Rachel Harris (SOAS, University of London)
Uyghur woman in Urumchi wearing ‘Arab-style dress’ (courtesy of Aziz Isa)
The Uyghur area of Ürümchi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, has undergone a striking transformation over the past few years. It is visibly, and contentiously, marked by women’s choice of dress: numerous young women can now be seen on the street fully covered in what is locally known as the “Arab style” of loose black robes and the niqab facial veil. Most restaurants have stopped selling alcohol where before Uyghur men sat openly drinking strong Chinese liquor. The changes in the soundscape are also striking. Stalls on the street openly sell books to teach the basics of daily prayers and Qur’anic recitation, alongside Islamic talismans and charms. Recorded nasheed religious songs, some sung in Arabic or English, can be heard from many of the restaurants, and on Friday at noon, the sound of the sermon from the mosque, never previously audible, is carried by loudspeakers out into the surrounding streets. The garden of the mosque is crowded with men praying. On the pavement outside, boys sell prayer mats and surreptitiously show to interested customers an array of underground religious Video CDs (VCDs).
These kinds of religious media have been a frequent target of police campaigns over the past two decades, but in spite of, or perhaps in part because of the fierce restrictions, new forms of Islamic ideology have been disseminated within Uyghur society since at least the late 1980s, and since 2009 appear to have achieved a tipping point. In autumn 2013 we saw news reports of a new crackdown on jihadi propaganda online:
“Xinjiang police were investigating 256 people for spreading “destabilising rumours” online, the Xinjiang Daily newspaper said. Of those, 139 spread rumours about jihad, or Muslim holy war, or other religious ideas. More than 100 had been detained.” (http://euronews.com report: ‘China: Police target online jihad talk amid rumour crackdown’)
In order to better understand the nature of specifically religious internet rumours that circulate in Uyghur cyberspace, and the way they relate to the wider social changes occurring in Uyghur society, I argue that we need to trace the ways in which particular media items circulate, and the discourse which accrues around them, and the new structures of feeling that they inculcate in Uyghur society. This paper presents one example: the case of the Snake-Monkey-Woman.
In summer 2012 an online video was circulating. In the village where I was conducting fieldwork girls and women were frightened. The nine year old daughter of our host family refused to go to the toilet (which lay at the end of the garden) at night in case the “snake woman” fell on her from the tree branches. Her mother asked me if such monsters really exist. The meaning of the video was variously interpreted by people we knew in the locality, but the dominant story emerged thus:
These were the remains of a wealthy Ürümchi business woman who was fond of parties and dancing. Her husband sent her on the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) three times but she wouldn’t give up her bad habits. One night she came home late. Her husband asked, “What have you been doing?” She said, “I have been dancing like a snake and jumping like a monkey”. The next morning he woke up to find his wife had been transformed into a snake-monkey-woman. He had a heart attack and died. They took the thing to the main mosque in the regional capital Ürümchi, and it stayed there for several days until the government came and killed it by lethal injection.
Further layers of interpretation quickly accrued around this video across various media platforms. Even before the video made a stir in our village, Uyghur netizens in Ürümchi were already posting online articles denouncing the snake woman as a “fake miracle”. Some net-savvy individuals soon discovered that the video had originated in Malaysia in 2010 where a “snake with a human head” had been displayed for money as a form of freak show, not in any way linked to religious ideologies. It had subsequently circulated Chinese online forums, and even been the subject of a TV documentary. Posts on Uyghur websites condemned the “evil heart” of the person who had manipulated this video, added the “horror” soundtrack, and reposted it on Uyghur sites with intent to “shame Islam”. They also lamented the naivety of the Uyghurs who believed it.
By mid-August the regional government was sufficiently alarmed to issue a news item, which was aired on local TV stations, saying that the story of the snake-monkey woman was fake. They said it was produced by the dissident exile organisation, the World Uyghur Congress in order to incite religious extremism and separatism. Uyghur netizens, on the other hand, hinted darkly that the video was actually produced by Chinese government agents who wanted to promote superstition amongst the Uyghurs in order to better control them.
Religious VCDs circulating in Xinjiang (courtesy of Aziz Isa)
I argue that we need to listen beyond this level of textual debate. We need to listen attentively to the noisy, messy, orally transmitted world of rumours. We also need to pay attention to the way that the video operates ‘beyond text’ with its combination of shocking image and ‘horror’ sound track. With its digitally manipulated, looped animal cries, this soundtrack employs familiar techniques of sound in horror films: using extreme frequency to connote an unknown threat, distorting familiar sounds to create a sense of unease. This is combined with the video images of the Malaysian freakshow: two disparate items, free floating on the world-wide web, neither with any direct relationship to Islam. Only through the rumours which accrue around them does any religious meaning become attached.
Its appearance in rural Uyghur society represents an attempt to inculcate ethical behaviour in viewers through fear of God’s punishment, and especially to discipline women by threatening the dangers of “un-Islamic” bodily practices such as dancing. It might be said that it links to very traditional Uyghur expressions of faith: the common phrase ‘men khodadin qoqaymen’ (I fear God). Yet this is a product of modernity, indeed post-modernity. Like much of the religious media consumed by Uyghur villagers, it exemplifies the processes of decontextualization and abstraction often remarked upon in discussions of the global flows of digitally mediated productions.
We must be clear that this video, like the vast majority of the numerous religious media items currently circulating, is promoting neither jihad nor separatism. They are consistent exercises in a form of religious ideology which draw on eschatological themes of suffering, death, judgement and fear of God in order in to promote the virtues of a pious lifestyle: modesty and obedience for women; abstinence from alcohol and gambling, and family responsibility for men. I suggest that state anxieties about these media can be better understood because they promote ways of being which are alien to, and deeply antithetical to, the state modernising project.