Preservation of cultural heritage of ethnic minorities in China

China is made up of 55 different ethnic groups. Even though Han, the majority ethnic group, constitute 92% of China’s population, each minority group’s tradition and culture are very rich and valuable. However, such important cultural heritages are being forgotten by Chinese people at a fast pace. The two main reasons why ethnic minorities’ cultures are vanishing are Cultural Revolution and Han assimilation. Cultural Revolution affected ethnic minorities in China greatly. Under mission of destroying old objects that remind people of traditions and capitalism, Mao’s government severely persecuted ethnic minorities acroos the nation, destroying their cultural objects and forcefully assimilation them. According to Wikipedia, “Red Guards’ attack on the “Four olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.[i]” Ever since May 1966, the launch date of Cultural Revolution, Chinese ethnic minorities’ cultural heritages have been under severe persecution. The next factor that is deteriorating ethnic minorities’ cultures is assimilation to Han. Mass media in China is dominated with Han culture: pop, rock, dramas, game shows, fashion, and movies. Ethnic minorities in China are exposed to media that is exclusively about Han culture. Shen Che, a photographer who abandoned his state-assigned job to photograph vanishing minorities’ cultures, said, “China’s minorities are quickly being assimilated by Han culture. Jobs in the state-controlled media are stifling and dominated by a depiction of minorities that is superficial, condescending, and “for show.” At an official newspaper all the topics would be decided by the system, not me.[ii]” What’s interesting is that this interview was done back in 1991. Even then, many parts of ethnic minorities in China had been assimilated to Han culture.

Preservation of Yunnan’s culture was initiated by a man named Tian Feng. His noble action began with the goal of preserving ethnic minorities’ cultural heritage. The famous composer saw the importance of the vanishing music and dance of ethnic minorities in Yunnan in 1993 and set up a school, named Yunnan Institute for Minority Culture. But due to insufficient funding, the school had to be closed down, and Tian Feng passed away soon after the school closed. This action of Feng deeply impressed Yang Liping, by then a successful dancer. She decided to achieve Feng’s unaccomplished dream of preserving Yunnan’s ethnic music and dances in her own way: Dynamic Yunnan[iii].

Yang Liping spent two years traveling around Yunnan to master Yunnanese ethnic minorities’ music and dance. Yang Liping confessed that she grew extremely anxious during the trip. She realized how many of these special ethnic songs and dances will disappear when the only people who can play them, who are generally old, pass away without passing down the know-how to the next generation. She felt that she needs to systemically compile these heritages and bring them to the stage so that the world could see them, learn of them, and remember them.

Dynamic Yunnan was a huge success inside and outside of China. In China, Dynamic Yunnan won five major awards at the National Lotus Awards[iv]. Moreover, Dynamic Yunnan was invited to Broadway to play in November 2005 and it was widely reported on the New York Times and the Washington Post. At the end of each performance, the standing ovations lasted over ten minutes. Worldwide, the show was performed in over a dozen countries, making 2000 performances[v]. One fact is for sure: Yang Liping accomplished Feng’s dream: Yunnanese culture made strong impression across the world, leaving its mark in the history of performance culture worldwide.

Yang Liping did not stop with success of Dynamic Yunnan. She moved on to Tibetan culture in 2004 and created “Tibetan Mystery,” a performance that encompasses a huge chunk of essential Tibetan cultural heritage. The goal she wanted to achieve from Tibetan Mystery was mentioned in her interview with Xinhua News: “”Thanks to the change of living style and progress of human civilization, many primitive elements have disappeared or are disappearing on the stage. Years later these cultural marks will not be found any more, I really hope my performance could record a period of real life just like a living fossil.[vi]” This statement is in consistent with her description of herself: “I’m not a choreographer, but just a collector of folk dances.[vii]

 

Scene from Tibetan Mystery

A Scene from Tibetan Mystery

A Scene from Tibetan Mystery

A Scene from Tibetan Mystery

There is an introductory video of Tibetan Mystery by CCTV:

