Over 570 rivers are formed by the melt of the mountain snow and glaciers, running through the basins located on either side of the Tianshan Mountains. Included among these are more than 20 major rivers, such as the Tarim River, the Ili River, the Irtysh River, the Manasi River, the Wulungu River, and the Kaidu River. Some of them run into lakes in their lower reaches, such as the famous Bosten Lake, the Wulungu Lake and the Ebinur Lake. Oases lie along the banks of rivers, lakes and drainage areas, and are home to various roads and villages, displaying the beautiful scenery of the Western Region; as a verse of poetry describes it, there are “miles of peach blossom and thousands of willows.” This is the place where, for generations, different ethnic groups have lived. In addition, conditions of abundant sunshine and very scarce precipitation contribute to a high evaporation rate, a comparatively low average temperature, and a typical temperate continental climate.
Known as the Western Region in ancient times, Xinjiang has been a place inhabited by multiple ethnic groups, witnessed the co-existence of different religions, and has been the site of the collision and intersection between the East and the West. The region possesses profound cultural reserves, a manifestation of which is The Twelve Muqam.
Uyghur muqam art has experienced a long history of development. The earlier form of muqam is known as the Western Region daqu. As far back as ancient times, Xinjiang had already nurtured a music and dance culture. With the consistent development of farming, culture, commerce and business, life in the oases grew more prosperous. Its inhabitants lived in palaces and mansions, and it was these homes that large numbers of folk artists, who lived on performing music and dances, would visit; gradually they became professional musicians and dancers. With time, the folk arts were collected, arranged, and developed. According to historical records from the early Tang Dynasty, the music and dance art of places like Qiuci, Shule, and Gaochang had already developed the daqu form which featured vocal performances, dancing, and instrumental music.
With the establishment of the Karahan Kingdom and the Xizhou Uyghur Khanate in the 9th century, Turkic gradually became the predominant language spoken in the Tarim Basin; the local culture also began to replace the grassland nomadic culture. The Uyghur people, therefore, witnessed a shift from the nomadic to the agricultural way of life. It was the formation of a new type of Uyghur culture, the Uyghur Western Region music culture, which includes the music and dance arts of the Western Region.
As they entered the 10th century, ethnic groups in Xinjiang, including the Uyghurs, gradually converted to Islam. This conversion fostered the transformation of local music culture, during which the Western Region daqu took the form of muqam. Therefore, Xinjiang muqam art not only inherited the trinity (vocal-dancing-instrumental) form and structure from the Western Region daqu, but also gained new traits under the multi-cultural impact. The name and the essence of the Western Region daqu were incorporated completely into muqam in the 14th century. By the 16th century, Xinjiang Uyghur muqam art had developed into 16 song-dance divertimentos in the palaces of the Ye’erqiang Khanate. The Twelve Muqam is essential among the 16. Combining the essence of all the divertimentos, it has evolved and has been handed down to the present day.
The Twelve Muqam is widely spread in the major Uyghur communities of Xinjiang, i.e. the Kashi, the Hotan, the Aksu Prefecture of South Xinjinag, the Ili Prefecture of North Xinjiang, and Urumqi. Constituted by song, dances, and music, it originated from folk culture, developed in the palaces and mansions of the oasis city-states, and, after a period of integration with other such arts, reached its present form. Consequently, it can be said that it manifests the elite culture of ancient royal palaces and the marginal culture of villages and towns, simultaneously.
Different tuning systems, modes, and rhythms, magnificent forms, and sophisticated structures are the prominent characteristics of the Twelve Muqam. Its plate-type-based structure shows its intimate connection with the inner land music culture. It can be played by different orchestras, including those led by bow stringed instruments, those led by pluck instruments, and those led by wind instruments. Its contents are enriched by dictums, poems, exhortations, slang and folklore. Its various genres range from arioso to ballads, and it includes multiple modes of singing, such as chorus, unison, and solo. The exquisite tonal pattern and rhyme scheme of the Twelve Muqam are also varied. The festive singing and dancing is its most significant feature, but its choreography is just as spectacular, with both group dancing and solo dancing featuring unique dance steps.
In the Uyghur cultural context, muqam signifies various artistic forms and cultural meanings _ literature, music, dance, rap, drama, and even ethnic identity and religious belief, to name just a few. As such, it constitutes more than mere musical expression: it is an encyclopedia that accurately portrays the life and society of the Uyghur people.
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