The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Dispatch from Urumqi 2: Xinjiang Autonomous Museum

The Xinjiang Autonomous Museum focused on two things: Xinjiang’s history and its minorities. Unfortunately, the these two aspects of the region are kept completely separate from each other.

The Xinjiang Autonomous Museum is in a beautiful, newly renovated building with all the ingredients of a world class museum: impressive textiles, well-preserved mummies, and even a two thousand year old mooncake. But, the presentation of its wide-array of artifacts illustrated not just the Party line but also one of the ways minorities in China are disempowered by the presentation of an incomplete history.

The first exhibit to the left of the entrance is simply entitled, “The Minorities.” The exhibit is chocked full of beautiful textiles and hand-crafted instruments. Of course, the information about these groups is rather sparse. Even with new English translations, the only thing that comes across is that minorities really like to sing, dance, and wear colorful costumes. There are no words devoted to the history of the groups or dates on the pieces of art. Minorities in China, it seems, are completely ahistorical. Uighurs like to dance in circles, and Russians play the accordion—the way it has always been.

This is lack of history is further emphasized by the exhibit across the hall: “The History of Xinjiang.” In it, there is no discussion of minority ethnic groups, but the information placard does regularly include non sequiturs about how for over two thousand years Xinjiang has been an inexorable part of China. After all, there is a two thousand year old mooncake.

With this manipulation of history, it should be no surprise that many Han Chinese see Xinjiang’s minorities, in particular its Uighur population, as ungrateful. The PRC is pouring money in Xinjiang, and many Hans don’t understand what the minorities have to be unhappy about.

One Chinese tourist told me that Uighurs are “the blacks of China. He meant this in an extremely negative way—but perhaps unintentionally, he has a point. Some Americans, consciously or subconsciously, think of American blacks as being preternaturally attracted to music and dance. Some Americans even think of blacks as ungrateful for what America has given them. Some of this came out in veiled language during the Reverend Wright debacle.

The United States is getting better—Obamania is one example of increasing tolerance. One reason for this improvement is the reinsertion of black figures into the teaching of American history. Increasingly, African-American history is not placed in a separate exhibit focusing on their musical and kinesthetic prowess, but rather, it is included as part of American history. An understanding of the successes and failures of the Civil Rights movement or the Black Power movement is necessary to understanding current day activism in any field. Today, WEB Dubois is taught to every Columbia student right between Nietzsche and Freud—and, the philosophical disagreements between him and Marcus Garvey are still being played out in minority politics. To know history is to know that it—whatever “it” is—can be done and what methods have been used in the past. It’s to know where people have been wronged and done wrong, and how the residues of this still affect policy. It’s to know that people can bring about change.

In Xinjiang, however, these understandings don’t look likely across any wide section of the population. China’s smart to focus on controlling the presentation of its history. The PRC’s claim to Xinjiang rests on the idea that the region has always been part of China or at least since the first century BC. A knowledge of the role minorities groups and leaders have played through the millennia would surely undermine this notion. For China, it’s best to show minorities as friendly people who enjoy dancing and not to bring attention to Xinjiang’s history of actual autonomous control by people labeled as minorities.

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