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On the Political Voice of Uyghur Poetry through the Gungga movement and Perhat Tursun’s Elegy

April 17, 2019
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Abstract: The political sensitivity of the region in turn propagates the popularity of political interpretations for literature from Xinjiang. When reading Uyghur poetry from the likes of Tahir Hamut, Perhat Tursun, or Ghojimuhemmed Muhemmed, it is difficult to divorce ones thinking from the political reality that defines everything in Xinjiang. Literature gives a lens to culture and reality, and concerning Uyghur Misty/ Gungga/ Menglong poets there are interesting viewpoints on the political value and implications of their works. This paper will seek to outline how the political intentions of these gungga poets are interpreted. An ethno-religious reading of these authors will be called into question while an argument for a political community consciousness of issues will be put forth. This will be mostly done through an analysis of various gungga works in this paper.

Keywords: Uyghur, poetry, Gungga movement, Elegy, and linguistics

I. Introduction

The political instability of the Uyghur situation within the People’s Republic of China is something that is front page news across the globe. The resource rich and vast territory of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is one that is crucial not only for the territorial integrity of the Chinese nation but a keystone for Chinese aspirations in the international field–especially with the New Silk Road initiative put forth by Xi Jinping in recent years. The wealth of this region is unevenly shared with dissatisfaction high among the Uyghurs of the region. The nationwide issues that spring forth from economic growth, modernization, and the control of the Communist Party are intensified in Xinjiang because of the volatile situation present. This results in the unwavering iron grip that the Chinese Communist Party exerts on the native populations of the province [1]. In the crusade to rid the region of “dangerous” elements, the Chinese Communist Party has recently sought to rid the province of “dangerous” people–the destruction of a people seems to be simply a means to an end for the pacification of Xinjiang under the Chinese Communist Party.

II. Thoughts on Poetic Interpretations

This paper will try to evaluate different interpretations of Uyghur poems, and Uyghur modern poetry in general, and the political lenses used to do so. Therefore, it is important to define “poetic interpretation” and “political significance.”

When it comes to poetic interpretation there is conflict on what is considered a “valid” assessment of aesthetics and message. While American literary critic E.D. Hirsch sees “the author's intention….is the ultimate determiner of meaning,” [2] there are viewpoints that are more pluralistic and relativistic. 20th Century German philosopher Martin Heidegger saw “the direct subjective experience of a work of art as essential to an individual's aesthetic interpretation” [2]. There is only one correct interpretation of a work and it coincides with the creator’s vision to the idea that everyone’s approach to art is different and each of those approaches are valid. These different schools of thought are important as the political nature of these misty Uyghur poems are very much up to the reader’s discretion.

This focus on the fluid nature of poetic interpretation is really emphasized here because of the fact that depending on where one lies on the spectrum, one’s take away from Modernist Uyghur poetry through a political lens really shifts. Also, this is mentioned as a disclaimer because who is right and who is wrong in their readings of poetry are really more or less up to interpretation.

Similar vagueness arises when the idea of what is “political” is considered. There is a language of vague analogies concerning the definition of political as the term seems to be all encompassing yet ever so specific and defined. Aristotle advanced the thesis that human beings are by nature political animals [3]. Going off this tangent, this paper therefore considers “political significance” to include the way people interact in the social realm. Aristotle’s viewpoint shows the tendency to fold the social into the political. Using this in modern contexts, the social spaces and community consciousness that literature creates will be considered political.

III. Usage of Sufi Allusions for the Creation of a New Identity

When it comes to the crossroads of what is “political” and the Uyghur gungga poets, Darren Byler of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington posits a fascinating view of a kind of pro-active modernist self-determination pursued by these avant-garde authors. Drawing from the Sufi-branch Islamic allusions and styles used by the authors Tahir Hamut and Perhat Tursun in some of their poems, Byler brings up how these poets are trying to redefine and give cultural capital to a novel modern image of Uyghur Identity [4].

Sufiism is the mystical cousin of more orthodox forms of Islam and was a school of religious thought that produced some of the most well-known minds of the Islamic World. Traditional Uyghur literature is highly intertwined with both Sufiism and the Persian language Sufiism was often communicated through [4]. The mystical nature of Sufiism allowed for more space for syncretic practices from other religions and therefore is also highly connected to folk culture in the Uyghur context, where Sufi saints form a core pillar of Uyghur folklore. Because Sufiism was centered on the individual and god, the Sufi literati across the Persianate world were relaxed concerning religious dogma and prescription–especially concerning alcohol.

Because of the moderate nature of the Sufi ideology and the high prestige it carries in Uyghur society, Byler argues that Perhat Tursun and Tahir Hamut reference the Sufi cultural legacy of Uyghur literature through appeals to Sufi figures and symbols as well as the Persian ghazal poetic form [4]. This is done in order to incorporate and render palatable poetry on the modern urban and rural Uyghur experience within the social context of Uyghur society [4].

All these modernist Sufi elements are very much present in the poem Elegy by Perhat Tursun. The repetition of the phrase “Do you know I am with you” as well as the referring back to the author in the last line are stylistic choices influenced from Persian ghazal meter [4], while the reference to the Chagatai poet Elishir Nawa’i is  direct reference to an important Sufi figure and his viewpoint.


