Museumized Signification, China and Representational Violence

This is the second post in a brief series on symbolic power and minority representation in China. Although the ethnic group under specific discussion is the Uyghurs, the deconstruction of representations and symbolic power is apropos of other subaltern groups. The previous post dealt with briefly just with the notion of controlling the taxonomy of designating ethnicity in China, drawing its primary influences from the work of Dru Gladney. This post will turn a critical eye to the museumization of ethnicity, here borrowing the concept from Benedict Anderson, and how museums function in the realm of representational repression.

Museumized Signification

The Minzu Wenhua Gong [Cultural Palace of Nationalities] in Beijing is a reasonable place to begin. It houses the officially sanctioned representations of the nation’s 56 different ethnic groups. Here is where the national mythology is solidified in images and exhibits. At the time of my last visit, in 2011, on the ground floor there was a collection of photographs depicting each of China’s 56 official nationalities. Of the 55 minorities, 39 were represented by a young female or predominantly female group. All of the 55 minorities were in a rural setting wearing traditional clothing and mostly engaged in musical or culinary activities. This has been explained as the ‘eroticization’ and ‘exoticization’ of the minority (Gladney: 1994, 2004), conceptually related to Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Pictures speak louder than words, so floats about the trite expression. However, it bears relevance despite the cliche. In the museum the point is all the stronger. Here we observe a single image, frozen in time and signification, the single near apotheosis of a people, passed the censors and inscribed for all to see, memorize, judge, and implement. Depending on the emotional content, the symbolic force behind the image, whether condescending and violent, or lauding and aggrandizing, symbolic violence may translate into structural and material violence. How people come to know and appreciate their neighbors, or fear and dislike them, can be indoctrinated through a series of constant exposure to crafted images, imbued with a certain signification. Below are four images taken from the Minzu Wenhua Gong (民族文华宫) in 2011.

The image in the 1) top left is the official representation for the Uyghur, 2) top right observe the Han, 3) bottom left is the Kazakh image, and 4) the bottom right is the image for Uzbeks. It is not difficult to spot the difference between these four images. And one might inquire of the other 52 ethnic groups of China and how they are represented. It is, as mentioned above, virtually the same for all China’s minority groups, relegated to the bucolic and feminine, the traditional foil to the modern, urban, technologically advanced Han. So, what is the signification of these representations?

Taking just the top two images as our points of analysis we may begin with a cursory semiotic analysis. The signifier is the chromatic form, the bare image of Uyghurs dancing and singing. If the intent of these images is to produce depictions of the nature of China’s nationalities, which one would assume from such a museum, one might wonder why the specific forms were selected. The signified is, presumably in the mind of the regime, the official conceptualization of the depicted group. When we look at the image again, we see how the representation is given meaning in the correlation between the two. The signification of Uyghur as only singer and dancer, living in rural environments without modern science, is signified in relation to the Han whose signification appears to be a strong, masculine, modern force. Minorities are exotic and colorful, to be seen as objects of curiosity or sources of entertainment, while the Han are stoic and the force behind advancement and knowledge.

While Gladney has detailed this representation from an exterior vantage, one is left asking, how has it affected Uyghur life? Some have argued that over-saturation of a particular image or idea will result in numbness or the loss of affect. Considering these significations have been at the center of official Chinese ethnic policies and representations since the 1950s, it should have very little affect on the disparate ethnic groups after prolonged circulation, so claim certain scholars. However, after examining photographs I had taken of these images with several Uyghurs abroad, where it is often easier to discuss such matters, they reported a clear awareness of an ongoing violent representation with potentially material ramifications of marginalization and exploitation. How do the individuals, who share a group identity with the individuals represented in these images, respond to the images? One Uyghur student had this to say:

I don’t agree with these things. We say we also have professor. We also have academic people. Why government, why news don’t give those people pictures. Why only give our singer… why? Maybe Chinese government think in Xinjiang, make Uyghur people think, oh the government helped us. We don’t have academic people or any military. We only have dancer or singer or another thing.

This comment reveals frustration and concern at what appears to be the marginalization of Uyghurs inscribed in official representations. If we continue the analysis we might wonder what exactly this Uyghur informant is critical of. Is he expressing grievance at the bare image, or something deeper?

