The Making of a Musical Canon in Chinese Central Asia: The Uyghur Twelve Muqam

By Mackerras, Colin | The China Journal, July 2009 | Go to article overview

The Making of a Musical Canon in Chinese Central Asia: The Uyghur Twelve Muqam


Mackerras, Colin, The China Journal


The Making of a Musical Canon in Chinese Central Asia: The Uyghur Twelve Muqam, by Rachel Harris. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. xviii + 157 pp., + CD. £27.50 (hardcover).

This book is essentially a musicological, historical and social analysis of the Twelve Muqam, the series of suites that many Uyghurs regard as the acme of their traditional cultural achievements. Its central research question is how and when these suites entered the national musical canon of the Uyghurs, a Turkic people most of whom live in Xinjiang in northwest China.

Rachel Harris is developing a fine reputation for her work on the past and present music and culture of Xinjiang, and especially the Uyghurs. She has already published a book on the music and culture of the Xibes of northern Xinjiang, and several book chapters and scholarly articles on Uyghur music. This book will certainly add to her reputation.

The coverage is thorough and scholarly. It gives great insight into the suites and to Uyghur music in general. As Harris rightly points out, there are many traditions of this music, situated in a variety of Xinjiang's localities. There are also muqam traditions in other parts of Central Asia, as far as Iran. However, along with scholars like Nathan Light and James Millward, Harris is clear about the lack of significant Chinese influence on this tradition.

In its documentation, the book is excellent. It includes references to sources in Uyghur, English, Chinese and French. It is based on extensive and high-quality fieldwork, as well as a good deal of personal experience in the field of Uyghur music. For instance, the author not only knows numerous musicians well but also can play the dutar, the two-string long-necked lute, which is the most widespread of Uyghur musical instruments. Unfortunately, I have not had the pleasure of hearing her play, but I can say that her passion, deep musical understanding and close experience show through in her writing. The book also has quite a few pictures and musical texts. These add to its scholarly value, the pictures being well produced and showing themes and people that add to the interest of the text.

One of the central issues of this topic is Uyghur cultural survival. Harris' descriptions of her own fieldwork and experiences suggest to me that, though local traditions are weakening, the twelve Uygur muqam are very much alive. The extensive Han immigration has not diluted this significantly, and a few of the most important contributors to understanding of the muqam are themselves Han. One often hears how the Chinese are destroying Uyghur culture, but there is no evidence for it in this book.

There is a good deal of information and insight about the main performers of the muqam. One of them is Abdulla Mäjnun, on whom there is a whole chapter as well as numerous references in other chapters. He comes through not only as a brilliant musician but as an extremely colourful character, who has succeeded in annoying colleagues by his boorishness when drunk but is universally acknowledged for his brilliance as a performer and his work in maintaining and developing the tradition. …

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