“Your soul is the entire world.’ Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Among the corpses that froze in exodus over the icy

mountain pass, can you recognize me?

The brothers we asked to shelter us took our clothes.

Go by there even now and you will find our naked corpses.

When they force me to accept the massacre as love

Do you know that I am with you.

In those times when drinking wine was a graver sin than                                   

drinking blood, do you know the taste of the flour

ground in the blood-turned mill?

The wine that Elishir Nawa’i deliriously dreamed up was                             

modeled on the flavor of my blood.

In that infinitely mysterious drunkenness’s deepest levels

Do you know that I am with you” [10].


The Poem opens with a reference to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, openly evoking the Buddhist past of the Uyghurs before their conversion, while also highlighting the openness of the Sufi mindset. The intoxication of life is highlighted, and framed as something natural and native through the usage classical references [4]. Byler sees these messages as prescriptive pushes to promote a cosmopolitan Uyghur identity that marries the past and promotes spirituality but not necessarily religious dogma.

Modern Uyghur society had been under the influence of the Chinese Socialist Realist school of nationality for the past half century, and this had a significant impact on the literature and the ethnic mythology of the Uyghur people. The economic liberalization of the Deng years, along with the global rise of political Islam away from the Arab core of the Islamic world, has also offered another highly influential vision of Uyghur identity. This instability on what is a “Uyghur”, whether centered on ethno-nationalism within the Chinese family or reformist religiosity, is something that Byler claims the gungga poets are trying to solve by promoting a middle way with traditional a traditional Uyghur Sufi world view, between state mandated atheistic nationalism and foreign religious orthodoxy [4].

Byler puts forth the political nature of Uyghur poetry as something coherent, rooted, and yet not conservative. There is a strong argument that the gungga poets appeal to the Sufi past in order to justify the creation of a space where the Uyghurs are autonomous in their self-definition.

IV. Diversity of Uyghur Poetry and Politics

While all these poets are united in certain factors–they are more comfortable in Uyghur than Mandarin in nearly all fields, they draw heavily from the western tradition, they came of age during the years when Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were gaining momentum–all these factors are a result of the fact that they all hail from more or less the same generation. This fact brings up a reality that beyond the style of Gungga poetry, the inclusion of very contemporary subject matter, it is very hard to assign a political archetype that unites all the modernist Uyghur poets [6]. The unity of goals and motivations are assumed by Byler in his modernist Sufi readings of gungga poetry, which calls into question the wider applicability or even accuracy of his conclusions. The aligning of a literary style with politics or a worldview, might be a stretch.

In response to ideas published by Byler, Uyghur language specialist and translator Joshua Freeman of Harvard University is not convinced of the explicit political implications of Sufi allegory in gungga rhetoric–or any universal political message as a matter of fact.

Sufi imagery comes up occasionally in gungga poetry (e.g., in Perhat Tursun's Elegy), but it's not really a central theme in the genre. Some gungga poets do claim the Sufi poet Mashrab as a spiritual or poetic ancestor in a similar manner to the way Nawa’i was appealed to in Elegy, but by the same token these gungga poets would also claim poets “like Baudelaire or Pound as a poetic ancestor” [6]. There is a strong case for Freeman’s claim that “…Sufism is honestly a bit overemphasized in a lot of what has been written on Uyghur modernist poetry” [6]. It is arguable that when it comes to form, avant gardeness, and perspective, these modernist poets are as much students of Herman Hesse–who is quoted in the opening line of Elegy– or Franz Kafka as they are of Mashrab or Nawa’i–who is beckoned for in the closing line of Elegy.

While Byler reasons that there is a specific political motivation for the Sufi influences that are present in gungga poetry–the rendering of modern concepts into a form more familiar to the audience– Freeman again does not see the poets as having that focused of an agenda. Uyghur or not, it is hard to think of a catch-all answer to the question of why modernist poets sometimes use traditional forms:

“After all, "traditional" poetry is almost always among the influences of any modernist poet, and there's nothing preventing a modernist from drawing on those influences. In the case of Uyghur gungga poets in the 1980s and '90s, there was also sometimes an attempt to prove one's Uyghur bona fides by writing in traditional forms” [6].

Freeman pushes forth the idea that a Uyghur poet drawing on his roots, is not necessarily inherently a politically significant in the way Byler want it to be.

It should be of note that Byler draws his conclusions not out of thin air but from ground work in Xinjiang as an anthropologist. The political leanings that Byler highlights are very much present in Uyghur society. Freeman is not exactly negating the political message but the idea that it is gungga poetry that carries it. This becomes clearer when Freeman’s view point that there really is not any particular world view or political motivation that onw could generalize to gungga poets. A literary style does not overlap neatly with politics and worldviews:

“Much the same way that Auden was a liberal humanist, Eliot a conservative, and Pound a fascist sympathizer—yet all three were prominent anglophone modernists in the early to mid-twentieth century. Some (I'd say most) gungga poets are liberals, as that is defined in a Uyghur context, while others are religious conservatives. I'm not persuaded that gungga poets as a group are trying to put forward a new identity for Uyghurs, though of course individual poets and even groups of poets have their own ideas on identity, society, etc” [6].

