Saturday, July 16, 2011

Albert von Le Coq and the Uyghur Girl

At the moment I am reading Buried Treasures of Chinese Turkestan by Albert von Le Coq. In the first decade of the twentieth century he travels from Berlin to St Petersburg to Moscow, and then, by train to Omsk. From Omsk he travels by river and then cart to the Chinese border. Another mountainous journey takes him to Urumqi (where I wished to go a couple of years ago) and then down to the Tarim Basin 300 feet below sealevel and Turfan. He is an excellent story teller, describing the wild life and the people in wonderful detail. There are cockroaches the size of a man's thumb that give off a sickening smell when crushed, poisonous spiders, and the Uyghur people and their Chinese overlords. Urumqi is a cruel place. He records and photographs 'the cage'. It is a gruesome form of capital punishment. The head is placed in a wooden vice while the floor of the cage is slowly dropped. Von Le Coq is astounded that he comes across this cage in a busy street. The people pass by and continue to go about their business, including the melon seller, who sets up his stall alongside, completely disregarding his unfortunate neighbour.

After visiting the Mohammedan city of Turfan, he travels out into the desert to excavate the ruins of Khocho. Here he stays with a Uyghur family, which includes a beautiful daughter. Her photograph appears in the book. Her name is Zuwida Khan and she has returned to her father's home after the local landowner she'd married (aged 15) has treated her badly. She looks very much like the singer in this video.

Soon after von Le Coq's arrival, Zuwida Khan gives birth to a baby, and von Le Coq records the lullabies she sings, as well as the folk songs of the local Uyghur's king's women. These last he records on a phonograph, which causes so much interest that he is besieged with requests to hear them. He records than he sends his recordings 'unfortunately' to the Berlin Institute of Psychology, but says, in this account, that no one does anything with them.

Uyghur music uses an Arabic scale but has Chinese influences. In other words it is a mixture of European and East Asian stock - very much like the Uyghur people themselves who are the descendents of Indo-European Tocharians and people from Mongolia. When I was at school I remember a history teacher telling the class that the most beautiful people arise when the races mix - something that seems to be true of music too.


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