The Kirgiz Culture of Kizilsu
Introduction to Kirgiz Culture
As the prefecture's name suggests, Kizilsu is predominantly an ethnic Kirgiz enclave within Xinjiang. The other ethnic groups in the prefecture are the Han, Hui, Kazak, Manchu, Uyghur and Uzbek, whereof the Uyghur are the largest group after the Kirgiz.
The Kirgiz people of Kizilsu lead one of two different lifestyles: that of a nomad or that of a settler. The nomadic Kirgiz of Kizilsu graze their livestock herds on low-lying grassland plains in the vicinity of rivers during the summer months, then relocate to higher mountain terrain during the winter, as the higher mountain slopes offer more exposure to the warming rays of the sun during winter. The lives of the Kizilsu Kirgiz have always been intricately interwoven with animal husbandry, where the animals they tend provide their food and drink as well as the wool with which they make their winter clothing and the felt that clads their tents.
The white felt tent of the Kizilsu Kirgiz is often, though not always, square in shape. The tent's frame is first covered with a mat made of grass, then covered with felt, but leaving a 1 meter by 1 meter hole that serves as a skylight and a vent for smoke. The Kirgiz tent is secured to the ground with the help of thick ropes that keep it from blowing apart during storms and during persistently strong winds.
Kirgiz settlers, in contrast, live in flat-roofed square mud houses with windows and skylights, and make their living as farmers.
Most Kizilsu Kirgiz are followers of Islam, though certain earlier shamanistic practices have been absorbed into the Kizilsu Kirgiz manner of practicing Islam. However, there are other Kirgiz tribes living in Xinjiang who practice Tibetan Buddhism, or Lamaism. They too tend to weave earlier shamanistic practices into their adopted religion.
The Turkic-Altaic language of modern-day Kizilsu was re-created in the 1950s, when a new alphabet was devised, replacing the older Arabic script and adopting a Roman alphabet-based script. In some localities, the Kirgiz people of Xinjiang have gone a step further and have outright adopted either the Chinese language or a local host language such as Uyghur or Kazak.
The diet of the Kirgiz herdsmen consists mainly of animal byproducts, with some cabbage, onions and potatoes added. They drink goat's milk, eat yogurt and drink tea laced with milk and salt. Wealthy herdsmen often drink cow's milk and eat beef, mutton, horse and camel flesh, as well as rice and boiled wheatmeal. The Kizilsu Kirgiz store butter either in dried sheepskin pouches or in pouches made of dried cattle stomachs. All of the tableware of a Kizilsu Kirgiz nomad household is made of wood. The Kirgiz settlers of Kizilsu have a broader diet that includes the agricultural produce that they grow.
Kizilsu-Kirgiz Marriage Customs and Male versus Female Roles
The Kirgiz household often consists of three generations, with married sons and their families sharing a tent/ mud house with their parents. Marriage is generally arranged by the parents, and in former times, this might even occur before the birth of a child - "marriage arrangement at pregnancy", as it was called. Pre-maritial courtship is in the form of a short ceremony, and is initiated when the groom presents a roasted sheep to the bride's family. Relatives of the bride respond by tying the bride-and-groom-to-be to special stakes in front of the tent or house. The couple will only be released when the father and the brothers of the groom "plead for mercy", i.e., present the bride's family with yet more gifts.
The subsequent wedding ceremony is presided over by an imam who, as a symbolic ending to the ceremony, divides a specially prepared cake into two pieces, then dips the pieces in brine - symbolizing the need for married couples to accommodate the less-good as well as the good - before placing them in the mouths of the newly-weds as a wish for the couple to 'share weal and woe', remaining together forever. The groom then takes his bride and her betrothal gifts back to his home.
The Kirgiz household is characterized by a distinct division of labor in the home: men do things like herd livestock, tend to horses, slaughter sheep and cattle, cut firewood (and sometimes grass) and perform any other chores that might require a man's physique, while women graze individual cattle, milk cattle, deliver ewes, shear adult sheep, process and preserve animal by-products and perform any other household chores that a man would not be expected to partake in.
Formerly, Kizilsu-Kirgiz women did not traditionally enjoy many individual rights in the usual sense. For example, they had no right to inheritance. When a son married, in contrast, he had the right to an immediate inheritance: a portion of the property of the father/ the larger family was shared with the newly-wed son (the remaining property, after the death of the father, would fall to the youngest son, who would take care of his mother). The property of a childless Kizilsu-Kirgiz male was inherited by his close relatives, while Kizilsu-Kirgiz women had no right of inheritance at all. With the emergence of the PRC, these customs have been modified, permitting female inheritance and in general fostering greater gender equality.
The Kizilsu-Kirgiz funeral ceremony is still observed the same as ever by both males and females: black clothing, black kerchiefs - black everything, in fact - signifying mourning, is the norm in Kizilsu-Kirgiz society, as it is in many if not most other societies.
Kizilsu-Kirgiz men wear white, round-collared shirts adorned with lace, over which is worn either a sheepskin jacket or a blue, collarless, long cloth gown. Kizilsu-Kirgiz men who can afford it wear more refined outer dress made of camel's wool, with sleeves in fringed black cloth. A rawhide belt is typically worn at the waist, attached to which - as regards nomadic Kizilsu-Kirgiz men - are the ubiquitous knife and a flintstone for producing fire. Settler types often wear a more stylish, stiff-collared jacket adorned with buttons in front. Kizilsu-Kirgiz men typically wear loose trousers tucked into high boots. A characteristic Kizilsu-Kirgiz shoe is made of rawhide. Throughout the year, all Kizilsu-Kirgiz men - old and young - wear round, colorful (typically green, purple, blue or black) corduroy caps covered either with an animal pelt that is piled high or by a felt hat with a rolled-up brim. The inside of the animal skin hat is typically bordered with black velvet.
