalty to the newly formed People’s Republic of China. Many Uyghurs loyal to the Second East Turkestan Republic soon fled – it is not difficult to imagine why. Today, much evidence exists of a Chinese government crackdown and discrimination against the Uyghur population. Investigative journalism, from multiple reputable news outlets, suggests a “cultural cleansing” of the Uyghur population. Similar to the Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War Two, China separates Uyghur families, and forcefully enrolls Uyghur children in Chinese state backed schools which “re-educates” them in accordance with state-controlled ideology. This not only destroys Uyghur culture, it warrants an international outcry denouncing the practices of the Chinese government.

Introduction Bibliography:

“History of the Uyghur People.” Wikipedia , 5 Dec. 2019,

Treatment of Uyghurs:

According to many Western news outlets, the People’s Republic of China, for security purposes, seeks a more ethnically homogenized population, and their will is manifested by the treatment they impose on Uyghurs. In a New York Times article, journalists Elian Peltier and Claire Moses report the story of Asiye Abdulaheb, a Uyghur woman living in the Netherlands who, “helped leak secret Chinese government documents that shed light on how Beijing runs mass detention camps for Muslim ethnic minorities”.

Asiye Abdulaheb, Uyghur women living in the Netherlands, helped leak secret Chinese government documents

While the accounts of harassment and threats given by Asiye Abdulaheb and found in these documents, allegedly from members of China’s security services, could not be independently verified, they still fit a pattern of discrimination which many other Uyghurs abroad have described. Recently, videos on social media, posted by Uyghurs, seek to raise awareness about missing family members. In a Wall Street Journal article, journalist Eva Dou describes Uyghur families posting videos on Douyin – the Chinese version of TikTok – images of Uyghurs silently crying in front of family portraits. It is thought these videos are meant to memorialize missing Uyghur family members and draw attention to China’s mass internment camps. Chinese authorities acknowledge the existence of these camps, but defend them as places which provide Uyghurs with job training and Mandarin practice. In a Wall Street Journal news article, journalist Chun Han Wong states, “Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang’s governor and Number 2. official said the ‘vast majority’ of people who have left the camps have become productive members of society”. In fact, local authorities claim that over 90% of Uyghurs who attend these schools found suitable jobs with a considerable income. Isobel Yeung, a reporter for Vice News, traveled to Xinjiang in order to research these schools. In a packed train-car, she interviews a Uyghur, who for security reasons chose to remain anonymous. This interviewee stated, “Something bad has happened. I can’t talk about it. I can’t talk about it (‘it’ being re-education schools). It is for anti-terrorism. They call them (schools) ‘vocational centers’. Those places are prisons. No one goes there voluntarily”. While Isobel Yeung was reporting in Xinjiang, she noted the intense presence of police officers and video surveillance. David Kennedy, who traveled to Xinjiang as well, received an interview from The Wall Street Journal, comments on his tour in Kashgar – one of Xinjiang’s main cities, “Every 250 meters is a fortified police station, surveillance cameras everywhere, every intersection there’s a little squad of cops”. Perhaps the most disturbing instance of discriminatory practices against Uyghurs is the evidence of forced enrollment for Uyghur children in state-run elementary schools. Isobel Yeung observed one of these schools at close range, noting, “I mean, it’s obvious what we are doing here (referring to the investigation) you should just get out of it very quickly and see kids in there, (referring to the schoolchildren behind the walls surrounding the “Re-education” school) it is really bizarre there are kids in there on a Sunday which suggests that this is not just a regular school”.

Sources on Treatment of Uyghurs:

Use of social media to find missing family members:

Dou, Eva. “Uighurs Use Videos to Draw Attention to Missing Family Members.” The Wall Street Journal [New York City], 22 Aug. 2019. The Wall Street Journal.

