Wang of the Muqam

An art lover dedicated to collecting, recording, and preserving the traditional Uygur art form of Twelve Muqam

By Wang Fengjuan

Upon arriving back in Urumqi after a 500-kilometer trek across Xinjiang from Hami, Wang Jiangjiang immediately began sorting the materials he collected on the trip: audio and video recordings from more than 30 Muqam artists. He also created a spreadsheet to catalogue information about their lives and careers.

Wang knows each and every Muqam player in Xinjiang. Since his return to China from Milan a decade ago, he has made audio and video recordings of more than 2,000 folk artists of the intangible cultural heritage, enough to fill up 30 hard drives. Now, he is editing them down to create a manageable file for each artist.   

Wang films a performance of the Twelve Muqam in Hami in 2020.

Muqam is a time-honored Uygur musical form that consists of sung poetry, literary art, dance, and music. It was recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005 and named an item of National Intangible Cultural Heritage by China’s State Council in 2006.

From Milan to Rural Xinjiang

Wang Jiangjiang is a native of Hebei Province, nearly 3,000 kilometers from Xinjiang. His early love for music led him to study opera and composition at Xi’an Conservatory of Music and then University of Milan. Wang’s three years of musical studies in Italy got him wondering whether China’s rich music forms had been documented and catalogued as well as European operas. So Wang decided to do the work himself. He threw away his Italian residence permit and returned to China in September 2009 in search of musical traditions. 

Wang with local children during a 2016 visit to southern Xinjiang.

In the first year back in China, he road tripped across half of China, touring cities where ancient dynastic capitals were located. In each city, he visited museums and historical sites and studied local operas and music. In the mountains of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, an old farmer reported that the younger generation had left for cities to find jobs and few had learned folk songs because singing does not fill empty stomachs. Wang heard similar sentiments from other folk artists of different ethnic groups across the country.

When this reality left Wang feeling hopeless, he happened upon a documentary about World Heritage in China. Scenes of an elderly Uygur man belting out the Daolang Muqam sent chills down his spine on par with those that the paintings of Caravaggio in Italy inspired. After researching Muqam and Xinjiang, he decided to venture to the remote frontier region and found an opportunity to volunteer in Ruoqiang County of Bayingol Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture in southeastern Xinjiang. “I didn’t tell my parents about the decision, and made no requests,” he recalled. “All I wanted was to go to Xinjiang, because the music I was looking for was there.”

In July 2010, Wang first arrived in Xinjiang. He started teaching English at a primary school in Ruoqiang County before finding work at the Muqam preservation center in Shache County in northwestern Xinjiang. He traveled to regions on both sides of the Tianshan Mountains in search for folk artists, filming and taking pictures and notes along the way. When he heard a Uygur man playing and singing Muqam in the desert against a horizon shaped by ruins of Loulan, a vanished oasis town on the ancient Silk Road, Wang was overwhelmed by a sense of belonging and burst into tears.

Passion for Muqam

In his first few months in Ruoqiang, Wang visited the local troupe’s headquarters every day to watch them rehearse singing and dancing. To better understand them, he started learning the Uygur language. His first Uygur friend, Kahraman, lived in the room opposite his and co-founded a band with famous Uygur singer Abdulla. Through Kahraman, Wang discovered much more about local artists and Muqam.

Music is as important to Uygur people as food seasoning. Muqam helps build social bonds, bringing hearts closer at family gatherings, breaks from farm work, festivities, and parties. The crisp, ravishing sound of Tanbur, a long-necked, plucked stringed instrument that plays a major role in the performances of Muqam, accompanies the chants, invoking scenes of boundless deserts cloaked in eternal solitude.

Wang poses with Muqam artists in 2018.

“Folk artists’ performance was as spontaneous as daily activities like washing hands or eating,” said Wang. “But I was absolutely spellbound every time.” Uygur Muqam is a set of 12 musical works, thus known as the Twelve Muqam. The entire set takes more than 20 hours to play.  Due to the length and wide variety in rhyme and meter coupled with a lack of music score, learning Muqam is extremely difficult. For these reasons, very few people can perform all of it today.

