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  • Lisa Ernst

Negotiating beauty standards in Xinjiang

In recent years, discussions of human rights issues have resulted in the Western media predominantly presenting Uyghurs in Xinjiang as an oppressed minority, trying to keep their language and culture alive.

The diversity among the Uyghur population living in the Uyghur Autonomous Region Xinjiang (XUAR), however, has been largely ignored when introducing the Turkic people of Northwestern China.

Who are minkaohan Uyghurs?

Particularly interesting members of the Uyghur population living in China are the minkaohan Uyghurs. Within the Chinese education system, the term minkaohan (民考汉) officially designates ethnic minority students who take the college entrance examination (高考 gaokao) in the Chinese language. Min (民) comes from the term minzu (民族), which in this case refers to the 55 officially recognized minority groups in China, such as Uyghurs, Tibetans, Zhuang, or Yi, among others. Kao (考) means taking a test or exam, and han (汉) refers to the Han Chinese. Uyghurs, on the other hand, who speak the Uyghur language in the classroom, are called minkaomin (民考民).

While Uyghurs, who were trained as interpreters and bilingual clerks right after the reconquest of Xinjiang at the end of the 19th century, could be regarded as the very first minkaohan, the policy of closing all Uyghur schools during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) produced a first wave of minkaohan Uyghurs in modern China.

Uyghur minkaohan attended Han Chinese all through their student life, starting from kindergarten all through to university. Within the Uyghur community, being minkaohan is generally equated with Sinicization and an overall loss of Uyghur identity awareness. They are often the only Uyghur in a whole class of Han Chinese and therefore usually speak better Mandarin Chinese than their mother tongue Uyghur. In everyday life interactions, minkaohan Uyghurs are frequently made fun of because they cannot express themselves properly in Uyghur and cannot understand Uyghur jokes and humor. As a result, minkaohan frequently shy away from engaging in social interactions with minkaomin Uyghurs and feel more comfortable spending time with fellow minkaohan. This peculiar social position marginalizes this particular group of Uyghurs and, for many of them, causes feelings of embarrassment, frustration, and anger.

Minkaohan Uyghur women regaining agency through makeup

Examples of Uyghur make-up at a beauty parlor. Photo taken by the author.

Young minkaohan women who live in the urban environment in Xinjiang’s capital Urumchi have found their own way of dealing with their oftentimes challenging position in Uyghur society. This generation of minkaohan women in their twenties and early thirties try to regain control with the help of makeup and their own norms of beauty.

In comparison to minkaomin Uyghurs, many of these young women use the term “clean” (干净 ganjing) to describe their own style and beauty standards, in which a light and natural makeup style is seen as favorable. Contrastingly, applying thick layers of foundation, false lashes with mascara, and bright lipstick colors are believed to be a sign of ignorance, backwardness, and even low morals.

Nuriye,* a 29-year-old high school teacher especially notices the way the minkaomin women dress up when they go out to clubs or bars at night: “These minkaomin women just talk to any men and flirt with anybody. But underneath their makeup, they look like a different person; they are not even that pretty. I like to wear only a bit of makeup. That is clean (干净 ganjing).”

Small shopping mall for evening dresses in the predominantly Uyghur part of Urumchi. Photo taken by the author.

Another common opinion among minkaohan is that minkaomin have no personal style when it comes to clothing. For Maynur, who is a thirty-year-old kindergarten teacher, minkaomin Uyghur women fail at trying to follow a global trend. “Older minkaomin women copy a certain style that they saw on social media because they think it is cool and comes from Europe or the US (欧美风 oumeifeng).

Billboard advertising upcoming H&M store in the city center of Urumchi. Photo taken by the author.

Through defining what they see as the right way to wear makeup, minkaohan women find a way to ridicule minkaomin women, whom they present as incapable of understanding and embodying global beauty trends. Although this binary presentation does not necessarily represent the reality of Uyghur women’s use of makeup, it helps the marginalized group of Uyghur minkaohan to shift their social role from the allegedly ignorant members of society to being the ones who are part of the global world, knowledgeable about modern trends. This conceptualization ultimately helps young minkaohan Uyghurs to reposition themselves among the Uyghur communities in Xinjiang.

* For security reasons, the personal names in the text have been anonymized.


Further readings on minkaohan Uyghurs

  1. Joanne Smith Finley, "‘Ethnic Anomaly or Modern Uyghur Survivor? A Case Study of the Minkaohan Hybrid Identity in Xinjiang," in Situating the Uyghurs between China and Central Asia, eds. Ildikó Bellér-Hann, et al., (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 219-238.

  2. Timothy Grose, "(Re) Embracing Islam in Neidi: the ‘Xinjiang Class’ and the Dynamics of Uyghur Ethno-national Identity," Journal of Contemporary China 24, no. 91 (2015): 101-118.

  3. Jennifer Taynen, “Interpreters, Arbiters or Outsiders: The Role of the Min Kao Han in Xinjiang Society,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 26, no. 1 (2006): 45-62.

  4. David Tobin, "Between Minkaohan and Minkaomin: Discourses on 'Assimilation' amongst Bilingual Urban Uyghurs," in Language, Education and Uyghur Identity in Urban Xinjiang, eds. Joanne Smith Finley and Xiaowei Zang, (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), 55-74..

  5. Liang Zheng, “Media and Minkaohan Uyghurs: Representation, Reaction and Resistance” (PhD diss., University of Colorado at Boulder, 2011).


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