Images of Xinjiang's little-known Xibo people

Travel | by Xinlei Wang
Posted: October 28th, 2010 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
China Photography_travel photography_chinese culture_chinese landscapes Xibe, dongbu'er Xinlei Wang is a remarkable young woman of many talents introduced to me via another talented and driven young woman, her good friend Atina Kuo, owner of Shanghai's Xibo restaurant and advocate for all things Xibo. Born in Shanghai, Xinlei moved around later in life, spending her middle school years in Dongbei's Jilin and her university years in Beijing, later moving to the state of Maryland in the United States to undertake doctoral studies. Following this was a six-year stint in Singapore as a writer, translator and food critic for Peter Knipp Holdings, one of the country's best-known publishing groups. Since returning to her native China in 2006, Xinlei has continued to pursue her passion for journalism and photography. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal, CNNGo and New Asian Food & Wine, among other places.  She is also in the midst of launching her own communications company: Point Integrated Communications. In short, she is one busy lady, and I'm exhausted just thinking about it all! Earlier this year, Xinlei spent several weeks traveling Xinjiang, Kashgar and Kazakhstan documenting the people and cultures of the region. To complement our extended look at the Xibo, a little known minority who inhabit one part of this small corner of China, Xinlei takes some time out to guide us through a few of her shots from her stay. >>> Xibe horse and cart Ever since migrating from the Dongbei region to Xinjiang 250 years ago, the Xibo (also known as Xibe and Sibo) have worked as farmers, using donkey carts to work in the fields and as transportation. In the area around Ili, like the rest of Xinjiang, public transport is not very convenient and there are more and more private cars in the cities for those who can afford them. In the countryside, things are very remote and people still often use ma di (horse and cart taxi) for everyday transportation. A regular taxi is pretty cheap, about RMB 5, but a ride on a ma di only costs RMB 1-2. Xibe hunting clothes The Xibo have always been famous for archery and hunting--in all the national tournaments, the players, even the coach, all the Chinese national archery team are Xibo people. Today the Xibo still go out and hunt, especially in winter time, catching deer, rabbit and wild boar using the traditional bow and arrows (and sometimes nowadays even guns). Here we can see the Xibo hunting clothes hanging up to air inside a Xibo home. Note the intricate pattern detail on the leather. Xibe woman playing dongbuer This old lady is playing the dongbu'er, a traditional two-stringed Xibo instrument. These days it's mostly the older people who play. The younger ones are not so interested, though Atin'a brother (Editor's note: the actual relationship is more convoluted--he's the cousin of her sister-in-law, but extended family is held close ) is studying it at a music school here in Shanghai and even played at the Expo--he is very Xibonese. The old lady here plays very well. She asked me if I was married. I told her no and she laughed and said "I'll play you a wedding song so you can get married!" She was very nice...  though I think the song is played at both weddings and funerals! The dress she is wearing is a traditional Xibo dress--long and straight. It's a bit like a Korean dress, as Xibo and Koreans both share ancestry from the Xianbei tribe though the Xibo dress does not have the high waistline of the Korean one. The Xibo language also has some similarities with Korean, though fewer and fewer people speak Xibo now and the culture is shrinking. Living in the borderlands for so long, people move and there are so many other minorities here, so the minority cultures are absorbed by one another. The young people look forward to leaving and many of them look for new opportunity in the city... they still speak Xibo, but the next generation won't be able to. Actually, the dress the woman is wearing is a dress that she will wear when she dies. Traditionally, the daughter prepares the clothes for the mother to wear when she is buried and she'll take them into the next life. I felt very sad when I first saw and heard this but actually, the mother cherishes the gifts and is very happy. Xibo shoes Her daughter also made her these cloth shoes embroidered with many flowers and known as xiu hua xie in Mandarin. These kind of shoes are also worn in death. The flowers are embroidered on the outside only and,  as when the body is laid out in the tomb, only the outside is visible. Cloth shoes like these, handmade from many layers of cloth, are in a traditional style and less decorative ones are worn in everyday life. She told me that the pair she is wearing today are six years old and still not worn out! Xibe house This image shows the courtyard in a typical home. The Xibo traditionally use blue and white to decorate their homes, and the gardens are very green. Xibe house Inside a Xibo home, it is very simple. Most homes don't have running water and they have to store water drawn from the river or the local well in large jugs. The people here don't have much but they are happy. Most of them have never left the area and they don't realize they are poor. It's only after they leave and go the big cities that they start to feel it. A lot of members of the younger generation are getting more education now as the government in Xinjiang has a special policy allowing Xibo students to enter university with lower marks. There are some who don't like this policy because they feel there is too much Han influence, but the young people are quite open to it and the opportunities that it brings. In Shanghai there are about 150 Xibo people, most of them studying at university. When Atina opened Xibo, she invited them all to come and eat for free. It's a very small community and even though they don't know each other, they speak the same language and feel comfortable together. Overall the Xibo are a very happy, friendly people. They like to dance and are always very cheerful and helpful. Atina's brother spent lots of time helping me in Xinjiang even though we'd only met once before. Xibe temple Long ago the Xibo believed deeply in shamanism and worshipped many gods and goddesses, but since the Cultural Revolution, they have been less religious. Their religion is a combination of Daoist, Buddhist and shamanistic beliefs and they also worship their ancestors who, due to their animistic traditions, they believe were foxes--the fox holds a very special spiritual significance for the Xibo. The image above comes from a temple that was actually closed to the public, but I brought the temple keeper some water and fruits and paid a small "entrance fee" to go in and take a look. Xibe woman and ancestor scroll Here we can see one aspect of Xibo ancestor worship. This hand-painted scroll is a family heirloom, handed down through generations. It shows a painted image of the ancestors (believed to be foxes in human form) and the Xibo pray to it, making offerings like fruit and flowers. The scroll is rarely shown to outsiders so I was very privileged to see it--usually it is kept rolled up except during times of worship as they believe each time someone looks at it, it loses a little bit of its power. The old lady explained to me how, when her daughter was very sick and in hospital, the entire family gathered around to pray and she was healed. Xibe tomb Here we can see a Xibo tomb. There are many of these mounds out in the countryside and they provide a burial place for entire villages. In the Xibo tradition, people are buried fully dressed in traditional clothes (like the old lady is wearing in the picture above) and depending on their wealth, with other artifacts and jewelry to accompany them to the afterlife. This is very different to how the local Uyghur people are buried; they are wrapped in a white cloth and you don't see the body or any clothes. If you are interested in seeing more of Xinlei Wang's work, visit her online gallery here. In addition to professional photography services, