Forked Tongues: Language Education and Ethnic Tensions in Xinjiang, China

James McMurray//Anthropology//25th of February 2015//3-4pm//Arts C133


The fractious ethnic situation of the Xinjiang region of China is perhaps the country’s greatest internal threat to stability. It has been argued that the issue of mother-tongue education – or the lack of it – is a central concern of the Uyghur minority and a significant factor in the increase in violence there over the past fifteen years. This lecture explores the changing importance of the mother tongue for the Uyghur people with reference to ethnographic fieldwork carried out between 2012 and 2014, a period during which the last monolingual Uyghur-language schools were scheduled to close. It aims to draw attention to the backlash resulting from Uyghur people’s perceived loss of identity stemming from language change – in particular, reactionary efforts to return to an imagined historical conservative culture of extreme piety and closely circumscribed gender roles – and the relation of this to anti-state and interethnic violence.


James McMurray is a final-year PhD candidate in anthropology at Sussex, where he is currently completing E.S.R.C.-funded research into education policy and language change amongst the Uyghur of Xinjiang. James returned to Britain in spring of 2014 having completed eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in the region. He took his bachelor’s degree in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent, with a year spent at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University reading Asia Pacific Studies. He received his MSc. in Comparative and Cross-Cultural Research Methods from the University of Sussex in 2012.

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