In China, Myths of Social Cohesion 1 Favorite 



Aug 18 2014



KASHGAR, China — They come for the camel rides, the chance to dress up like a conquering Qing dynasty soldier or to take selfies in front of one of the most historic Islamic shrines in Xinjiang, the sprawling region in China’s far northwest.

But the busloads of Chinese tourists who converge on the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum each day are mostly interested in a single raised crypt amid the dozens of tombs ensconced under the shrine’s soaring 17th-century dome. It is the one said to belong to Iparhan, a Uighur imperial consort, who, according to legend, was so sweetly fragrant that she caught the attention of a Chinese emperor 2,700 miles away in Beijing — and was either invited to live with him or dragooned into the palace as a trophy of war.

“The love between her and the Qianlong emperor was so strong, after she died, he sent 120 men to escort her body back here for burial,” one guide explained, eliciting nods and knowing smiles from the crowd. “It was a journey that took three years.”

But with the group out of earshot, a local resident offered up a starkly different version, describing Iparhan as a tragic figure, little more than a sex slave who was murdered by the emperor’s mother after she repeatedly rejected Qianlong’s advances.

“The story that most Chinese know is completely made up,” said the man, an ethnic Uighur, who asked that his name be withheld for fear of angering the authorities. “The truth is she isn’t even buried here.”

In the six decades since coming to power, China’s Communist Party has devoted enormous resources to composing historical narratives that seek to legitimize its rule and obfuscate its failures. The disastrous famine that claimed millions of lives last century is said to have been caused by bad weather, not Mao’s misguided policies. Chinese history books often blame the United States for starting the Korean War, not the Communist troops from North Korea who, most historians agree, first invaded the South.

When it comes to China’s ethnic minorities, the party-run history machine is especially single-minded in its effort to promote story lines that portray Uighurs, Mongolians, Tibetans and other groups as contented members of an extended family whose traditional homelands have long been part of the Chinese nation.

Alternate narratives are far less cheery. They include tales of subjugation and repression amid government-backed efforts to dilute ethnic identity through the migration of members of China’s dominant group, the Han.

Chinese historians rarely veer from the officially sanctioned scripts; Uighur and Tibetan scholars who have insisted on writing about the disagreeable aspects of Communist rule have seen their books banned and their careers destroyed.

James A. Millward, a professor at Georgetown University who studies China’s ethnically diverse borderlands, said the drive to shape history, while not unique to China, was zealously practiced by each succeeding dynasty in an effort to malign an emperor’s predecessors and glorify his own rule.

But the Communists have also sought to use history as a tool against separatist aspirations and to legitimize their efforts to govern potentially restive populations.

“The ability to control historical narratives and airbrush out problematic truths is a powerful tool but it also reveals the party’s insecurity over certain aspects of the past it would rather the world forget,” Professor Millward said.

In Xinjiang, as Uighur resentment over Chinese rule boils over into increasing bloodshed, this propagandistic approach to history has taken on greater urgency. Over the past year, at least 200 people have been killed here, some of them Han murdered by what the government calls “terrorists,” but many of them Uighurs shot by security forces under murky circumstances.

At times like these, it would seem that Iparhan is just the salve that China needs. Although the story of Iparhan, known to the Chinese as Xiangfei, or Fragrant Concubine, was first popularized in the early 20th century, party-backed historians have made significant alterations. Most seek to turn her into a vehicle for conveying enduring amity between Han and Uighurs, whose Central Asian culture, Muslim faith and Turkic language set them apart from the Han.

Earlier versions of the story cast Xiangfei as a defiant beauty, captured by the Qing during battle, who kept daggers in her sleeve and remained chaste to the end, when she was either killed by palace eunuchs or forced to commit suicide.

But that narrative has been supplanted by a happy-ending tale of romance that celebrates the emperor’s efforts to win her affections by building a miniature Kashgari village outside her window in Beijing and showering her with the sweet melons and oleaster of her homeland.

These days, Xiangfei is the subject of poems, plays and television shows as well as the namesake of a chain of roast-chicken restaurants, a brand of sun-dried raisins and, not surprisingly, a line of perfumes.

Rian Thum, a professor of Uighur history at Loyola University New Orleans, said that in addition to suggesting longstanding affections between Han and Uighur, the mythicized Xiangfei served to reinforce the image of Uighur women as exotic, strong-willed and slightly dangerous. “The fact that Uighurs are sexualized and exoticized by so many Han Chinese makes the Xiangfei story very appealing,” he said.

Party propagandists have been especially drawn to female protagonists, often royal consorts, who were bit players in grand power struggles involving warring states on the fringes of the ancient Chinese empire.

In Inner Mongolia, the vast grasslands that form a buffer between China and Mongolia, it is Wang Zhaojun, a lovelorn Han dynasty consort who supposedly offered herself to a “barbarian” Mongolian prince to cement an alliance between the two peoples. In Tibet, it is Wencheng, a seventh-century Chinese princess who, according to popular lore, was a matrimonial peace gift to a bellicose Tibetan king.

To the consternation of many Tibetans, Princess Wencheng is frequently portrayed as having pacified Tibet and introduced from China advanced farming practices, weaving and even Buddhism and the Tibetan alphabet. Some historians question whether she even existed.

The story of Princess Wencheng is a familiar one to Chinese youngsters, and her persona has come to dominate Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in the form of an operatic extravaganza that, according to promotional materials, “celebrates the enduring friendship between the two peoples.”

Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer who saw the show soon after it opened last year, said she was troubled by the overriding message that painted the Tibetan people as savages who needed civilizing.

“We used to think the story of Princess Wencheng was cute, but she has become such an over-the-top work of propaganda that we can’t help but be offended,” Ms. Woeser said.

Many Uighurs also find the popularized story of Xiangfei galling, although their ire is often focused on the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum — a hallowed Sufi shrine and burial place for a clan that once ruled the Kashgar region — and its transformation into a prop for a Chinese fable. Archaeologists, they note, long ago identified the grave of a concubine named Xiangfei outside Beijing.

Some of the resentment also stems from the government’s decision to turn what was an important site for pilgrimages into a tourist attraction devoid of religious meaning. These days the site is managed by a Chinese company that charges an entry fee.

Professor Thum said the government had largely succeeded in shaping both Han and Uighur understandings of the shrine, especially its association with the rebellious Khojas, who fought off the Qing occupiers and established a short-lived independent state in the mid-19th century.

“To their credit,” he said, “the government took a symbol of Uighur resistance to Chinese rule and turned it into a vehicle for a message they want to get out.”
New York Times
AUG. 18, 2014

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