Scholars Reflect on Legacy of Uyghur Folklore Research Founder, Now in Detention

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Abdukerim Rahman in an undated photo
Abdukerim Rahman in an undated photo
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“I consider Abdukerim Rahman an outstanding folklorist, the best in his generation.”

These words, written in an email to RFA’s Uyghur Service by Dr. Ildikó Bellér-Hann of the Department of Cross-cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen, may in fact be an understatement.

Rahman, born 1941 in Kashgar, is considered by many to be the founder of Uyghur Folklore studies. He had an impressive career of more than 50 years at Xinjiang University and as a loyal member of the Communist Party, was often celebrated by the Chinese government for his academic contributions.

Many Uyghurs were shocked when in January 2018, he and other literature professors were detained by the government.

Last month an RFA source confirmed that he had been punished for being “two-faced”—a term applied by the government to Uyghur cadres who pay lip service to Communist Party rule, but secretly chafe against state policies repressing members of their ethnic group.

Following the news of his incarceration, two members of the academic community wrote to RFA to reflect on his career.

“[Rahman] put down the foundations of modern Uyghur folklore and ethnographic research in Xinjiang in the reform period,” Bellér-Hann wrote. “His books, especially Uyghur Folklore, have served as constant reference book for all my research on Uyghur ethnography from the mid-1990s to the present day.”

She reflected on meeting him in 1996, “I visited him in his home at Xinjiang University and he and his wife received me with customary Uyghur hospitality.  We had a long conversation about my research plans and interests.” She added, “I was struck by his kindness, patience and generosity with which he answered my (often naïve) questions, gave me invaluable advice and shared his vast knowledge.”

“I owe him for his initial personal encouragement and also the knowledge I gained from his publications,” Bellér-Hann continued.

“He has trained a number of young Uyghur students many of whom went on to become leading authorities in the Uyghur ethnography and related fields,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ablet Semet, a research fellow at the Institute of Central Euro-Asian languages and culture of Gottingen University, and the Director of the Eurasia-Silk-Road Business & Culture GmbH in Berlin, Germany, in a separate email wrote “Professor Abdukerim Rahman is the founder of Uyghur folklore research.”

“[He] is the first Uyghur social scientist who had spearheaded the collection, collation, and comparison of Uyghur history, religions, culture, art and performance, oral literature, handcrafts and unique-style of buildings over decades of hard work,” Semet added.

“He had completely devoted himself in researching and explaining the crucial elements forming the core of Uyghur national identity. As a result, he has been very well-known and widely respected not only by the Uyghur people but by prominent scholars in the world who have been interested and researching the Uyghur folklore.”

Semet also praised Rahman for being inclusive and open.

“Rahman had also guided and trained both Uyghur and foreign students and scholars alike in researching the rich history of Uyghur folklore.”

Abdukerim Rahman began studying literature at Xinjiang University in 1959, then worked for the school until 2011.

Though much of his early fieldwork was lost during the Cultural Revolution, starting in 1979 he began leading students on their own fieldwork projects and helped them to publish their notes.

From then, he made countless contributions to Uyghur studies through his academic career. He started a graduate program in Xinjiang Minority Literature, mentored or advised more than 40 masters and PhD candidates, and was a founder of Xinjiang University’s folklore museum, donating much of his work to the museum’s collection.

Rahman had been a member of the Chinese Communist Party for over 50 years, but that did not spare him from the latest ideological and ethnic crackdown by the party.

Chinese authorities have in recent years campaigned against and punished what they call “two-faced” Uyghur cadres, accusing local ethnic officials of paying lip service to Communist Party rule in the XUAR, while secretly chafing against state policies repressing members of their ethnic group.

Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in political re-education camps throughout the XUAR, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.

Western governments have increasingly drawn attention to re-education camps in the XUAR in recent months as media reports detail the stories of Uyghurs who have been detained in the facilities.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert recently said the U.S. government was "deeply troubled" by the crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, adding that “credible reports indicate that individuals sent by Chinese authorities to detention centers since April 2017 number at least in the hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions.”

Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, has said that some 1.1 million people are or have been detained in the re-education camps, which equates to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region.

Reported by Eset Sulayman for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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