Zunun Kadir’s Ambiguity: The dilemma of a Uyghur writer under Chinese rule

Thwaites, D. (2011). Zunun Kadir’s Ambiguity: The dilemma of a Uyghur writer under Chinese rule. [Link] [PDF]


This thesis considers the work of the influential Uyghur writer Zunun Kadir (1912-1989), and through it charts some aspects of Uyghur identity and aspiration, while explaining the background of his work in relation to the culture and history of the Uyghur people of East Turkistan (Xinjiang). Growing up in a poor and conservative family under Chinese rule, Zunun developed a commitment to nationalism and socialism in the belief that these would serve as the best basis for the advancement of the Uyghur people. In middle age he witnessed the absorption of the East Turkistan Republic into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) established by the Chinese Communist Party, and he adapted himself to work under that government. This involved accepting a political agenda that called upon him to support a unified greater China to the detriment of Uyghur national interests. This situation presented Zunun Kadir with an enduring dilemma: how to resist the cultural domination of the Han Chinese and maintain the distinct cultural identity of the Uyghur people, while ensuring his freedom to write and publish in an environment controlled by the CCP. In the volatile political environment of the PRC, this balance could not be maintained indefinitely and Zunun was eventually subjected to official criticism and sent to the Tarim desert to undergo labour reform. After 17 years of exile he was rehabilitated in the Deng Xiaoping era, and he returned to Urumqi to resume his career as a Uyghur writer. His later work indicates a degree of disillusionment and caution, but also shows how he reconciled his choices by balancing his idealism with the reality of his environment. The use of ambiguous language and imagery allowed Zunun Kadir to pass the political scrutiny required of a publishing author in the PRC, and at the same time to offer different layers of meaning to his Uyghur-reading audience through cultural and historical references to Uyghur life.


This paper includes the English translations of many songs and poems, and the appendices has the translations of Ghunchem (play), Gherip & Senem (opera), Hessen (story), On the Journey (story), The Road in Quest of Knowledge (story), The Bahkshi Woman (story), folktales “Hizir Peygamber” and “Buhem” from the story “Grandma Perizhan” and “Leelshah”, and two of Zunun’s Fables (The Chick and the Magpie, The Drain and the Nightingale). There are also some translations of Zunun’s poetry as the author analyses his poetic forms and styles.


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