Frontiering the Chinese “West”: a Closer Look

(N.B. This post elaborates on a portion of the preceding essay about China’s problems with defining borders and border-supporting macro-policies. That essay includes a section on “The West”, or rather the East-West corridor running from E. Inner Mongolia to Qinghai. But in trying to finish it up, I realized that the peculiar problems of the Uighur Nationality in Xinjiang and the struggle with/against desert encroachment were too complex for treatment within that one essay. This post revisits those issues in deeper focus, with a concentration (to the extent feasible) on the mix of often cross-contradictory policies and results for Xinjiang alone.)


The unifying characteristic of border control policy in the “West” (as defined above) and especially in Xinjiang is the state’s unbreakable attachment to economic autarky. In seeming defiance of the rules of economic growth/modernization, PRC economic plans for the northwest as a whole remain loyal to the idea of self-sufficiency at least in the core nutrition matrix of rice-wheat-maize. Unlike, say, the key SE coastal provinces, where frontier access has translated into a furious pace of division of labor and SEZ based, exports-driven urbanization — and thus declines of food self-sufficiency that leave such provinces (Fujian, Huangdong, and Zhejiang) open to actual or threatened blockade or harassment (worst of all from within)– Xinjiang’s PLA-influenced (-led?) overlords have refused to let the logic of diversification and trade interfere with a paternalistically phrased commitment to dietary self-sufficiency. The stipulated norm in fact for all the 5 “northwest” provinces is 400 kg/pc/pa, or (in terms of the three major non-/minimally traded cereals – rice, wheat, and maize – 800-1,000 cal/per day/per person. It is as if the inhabitants – because largely non-Chinese or religiously “heterodox” – cannot be entrusted with freedom of crop choice. As “children” they would (and indeed once did, per opium-poppy planting) sooner or later fall prey to the modern day equivalent of the tulip mania of 18th century Holland, which, once deploded, would leave them starving, not to mention beggared. But also – and here is a better reason, because the semi-tabooed issue of desert expansion and sand drift do indeed increasingly threaten surface transport – both road and rail – and thus demand that trade economics exploit pipelines (over which food cannot move) rather than the modern day equivalent of caravan transport.

The Hillside Tujia/Miao Lady Takes a Bandit Husband Rich from Growing Opium (Honest!)

Back again to the opium traffic and CCP history. (The subject will never lose interest….)

Surely one of the (since covered over) conduits for Yenan 120th Division Gen. He Long’s interest in opium production and sale (see previous…) is his birth-connection with Northwestern Hunan’s tujia minority in Sangzhi county.

As the below attests, and the referenced documentary confirms, montagnard “minorities” in the Hunan hill country where He Long grew up take poppy-growing and marketing quite casually. They seem habituated to low dosage levels of consumption (one pipe per day), limited to older men (the younger ones seem to be aware of the danger of debilitation, a hazard in an environment where blood feuds and armed resistance to authority is a way of life – one summarized by the Chinese grabbag phrase “tufei” – or “bandits with roots in the local hills”.

“In Guzhang County in the (N) West Hunan Tujia/Miao Minority AR, there is a picture-perfect village atop the hills called Li Family Cave, within which is Zhang Family Mound. It hasn’t lost its primitive innocence/simplicity of manners. [But] every traveller who shows up is, besides being shown the scenery, always taken off with great curiosity to meet an oldster, a lady [named Yang Binglian} known as the “last bandit-wife in China”. ….{her husband] Zhang Ping some time ago discovered [in this spot] a “plot perfect for opium-poppies”. He used the opium to trade for rifle(s), and then retailed the weapons at a handsome mark-up to the peasants [ordinary folks]. He window-dressed his weapons as so-called “Self-defense guns”, and stipulated that every household must buy one, or else…. The petty exactions [that accompanied all of this] were infinite: a tax on land, a poll tax, a harvest tax, a warehousing tax, a rifle cartrudge tax, and a fortification [earthworks-building] tax. There was a behind-his-back saying thereabouts: “If Heaven sees Zhang Ping, neither the sun nor the moon shall shine; If Earth, then the grass and trees will not grow; if Humans, only one in ten shall survive the sight.” But Ms. Yang swears she never saw him kill anyone. ”


Below: a Nearby Tujia settlement today:

2013012517043522810Guzhang village

The Haya Epiphany: Making (pan) Mongol into “World” Sound

Vocal crossings over the Steppe and Desert

It is almost a no-brainer: when and where different borderland musical dialects from China’s (and Kazakhstan’s) rimlands intersect and co-breed, there is bound to be a Mongol(ic) or Tibetan harmonic presence. Both song (balladsong) traditions engage a drone in the lower register; both carry the salient melody line slowly up to a peak, established by a cresting natural warbling or vibrato (related to falsetto); and both take the sound back down to the drone-note(s) with intensity slowly giving way to a kind of glottal sedation – the excitement of the hi-range keening falls away to bring natural harmonics (open 4th and 5ths) back out into the foreground.

The only important differences are in augmentation: Mongol song often (but not always) uses back-throat natural oversinging (it sounds like Jews Harp strum because that’s what it is), while Tibetan does not; and Mongol balladeers rely always a good deal on instrumental (poly-i) support – on the natural overharmonics of the norinhuur, the famed 2-string “horsehead fiddle”, an instrument uniquely able to perform drone AND instrumental warble between natural pitches at the same time.

So: there is a lot more than Buddhism in common, though that turns out to be important too.

