Homesick for Yesterday: Images of Kashgar in the 1980s

These images (below) are currently been widely shared among Uyghur netizens on Weibo today. They have also been generating much nostalgic sentiment for what the netizens describe as the more ‘relaxed’ (qingsong) era of the 1980s. What exactly are they referring to?

Following the all-out attack on ethnic cultures and religions of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the late 1970s saw Beijing working to redress some of the wrongs done to ethnic minorities. A series of liberation policies were launched, aiming to create more autonomy and greater tolerance for cultural and religious expression in minority areas (Zang 2015, 148).

Across Xinjiang, these policies quickly began taking shape. Starting in 1980, the Xinjiang Islamic Association was re-established, Islamic schools (madrasas) were re-opened, and Uyghur-language education made more readily available in many parts of the region. In Kashgar, the administrative centre of southern Xinjiang, mosques were vigorously rebuilt, with the number of usable mosques rising from 392 in the late 1970s to 4,700 by the end of 1981 (Han 2013: 44-45).

However, with growing concern among officials about the widespread revival of Islam taking place, along with a wave of demonstrations in Urumqi and Yarkand in the late 1980s, as well as a major uprising in Baren (a small town in southwestern Xinjiang) in 1991, the relative tolerance that had characterised the 1980s soon came to a halt.

Throughout the 1990’s, Beijing continued its tight control over Xinjiang. The severe religious restrictions grew worse in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, with authorities announcing that they would intensify the “strike hard” campaign against “separatists and terrorists” with particular emphasis on punishing “illegal religious activities” (Bovingdon 2010: 71).

Coupled with this broader context of religious crackdown, Xinjiang’s cultural heritage has also come under attack. In 2009, as part of the its relentless modernisation drive, Beijing announced a $500 million “Kashgar Dangerous House Reform”. The program would see mosques, markets and centuries-old houses razed, leaving some 85% of the Old City destroyed. It is estimated that around 13,000 families will be relocated.

Nostalgia, writes Davis (1997: 420), “always occurs in the context of present fears, discontents, anxieties, or uncertainties, even though they may not be in the forefront of awareness”. In short, it’s not difficult to see why these old photos of Kashgar stir up rose-tinted memories of better times.

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Bovingdon, Gardner (2010) The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. New York: Columbia University Press.

Davis, Fred (1977) ‘Nostalgia, Identity and the Current Nostalgia Wave’, Journal of Popular Culture II, pp. 414-424.

Han, Enze (2013) Contestation and Adaptation: The Politics of National Identity in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Millward, James (2007) Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zang, Xiaowei (2015) Ethncity in China: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity.

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