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The Statue of Buddha which Princess Wencheng Brought to Tibet

Tibetan Mystery is seriously impressive. This one show is a stylish, articulate, awe-aspiring summarization of Tibetan culture. The performance is comprised of four acts in total: 1) Pilgrimage, 2) Labor, 3) Pageantry, and 4) Samsara. Yang Liping covered every aspect of Tibetan life from unique yet basic Tibetan construction movement of “pounding mortar” to Tibetan ways of worshipping Tibetan Buddhism. Moreover, each act has a grave duty of describing Tibetan culture. Act 1: Pilgrimage is responsible for showing Tibet’s traditional instruments, music and dances. In the act, traditional dances such as prostration, the Stomp dance, the Fiddle dance, and the Gorchom dance with traditional instruments like Dranyen lute. The most significant part of act 1 is prostration, which is a way of Tibetans worshiping Buddha. Devoted Tibetan Buddhists literally bow their way to a statue of Buddha brought to Lhasa by Princess Wencheng while chanting Om Mani Padme Hum[viii], a chant that soothes one’s fear of suffering, punishment and an untimely death, as well as promote longevity and bring prosperity[ix]. Act 2: Labor is about work life of Tibetans. In the act, there are scenes of the Barley Harvest and Yak dance. Act 3: Costume shows a glimpse of Tibetan traditional way of living. It can be best described with the introductory paragraph on the performance book: “The Costume Festival: Tibetans have a saying, “My house is bundled on the back of my yak, and I wear my property on my body”. They yearly Costume Festival is the most resplendent festival for Tibetans as they wear brightly colored clothes, don the most precious jewelry and gather on the grassland for a costume contest. As a pastoralist people, the Tibetans tend to wear their wealth on their bodies, and the costume festival is a display and symbol of wealth.[x]” Act 4: Samsara describes the religious life of Tibetans. With these well-organized, systemic layout, Yang Liping successfully portrayed rich culture of Tibet with one performance with cutting-edge style and precise choreographs.

 

 

 

 

Tibetan Yak

Tibetan Yak

There are two important aspects of Tibetan Mystique that portray important parts of traditional Tibetan life and culture: 1) Yak dance and 2) her decision to incorporate Buddhism into the performance. According to the performance guidebook of Tibetan Mystique, “Yaks are ‘vehicles of the plateau,’ partner to Tibetan in life and work.” Tibetans grow up eating yak meat and butter and drinking yogurt made from yak milk. They burn yak manure as fuels and live under yak wool tents. To Tibetans, losing a Yak means losing life partner that provides fur and fuel, work partner that helps them in labors and an essential food source that help them survive. In Tibetan language, the Yak dance is called “yachang” and performed at important religious festivals and other events to bring good fortune[xi]. Yang Liping’s decision to add the Yak Dance to her performance is significant because it shows Tibetan’s lifestyle. By presenting significance of the Yak Dance and what yaks mean to Tibetans, Yang Liping immortalized this Tibetan way of life in the course of history. Moreover, Yang Liping added her own reinterpretation as a twist in the Yak dance – she made yaks to sing pop music, a metaphor for Yang Liping’s distress over the loss of traditional Tibetan culture[xii]. By making yak, the animal that has grave traditional significance to Tibetans both physically and symbolically, sing pop music, Yang Liping criticized even the most traditional heritage is being forgotten in the shade of pop culture.

 

 

 

