Xinjiang has been in the news a lot recently, After a series of violent incidents earlier this year, attention has turned to the ways the Chinese government has been managing ethnic relations in the region, particularly between Uighur and Han. As noted in earlier posts, there has been considerable tension over government policies – such as those aimed at criminalizing certain Islamic practices – that, as viewed by Uighurs, are trying to eradicate their way of life and assimilate them to Han culture. The government has tacked back and forth between a hard-line approach to what it sees as a trend toward radicalized Islam (police raids on suspect houses, executions), and something more like a ‘soft-power’ approach focusing on gradually changing cultural practices and perceptions. In an earlier post, I commented on the likelihood that even the latter approach – which includes initiatives like Kashgar’s “Project Beauty” as well as banning certain kinds of dress on public transport – is driving the trend toward radicalization rather than ameliorating it.
These ‘soft-power’ approaches also involve tourism, the creative economy, and even the institution of intermarriage (the latter, as historian Emma Teng and anthropologist Melissa Brown have both observed in their studies of Han Chinese settlement in Taiwan, has been a long-standing Chinese approach to integrating rebellious frontier populations into the Chinese cultural realm). Tourism, as I have written in an article for the book Mapping Media in China (Routledge, 2012), is a fantastic myth-making machine, and is particularly useful for manufacturing myths of the nation. The tomb of the so-called ‘Fragrant Concubine’ is a case in point. As recently reported by Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times, busloads of Chinese tourists travel to Kashgar to visit the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum where lies a tomb “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.”
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.
The ‘Fragrant Concubine’ is just one of several women who play mythical roles in knitting together the multi-ethnic fabric of the Chinese nation along its contentious frontiers. They include Princess Wencheng, a 7th century semi-mythical figure typically credited in popular Chinese portrayals as having helped civilize Tibet after being married to a war-mongering Tibetan king; and Wang Zhaojun, who married a Mongolian prince to cement the friendship between the Han and Mongolian peoples. The story of Xiangfei is now being popularized in the same way, as a myth cementing through marriage the national ties between the Han and the Uighurs. In her case, of course, the gender roles are reversed. Instead of a civilizing agent, like Wencheng and Wang Zhaojun, Xiangfei is an exotic and sexualized seductress who remains a bit dangerous.
Some Uighurs find the invention of the Xiangfei myth offensive. As noted by Jacobs, “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.” Indeed, according to historians Graham Fuller and Jonathan Lipman (writing in the academic volume Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland), the Qianlong Emperor’s actual Muslim consort, whose palace name was Rongfei, is buried in the imperial graves near Beijing. So there appears to have been a deliberately strategic decision to transform the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum from site of Islamic to tourist pilgrimage by ensconcing the Xiangfei myth into the site. Jacobs continues, “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.” The Fragrant Concubine, in other words, has succeeded in secularizing and defanging a potent symbol of Uighur resistance to Han rule.
Now, the Xiangfei myth is also the subject of a Disney-style cartoon production called “Princess Fragrant” (天香公主). This is really no different from stories of other mythologized frontier women, like Pocahontas and Sacagawea, who have played similar roles in the creation myths of the United States. The New York Times reported that,
The plot of the series, which is expected to be broadcast in 15-minute-long episodes over two seasons, follows the adventures of Princess Fragrant, her brother and their ethnic Han and Kazakh friends as they travel across Xinjiang to rescue the princess’s father from the clutches of a greedy Western explorer. “It shows that ethnic unity is the most powerful weapon in the face of adversity,” said the director, Deng Jiangwei, in a telephone interview. “The princess and her friends also encounter other ethnicities and cultures along the Silk Road, and they learn that only by helping each other can you go far in life.”
The show, which is also aimed at boosting tourism in Xinjiang, is being produced by the Shenzhen Qianheng Cultural Communications Company. Here’s the trailer:
Half of the production team, according to the company, are Uighurs. But journalists and some scholars have been skeptical of whether the myth of Xiangfei can really reduce ethnic tensions in Xinjiang. James Leibold recently commented that
It’s hard to believe the cartoon will achieve its stated goal of “boosting cultural exchanges and understanding between Han and Uighur people.” The production team (mostly Han from Shenzhen, I recall) admit knowing little about the region and its people. As you know, ethnic tensions in Xinjiang are at their highest levels in decades, and many Uighurs feel under siege from an increasingly intrusive party-state, here perceived as both alien and Han, as it penetrates deeper into their daily lives. Like other “Han productions,” I suspect Xinjiang’s majority Uighur population will see right through this latest piece of “ethnic unity propaganda.” They have their own narratives of Iparhan, ones that stress resistance to Qing/Chinese imperial rule.
In fact, I find it highly ironic and revealing that Iparhan/Fragrant Princess has been drawn with a headscarf while local officials in Xinjiang are now promoting a scarf-less “standard” for traditional Uighur “beauty” (see here), banning Uighur women with the hijab from boarding buses in Karamay city and entering other public places, and even confiscating silk scarves and traditional hats from local markets in Urumqi (see here).
Last week, officials in Cherchen County, known as Qiemo in Mandarin, began offering payments of 10,000 renminbi a year, or $1,600, for five years to newly married couples in which one member is Han and the other is from one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities.
Most of the minorities in Cherchen/Qiemo are Uighur. “The couples will also get priority consideration for housing or government jobs, as well as other benefits. Their households will receive as much as $3,200 a year in health care benefits. The children of these mixed marriages will have free education from kindergarten through high school. Children attending vocational schools will receive almost $500 a year in tuition subsidies, and those attending university will get an annual tuition subsidy of $800.” Similar policies have been in place in regions of Tibet as well.
While intermarriage has long been popular between Han and some minority groups, particularly in the southwestern part of China, it remains very rare between Han and Uighurs. In Beijing, officials are seemingly hoping the Xiangfei myth will change that. Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’, they hope, will for many Han men, include an exotic, sexy Uighur woman and $3,200 a year in health care benefits.