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Discovering Epic, Constructing Culture: Culture-Politics on China’s Western Frontier



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Long, Michael 


This thesis is the result of 1.5 years of participant observation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, PRC, and analyses Chinese ‘Cultural Construction’ policies among Xinjiang’s ‘Torghut Mongols’. It explores the complex social and political negotiations that transformed an officially recognized ‘epic’ (The Heroic Epic Jangar) as cultural product into the representative ‘culture’ of Mongol dominated Hoboksar County—but ‘culture’ understood within the narrow officialized discourses of Chinese culture-politics and policy. This dissertation engages ‘anthropology of policy’, arguing that ‘policy’ and authoritative political discourses in China may be productively analyzed as aspects of ‘ritualization’. This thesis attempts to bring ritual theory in anthropology into intercourse with topics as diverse as genre theory, rhetoric, exemplarity, and performance, arguing that Chinese political discourse is far more than mere sloganeering. Instead, this thesis attempts to show how these discourses act as mechanisms to shape space for autonomous action.
Specifically, this dissertation illustrates how a long-form narrative poem, now known as the ‘The Heroic Epic Jangar’ is discursively constructed as a central aspect of ‘local traditional culture’ among some Hoboksar residents. The first part of this thesis provides ethnographic context and theoretical parameters by examining local narratives surrounding the ‘epic’ and the historically implicated ‘sensitivity’ of the region and its social and political consequences. Here, this thesis proposes that authoritative political discourses work as border-producing mechanisms through which highly strategic ritualized deployments of political setphrases shape space for autonomous action. The second part begins by describing the complex intertextual generic relations between set political formulations that produce a ‘scientific’ outlook, and ‘objective’ research and analysis relating to the Xinjiang Mongol ‘Heroic Epic Jangar’ that at once constructs an ‘epic’, but also situates it within acceptable official narratives of the natural progression of a unified socialist state. It then examines the processes by which Jangar comes to be deployed as a central aspect of Hoboksar’s developmental agendas through the uniquely Chinese interpretations of ‘Cultural Heritage’ politics. Informed by the theoretical discussions developed throughout this thesis, this dissertation concludes by describing how a rigid normative regime has developed that both informs and restricts the environment in which practices and performances of Hoboksar’s Jangar as ‘cultural heritage’ are articulated. Here, this dissertation shows how such work facilitates both national and local goals by way of creative, yet often confusing and ‘formalistic’ means by elaborating on the complex negotiations of ‘correct’ political practice ‘in form’, and how through a perceived responsibility to properly reproduce set scripts of speech and behavior regarding ‘culture’ and ‘cultural development’, the ‘cultural spirit’ of Jangar becomes an ‘awkward exemplar’ as it is forcefully discursively connected to numerous and often contradictory cultural narratives and political interests.





Sneath, David


China, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Hoboksar Mongolian Autonomous County, Torghut Mongols, Jangar, Chinese Culture Politics, Anthropology of Policy, Intangible Cultural Heritage


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Commonwealth, European & International Trust