MuWi Aktuell

Song and Dance and the Sonic Territorialization of Xinjiang

Prof. Rachel Harris

SOAS, University of London

May 19, 2021, 14:00


State projects of development and control can be described as processes of “territorialization” which involve the transformation of both physical landscapes and the subjectivities of the people who inhabit them. The concept helps to explain the relationship between the state and so-called “minority regions” of the Peoples Republic of China, and the current situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where a “Peoples War against Terror” has developed into a full-frontal assault on Uyghur culture and identity, massive securitization, and an estimated 1.8 million people incarcerated in extra-judicial internment camps.

I argue that sound is a crucial aspect of territorialization, and that the soundscape, like the landscape, is also a site of struggle. I develop the notion of “sonic territorialization” to explain the ways in which cultural development, state power, and the shaping of habitus are played out through sound. Tracing a thread from the 2014-15 government campaign that compelled Uyghurs across Xinjiang to take part in weekly singing and dancing sessions to “tackle Islamic extremism,” to the use of revolutionary songs within the internment camps since 2018, I show how coerced musical performance is used to discipline and transform Muslim bodies against a background of state terror.

The issues raised in this talk speak to wider currents of Islamophobia worldwide, as well as to the specific situation of “ethnic minority” peoples within China. Questions of gender run right through this situation, from the feminization of minority peoples through staged representations, to the widely reported instances of gendered violence against Uyghur women in the camps.

Prof. Rachel Harris

Rachel Harris is Professor of Ethnomusicology in the School of Arts at SOAS, University of London. Her research focuses on musical life in China's Muslim borderlands, religious and expressive culture among the Uyghurs, and cultural policy in China. She has co-edited several volumes including Gender in Chinese Music (2013), the music textbook Pieces of the Musical World (2015) and Theory and Practice in the music of the Islamic world (2017), and she is editor of the Routledge Series SOAS Studies in Music. Her new monograph Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam is published by Indiana University Press in November 2020, and an edited volume Ethnographies of Islam in China is out with Hawaii University Press in January 2021. She is currently working on a British Academy Sustainable Development Project to revitalize Uyghur cultural heritage in Kazakhstan.