Activists questioning China’s claim of releasing Uyghur prisoners:

Wong, Chun Han. “China Says Majority of Xinjiang Detainees Released, but Activists Question Claim.” The Wall Street Journal [New York City], 30 July 2019. The Wall Street Journal,

Leaked secret Chinese government documents from Uyghur women living in Netherlands:

Peltier, Elian. “Uighur Admits Exposing Chinese Camps.” The New York Times [New York City], 8 Dec. 2019. The New York Times,

David Kennedy’s experience traveling in Kashgar, and Chinese homogeneity:

Willick, Jason. “Does America Still Have a Common Creed?” The Wall Street Journal [New York City], 30 Nov. 2019. The Wall Street Journal,

Re-education camps for Uyghur population:

“Xinjiang Re-education Camps.” Wikipedia,


With mounting evidence of a government crackdown on the ethnic Uyghur population, what is the future of Uyghur culture, and, more specifically, what does Uyghur dance represent about this ethnic minority’s culture that may potentially face radical changes? In order to tackle this question, it is first imperative to understand the differences in Uyghur and Han cultures, and explain the social development of the Xinjiang region. A psychological study by Chinese academics titled Influence of Culture on Tripartite Self-Concept Development in Adolescence: A Comparison Between Han and Uyghur Cultures investigated the “development of cultural variability in interdependent self-construal by comparing the differences in the tripartite self-concept of adolescent samples from the Han and Uyghur cultures”. Basically, this study took 460 male and 522 female adolescents, respectively, from both Uyghur and Han ethnicities, and measured how their cultures influence the individual subjects’ notion of the self. It has been well known that Western cultures emphasize the independent self-construal (individualism – the idea that people should be self-focused in their undertakings), while Eastern cultures align more with the interdependent self-construal (collectivism – the notion that individuals should orient their attention towards his or her social group). This study highlights important differences between Han and Uyghur cultures which explain how interdependent self-construal thinking is practiced in daily life. The study states, “The premise for the differences in self-construal between these two cultures is that Uyghur culture is based on Islam, which emphasizes the solidarity of all Muslims. Their shared religion promotes group integration, unity and cohesiveness within the shared Uyghur ethnic group”. In Uyghur society, their culture is called Jamaat, and it represents the idea of the individual serving the community, most importantly his or her immediate family. Jamaat culture has the potential to create an incredibly united civil life, thus individuals in Jamaat culture tend to have a very strong familial awareness. In contrast, the study states, “influenced by Confucianism, Han culture emphasizes distinguishing relationships of different levels of intimacy and hierarchy and assigning importance to others based on their relationship with the self”. Individuals in Han culture typically develop relationships with others by positioning their individual self at the center of the connections they have, rather than family. The higher (or lower) in importance someone’s relationship is to a Han individual, the closer (or farther away) to that individual’s center they are. This highlights the philosophical importance of guān xì (关系), or relationship, in Chinese culture. The study found evidence to suggest, “In the Han culture group, the participants’ results showed an increase of friend-focused relational self-statements. This finding was consistent with the results among Western adolescents”, it also found, “regarding the Uyghur cultural group, in the subgroups older than mid-adolescence there was a shift of importance from the friend-focus of the relational self to a family focus, supporting the inference that the influence of Jamaat culture might develop the family orientation of Uyghur adolescents’ relational self”.

Visualization of Han culture relational self – 关系 (guān xì), positioning the life of an individual (人生) at the center surrounded by parents (父母), loved ones (爱人), and friends (朋友)

Sources on Uyghur culture and history:

Historical sociology of Xinjiang

Cappelletti, Alessandra. “Developing the Land and the People: Social Development Issues in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (1999-2009).” Springer. Spring Science and Business Media, Accessed 3 Dec. 2014.

Comparison between Han and Uyghur cultures:

Abdukeram, Ziwida. “Influence of Culture on Tripartite Self-Concept Development in Adolescence: A Comparison Between Han and Uyghur Cultures .” Psychological Reposts. Psychologocial Reports: Sociocultural Issues in Psychology, DOI10.2466/17.07.PR0.116k12w8.

Performance Analysis:

Yumiti (玉米提) is perhaps the most famous Uyghur dancer. Born in Urumqi, Xinjiang, he graduated from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Arts in 1999. Currently, he is a member of the Song and Dance Troupe of the Political Work Department of the Central Military Commission. He has won numerous metals at various dance competitions throughout his career, including, a gold medal at the 3rd and 5th CCTV Dance Competition, a gold medal at the 3rd Seoul International Dance Competition in South Korea and won the personal best actor award of The Fourth National Minority Literature and Art Performance.

