Illustration for The China Project by Alex Santafé

For World Poetry Day, we present three Uyghur poems (two of which are translated here for the first time into English) that tell stories of continuity and struggle: “Song of Nuzugum” by Tursun'ay Huseyin, “My Body is a Leaf” by Turghun Almas, and “Unending Song” by Téyipjan Éliyov.

The Chinese colonizers that have oppressed the people of East Turkestan on every side have turned to a ​​new​ method in their policy of colonizing the people of East Turkestan. Not satisfied with merely​ oppressing us politically, economically, and socially, they have ​started a movement​​ to completely eliminate our nation’s ethnic composition, to assimilate our race, and to completely erase our name from history.

—From A General History of the Uyghurs, volume 7, by historian Nabijan Tursun

The above quotation sounds like part of the contemporary discourse around the Chinese government’s full-scale campaign of mass incarceration and assimilation carried out against Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, instigated in 2016. However, the actual source of the line is an article written in the late 1940s by a Uyghur author justifying the 1944 revolution that launched the short-lived Second East Turkestan Republic. While most Westerners may have been shocked when news of reeducation camps and forced labor hit the international press around 2017, reading literary works in Uyghur from the second half of the 20th century reveals a continuity of experience and expression from past to present. In that light, the current situation feels like less of a sudden, unexpected campaign and more of a new step in a long-standing program.

To commemorate this year’s World Poetry Day, I present here three of my translations of poems by Uyghur literary figures from a generation ago, whose themes show the continuity of the Uyghur experience of political repression and cultural violence across the 20th century right up to the present.

“My Body is a Leaf” comes from the pen of Turghun Almas (1924-2001), a staunch Uyghur nationalist from Kashgar who experienced the force of both the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) and Communist administrations. He served two prison terms near the end of the Nationalist era (1943-46 and 1947-49), and after the CCP took power in 1949 he was sentenced to hard labor in 1959 and served another short prison term in the late ’60s as the Cultural Revolution ravaged the country. His three works on Uyghur history, written in the late ’80s, were banned by the government and landed him in house arrest until his death in 2001 (see Dilber Thwaites’s 2001 dissertation for more information on Turghun Almas and other Uyghur writers).

My Body is a Leaf

My body is a leaf; it quivered, then it ceased.
My heart, it is in pain; its beat is not at peace.
Oh, my dearest love, I saw your tender years,
Saw your circumstance, in suffering and tears.

Treading ever slow, I came of age: fifteen.
Hanging o’er the sky, terror weighed down hard.
Enemy unknown, I thought he was my friend,
An element so cruel broke to bits my heart.

Wake! Awake, my love! your enemies are fierce,
Though you don’t awake, these times will bring you tears.
Yellowed out and thin, like chaff my face appears.
Now I’ve gone my way; you linger lonely here.
Oh my precious dear, darling love of mine!
Now I’ve gone my way; please linger safe, secure.

—Turghun Almas (trans. Michael Fiddler)

تەنلىرىم ياپراق
تۇرغۇن ئالماس

تەنلىرىم ياپراق، تىترەپ توگتىدى.
يۈرەكەم دەرتلىك، ئەركىن سوقمىدى.
چۈنكى ئەي يارىم سېنىڭ ھالىڭنى،
كۆردۈم پىغاندا غۇنچە چاغىڭنى.

ئاستىلاپ بېسىپ، ئون بەشكە كىردىم،
يەنىمۇ دەخشەت باستى پەلەكنى.
دۈشمەننى بىلمەي، دوستۇم دەپ يۈرۈپ،
بىر زالىم ئۇنسۇر ئەزدى يۈرەكنى.

ئ‍ۇيغان ئەي يارىم، رەقىپلەر يامان،
گەر ئويغانمىساڭ يىغلا تۇر زامان.
مېنىڭ چىرايىم سارغايدى سامان،
ئەمدى مەن كەتتىم، سەن قالدىڭ تامام،
قەدىرلىك يارىم سۆيگەن ئامرىقىم،
ئەمدى مەن كەتتىم، سەن قالغىن ئامان.

In “My Body is a Leaf,” the speaker addresses a “love” for whom he has great concern. He has seen her suffering in her tender years, refers to an event of betrayal by a supposed friend, and indicates his fear for her future. Though he shows the wear of his own suffering (“Yellowed out and thin, like chaff my face appears”) and seems unable to help her directly, he sounds a call for her to wake up and escape the danger, and closes with a wish for her well-being. Turghun Almas is likely speaking symbolically to the Uyghur nation, personified as a lover. The line “Hanging o’er the sky, terror weighed down hard” resounds against today’s background of surveillance and fear of arbitrary imprisonment, which threatens literary figures and common people alike.