While the modern Sufi vision of misty/gungga Uyghur poetry is possibly valid and fascinating, the defining of the political significance of these authors based on a supposed proactive prescriptivist world view is unsatisfactory.

V. Reality and Merit of Political Voice

The shaky territory on which the Sufi self-determinist lens of Uyghur poetry stands is obvious and this hesitancy extends to the idea of a unified drive for the creation of a new Uyghur identity. This, however, does not mean that Elegy by Tahir Hamut, or any of the other Uyghur gungga works, are not political. Going back to the socially intertwined idea of what constitutes the “political” derived from Aristotle mentioned earlier in this paper, the political lens of Uyghur poetry is still relevant and applicable–it just might not be Sufi modernist.

The political does not require poetry to be a tool for social activism–as it would be according to Byler’s Sufi analysis– but includes the creation of dialogue and a community consciousness of issues relevant to the community in question. This lens of a community consciousness of issues was used by reaserchers Rebecca A. Clotheya, Emmanuel F. Kokub, Erfan Erkina, and Husenjan Emata in an expansive survey of Uyghur language blog posts and literature published online. While this lens of analysis of Uyghur language works has not been used beyond the online world, the value of using this lens in the analysis and evaluation of political voice in Uyghur gungga literature is elucidating.

In Tahir Hamut’s Return to Kashgar the modernization and social change of his hometown is portrayed through a distinctly Uyghur point of view–a point of view tied to his memories of and membership in the community of old Kashgar. Because many of the misty poems communicate the daily lives and struggles of ordinary Uyghurs in the current landscape of Xinjiang, these poems are creating a social space of political consciousness and unity that is defined and adapted to the modern world. Even when poems are not fully explicitly set in the modern world, as in Ghojimuhemmed Muhemmed’s Chronicle of an Excecution, they provide an active critique of the society:

“The past that advances shouting Charge!

The odes sung by souls entering and leaving

to doors opening and doors closing

Distant graves approaching

Girls never seen twice and beds seen many times

Water in the blood, bread in the flesh, vows in the bone

A sword striking a head, a noose lain round a neck, bullets into the chest

And what comes before his eyes in the final breath

is a chain called homeland, an enemy called his people

And the beautiful life for which he longed    

is the flower garden he has laid waste”

The distinctly Uyghur point of view is not social activism or identity construction, but the communication of the reality of living in Uyghur society. The distance between the religious conservatism and mysticism of Uyghur society and the authors own life in this case is a vocalization of how the clash of old and new effects the normal Uyghur.

The gunnga modernist Uyghur poetry style expresses the idea of the authors and of society in general, it seems that the goal is not social activism or the overthrow of authority but the creation of a consciousness within the community of issues relevant to them [1]. Many of the gunnga poems address issues such as the Uyghur society and modernization, gentrification, urban isolation, and social shift. While these poems might not be trying to a new political Uyghur identity, they are inherently political because they are calling attention to relevant issues.

VI. Conclusion

In order for Uyghur poetry to have a political voice it is not necessary for it to have a coherent message or a political goal. The shifting of the analysis of political voice, in terms of poetry, from one focused on the supposed aimed goals to one that is focused on the sake of the voicing of experience is one that can be applied to the mists of gunnga poetry.

Misty poetry by its very nature is vague but not necessarily removed from the political. Considering the lengths the Chinese Communist Party has gone to rid the region of problematic individuals, the voicing of societal problems in poetry is a distinctly political action in Xinjiang among the Uyghurs. Misty poetry is a style that does not line up with world views and politics, and the diversity of the group makes it hard to point towards a coherent political narrative. Yet, the lack of political coherence of the style does not mean the works lack merit in political interpretation.  Gunnga poetry should not be viewed as a coherent movement of social activism, but as helping in the creation of community consciousness for relevant issues–an activity that is has become ever more dangerous over time.


[1] Clothey, Rebecca A., Emmanuel F. Koku, Erfan Erkin, and Husenjan Emat. "A Voice for the Voiceless: Online Social Activism in Uyghur Language Blogs and State Control of the Internet in China." Information, Communication & Society19, no. 6 (2015): 858-74. doi:10.1080/1369118x.2015.1061577.

[2] Thomson, Iain. "Heidegger's Aesthetics." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. February 04, 2010. Accessed December 9, 2018.

[3] Etzioni, Amitai. "What Is Political?" George Washington University.

[4] Byler, Darren. "Claiming the Mystical Self in New Modernist Uyghur Poetry." Contemporary Islam12, no. 2 (2018): 173-92. doi:10.1007/s11562-018-0413-2.

[5] Freeman, Joshua L. "Two Poems by Perhat Tursun: "Morning Feeling," "Elegy"." - Share Research. Accessed December 22, 2018.

[6] "" E-mail message to author.

[7] Muhemmed, Ghojimuhemmed. "Magazine." Words Without Borders. Accessed December 22, 2018.