Book Review: The Art of Symbolic Resistance

Writing on the Uyghur people has not been lacking in recent months. An uptick of violence since 2013 in Xinjiang has seen an increase in analysis that sometimes reveals more about the author than the issue.

Nevertheless, this proliferation of commentary has raised some valuable questions about the roots of the current turmoil in China’s northwest. Theories mainly revolve around a last ditch resistance to intrusive and repressive state policies or the poisonous effects of Islamic extremism. Others have cast their nets further and claimed the violence stems from a struggle against colonialism, while the Chinese state media frequently, but not always, appears convinced the hand of foreign-inspired jihadism is to blame.

As is often the case with short form writing on contemporary events in Xinjiang, there is little information outside of official accounts and hearsay. This dearth of knowledge often requires the thorough analyst to pursue explanations in the books of researchers who have spent considerable time living in and studying Xinjiang. With the publication of Dr. Joanne Smith Finley’s The Art of Symbolic Resistance: Uyghur Identities and Uyghur-Han Relations in Contemporary Xinjiang, a new title should be added to the list of reference works necessary when commenting on the Uyghur people.

Smith Finley, a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Newcastle University in the UK, gathered ethnographic material during three fieldtrips to Xinjiang between 1995 and 2004, as well as in “virtual interviews” conducted between 2010 and 2012. As a result, and given the author’s fluency in Uyghur and Mandarin, the work offers readers a rarely compiled range of modern-day local perspectives. Smith Finley acknowledges the limitations of political sensitivities when conducting on-the-ground research in Xinjiang; but this should not detract from the insights she presents.

In short, The Art of Symbolic Resistance charts shifting forms of Uyghur defiance to the Chinese state and the growing discord between Uyghurs and Han since the 1990s. This is an important milepost in the history of modern Uyghur dissent, as the decade began with an outbreak of unrest in Baren near Kashgar.

Smith Finley describes how negative stereotyping between Han Chinese and Uyghur during the 1990s helps to explain subsequent forms of Uyghur resistance and spatial segregation. While some Uyghurs internalized negative Han stereotyping, rejecting those stereotypes also fostered a positive identity that served as a source for political aspirations, including independence from China, especially in the decade following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

One of the permissible outlets for coded Uyghur resistance in the tightening political environment of the 1990s was artistic expression. Smith Finley describes populist and intellectual responses to progressively frustrated Uyghur hopes through a comparative analysis of dutar musicians, Ömärjan Alim and Abdurehim Heyit. Furthermore, the author conducts an in-depth look at songs taken from Ömärjan Alim’s Qaldi Iz, which, if you lived in Xinjiang during the 1990s, provided a soundtrack to your time in the region.

Through this analysis, Smith Finley demonstrates how artistic expression leveraged ethno-national pride as a source of resistance, albeit in contrasting approaches. The populist celebrity of Ömärjan Alim and the lofty detachment of Abdurehim Heyit may have drawn admirers from different segments of the Uyghur population, but the artists shared a strong sense of Uyghur cultural and social identity.

The Chinese state’s violent suppression of unrest in the western city of Ghulja in 1997 ended hopes for true political autonomy and ushered in an era of Islamic renewal. The author says the rediscovery of religious belief and practice occurred at a time when Uyghur attentiveness to the world beyond Xinjiang was expanding. This chiefly occurred through new cross-border trade, study and pilgrimage opportunities and resulted in identification with Muslim oppression in other parts of the globe.

Smith Finley contends the Islamic renewal was a response to unsuccessful development policies and a channel through which the Uyghur nation could be spared from the assimilation into Chinese culture. The failure of the China’s Western Development Initiative to deliver the promised economic equity with eastern China and the personal transformation that occurs through religious piety were key drivers in the rediscovery of religion. Islam’s egalitarianism and the idea that reform begins from the individual also offered Uyghurs non-state solutions.

The chapters on Uyghur-Han intermarriage and minkaohan (minority students who receive their education in Mandarin) are among the most noteworthy in the book, particularly with a view toward the future. While it would be easy to characterize the rarity of intermarriage as a counterbalance to the growing number of Uyghurs who count Mandarin as their first language, the picture is more complicated. Intermarriage with the Han remains a substantial taboo among the Uyghur; however, Smith Finley records interviews with urbanized Uyghur youth who are willing to break it. She also discusses how those Uyghurs not fluent in Uyghur are taking up the language through relatives or by enrolling in classes.

It is here that Smith Finley proposes an atypical (at least for a non-Chinese government account) positive note for the outlook of the Uyghur. She deems it premature to sound the death knell for Uyghur culture and believes that a young generation conversant in multiple cultures is well positioned to protect Uyghur society in a globalized world. The hybrid identity of the minkaohan is complemented by exposure to music, fashion and media from South Asia, Central Asia, the Arab world and Turkey, as well as Europe and North America. Given an historical propensity for hybridity, the Uyghurs are well placed to absorb outside influences. The author also suggests that this mingling of cultures may represent the first tentative steps towards reconciliation with the Han and the prospect for Uyghurs to assess alternative development models elsewhere than China.

However, the challenges now facing Uyghurs are formidable. Discrimination has fostered a number of social and economic grievances among urban and rural Uyghurs. Curbs on Uyghurs peacefully expressing or resolving those grievances, notably in the cases of the economist Ilham Tohti and linguist Abduweli Ayup demonstrate diminishing tolerance among state officials in creating genuine and meaningful opportunities for Uyghur participation in problem solving.

Smith Finley’s writing is fluid, and the author constructs her arguments seamlessly between fieldwork conclusions and historical context. The Art of Symbolic Resistance does not take a long look at the 2009 unrest in Urumchi, which was a critical breakdown in trust between Uyghur and Han. Nonetheless, the book is a nuanced analysis of prevailing conditions in Xinjiang. Further value in The Art of Symbolic Resistance can be found in the richness of firsthand Uyghur accounts on who they think are and how they are perceived. Due to government restrictions on Uyghur free expression and curbs on researchers or journalists in the region, such information is precious to the outsider looking in.

Henryk Szadziewski is a Senior Researcher for the Uyghur Human Rights Project