To Be, Or Not To Be – A Question of Identity

I just got back from a talk by a PhD student at Swansea University. She was talking on the subject of Uighurs (pronounced wee-gers—finally I learn how to pronounce it!), and their subjugation in China. They are not officially acknowledged by the Chinese government. (Although the People’s Republic of China (PRC) does not recognize ethnicity, as a rule.)

It was fascinating because a lot of the thesis, although it was principally concerned with abstract concepts of ‘securitization theory‘ (the point of which, frankly, I have never really understood), was concerned with the notion of Chinese Uighur identity. The thesis is particularly interested in the representations of identity within the diaspora. It is apparently difficult to establish a true identity for Uighurs. They define themselves mostly by what they are not, as opposed to what they are.

In the Q&A after the talk, the point was raised about the importance of a collected history in establishing an identity. Apparently, throughout Chinese history, the dynasties have, as a matter of course, destroyed the historical documents of the previous dynasty, and rewritten the history to place the current dynasty in the best possible light. This means that there is very little written history in existence about ancient China.

The Uighur have little to draw on in terms of history, then. So I made the point that, Uighurs defining themselves by what they are not, rather than what they are, is similar to the American approach to identity formation. There are few defining characteristics of American people. The culture might be defined in grandiose terms with words like freedom, equality, opportunity. (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” anyone?) But ask an American what an American is and, in my experience at least, you are likely to get something diametric.

    In the early twentieth century, it was American not Bolshevik.
    In the 1910s-1920s it was American not ‘European’ (later refined to not German (more precisely ‘the Hun’)).
    In the 1930s and early 1940s, it was American not Communist.

And so on.

Now, you’re American not a terrorist.

So Americans and Uighurs have little collective history from which to draw their identities. A Norwegian in the group pointed out that Norwegian identity was very much based on the Vikings, and Valhalla. I added something about British identity being loosely concerned with the Tudors and such. Point being, by and large, European cultures and societies have deeply rooted and strong identities, formed out of a sense of being; as opposed to non-being.

A Little Orientalism

The Uighurs have staged four major protests in recent years. One in 1990, and three more recently still. The first three were not covered by Western media, because the Chinese banned reportage. The most recent protest, in 2009, was the first that Western journalist were allowed to cover.

However, the event was stage-managed. The journalists were shepherded from a hotel, onto a bus, and were being taken to the ‘site’ of the protests. What happened next was that “a group of 100 or so Uighurs came round the corner” and a picture was taken. This picture:

Image from

This was held up by Western media as representative of the ‘type’ of people protesting—i.e. “Muslims”. (The Uighurs are predominantly Muslim. In fact that is one of their key ‘outward’ defining traits, which is to say: a trait that is not reliant on others.)

The speaker suggested, however, that in her discussions with Uighurs, both ex-pats in the diaspora, and officials in the region, that another picture represented, to the Uighur themselves, the ‘type’ of people in the protest. That was this picture:

Image from The Jakarta Post

This picture clearly shows a young woman who, from her dress, one would be hard pressed not to consider ‘Western’. And this is the picture with which the Uighur predominantly tend to relate. To me, as a student of Afghanistan, and learning more about Pashtunwali, some of the precepts of which are entirely alien to Western thought, I was struck by the West’s continuing inability to assess the feelings of other nations.

Perhaps that’s going to come across as a little harsh on “the West” (check me out, getting all Sam Huntington up in here (and a little Gsgbf over there!)). What I mean is, it’s difficult to envision a wider ‘spreading of democracy’ when ‘we’ get simple things like the portrayal of the people of other nations so wrong. In this instance, the Uighur woman in the first picture does little more than perpetuate stereotypes (or worse, create false ideas) about foreign groups, which Outsiders then carry forward. Really, the picture we should be painting is one of the progressiveness of the young Uighur woman. Someone who represents to the Uighur a collective identity, which is something they have been denied by history. In the words of one Uighur official, “Save our Identity.”