Bowie, Iggy and the Uyghurs

One of my favourite products of the collaboration between David Bowie and Iggy Pop is the song ‘China Girl’.  Both men did a version: it appears on Iggy’s The Idiot (1977) and Bowie’s Let’s Dance (1983) (hence the incongruous shots of Sydney Harbor in the video).  Both renditions are great.

You can draw any number of interpretations from the song.  Apparently Iggy wrote the lyric while pining after a friend’s Vietnamese girlfriend.  It’s not much of a leap to read it to be about opium/heroin/drugs in general.  The most obvious interpretation though is I think to take it as a commentary on western imperialism, cultural and/or political, in Asia.

The first is about the singer’s obsession with his “little China girl”.  A metaphor for orientalism (in the Edward Said, Western fetishism of the East, sense) is on offer, should you choose to take it.  The West’s historical tendency to infantilise the East and its culture is also emphasised by the tongue-in-cheek oriental style guitar (xylophone too in Iggy’s version, I think) found in the intro and outro.

After the bridge the melody changes, and with it the song’s emphasis.  Now we hear of the destructive nature of the singer’s love:

I stumbled into town

Just like a sacred cow

Visions of swastikas in my head

And plans for everyone

It’s in the white of my eyes……


My little China girl

You shouldn’t mess with me

I’ll ruin everything you are

I’ll give you television

I’ll give you eyes of blue

I’ll give you a man who wants to rule the world

So yeah, the west corrupts innocent Asia with its modern ways, tricky technology and greed.  It could all be a bit patronising  if not for the brilliant final line: “And when I get excited, my little China girl says, oh baby just you shut your mouth”.  Patronise at your own peril: China/Asia is neither naive or innocent and can stand up for itself.

China has of course always had imperialist tendencies of its own and I don’t think it’s ever been the reluctant imperialist portrayed in ‘China Girl’.  My current country Mongolia knows all about China’s inclusive approach to geographical self-definition (but I’ll write about Mongolia later when I know more about it), as do parts of my old object of study, northeast India (namely Arunachal Pradesh).  Tibet is near the top of every right-on celebrity’s list of causes and Taiwan and the Spratly Islands continue to be live issues that arguably have the potential to trigger intercontinental war.

The plight of the Uyghurs  in far western China however gets comparatively little attention, so here’s a small introduction to that particular issue.

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and of course the rest of China (including Tibet) is a vast, resource-rich area.  It is home to only about 20 million inhabitants.  The largest ethnic group in the area is the Uyghur, a Turkic ethnic group that mainly practices Islam.

Xinjiang has been part of China since 1949.  Before that there were two short-lived and Soviet-backed Islamic Republics of East Turkestan (1933-34 and 1944-49).  Since 1990 there has been an ongoing, and sometimes violent, struggle against Beijing in Xinjiang following a student riot and subsequent crackdown leading to 20 deaths that year.  The East Turkestan Islamic Movement has been the main armed group perpetrating this struggle, while the World Uygher Congress, led by US-based Rebiya Kadeer, is the more acceptable face of Uygher nationalism.

Like Tibet, Xinjiang has been granted the apparent concession of special autonomy.  Also like Tibet, Uygher culture, religion and demographic dominance of the area is under attack.  The Chinese state curbs the expression of the Islamic faith in Xinjiang and in 2009 it systematically destroyed the iconic old city of Kashgar.  Han Chinese are encouraged to invest and settle in the region.

Uyghurs are on my mind because at a visit to the National Museum of Mongolia last week I noticed they had been one of the empires to inhabit the Mongolian steppe some time in the early middle ages.  That fact struck me because I had always thought of the Uyghurs as the victims, not the perpetrators, of imperialism.  I guess all peoples have their ups and downs over history, a fact of which the Chinese are very aware.

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