The Exterior Shot of Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

The Exterior Shot of Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

The second aspect is Buddhism. In the Introductory video of Tibetan Mystic, there is a loop video with the same background music that goes, Om Mani Padme Hum, an important Buddhist chant. Throughout the video, the viewers can hear the song numerous times: the fact, which, I think, shows the significance of the theme of religion in the performance. Buddhism is an essential part of Tibetans’ lives. Prostration, which appears in the first act, shows how seriously Tibetans take Buddhism. This pilgrimage starts from one’s house. And one has to make to the Buddha’s statue in Jokhang Temple, Lhasa only by bowing. If one comes across a river, he/she has to measure the length of the river he/she crossed and have to make up for that length at the temple in Lhasa when he/she reaches there[xiii]. In the first act, Bodhisattva Tara appears. To faithful Tibetans, she is the spiritual “mother who on the path of life provides protection, guidance, and safe passage throughout one’s lifetime after which she accompanies one to the Western Paradise.[xiv]” And in the fourth act: Samsara, an important Buddhist idea of the cycle of rebirth is depicted. In the performance book, the fourth act was described as, “In this world weighed by ignorance and unrest, the dharma shines a reassuring and blissful light that ignites the brilliance of deeply awakened lives.[xv]” In the scene called “Release of Soul,” the old mother in the performance freezes to death while trying to save the goat. In this scene, The Taras dance thousand hands Tara and releases the woman’s soul. The next scene, which is called “Liberation of Soul,” the old woman appears again but her black clothes are turned into white clothes, symbolizing liberation of her soul. And in the last scene of the performance called “Beautiful Rebirth,” a young, beautiful girl appears on the stage with the goat that the woman was trying to save. The woman was reborn as the young, beautiful girl[xvi]. This concept of Bodhisattva, liberation of soul and rebirth are clearly Buddhist themes. And they carry huge significance because the part Buddhism takes in Tibetans’ lives is huge. By adding this theme of Tibetan Buddhism in her performance, Yang Liping allowed the world to recognize the importance of the theme and allowed it to be recorded in the history.

Another notable work of Yang Liping is Echoes of Shangri-la. Echoes of Shagri-la is sort of a sequel to Dynamic Yunnan. She did further research of Yunnan songs and dances and incorporated aspects of life of Yunnanese people that she could not include in Dynamic Yunnan. Echoes of Shangri-la’s main focus is music of ancestors of Yunnan. Inspired by how ancient Yunnanese people could turn every object in the nature into an instrument, Yang Liping created this Dance Drama that mixed her experience of creating Dynamic Yunnan and Yunnan’s unique instruments such as 2,500 years old drum or a huge bamboo flute[i]. Through this show, Yang Liping cemented cultural heritage of Yunnan in history even more strongly.

Yang Liping’s works are admirable. By creating Dynamic Yunnan and Tibetan Mystique, she advertised traditional music and folk dances of the ethnic minorities of those regions, which were being forgotten at a fast pace, across the world, and recorded those music and dance in history. However, there are other ethnic minorities’ music and dance that need to be saved in other regions of China.

The region that is populated with most numerous ethnic minorities behind Yunnan is Xinjiang area. Xinjiang, located at westernmost part of China, is home to Kazakh, Kirghiz, Tajik and Uygur ethnic minorities. Out of the four minorities groups, Kazakh, Kirghiz, and Tajik people are originally from Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, and Tajikistan, respectively. In other words, they are only minorities in China, and outside China they have their own country. Therefore, the traditions and cultural heritage of the three groups are relatively safe than the ones of Uyghur people. According to Wikipedia, the region with significant population of Uyghur is China with 10,019,758. The following region is Kazakhstan, with 223,100[xvii], very small number compared to China’s. To simply put, Uyghur people are minorities anywhere in this world.

Picture of How Uyghur People Play 12 Muqam

Picture of How Uyghur People Play 12 Muqam

Uyghur has a very rich cultural heritage. They have their own language called Uyghur language. Moreover, they have their own style of music called Muqam. According to Wikipedia, Muqam is described as, “the melody type used in music of Xinjiang, that is, a musical mode and set of melodic formulas used to guide improvisation and composition.[xviii]” It was further described, “The Muqam system developed among the Uyghur in northwest China and Central Asia over approximately the last 1500 years from the Arabic Maqamat modal system…[xix]” Uyghur has its own dance, as well. Called Sanam, is a popular folk dance widespread among the Uyghur people.  Uyghur people perform Sanam at weddings, festive occasions, and parties[xx].

