Rahile Dawut: A Lifetime Passion That Ended with a Life Sentence
It was a busy Thursday afternoon when I received a text message that a human rights group in the United States, the Duihua Foundation, had confirmed that Rahile Dawut had been given a life sentence by a court in China. When I saw the message, everything went silent for a moment, just as it had six years earlier when I received a message telling me that Rahile Dawut had disappeared. She had told her family that she was going on a business trip to Beijing; that was the last they heard from her.
It is hard for people to understand what it feels like when someone who is close to you suddenly disappears from your life. You know she is alive, but you don’t know where she is. More precisely, you can’t even question it. It creates a huge feeling of grief inside, but you have no choice but to live with it. And you must be very careful about what you say, what you write, and whom you meet. You can’t scream from the mountain tops that it is unfair or that this person doesn’t deserve such cruelty, since all your friends and family back in Xinjiang could suffer the same fate as Professor Dawut if you do so.
Over these years, whenever I talk about Rahile Dawut, the most frequent question I am asked is: Why? What is the reason for her arrest? I have never been able to find a clear and concise answer. This is because there is none.
A Lifelong Passion
Rahile Dawut was born in 1966 into an intellectual family. She was the first Uyghur woman to gain a PhD in folklore studies (民俗学) from Beijing Normal University, as well as the only Uyghur student of famous Chinese folklorist Zhong Jingwen, who mentored numerous students who later became famous figures in folklore studies in China. Under the supervision of Zhong, Dawut carried out fieldwork in Chinese temple fairs (庙会) in Beijing and other places in central China. Then she started to focus on shrines and pilgrimage sites in Xinjiang and, in 1998, completed her PhD dissertation on that topic. She later published her findings as a book in Chinese with the title A Study on Uyghur Shrine Culture (维吾尔族麻扎文化研究), published by Xinjiang University Press in 2001. After obtaining her PhD, she became a professor at Xinjiang University, where she later founded the Xinjiang Folklore Research Centre, which she directed until her disappearance in 2017.
Professor Dawut’s passion for her research was lifelong. Unlike many Uyghur scholars, her interests were wideranging, encompassing Uyghur shrines, religious activities, daily life, and local knowledge. The topics she studied included ecological knowledge, farming, craftsmanship, and other livelihoods. Her book Uyghur Shrines (Uyghur Mazarliri, published by Xinjiang People’s Press in 2001), written in Uyghur, became a pilgrimage guidebook for Uyghurs in rural southern Xinjiang, gaining her significant respect and acceptance from the locals, who were also impressed by her humble attitude while doing ethnographic research among them. She helped many performers of Uyghur oral epics (Dastan) earn official status as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage Inheritors’ (非物质文化遗产传承人) at both the provincial and the national levels. This official title might sound contrived to outsiders, but it changed the lives of many people in rural Xinjiang, allowing them to receive a stable income from the state and ensuring they had official permission to perform throughout northwest China. In other words, she was a bridge between the locals and the Chinese State.
However, this bridge was always under threat. From the start of the anti-extremism campaigns in 2011, tightening controls on religious practices and belief became the norm in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, shrine visitations by pilgrims started to be prohibited, only a few of the shrines remained open to locals, and even then, only under police control. Professor Dawut was worried that, after 2009, along with the global spread of Islamic revival movements, Uyghur traditions would also come under pressure as many Uyghurs embraced strains of Islam that rejected local traditions.
Professor Dawut tried to focus more on other aspects of Uyghur life, such as local knowledge. In 2013, she received funding from the National Social Science Foundation of China to conduct research on local knowledge in Xinjiang, including local people’s farming techniques and craftsmanship, and their knowledge of the environment and local plants. For her, rather than shaping and generalising Uyghur identity, what was more valuable was detailed attention to all aspects of Uyghurs’ daily lives. She argued that much of the scholarship on Uyghur traditions and culture was romanticised and lacked specificity. The real Uyghur traditions lived among the people in their daily lives, so ethnography remained her focus.