“The music of Twelve Muqam has universal appeal,” said Wang. “It ignites passion in me and can do so for other people. I am doing everything I can to introduce this ancient art form of Xinjiang to other parts of the world.” To better understand it, Wang learned the Uygur language in just six months so he could have tea with Uygur artists and chat and sing with them.

To study Muqam, Wang visited more than 300 towns and villages across Xinjiang. By exploring the musical heritage of these regions, he built a strong bond with the land and people. Inspired by his experience in Xinjiang, he composed more than 40 works including the musical “Love of Loulan” and the song “Beautiful Xinjiang.”

Wang records a performance of Aken Songs, a Kazak folk art form, in 2018.

Passing to Future Generations

Wang was lucky enough to become friends with Polat Tursun, a singer, actor, and manager of the Muqam troupe of Xinjiang Art Theater. At first, Polat didn’t understand why Wang would want to travel to rural areas to study the art. “I told him, if you love Muqam, just come to watch my troupe,” said the former. “But he could not be swayed.”

During his long trips, Wang invited senior folk artists to perform for cameras and audio recorders. The strength of their voices may have waned, but their passion and devotion hadn’t. Upon learning that the recording was intended to help pass the art to future generations, many of the elderly artists expressed concern that traditional cultures of many ethnic groups could be lost forever without continuous preservation efforts. They were delighted that Wang was working to preserve Muqam. Their words inspired greater passion in his mission.

“They have played and sung Muqam their entire lives, and the art is already in their souls,” said Wang. “The music they played in the setting where it originated is different from stage performances. I hope my recordings help their work live on among later generations.” As part of his preservation efforts, Wang plans to produce a documentary on Xinjiang music and musicians. 

Abulai, a national inheritor of Muqam from Shache, was one of Wang’s first interviewees in Xinjiang. Wang couldn’t properly appreciate Abulai’s impressive repertoire of Muqam lyrics at first, which he had taught to over 100 people. Wang eventually realized that few knew more musical epics than the aged artist. His death in 2015 left Wang grief stricken for a long time.

The passing of several Muqam performers Wang met heightened his sense of urgency to record folk artists. Another Uygur farmer-musician named Abudul Raxman died from an illness in his 50s, leaving behind little evidence of his reportedly touching music and singing. Such losses prompted Wang to shift from seeking a collective portrait of Xinjiang musicians to tight focus on certain individuals.

Wang with Muqam artists in 2012.

“It’s my mission to record and pass down this art, and I will only keep working on it,” said Wang. “Right now, I am cataloguing Muqam inheritors one by one.” Such filing includes both text and audio-video materials.  

Wang’s 11 years of work on Muqam have all been self-funded. “Many people in Xinjiang don’t know much about Muqam,” many have asserted to him. “Why are you spending so much time and money on it when you’re not even from here?” “Material life needs the nourishment of a vibrant culture, and our splendid culture needs to be passed down,” he responded. “I love Muqam, and hope it will be learned and sung by later generations.” The Chinese people created a glorious civilization, but many cultural heritage items now either sit silently in museums or have dissolved into the dust of history. The disappearance of folk arts especially worries Wang. 

After 11 years in Xinjiang, Wang considers it home. He married and started a family there. His wife Li Sha helps him record Muqam.

In recent years, the Xinjiang government has organized preservation centers across the region to help more people learn the ancient musical form. Wang brought it to social media by posting short videos of performances on his micro-blogging account “Wang Jiangjiang’s 365 Days in Xinjiang.”

Wang’s future plans are all about staying in Xinjiang and continuing to promote folk music including Muqam. He will continue to record Muqam, sing the lyrics of the land, and make films about it. He envisions one day leading a chorus of different ethnic groups in singing “Our Song” with the golden desert sprawling behind them, the wind whipping up the sand, and the setting sun dipping everything in its warm glow.

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