Culture Tuesdays: How The Uyghurs Dance by Dr. Kankana Debnath

How The Uyghurs Dance  

Folk Dance Practices of China’s Xiajing Province

by Dr. Kankana Debnath

The northwestern part of China is geographically characterized by tundras and undulating plateaus. This remote area is the residential location of the Uyghurs, a small ethnic Muslim minority population. At present, it is the province of Xinjiang, which is predominated by Uyghurs.

How the Uyghurs came to reside there is subjected to several historical versions. The Chinese historians are of the opinion that the Uyghurs migrated from the Altai Mountains to greater Mongolia, and the Tarim Basin. In order to survive competition from the rival Central Asian ethnic forces, the Uyghurs left their original homelands. They dominated as administrative servants under the Mongol Empire. From there they came to Xinjiang in the 9th century replacing the dominant local Han Chinese who had controlled Xinjiang since the Han dynasty. However, according to commonly accepted history, the modern Uyghur population has migrated and culturally intermixed from different parts of Central Asia and Turkey. Hence, the Uyghur culture is the result of several intermixing and influences including local tribal, Turkic and Mongolian cultures that have elements of nomadism and sedentarism, pre-Islamic, Sufi, and Muslim spiritual traditions.

However, Uyghurs are a lot different from orthodox Muslim people culturally. They love to sing and dance in a heterogeneous manner, they are lot more accepting in intermixing of traditions and culture; the women don’t cover their faces with hijab and can perform publicly, etc. As such, let’s look at the unique and vivid Uyghur traditional dance practices called the Kachung Senem and Meshrephs.   

The Kachung Senem Dance

The Uyghur people have excellent dancing skills. Also known as sanam or sainaimu in Chinese this ethnic dance is widely performed during weddings, parties and festivals. It’s a folk dance where a lively music accompanies the moves that are performed by increased pace that are started slowly and become faster gradually. The dance however varies from region to region with slight modifications according the local culture.

The Senem Dance of the Uyghurs

Characterized by head and wrist movements accompanied by a typical titled head posture, the coordination of the dance with music is quite tricky because it should be done with a shivering knee movement all along to express the ambience of the occasion. The dance can be drawn to be somewhat similar to belly dance from the Middle Eastern cultures. The dancers are free to improvise with the tempo of the music within the basic dance style.

As mentioned earlier, the Senem dance varies with the region’s dialect, natural surroundings, historical backgrounds and local culture. There are differences between rural and urban performances as well. Southern Xinjiang Senem in Kashi, a small place in Southern Xinjiang, has refined movements whereas senem in Ili, a place in Northern Xinjiang, is known for its bold body moves, comic touches in expressions and abrupt stops in between. The senem in Qumul, an Eastern Xinjiang province has tempo with 5/8 beats with sedate steps and the dancer holds the hands, clenching the fists above their heads.

Tembur (top) and rawap (bottom)

The instruments played in senem dance are tembur, rawap, duttar (plucked string musical instruments like guitar) along with satar (stringed instrument played with a bow) and dup (tambourine type instrument with a drum head). Both men and women can perform this dance publicly.

Duttar

Meshreps

This type of dance is primarily a male bonding event. A group of men gather in a courtyard or a common place where they play Muqam (a popular Uyghur folk music previously mentioned) melodies and perform dances with whirling circular moves. It also accompanies songs and acted out comedic skits and recitation of lectures from religious leaders.

However, there is a darker side to this noble pastime. Sometimes a meshrep is a sort of moral court, where the behavior of male members of the community is reviewed, and criticized, usually in a humorous way through mockery, jokes, and non-violent imitation of physical punishment. Generally speaking, however, the meshrep is a time for entertainment and sometimes they can last the whole night. The number of people range from about 30-100 people. Women and children are welcomed as audiences while the men participate in the dance. In the city of Ghulja, west of Xinjiang province, the meshreps took up political tones expressing the ethnic discontent which led some of them to be banned and rest were carefully scrutinized by the Chinese government in the year 1995. Since then a considerable portion of Uyghurs migrated to Kazakhstan where it is freely practiced. 

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Words and Illustrations – Dr. Kankana Debnath
Dr. Kankana is a doctorate from the Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, JNU. An aspiring climate change policy analyst, she practices art (watercolor painting, pencil sketch) as a hobby. She describes it as a kind of soul-food.

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