Kirgiz women typically wear a loose, collarless jacket - adorned with silver buttons in front - that reaches to just above the knees. Their long, pleated skirt is bordered with fur. If a dress is worn instead, the part corresponding to a skirt is generally pleated, while a simple short black vest is worn over the dress. Red is a color that appeals especially to younger Kizilsu-Kirgiz women: red dresses, red skirts, red caps (usually in velvet), or dyed-red otter-skin hats that are decorated with tassels, feathers and even pearls. The color green also appeals to younger Kizilsu-Kirgiz women, while older, married Kizilsu-Kirgiz women tend to prefer darker, more muted colors, perhaps accentuated with a white kerchief. Women who can afford it wear high boots that are embroidered.
Unmarried Kizilsu-Kirgiz women (girls) wear their hair in numerous plaits, while married Kizilsu-Kirgiz women typically wear their hair in a single plait on either side, or - on festive occasions - in pigtails that are adorned with what one is tempted to call Kizilsu-Kirgiz Bling: short silver chains, short strings of pearls, coins, etc. Other personal jewelry items such as earrings, necklaces and bracelets - as well as finger rings, of course - are popular on festive occasions. These female personal adornment traditions follow the same general female traditions seen in other nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe, such as the female personal adornment traditions of the Mongols.
Kizilsu-Kirgiz Festival Observances and the Receiving of Guests
In the Kizilsu-Kirgiz calendar, years follow the Han Chinese "Zodiac" animal designations, such as the year of the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the fish, etc. The appearance of a new moon signals the beginning of a new month, of which there are twelve, just as the Zodiac cycle is also based on the number twelve (i.e., there are twelve Zodiac animals). Like their Han Chinese counterparts, the Kizilsu-Kirgiz people celebrate a type of spring festival, the Noloz Festival, during the first month of the new year. In addition, the Islamic festival calendar is also observed here, as Islam is the official religion of the Kirgiz people of Kizilsu.
The celebration of festivals is very much a collective affair in Kizilsu-Kirgiz society: there is much collective singing, dancing and story-telling, as well as manly sports such as wrestling, rope-pulling (tug-of-war) and other physically demanding sports - some highly skill-based, such as shooting - that are performed on horseback.
The Kirgiz people of Kizilsu, while they enjoy their age-old ceremonies, are at the same time very hospitable. For example, any visitor - whether friend or stranger - is invariably offered the choice bits of whatever is being served, whether it be a main course dish like roasted sliced mutton or a dessert such as sweet rice pudding with cream. Serving a guest mutton from the sheep's head is a special mark of respect. Choice parts like sheep tail fat and the meat from the sheep's shoulder blade are always first offered to a guest. Well-mannered guests respond by offering some of the food thus given to them to the women and children of the household as a way of reciprocating the gesture of respect.
When a guest comes calling, the host invariably unsaddles the guest's horse, and when the guest expresses a desire to depart, the host saddles the guest's horse for him. When a Kizilsu-Kirgiz family pulls up its tent stakes to move elswhere - even if only to a nearby vacant space - the family is feted both by the old as well as the new neighbors.
Such treasured traditions strengthen the social bonds among the Kirgiz people of Kizilsu, making for a more close-knit and caring society. At the same time, the Kirgiz people of Kizilsu observe a few unyielding taboos: they abhor lying and cursing, and they have rules of etiquitte that govern many aspects of social interaction, from how to address one another to where one may relieve oneself (would that there were more societies the world over that observed the latter!).
Kizilsu-Kirgiz Art Forms
The Kirgiz are renowned performers. The folk songs and ballads they dance to are richly lyrical, expressing joy, sorrow, injustice and loss. The song types range from traditional folk songs to lullabies to wedding songs. They even have short ditties that they sing to departing guests and to their animal flocks. Kirgiz musicians use many kinds of unusual instruments. For example, the three-stringed lute-like instrument popular in Kirgiz music, the komuz, is uniquely Kirgiz in origin. Every Kizilsu Kirgiz learns to play the komuz from early childhood.
Not surprisingly, given the pastoral way of life of the Kirgiz, the horns of animals figure prominently as a motif when adorning everything from tents to mud huts to gravestones to the harness for one's horse. The Kirgis are fond of eye-catching bright colors, especially bright reds, whites and blues.
They also have a rich oral tradition. Many legends, proverbs and fables as well as poems have been handed down from generation to generation within Kirgiz society. The epic Kirgiz poem, Manas, has been called a virtual encyclopedia of Kirgiz history and Kirgiz folkloric traditions. With its over 200,000 verses, it describes the comings and goings of several generations of the Manas family, and in passing sheds light on the mores and traditions of the Kirgiz people, as well as their suffering at the hands of the Dzungars, the Mongol rulers of Dzungaria, and the resistance of the Kirgiz people to their Dzungarian oppressors (the Dzungars - members of the nomadic Oirat tribes of Mongolian origin and part of the Western Göktürk Khanate - occupied the Dzungarian Basin, i.e., the swath of land, much of it desert-like, sandwiched in between the Altay Mountains to the north and the Tian Shan Mountains to the south).