Her efforts to follow state guidance did not help her survive the rapid political changes that beset the region. In 2012, the newly anointed Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping launched a drive to boost the ‘shared consciousness of the Chinese national community’ (中华民族共同体意识)—a term that conveyed the idea that all Chinese citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, should feel a sense of belonging to a unified Chinese nation. The campaign began to be implemented seriously in Xinjiang in 2014 and reached its peak in 2016 and 2017. Professor Dawut’s work on Uyghur culture and tradition had served the previous policy of promoting the ‘unity of the Chinese nationalities’ (中华民族团结), celebrating the richness of China’s cultural diversity. However, that same work did not fit with the new policy, which emphasised the shared identity of the Chinese nation, not its cultural diversity.
Under the new policies, her research could be seen as emphasising the cultural differences between minorities and the Han majority, or even as encouraging ‘cultural separatism’. Any academic scholarship related to minority identity or culture became politically sensitive, even dangerous. At Xinjiang University, scholars engaged in the study of Uyghur language, literature, and culture started to vanish. These included the university’s rector, the geographer Tashpolat Tiyip, the linguist Arslan Abdulla, and the folklorist Abdukerim Rahman, who tragically died while in home detention in late 2020. In November 2017, Professor Dawut was told by the head of the Humanities Department at the university that she needed to accompany him to Beijing for a research conference. The department head never went to Beijing: he remained at the department, while Professor Dawut became one of the disappeared.
More Than a Mentor
During her more than 25 years as a scholar of Uyghur culture and folklore, Professor Dawut trained dozens of Uyghur students. She was famous at the university for her close relationship with her students. Room 604 in the Technology Building, the Xinjiang Folklore Research Centre, was where Dawut and her students used to work together. Unlike many other professors, she encouraged her students to go out into the field to conduct ethnographic research and understand the situation through personal experience. Dawut and her students were like an extended family: she took care of their financial, emotional, and personal problems; she was a problem-solver for each of us. Her home on the university campus was a place for her students to have parties and celebrations, and a place for them to go whenever they had difficulties.
She also helped students to find jobs. In 2017, when the Department of Humanities at Xinjiang University suddenly changed its MA graduation requirements, stating that all students could only submit dissertations written in Chinese, she paid RMB6,000 for the dissertations of two of her MA students to be translated from Uyghur to Chinese. During the several years I worked with Professor Dawut, she provided financial support for my long-term fieldwork in southern Xinjiang. Her care and positivity during that period transformed Ürümqi into my second home, and she became my closest friend. She demonstrated how one person’s assistance could profoundly impact another’s life. Even in the summer of 2017, as the political situation in Xinjiang deteriorated, she managed to free some of her students from police stations. This was only a few months before her own disappearance. Regrettably, when it happened to her, no-one was able to come to her rescue.
The fate of Rahile Dawut illustrates how the very existence of minority cultures is vulnerable to political change. What was once permitted can suddenly be perceived as a threat to the state when there is a shift in ideology. Her work, which was supported and funded by the Chinese Government for more than two decades, became a symbol of ‘separatism’ almost overnight. Her case is an example of how minority identities came to be reframed as a threat to the Chinese State as the Chinese Communist Party began putting more emphasis on its one-nation ideology.
Today, we witness staged presentations of Uyghur culture for tourists, offering a portrayal of a safe and friendly Xinjiang, while the authentic culture is criminalised and its practitioners, along with individuals like Rahile Dawut, who researched it with great passion, remain incarcerated.
The plight of Rahile Dawut holds no promise for the future of Uyghur culture. Even if she is released one day, she will not have the opportunity to witness the same culture she meticulously documented. We, as Uyghur and Western scholars outside China, are unable to return to Xinjiang and continue our research. If we do manage to revisit the region one day, we will not encounter the culture that we have diligently documented and to which we have dedicated our efforts for decades. The research conducted by Professor Dawut and many others has already become part of history. Nonetheless, in the eyes of her students and colleagues, the Uyghur culture documented by those imprisoned scholars continues to represent the authentic essence of Uyghur culture, just as Rahile Dawut remains the steadfast pillar of Uyghur studies.
The anonymous author is a Uyghur scholar who lives outside China. The author wishes to thank Professor Rachel Harris for her helpful feedback on the previous draft of this article.