Yumiti and Wang Xiangzhou performing Indian Love Song on CCTV

Timeline and accomplishments of 玉米提:


One of Yumiti’s most famous performances is his solo traditional dance of Bā láng (巴郎). According to Dr. Emily Wilcox, “Bā láng is to be understood as Uyghur culture by use of costumes, music, props and bodily motions”. During this performance, Yumiti makes use of both rhythmic actions and postures which are both mimetic (imitation) and idealized in order to depict an average Uyghur man. Uyghur styled clothes are characterized by embroidered knee high boots and a tunic while their dance typically includes high single hand snapping over the head accompanied by one leg slightly behind the other. In Bā láng, Yumiti is in constant motion – perhaps relating to the constantly changing social structure being imposed on Uyghur’s in their daily life. He also makes use of a hand drum, known as a Daf, throughout the entire performance. A Daf is a large Persian or Arabic frame drum used in popular classical music. These drums were played chiefly in the middle east by women in Kurdish societies. Yumiti’s use of the Daf in this performance represents the Uyghurs as a Muslim minority. Due to its Muslim roots, Uyghur culture is very conservative, and therefore rarely has any sexual suggestiveness.

Yumiti’s most famous solo dance

A more modern work which still retains strong traditional Uyghur scenes, is the movie You Make My Life Beautiful, starring Yumiti. The movie’s opening scene is a solo dance performed by Yumiti, dressed in an all white costume. The dance has movements associated with traditional Uyghur dance. Furthermore, after approximately ten minutes, Yumiti and Gulmira Mamat perform a very traditional dance incorporating the Uyghur Daf drum, and wearing Uyghur costumes as evidenced by the white tunic and knee high boots. Later on, around the 17th minute, Yumiti performs a solo dance in a dessert setting closely resembling the land in Xinjiang. He also wears Uyghur styled clothing, similar to the dance scene prior. However, towards the end of the movie, modern styles of dance are presented. At around the 32nd minute, Gulmira Mamat performs the famous Peacock Dance, which was shown in the performance Dynamic Yunnan. This shows the movie transitioning from traditional style dance towards modern dance – in line with China’s supposed incentive to transition ethnic minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang into more modern Han Chinese cultures. More evidence of this sentiment exists later in the movie when Yumiti, who throughout the entire movie had forbidden his sister – Laili – to dance, tells her, “What matters is not dancing, but how the national culture featured with pluralistic integration can be carried forward. And how Chinese art culture can be shown to the world”. This direct quote demonstrates China’s intention to form a unified Chinese culture – thus deteriorating Uyghur culture – in order to promote a culturally amalgamated China to a globalized world.

你美丽了我的生日,You Make My Life Beautiful – Movie starring Yumiti, co-starring Gulmira Mamat:

Student Presentation: Dynamic Yunnan focusing on Gulmira Mamat

Conclusion and the Future of Uyghur Culture:

What is the effect of re-education schools and the overall Chinese state-backed crackdown on Uyghur culture? Assuming the schools are able to influence and radically change all Uyghur children in the Xinjiang region, it is not hard to imagine the complete disintegration of Uyghur culture. The current Uyghur situation has strong historical parallels to the United States’ treatment of Japanese American citizens during World War Two. From 1941 to 1945, the United States government did knowingly and systematically force American citizens of Japanese dissent into internment camps. Once there, the prisoners faced harsh humanitarian conditions which not only denigrated their individual sense of self, but forced them to question, and often reject, their own culture. The writer Donna Nagata writes, in her essay Psychological Effects of Camp, “In the most extreme cases, the anguish of being released from camp without the opportunity to regain work and lost sense of purpose led some (Japanese prisoners) to commit suicide”. This historical narrative would not predict a positive result from the Chinese “re-education” schools. In fact, these schools have the potential to completely eliminate all notion of Uyghur culture. Nagata further explains, “Regardless of their socialization choices, the Nisei (term used for elderly Japanese-Americans who had been imprisoned in the Japanese internment camps) maintained a low profile to avoid calling negative attention to themselves and focused instead on fitting into American culture”. Only the future holds the fate of the Uyghurs, but it is up to the rest of the world to learn, understand and denounce the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur minority ethnic group.

Japanese Internment Camp

Japanese Internment Camp: Nagata, Donna K. “Psychological Effects of Camp.” Densho Encyclopedia,