Her name is Princess Fragrant. And she’s here to unite a country. At least, that’s what the producers of a new cartoon airing in China hopes, drawing on the story of a murky historical figure to help calm tensions between Beijing and the residents of the Xinjiang province in the country’s west.
The new cartoon tells the story of Ipal Khan, also known as ‘the Fragrant Concubine,’ a young woman from the Uighur ethnic group who in the 18th century became a royal consort in the Qing dynasty. “It shows that ethnic unity is the most powerful weapon in the face of adversity,” Deng Jiangwei, director of the series, told the New York Times about the cartoon’s development and purpose. “The princess and her friends also encounter other ethnicities and cultures along the Silk Road, and they learn that only by helping each other can you go far in life.”
CREDIT: Shenzhen Qianheng Cultural Communication Company
Having a cartoon featuring a Uighur lead is a big deal in China, where more than ninety percent of the population are of the Han ethnicity. Xinjiang, which in Mandarin literally means ‘new land,’ is as its name would dictate a relatively new addition to China’s territory and efforts to force it to assimilate with the rest of China have been shaky at best. The Uighur population is mostly Muslim and has long accused China of violating human rights in its crackdowns on their freedom express their culture, which they say is also under encrochment from Han Chinese migrating into the area.
The Global Times, one of China’s state-run media outlets, framed its story on the Princess Fragrant series as Xinjiang fighting an ideology with cartoons. “The production of the cartoon series is part of the Xinjiang authorities’ endeavor to develop the animation industry with the aim of maintaining social stability by boosting cultural exchanges and understanding between Han and Uyghur people, especially at a time of rising tension following terrorist attacks in and outside of Xinjiang,” the article reads.
Finding ways to have the cartoon appeal to the broader Chinese market while still maintaining Uighur culture was a struggle, according to the Global Times. From finding the right theme music to debates about whether the lead character will have an animated animal companion, the choices made take on a weight of seriousness given the purpose of the 104-episode show. “It is similar to fighting a war in the realm of ideology. If we don’t pass on positive energy, the opposite side would occupy the battlefield,” Sheng Jun, an official at the Xinjiang Bureau of Culture, told the Times.
But there are already concerns that in adapting the story of Ipal Khan, China is co-opting Uighur culture for its own political ends. Part of the issue is that the Han and Uighur tellings of her story are vastly different. To hear the Han tell it, the Emperor “was so enraptured by Xiangfei’s [their name for Ipalkhan] fragrant scent that she was brought before him, wooed with lavish gifts, and lived in harmony with the emperor.” From the Uighur perspective, the girl was captured during the Han invasion onto their lands and taken to the palace to live out her life as a concubine.
“How could the Chinese government think that propaganda cartoons of unity can win the hearts and minds of the Uighurs while the killing and repression of our people is not being stopped?” Alim Seytoff, a spokesman for the World Uighur Congress — a separatist group that refers to itself as the Uighur people’s government in exile — told Al-Jazeera America. “This is an extremely offensive way of convincing the Uighur people that East Turkestan was part of China,” he continued, using the name that Uighur separatists call the region.
That the lead character in Princess Fragrant resembles a Disney-fied version of a Uighur isn’t exactly helping matters. “From a westerner’s point of view, trying to patch over extreme ethnic tensions with a cutesy cartoon portrayal of a minority woman might seem problematic—like screening Disney’s Pocahontas after Wounded Knee,” James Millward, professor of Chinese and Central Asian History at Georgetown University told Quartz. Millward also argued, though, that the producers should get “credit for making an effort at this time to be culturally sensitive and to present a positive image of Uyghurs to the majority Han Chinese audience.”
Attempts to find a non-violent way to bring together the Han and Uighur populations couldn’t have come sooner. China is currently in the midst of a widening crackdown in the region, having arrested more than 800 people so far in their attempt to clamp down on extremism and Uighur separatism. Earlier this year, a terrorist attack in Urumqui, Xinjiang’s capital, killed 31 people and wounded at least 90 more. Just weeks earlier, a knife attack at a Xinjiang train station, which immediately followed a bomb blast at the same location, left three dead and nearly eighty wounded.
But while there have been attacks in the region, and Xinjiang separatists took credit for a car explosion in Tiananmen Square last year, the response from Beijing has been criticized as overly harsh. Since 2001, Beijing has increasingly linked its operations in Xinjiang with the wider “war on terror,” using familiar rhetoric to back their operations. Following massive protests that turned violent in 2009, Human Rights Watch accused China of “disappearing” some of the detainees arrested during the ensuing crackdown. Amnesty International likewise said that Beijing inflated the number of Han Chinese killed during the protests, adding that the police “used unnecessary force against Uighurs, followed by mass arrests and torture.”