“Song of Nuzugum” by Tursun’ay Huseyin alludes to a much older story of love, danger, and tragedy. Nuzugum is a heroine of Uyghur legend whose story supposedly took place during an episode of conflict in the 1820s between Uyghurs in Kashgar and the occupying Manchu forces of the Qing Dynasty. After the Uyghur forces are defeated, she is taken away by the Manchus to the region of Ili, near the border between modern-day China and Kazakhstan, and given as a bride to a foreigner (either a Manchu official or a Solon man, depending on the version of the story). Rather than suffer the loss of her chastity and the shame of a forced marriage, she kills her husband-to-be on their wedding night and flees into the wilderness. In some versions, she is reunited briefly with a Uyghur sweetheart in a cave, but she is eventually tracked down and captured and executed, or killed when her pursuers set fire to the reeds around her hiding place.

The Nuzugum story is a staple of the Uyghur literary canon. The first written version appeared in 1882, but it has been retold in various versions throughout the 20th century in fiction, poetry, drama, film, and song. Uyghur writers in China and Soviet republics alike have reimagined the story; notable references include a 1983 novella by Memtimin Hoshur and a 2004 poem by Nurmemet Yasin (English translation here by Aziz Isa Elkun).

Song of Nuzugum

On your journey up to Ilixu
were they fatigued, your delicate feet?
Companions, once so numerous,
left behind in the desert heat?

As you raised your head for freedom’s sake
Were your arms bound up instead?
In that dark furnace of barbarism
Was your tender heart scorched red?

And was your hair left flowing loose,
Uncombed for half a year?
Was it you who made the flowering reeds
blaze red, with your blood and tears?

My sister Nuzuk’ay, let me
brush out your hair, my dear!
In the gentle rays of the sun, let me
wipe away your tears!

—Tursun’ay Huseyin (trans. Michael Fiddler)

نۇزۇگۇم قوشىقى
تۇرسۇنئاي ھۇسەيىن

ئىلىخۇغا كەلگۇچە
نازۇك پۇتۇڭ تالدىمۇ؟
دەشتى چۆلدە ساناقسىز
ھەمرالىرىڭ قالدىمۇ؟

ئەرك ئۈچۈن قەد كىرىپ
باغلاندىمۇ بىلىكىڭ؟
ئوچېقىدا زۇلمەتنىڭ
داغلاندىمۇ يۈرىكىڭ؟

تاغاق كۆرمەي ئ‍التە ئاي
چۇۋۇلدىمۇ چاچلىرىڭ؟
چېچىكىنى قومۇشنىڭ
قىزارتتىمۇ قان-يېشىك؟

ئامراق ھەدەم نۇزۇك ئاي،
تاراپ قۇياي چېچىڭنى!
نۇرلىرىدا قۇياشنىڭ
سۇرتۇپ قوياي يېۋىڭنى!

Tursun’ay Huseyin, the author of “Song of Nuzugum,” was born in Kashgar in 1944. She worked as a literature teacher and wrote both poetry and fiction. Publishing much of her work in the 1980s, she was active in the Uyghur literary scene into the early 2000s, serving as vice-chair of the Xinjiang Literary Society from 1991 to 2003. From what I have gathered, her work does not seem to have attracted the ire of the authorities like that of Turghun Almas, but she would certainly have been aware of the tensions and hardships of those years. In 1944, the year she was born, the second East Turkestan Republic was proclaimed in the area of Ili, where Nuzugum’s story ends. Tursun’ay Huseyin’s hometown of Kashgar was the center of the first attempt at an independent East Turkestan Republic a decade earlier, as well as the setting for the opening episode of the Nuzugum story.

This poem expresses tender sympathy toward Nuzugum (addressed here with the variant form “Nuzuk’ay”). The speaker calls her “sister,” and uses the familiar form of “you” rather than the polite form used in most contexts outside the family. She acknowledges the details of her suffering and offers comfort in the form of tending to her neglected hair and drying her tears. The poem also reflects the nationalist sentiment associated with the story in phrases like “raised your head for freedom’s sake” and “dark furnace of barbarism.”

