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Traditional Culture Survived China's Tumultuous Century, But How Will it Fare in the Future?

The Instruments
By Anne-Laure Py

Oer the past century, China has experienced an inordinate share of political, social and economic upheaval, including the collapse of the Manchu dynasty, civil wars and the rise of Communist Party leadership. Amid all the changes, the various peoples of China experienced radical lifestyle changes. Although Xinjiang Province was far removed from the political tumult, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and members of other Turkic nationalities in region felt the social ripple effect of upheaval.

Perhaps the most dangerous era for traditional ways of life was the Cultural Revolution of 1965-76. During this era, all traditional music, crafts and beliefs were categorically banned, and their practitioners were in danger of arrest. Although its impact was less severe in Xinjiang than elsewhere, the Cultural Revolution nevertheless caused an almost irreparable break with the past for national minority groups.

In Xinjiang's northwestern region, traditional music and culture are making a comeback today. Masters have reemerged to share their knowledge with students and schools and are being built. Meanwhile, government associations pride themselves on safeguarding traditional cultures. Sadly, many old masters passed away before the reform years in the 1980s, a circumstance that has greatly complicated cultural revival efforts.

For more than two decades, Xinjiang's 1.2 million Kazakhs and almost 160,000 Kyrgyz have embraced traditional music as a central element in the revival. Kazakh-language television broadcasts, aired in Urumqi, provide almost daily concerts and shows featuring the dömbra, the traditional lute. Book and CD stores in downtown Urumqi sell the recordings and posters of dömbra and komuz masters, along with posters of Kazakh and Kyrgyz folk heroes and leaders. In Kazakh-dominated areas beyond urban centers, the dömbra is once again an anchor of community life, as is the komuz in Kyrgyz-majority towns and villages.

The recovery of musical traditions has not only helped Kazakhs improve the odds of their own cultural survival within China, of late it has also helped restore a long-lost bond with Kazakhs across the border in now independent Kazakhstan. The Kyrgyz community has also seen similar developments, although their exchange and contact with neighboring Kyrgyzstan remains relatively small -- a fact perhaps explained by the fact that Kyrgyzstan remains economically less attractive than resource-rich and fast-growing Kazakhstan.

While the political obstacles to cultural expressions are not as high as in the recent past, some preservationists remain concerned about the future of Kazakh and Kyrgyz traditions in Xinjiang. Sultan Gaze, a Kazakh ethnomusicologist from Yining, notes that "young people are interested in modern things." Given the spread of globalization, changing lifestyles and Xinjiang's rapid economic growth, traditional cultures now face different challenges. Sultan Gaze expressed fear that, despite the strides made since the 1980s, "traditional culture may [still] disappear."

Some ethnomusicologists such as Sabine Trebinjac have also noted that the revival itself, largely sustained and funded by the Chinese state and its network of song and dance troupes and cultural associations might also be significantly altering Xinjiang's musical traditions, infusing it with Han Chinese cultural influences.

Song and dance troupes are a central element in cultural revival efforts throughout China -- and in Xinjiang, they often prepare lavish concerts that are televised throughout the province and beyond. Concerts are designed to project a political purpose, demonstrating the Chinese government's proclaimed tolerance of minority groups, while subtly fostering a notion of a culturally unified mainland. As seen in Tekesi County's Cultural Association Kyrgyz Naruz concert, performances can come across as a caricature of local culture, made to fit the local government's political prerogatives -- that of showing a costumed, docile, central-government-loving and easy-to-understand minority culture.

As China tries to foster an image of a united nation, one in which there are at least 56 minority groups, Chinese officials are eager to demonstrate their attachment to diversity. In her dissertation "La Musique Comme Pouvoir," "Music as Power," Sabine Trebinjac notes that by incorporating the traditions of Xinjiang's local communities into China's larger cultural repertoire, the Chinese are also saying that these people are part of China, and their territory part of the Chinese landmass.

In some song and dance troupes, there remains substance behind the folklore. In the Altai County Song and Dance Troupe, for example, China's government funding enabled Kazakh ethnomusicologist, Habulade, to collect and record traditional music in the remote villages of Altai County in the early 1980s.

Habulade spent months visiting old masters, talking with them and recording their music. He has hundreds of hours of these recordings in his home -- waiting for someone with the time, money and technology to digitalize and publish them. He has also transcribed 300 songs, including 150 folk songs. Across his home are scattered endless pages of music, volumes of unpublished melodies and lyrics: his home is an encyclopedia of Altai's recent musical history.