In China, Uyghurs are good at dance, good at singing. If I am talking to Chinese, the first question is can you sing, can you dance? What’s the fucking idea? Some people is singer not everyone can sing and dance. Also, they discriminate against Uyghurs in Inner China. Yang Rou Chuan, it means kebab, you see many Uyghurs in inner China selling kebab but in Chinese mind every Uyghur selling kebab. The Chinese government does not show our good people, good culture to Han Chinese.

A general pattern of dissatisfaction with these representations emerged when we engage the nature of the signification. Furthermore, comments point toward an understanding of how the signification may be transferred into more material forms of domination. That is, the representation has been enforced by educational prejudices, widely reported elsewhere, thereby serving to partially reify the signification. That critical responses were produced by two images is quite alarming considering the rather ubiquitous nature of such representations. In Xinjiang, I wondered if the representations would be the same. If the representation in Beijing is thus situated, how is it museumized in Xinjiang?

The introductory inscription at the Xinjiang Weiyuer Zizhiqu Bowuguan [Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum] in Urumqi appears to maintain a related signification. It describes Xinjiang as a multi-national homeland since ancient times. It states that:

Covering an area of 1.66 million square kilometers, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is a treasure land in the Northwestern bordering region in our motherland with vast land and richly endowed resources. The extended Silk Road linked the Eastern and Western civilizations. Being situated deep in the hinterland, it conceals the deep secret of the converged ancient civilizations of the world. Xinjiang has been the multi-national homeland from ancient times. Forty-seven nationalities live here today, among them 13 brother nationalities, such as: Uygur, Han, Uzbek, Daur, Manchu, Tartar, Russian, etc. have lived in Xinjiang for generations. For a long time they have been cooperated as one family to build and safeguard the borderland. Under the glory of the nationality policy of the Party, precious traditional cultures of various nationalities have received effective protection, inheritance and development. In the historical process of the development of Western regions various nationalities are more united to construct together a harmonious society. We hold this exhibition of Display of Xinjiang Nationality Custom to represent the gorgeous conditions and customs of the 12 ethnic minorities of Xinjiang and to show the splendor of the beautiful rarity of treasure house of Chinese national culture.

This inscription relates the official historical narrative, discussed in an earlier post. It should probably be interpreted as the declaration of the Party’s power. It claims sole responsibility for the protection, inheritance, and development of culture. If we continue with our understanding of the signification offered above and apply this to the notion of ‘one family’ then we must ask where Uyghurs are situated in this family, presumably dominated by the Han. In such ways, the policy of recognizing the Uyghur as a minority under Chinese rule is perpetuated.

The displays in these two museums reminded me of Native American history museums in the United States that depict the cultural victims of America’s colonial legacy. I felt that there was a fascination with the past that left no place for questions of conquest. The museum was full of the kind of cultural artifacts one usually finds in such places. The displays presented musical instruments and pottery, textiles and artwork behind glass, and dioramas of colorful minorities engaged in traditional practices, but also a number of photographs of Uyghurs in contemporary clothes participating in cultural activities.

The implication proffered by the representations in both Beijing and Urumqi, I argue, is that contemporary minorities are incapable of transcending their ancestor’s situation and are therefore treated accordingly by the regime or general Han society, in line with Anderson’s analysis. At least, we can extrapolate from the comments above that many Uyghurs perceive a correlation between these representations and domination. Very few Uyghurs visit either museum but they are often aware of symbolic power’s other manifestations in social space.

Museums facilitate an understanding of how symbolic power operates in static locations, but you can avoid visiting a museum if you perceive its message as part of a dominant discourse. However, in line with Foucauldian notions of power, namely: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power (1990: 95).” You can never fully escape power; it seeps through the walls so to speak. This is where propaganda posters, unity posters, painted slogans, banners, and the ilk come into the discussion of infiltrating public space.

Anderson, Benedict (1983/2006). Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Foucault, Michel (1990). The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Gladney, Dru. (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/ Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1.

Gladney, Dru. (2004). Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.


About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and civil society consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

One Response to Museumized Signification, China and Representational Violence

  1. Pingback: Perusing Walls in China: Posters and Symbolic Power « michaelcaster

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