Regional fields

China, Central Asia, Chinese Turkestan / Xinjian

Thematic fields

Political sociology, ethnomusicology, music and political power, ethnography of Central Asian Turkish populations, state traditionalism


Uyghur, sociology of music, tradition, memory

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A two-string lute, dutar,
a very common instrument
within the Uyghur population
(photo S. Trebinjac)

In China, music is a generator of legitimacy and a symbol of power, being so closely linked to the political arena. Leaders set great store by it, but a vast network of musical institutions was established. Called upon to collect the different types of music in China, the tens of thousands of bureaucrats they employ work on producing one Chinese national music. Tradition thus gives way to state traditionalism.

It is also through music that Sabine Trebinjac has examined Uyghur identity and encompassment. The perseverance of identity promoted by the Uyghur people cannot be understood without first grasping their relationship to the other. There is no denying that the Chinese state has a propensity for integrating the other. China encompasses: it is the encompassing element of Dumont’s encompassing/encompassed dichotomy. Being in the role of the encompassed, the Uyghur found their perpetuation principle in their relationship with the other and its vicissitudes. Sabine Trebinjac has developed an analysis of this Central Asian mindset, which enables a population, the Uyghur, to perpetuate themselves and preserve their memory and identity, and this in the face of – or rather alongside – an encompassing authoritarian power represented by the Han.

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Traditional Uyghur house, Tarim Basin
(photo S. Trebinjac)

After several studies on the identity of various Uyghur groups and sub-groups, Sabine Trebinjac was led to consider a broader and more theoretical question linked to the concept of the other in Xinjian. The distinction that Xinjian populations make between alienus and alter is very subtle, and the semantic ambiguity of these two Latin terms seems quite appropriate considering the complexity of their social realities. Twenty years of close contact with the Uyghur has placed Sabine Trebinjac in a position to assert, firstly, that their oasis-dweller identity is a decisive factor. They see themselves as being primarily from this or that oasis (Kashgar-lik, Khotan-lik, etc.), then Uyghur, then Chinese. Secondly, the cohabitation of approximately twenty different ethnicities, not to mention the numerous “sub-groups” like the Dolan or the Loplik, is conducive to the establishment of networks, although rivalries are also created, resolved and recreated. This perpetual movement is very interesting, especially given that one must add a sociological detail that, though quite common, is nevertheless not insignificant in the Xinjiang context: the mimetic phenomenon. The Uyghur, a majority group, have a tendency to subject others to the same treatment – both good and bad – that they receive from the Han.

Even more recently, Sabine Trebinjac has examined the politics of the Uyghur memory in space-time. As a result of her research on the memory of Uyghur musicians, she devised a new concept, the ambivalence of memory. She initially noticed that the Uyghur cultivated extremely vast and complex musical knowledge in spite of a virtual absence of musical theory. They also gave the impression that their musical knowledge endowed them with a shared memory, a kind of twofold aspect of one same identity. And if this memory seemed shared at first glance, this was because the musicians cultivated and transmitted the traditional musical repertoire inherited from their elders, and because they spontaneously offered the “traditionalised” aspect of this repertoire. Not only did the musicians practice it, they created it. Sabine Trebinjac has chosen to substitute ambivalence for sharing, since the former term designates two elements existing together at the same time, whereas sharing assumes a separation, a rupture.

Sabine Trebinjac lived in China for five years, studying at the University of Beijing (Masters in Chinese ancient history), at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and then for a year “in the field” in Xinjiang, where she returns regularly. In 1999, she received the CNRS bronze medal.

Principal publications

  • 2008, Le pouvoir en chantant, tome II: Une affaire d’État… impériale (Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie).
  • 2002, When Uygurs entertain themselves, in The Garland encyplopedia of world music (New York, London, Garland Publishing Inc.): 989-993.
  • 2003, China. Living traditions. Minority traditions. North & West China, in The new grove dictionary of music and musicians (London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd).
  • 2000, Le pouvoir en chantant, tome I: L’art de fabriquer une musique chinoise (Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie).
  • 1990 (with J. During), Turkestan chinois, Musique savante des muqam (vol. I) ; Tradition populaire des Ouïgours (vol. II), coffret de deux disques accompagnés d’un livret, Radio France OCORA (Paris) et AIMP Musée d’ethnographie (Genève).


Publications available at the Éric-de-Dampierre library


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Mis à jour le 7 October 2015

Directeur de recherche, CNRS
[Research Professor CNRS]