The UNESCO evaluated the significance of Uyghur cultural heritage like this: “Throughout the history, the Xinjiang region has been marked by a high degree of cultural exchange between East and West, in particular due to its location on the hub of the Silk Road.[xxi]” The most popular Uyghur performance culture is Muqam. UNESCO described it as, “Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam is a composite of songs, dances, folk and classical music, and characterized by diversity of content, dance styles, musical morphology and instruments used.[xxii]

 

 

A video of Uyghur people performing 12 Muqam on stage:

Efforts to protect these priceless cultural heritages must be made soon. The first persecution of Uyghur cultures was done during the Cultural Revolution. In an academic paper titled “Uyghurs and Uyghur Identity,” the writer, Dolkun Kamberi, wrote, “The revolutionaries found that every aspect of culture in Uyghur-land was different from that of China. This included languages, writing system, arts, literatures… music, dance, songs, and thought, even the personal features of the people, including their clothes, style of house decoration, and food. All of these differences were attacked by the Chinese government in an attempt to change them.[xxiii]

A Building Being Demolished in Kasghar's Old City

A Building Being Demolished in Kasghar’s Old City

This forced assimilation still is ongoing. According to Radio Free Asia, The Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) is claiming that Chinese government is trying to forcefully assimilate Uyghur people into Chinese society by resettling Uyghur people in Ksahgar[xxiv]. UHRP director Alim Seytoff said, “The demolitions carried out by the Chinese government represent a lost of Uyghur culture and heritage, and the disappearance of living Uyghur communities. They also represent a loss to world culture and heritage. Once demolished, these unique communities are lost to the world forever.” UHRP also said, “The destruction of Uyghur neighborhoods has resulted in the loss of both physical structures, including Uyghur homes, shops and religious sites, and patterns of traditional Uyghur life that cannot be replicated in the new heavily-monitored apartment blocks where many have been forcibly relocated.“ According to the article, “the demolitions amount to ‘the comprehensive assimilation of Uyghur people into the fabric of broader Chinese society and culture.[xxv]

Even UNESCO is recognizing danger of fading away Uyghur music and dances. It was written, “Today, community festives such as meshrep and bezme in which everybody participates in the Muqam, are held much less frequently. The responsibility for passing on the tradition to new generations of practitioners has fallen almost exclusively on the shoulders of folk artists, and the interest of young people in Muqam is gradually declining. Today, several Muqam pieces are no longer performed…[xxvi]

In my opinion, the most effective way to save Uyghur cultural heritage is to do what Yang Liping has done to Yunnanese music and dances. Yang Liping’s way of collecting and putting together ethnic minorities’ music and dance to create a stylish performance was successful for two reasons: 1) beautiful performance and 2) economic success.

When Yunnan’s ethnic minorities’ dances and songs were scattered and performed only in a small-scale audience, such as village festival, they were far away from interesting or stylish. Only when Yang Liping, a top-level dancer, collected and organized the scattered songs and dances in a systemic manner, they could shine bright as one brilliant performance. And only in this manner can traditional ethnic dances grab modern audiences’ eyes that are accustomed to fancy modern pop culture.

The second reason is the economic success ethnic dances can bring to the performers. Yang Liping’s performances are known for drawing sellout crowds all over China[xxvii]. The reason why young people of Uyghur are become less and less interested in Muqam is because they cannot make a living out of it. If they know that they can secure economic stability by training and becoming masters at Muqam, the young people of Uyghur will naturally be interested in their ancestors’ cultural heritage.

