2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 275

[ China and Inner Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]


Making 'Minzu': Music, Dance, and the Multi-Ethnic Chinese Nation

Organizer: Emily E. Wilcox, University of Michigan, USA

Discussant: Frederick Lau, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

Over the past decade, a number of historians and anthropologists studying ethnic (minzu) identity and politics in the People’s Republic of China have demonstrated in rigorous detail the constructed nature of China’s 56-ethnic group model and its constituent ethnic categories. Beginning with Katherine Palmer Kaup’s (2000) Creating the Zhuang: Ethnic Politics in China and Louisa Schein’s (2000) Minority Rules: The Miao and the Feminine in China’s Cultural Politics, following with Stevan Harrell’s (2001) Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China, and most recently with Thomas Mullaney’s (2010) Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China, these and a host of other scholars have taken the historical and cultural production of ethnic identity to be a central problem of modern Chinese studies. As each of these authors points out, music and dance are two of the most important arenas of cultural production in which ethnic identities and categories have been constructed, negotiated, and experienced in the PRC. Mullaney calls music and dance performance a type of “social engineering project” through which ethnic categories are made real in practice (2010: 134). Focusing on three ethnic minority groups -- Mongolian, Dai, and Uyghur -- the papers in this panel investigate the role of music and dance in the making and remaking of China’s multi-minzu nation, with a focus on the creative and sometimes controversial work of specific ethnic minority artists and their collaborators. Although building on the works discussed above (the title of the panel is inspired by a chapter title in Schein’s book), this panel utilizes the disciplinary tools and perspectives of ethnomusicology and dance studies to offer deeper analysis of particular music and dance forms as they relate to ethnic politics and social history. Ethnomusicologist Rachel Harris, author of Singing the Village: Music, Memory and Ritual among the Sibe of Xinjiang (2005) will serve as the panel discussant.

Embodying the Minority: Mongolian Dancer Siqintariha and Ethnic Identity in China
Emily E. Wilcox, University of Michigan, USA

Mongolian dance is one of China’s officially promoted five major minority ethnic dance styles, along with Uygur, Dai, Korean, and Tibetan dance. Since 1946, when leftist choreographer Wu Xiaobang (China’s “Father of New Dance”) created the dance works Mongolian Dance and Inner Mongolia People’s Trilogy, Mongolian dance has been ubiquitous in China’s state-sponsored celebrations and performance events. The symbolic significance of these and similar minority ethnic dances, such as those in the 1964 The East Is Red, is quite clear: by offering stereotyped images of members of ethnic minority groups, these dances reify hegemonic representations of minority ethnic identity while also promoting Party ideology of a unified and harmonious multi-ethnic nation. Much less understood are the actual creative processes through which minority ethnic dances came into form, including the role of ethnic minority artists in this process. One of the most highly influential creators and performers of Chinese ethnic minority dance is Siqintariha, a Mongolian woman born in 1932 who became China’s most recognized female icon of Mongolian dance. After performing in the works of Wu Xiaobang in the late 1940s, Siqintariha served as long-time choreographer and solo performer in the Inner Mongolia Song and Dance Troupe. Among her many creative innovations was the zhongwan wu dance style, in which female performers balance stacks of porcelain bowls on their heads. As a Communist Party member, as well as a role model commonly cited by critically-minded minority dance artists of later generations, Siqintariha embodies the complex relationship between ethnic minority art and state authority in socialist China.

Negotiating Chinese National Identity through Ethnic Minority Dance on the Global Stage: from Sprit of the Peacock to Dynamic of Yunnan
Ting-Ting Chang, National Taiwan University of the Arts, USA

Since the premiere of The East Is Red in 1964, Chinese government has used ethnic minority identities to promote its national identity.  Ten years after the Cultural Revolution, an ethnic minority Bai dancer Yang Liping explored and transformed traditional ethnic minority Dai dance elements to create her version of the Dai peacock dance.  Yang not only won the championship in the Second China National Dance Competition in 1986, but her dance also marked the transformation of ethnic Dai dance, embarking on a new journey as on-stage performing art.  Spirit of the Peacock has since been promoted by the Chinese government as Yang performed throughout the world.  In this paper, I talk about how the peacock dance is propagated through different time, space, and bodies.  Looking at Yang’s work, from Sprit of the Peacock to her recent production Dynamic of Yunnan in 2006, I examine how and why Yang use the various ethnic minority cultures in her new production, which also supports the idea of a unified Chinese national identity.  When Yang’s Dai peacock dance circulated from international stages back to local community, I discuss how the Yunnan government also seized the opportunity to jumpstart its economy by using Yang’s fame and charm to develop tourism with the promotion of diverse ethnic cultures.  Focusing on the local community in Yunnan, I discuss how this ethnic minority dance have been re-invented and re-created after it has traveled in the world.  I also argue how ethnic minority dances make the nation highly visible and that an imagined Chinese community has been built in the era of globalization through this specific dance practice.

Making Minzu Heritage in Xinjiang 
Elise M. Anderson, Indiana University, USA

Intangible Cultural Heritage is today a prevalent framework for the preservation and promotion of cultural traditions around the world, including in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over the past several years, cultural workers in the PRC have participated actively in the global discourse of intangible heritage, working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to promote numerous genres of music performance and material culture representative of the peoples within its borders. This paper draws from extensive reading of Uyghur-language sources and several months of fieldwork in Xinjiang in order to explore the role of intangible cultural heritage in creating a “minzu past” for the Uyghurs in contemporary China. I take as examples two Uyghur traditions that UNESCO has approved for its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in recent years: first, the On Ikki Muqam (Twelve Muqams), added to the list in 2005; and second, meshrep, a broad category for formalized social gatherings that include music, dance, poetry, games, and various forms of artistic expression, which UNESCO approved in November 2010. This paper shows the various ways in which various actors in the PRC, and particularly in Xinjiang, have adopted the language of intangible heritage in order to participate in both the international process of application to UNESCO and the local promotion of cultural tradition. My analysis demonstrates that the discourse of Intangible Cultural Heritage creates a framework for narrating a distinctively Uyghur past in which the arts played a central role.

Resignifying Minzu: The Tsuur Revival in Inner Mongolia
Charlotte D'Evelyn, Loyola Marymount University, USA

Over the past ten years, the Chinese term “yuanshengtai,” often translated as “original ecology,” has been promoted in the PRC by scholars, artists, the tourist industry and government-run media to refer to so-called “original” or “untouched” cultural forms. In Inner Mongolia, China, official and local representation of the Mongolian people has correspondingly moved toward an interest in yuanshengtai forms of culture, including music. In this paper, I highlight a single musical instrument, known in Inner Mongolia as the tsuur, that has played a crucial role in the negotiation and shaping of Mongolian identity in China in the past decade. A two-string, bowed instrument that is related to the more well-known morin khuur, the Inner Mongolian tsuur has been designated as part of an important yuanshengtai folk tradition and has experienced a substantial revival. While the tsuur’s whispery volume, rough timbre, and regional variation were once seen as markers of musical “backwardness,” musicians now see these as indicators of  a rich yuanshengtai heritage and a promising cultural future. The Chinese government has certainly been involved in this tsuur revival, however I argue that Mongolian individuals have actively and creatively resignified the tsuur into an icon of Inner Mongolian identity. In this paper, I contend that Mongolian musicians, instrument makers, and scholars uniquely orient themselves toward the tsuur as a means to challenge progress-oriented notions of modernity and to control representations and understandings of Mongolian ethnic culture in China.