Nuzugum is a symbol of Uyghur national identity and resistance against foreign oppression, and the chastity and purity of Uyghur women and the nation in general. Her heroic but tragic story is all the more heartbreaking in light of the trauma faced by Uyghur women in recent years. Young women were targeted for labor transfers to inner China starting in early 2000s, a policy which was understood as encouraging or coercing them to find Han Chinese husbands in their new locations. More recently, Uyghur Human Rights Project and a variety of news agencies have reported on current Chinese government programs that offer financial incentives for Uyghur women who are willing to marry Han men. Additionally, the “Civil Servant Family Pair-Up” programs (结对认亲 jié duì rèn qīn) put Uyghur women in extremely vulnerable positions, especially when their husbands have been disappeared into the camps or prisons, as they may be forced to host male Communist Party cadres for regular overnight homestays.

Finally, “Unending Song,” written in 1956 by Téyipjan Éliyov (1930-1989), describes a restless, youthful energy in the streets that cannot be suppressed, despite the complaints of a disapproving old man. The poem won a prize at an international poets’ conference in 1982 in Macedonia, and has previously been translated into English by Dilber Thwaites and also by Nicholas Kontovas. (My translation here differs in that it renders the rhyme into English and follows the structure of the lines more closely.)

Thwaites interprets the poem as a dialogue between Uyghurs and China: “The young poet stands for Xinjiang; the old man stands for China, and the goal is independence.” This type of nationalist interpretation seems plausible, as Téyipjan Éliyov spent his formative years in Ili during the Second East Turkestan Republic, and wrote in support of liberating the rest of the Uyghur region. In this reading, the final stanza offers an interesting comment on the Chinese. They too were revolutionary not many years ago, having liberated themselves from the oppression of imperial feudalism, but in just a short time had become the same as the oppressors they overthrew.

Unending Song

I sing a song every night,
Unable to stop winding through this street.
I wander with some goal in sight,
The troubled journey ever incomplete.

This evening I came passing by again,
Rattling, with my song, the window panes.
From somewhere came the creaking of a door,
An old man poked his head out and complained.

“Making such a racket every day,
Are you some kind of lunatic, incurable?
Not letting anyone get any rest,
What kind of crazy song is this, interminable?”

Don’t be angry, sir,
You also were
at one time young, unsleeping.
It’s just that kind of song—

—Téyipjan Éliyov (trans. Michael Fiddler)

تۈگىمەس ناخشا
تېيىپجان ئېلىيوۋ

ھەر ئاخشىمى ناخشا ئېيتىمەن،
شۇ كوچىنى ئەگىپ كېتەلمەي.
نىر پەللىنى كۆزلەپ ماڭىمەن
ئاۋارىمەن يېخى يېتەلمەي.

بۈگۈن ئاخشام ئۆتكەنتىم يەنە،
ناخشام بىلەن دېرىزە قېقىپ.
قەيەردىندۇر ئىشىك غىچىرلاپ،
كايىپ كەتتى بىر بوۋاي چىقىپ.

جارقىرايسەن ھەر كۈنى شۇنداق،
ساراڭمۇ سەن، ئوڭشالمايدىغان؟
يا ئادەمگە ئۇيقۇ بەرمەيسەن،
قانداق ناخشا بۇ تۈگىمەيدىغان؟

كايىما بوۋا،
سەنمۇ بىر چاغدا،
ياش ئىدىڭغۇ، ئۇخلىمايدىغان.
شۇنداق ناخشا بۇ–

Reading the first stanza of this poem, I cannot help but think of Perhat Tursun’s 2013 novella The Backstreets (reviewed by Darren Byler here). Like the poem, this work is also a first-person account of a Uyghur man wandering the streets at night, but it is full of despair and mental haze, and the energy is all anxiety rather than hope. After wandering all night and interacting with various unsympathetic Chinese residents, the narrator is finally attacked and beaten to death in front of a psychiatric hospital in Urumchi. This work was written even before the beginning of the present campaign of oppression, in which Perhat Tursun himself has been arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

It may be that the difference between the energy of “Unending Song” and the bleak despair of The Backstreets is simply the six decades that passed between their writing. I would argue, though, that both are equally valid aspects of the Uyghur experience at any given time. Reading the poem now, what I see in the unwavering song of Téyipjan Éliyov’s speaker is the energy of diaspora communities and organizations that are actively striving for political recognition and for maintaining the beauty of their language and culture for future generations. While self-governance in the Uyghur homeland may be a dream deferred at this point in history, and while grief and despair are very real parts of the situation, the song of Uyghur heritage continues. By sharing testimonies, doing research and advocacy, collecting academic and literary works, building resources for connection around the world, teaching children the language of their mothers and fathers, and yes, writing more poems, members of the Uyghur community are following in the footsteps of predecessors like Turghun Almas, Tursun’ay Huseyin, and Téyipjan Éliyov, pressing on in their “troubled journey” and doing their part to ensure that their song goes on, unending.