Where these two cognate traditions part company with those of their other neighbors is in the degree to which rhythm in and of itself is foregrounded as a special or “3rd” line in the spooling out of the musical flow. A Kazakh-Moslem influence beyond a doubt. The whole range of percussion dialogue so elegantly worked into Hindu-Kazakh-Uighur (hereafter HKU) performance (the Maqam being of course the supreme embellishment of rhythm as a colinear of harmony and melody) is more than a happenstance or accident. Nothing like this happens in the steppe-herder musicking of the Tibetan plateaux or Mongol prairies. (TM). (The use of tiny cymbals – damaru- etc in Tibetan prayer-chant does not justify the label of rhythm building, since nothing or no one responds to changes in their velocity).

The physical and functional reason for the strength and ingenuity of Pulse in the HKU culture-strip and its omission in the MT order of things has of course to do with the development or suppression of both the feminine and the terpsichoric. Female hip- arm, and finger-dance, whether of shamanic or court-display origin (the two are often entangled) is an essential part of the history of Kazakh-Muslim performance, and seems to have been so at least as far back as Moghul times and the correlative (affinal) Persian court culture that it shared (generated) . Rajas and (Muslim/Persian Moghul) khans were devotees of court spectacle and relied on its elaboration to establish diplomatic hierarchy and work the rituals of hospitality. (Ditto of course for the Theravadan spin off of East Hindu court performances in SE Asia).

Flight Internal: Yang Liping and Ethnic Primitive

What Mo Yan (the “Faulkner” of the post Mao art world) and Yang Liping (in her own way a kind of Diaghilev+ Ruth St. Denis of the post-Mao dance world) have in common is considerable, though I know of no critic who has taken up this matter.

There is at first glimpse no reason to suspect any cross-identity. There is no record of the two having ever met or exchanged letters. Mo Yan’s genre is associated with Magical Realism and Carnival – both of which have cross-border valence. (The critic should be able to “read” him with no instruction, only translation). Yang Liping with a more or less self-invented notion of primitive purism (retreat into pre-literacy), which has no such thing, or at least nearly so, since it is a form almost of cultural anthropology devoid of text or conclusion.

The commonality lies in a similarity of pursuit: pursuit of a middle ground (better: means of “flight”, escape, or transcendence) between or over the commodified/ying world of global art (via multinational and mainly Hong Kong based film) on the one hand and the now delegitimized, unrecoverable world of the “17 years” (1949-66) when state-studio-film (and kindred) art was still self-consciously innovative and spoke with and to the soul, albeit a collective one (which it now underbudgeted no longer does though there are still projects…)


The Legend of Ashima and its Cinematic Translation

Can Legend-as-Genre be Saved, and can Film Help?

Legend (as a oral-narrative story “about” greater-than-life humans) and its cousin, myth (which makes divinities the center of the tale), are two interrelated genres which share a common attribute, or rather problem. In aftermath of declericization and rationalism’s indictment of superstition, and call for the substitution of so-called realism, their episteme and hence their appeal to a “secular” public has shrunk away, to the point where even the articulating of religio-instructive episodes has had to solicit revivalist frenzy in support of obedience. A retreat perhaps to the shamanic kernel of all legends, but nonetheless a setback in terms of stature in the world of art(s).

For public (“mass-consumed”) secular storying, especially in cinema, this demotion of the miraculous and of immortal heroism has consigned the telling and showing very largely into a form of special effects. To see Sindbad or Jason or even Ulysses and Luke Skywalker in action, you must be able to tolerate techno-legerdemain – an extension of Disneyan cartoon-film into stop-action and CGI – or actually be impressed by it in isolo -so much so that the true enthrallment, the rhapsodic state within which symbolic meanings can speak, is discarded, unattainable. (viz the Thirteenth Man, Fast Runner, and many more). The burden has thus fallen to opera (as earlier to oratorio) to thus entrance and speak, using music as the subaltern hypnotic tool.

But of course opera is an elite, small-audience mode of entertainment, even with the Toll Brothers’s clever Closed Circuit simulcasting of recent years.

But though art cinema of course has the potential to widen this appeal: and indeed runs a close second to opera seria in its concern to show/tell myth/legend in one form or another, it has tended to cling to historical melodrama – a bastard hybrid of supposed realism with inflation of putative greatness of character: it is not “sung” or otherwise enthralling- but comes close usually to hagiography, which is NOT what we are considering. Founder-hero stories or films about Jesus are subject to the test of credibility no matter their grand stature within the surrounding culture. Legends, in my sense, are not and cannot be.

And of course such tributes to Great Men demand in the telling that place, time, and even outcome be known or signalled. This is not the diction of legending, which of course demands a “once upon a time” “in a far off land unnamed” bookending, and refuses to be harnessed to any kind of posterior legitimizing.

Borderland Legend, Carnival Fetes and Cinematic Opera


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Re-Scoring Musical Drama: Opera as Film (“filmed opera”) vs Opera inside Film – a Problematic Intersection of Genres One does not usually associate “opera” with film, nor ask what the options are when any given “operatic” work is proposed as … Continue reading

Deng Xiaoping’s Unexpected Orientalist Iconography


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The Orientalist Trope for Deng’s kaifang diplomacy. Grand Public Entertainments where monarchs and courts preside have historically featured Dance + Food/flowers + Song as pivot-points of the Display, no where more so than when Guests from Afar (emissaries) are (amongst) … Continue reading