The dances and songs of ethnic minorities in China are essential and invaluable elements in performing culture of China. By observing the responses Dynamic Yunnan gained during its performance in Beijing, it can be seen that there is immense potential in Chinese people’s interest toward performances of ethnic minorities’ cultures, as long as they are refined like Dynamic Yunnan. Everyone was impressed by the performance and used descriptive words, such as “wonderful,” “powerful,” and “beautiful” to describe the show in their interviews. One man said, “As I watched, sometimes the tears just flowed out of me.” This man had seen the performance twice when he was interviewed and he bought the expensive tickets again for his wife to watch the show with him. Even the Chinese TV presenter Zhang Zheng bought several tickets for the show and said, “I got a true feeling for Yunnan, for this art, for that certain spirit. That special charm.” These special interests will protect cultural heritage of Yunnan for a long time, allowing it to receive affection from all around the world and to survive for a long time. With special efforts of China’s or international artists, Uyghur’s cultural heritage could be saved and receive worldwide interest, just like Yunnan’s songs and dances were saved by Tian Feng and Yang Liping. When cultural heritages of ethnic minorities across whole China are fully saved and contribute to Chinese culture as a whole, performance culture of China will grow even deeper, richer, and even more valuable.


[1] Wikipedia. Cultural Revolution. Wikipedia.

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_Revolution>

[1] Tyson, Ann Scott. Recording China’s Vanishing Ethnic Minorities. The Christian Science Monitor. March 15, 1991

<http://www.csmonitor.com/1991/0315/zshen.html>

[1] Hilton, James. Introduction of Dynamic Yunnan. Youtube. June 6, 2013.

< http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01SCRGSdxTw>

[1] Wikipedia. Yang Liping. Wikipedia.

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yang_Liping>

[1] Introduction to Dynamic Yunnan

[1] Zhang, Mingyu. Famous dancer tells of “Tibetan Mystery.” Focus of Tibet. June 17, 2009

<http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-06/17/content_11553799.htm>

[1] Zhang, Mingyu. Famous dancer tells of “Tibetan Mystery.” Focus of Tibet. June 17, 2009

<http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-06/17/content_11553799.htm>

[1] Zhang Zhen. Tibetan Mystery Performance Book. pp.31

[1] Zhang Zhen. Tibetan Mystery Performance Book. pp. 136

[1] Zhang Zhen. Tibetan Mystery Performance Book. pp. 81

[1] Zhang Zhen. Tibetan Mystery Performance Book. pp. 72

[1] Zhang Zhen. Tibetan Mystery Performance Book. pp.73

[1] Zhang Zhen. Tibetan Mystery Performance Book. pp. 31

[1] Zhang Zhen. Tibetan Mystery Performance Book. pp. 50

[1] Zhang Zhen. Tibetan Mystery Performance Book. pp. 107

[1] Zhang Zhen. Tibetan Mystery Performance Book. pp. 126

[1] Echoes of Shangri-la Introductory Video.

[1] Wikipedia. Uyghur people. Wikipedia.

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uyghur_people>

[1] Wikipedia. Muqam. Wikipedia.

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muqam>

[1] Wikipedia. Uyghur people. Music. Wikipedia.

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uyghur_people#Music>

[1] Wikipedia. Sanam (dance). Wikipedia.

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanam_(dance)>

[1] UNESCO. “The Art of Uyghur Muqam of Xinjiang.” UNESCO. 2005.

< http://www.unesco.org/culture/intangible-heritage/10apa_uk.htm>

[1] UNESCO. “The Art of Uyghur Muqam of Xinjiang.” UNESCO. 2005.

< http://www.unesco.org/culture/intangible-heritage/10apa_uk.htm>

[1] Kamberi, Dolkun. “Uyghurs and Uyghur Identity.” Sino-Platonic Papers. University of Pennsylvania. May, 2005.

< http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp150_uyghurs.pdf>

[1] Vandenbrink, Rachel. Demolishing Uyghur Identity. Radio Free Asia. April 02, 2012

<http://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/kashgar-demolition-04022012181802.html>

[1] Vandenbrink, Rachel. Demolishing Uyghur Identity. Radio Free Asia. April 02, 2012

<http://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/kashgar-demolition-04022012181802.html>

[1] UNESCO. “The Art of Uyghur Muqam of Xinjiang.” UNESCO. 2005.

< http://www.unesco.org/culture/intangible-heritage/10apa_uk.htm>

[1] Wikipedia. Yang Liping. Wikipedia.

< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yang_Liping>