above photo credits: Rian Thum
Gherip Senem is a movie produced by the Tengritagh Film Studio and written by Zunun Kadir. Watching the film was like stepping into some weird Orientalist fantasy on drugs – the tinny 80s sounds, the explosion of colours muffled by a blanket filter of 80s film quality, the dramatic makeup (particularly the teacher’s eyelashes – wow), and that dream sequence! A couple, dancing on clouds inside a kaleidoscope? Amazing. I’m not sure about the historical accuracy of the costumes, but they look great and I suppose an Uyghur/Han project would be different from the weird Oriental fetishizing seen in Western projects. So, considering I have no background in film, I looked to Dilber Thwaites’ thesis Zunun Kadir’s Ambiguity: The dilemma of a Uyghur writer under Chinese rule, where she has an extensive section on the film, opera, and script versions of this story.
From my understanding, Gherip Senem started as an opera written by Ziya Samedi, based on the classical Uyghur romance “Gherip and Senem”. A few years after the first opera was written, Kadir contributed two scenes to a re-staging of it in 1941. The plays were staged in Ghulja in 1936, then Urumqi, Aksu, Kashgar, Hoten and Kucha between 1939 and 1944. In 1945 it was banned by Chinese authorities and a number of those involved in the production were arrested or had to flee. The opera was reworked in the early 1950s. Kadir was exiled in 1962 as a “revisionist”, and at least two of his major works were destroyed at that time, including his dramatic version of “Gherip and Senem”. During Kadir’s exile, in the 1970s, Ali Azziz put together an opera based on Kadir’s work, then in 1981 Kadir and Azziz produced a movie script for “Gherip and Senem”.
(Samedi himself was a prolific author who would later write many stories that centred on the theme of anti-Chinese colonialism.)
Although the writers and actors were Uyghur, the production was Han so there are some key differences between the film and opera versions.
To read more analysis about Gherip Senem (including historical and political context) you can click this link and go to pages 142-180. I will include the first couple of sections here:
Gerip and Senem
Zunun’s work on this epic story is of special interest, because it exists in three forms that show various stages of development. The first form is an opera libretto, on which the film script is based. The second is the Chinese translation of the film script, which was published in a single volume together with the opera script in 1981. The third version is the actual transcription of the Uyghur language version of the film, which was made by the Tianshan Film Studio under the direction of Han production crew with Uyghur actors and assistant director. A translation of the opera version is provided in Appendix 3 [p 412]. Appendix 4 [p 464] is a table in which the differences between the film script and soundtrack transcript versions are noted in detail, whereas only the major differences are noted between the opera and the film. The major textual discussion focuses on the differences between the opera and the film, as these two treatments were made at different times in China’s political development of the early 1980s.
Origins and evolution of the opera
Some history of the story of Gerip and Senem is provided in the translator’s note. It refers to a 175-year old story as a major source “as well as other sources”. Thus, some of Zunun’s contribution to the work is unacknowledged. In the article “Remembering Artist Friends” Zunun states that in 1945 he added two scenes to a dramatic musical version of “Gerip and Senem” that had been staged in the 1930s by the Uyghur Cultural Development Organisation’s Arts Committee. Separately, Zunun says in his oral memoir: “In 1963 my five-act, seven-scene drama of Gerip and Senem… was destroyed”. The published script that is discussed here gives credit only to Ali Azziz, with the acknowledgement that he “used previous material”. According to Zunun’s wife Zileyhan, the script attributed to Ali Azziz was in fact based on Zunun’s earlier work. The current opera script was published in 1980, following Zunun’s return from exile. Although we cannot identify clearly what parts of the opera were Zunun’s individual work, his involvement is strong enough to justify considering it in this thesis. The final film script is attributed to both Ali Azziz and Zunun Kadir.
King Abbas has agreed to betroth his daughter Senem to Gerip, the son of his trusted Vezir Hessen. However, his military chief Shawazi and his wife want their own unworthy son Abdullah to marry the King’s daughter. Shawazi plots to have Hessen assassinated, after which the King goes back on his promise and dissolves the betrothal. As Gerip and Senem love each other, Abdullah plots to separate them, and Gerip is sent into exile, leaving Senem grieving. Shawazi’s faction gains strength at the court, and Gerip becomes the focus of hope for other honourable officials who are exiled or imprisoned. They join with the rebellious Mountain People, and eventually return to rescue Senem from a forced marriage to Abdullah. The King is forced to accept the marriage of Gerip and Senem.
The story of Gerip and Senem has developed to contain considerably more than just a simple love story. In introducing his Chinese translation, the Han writer Zhang Shirong of the Xinjiang Writers’ Association says that it symbolizes feudal relationships between Islamic rulers and their subjects under the Abassi Empire – a conventional CCP-based view of this type of writing. However, for those who know how to interpret it, the story has other meanings. In conversations with a number of Uyghur scholars during this study, it was almost unanimously said that such stories have layers that the reader must understand for himself. As noted in Chapter 2, in his own article “Concerning Spiritual Nourishment”, Zunun said that “Love may include higher love: love of one’s country, one’s people…” My reading of “Gerip and Senem” is based on understanding of the way such material may be read by a Uyghur audience, with the love between the central characters symbolizing “higher” kinds of love. The story has many threads, but three of these are most important as social and political comment that is usually presented indirectly:
- East Turkistan culture and its relation to Central Asian and Middle Eastern culture;
- the power relation of China as a whole to East Turkistan, and Chinese views of Xinjiang; and
- the relationship of Uyghur people in East Turkistan to Chinese rule, and their means of self-preservation.
I identify these key threads separately, even though they are sometimes interwoven in the narrative and their evidence is often deliberately obscure. In considering these different narrative threads, I will also note the changes that were made between the opera libretto and the film script, and between the published script and the released film as transcribed from the sound-track. This analysis indicates the assertion of Uyghur identity tends to be more overt in the opera, whereas the film versions of the story, where there are differences, lean more towards imagery and references that support the incorporation of Xinjiang into China. There can be two reasons for this: the time difference between the publication of the opera and the publication of the film spans a period during which political supervision of literary activity was being tightened up throughout China (as mentioned earlier in this chapter); and in addition, the opera was produced only in Uyghur for a Uyghur audience, whereas the film was dubbed into Chinese and therefore would potentially be seen by an audience throughout China. However, there are instances where the film seems to have included elements that favour the Uyghur point of view. It would appear that, in the negotiation process between the Uyghur and Han members of the production team, there was some scope for the Uyghur writers (principally Zunun himself) to argue on cultural grounds for the inclusion of material, the political significance of which would not be evident to the Han officials.
Do check out the rest of the analysis, because she goes in-depth on the different characters, themes, styles, some artistic choices, etc and it’s quite incredible. That being said, the movie itself is fun to watch on a surface level as a visual spectacle and a short version of an old folk tale, and the actors are great!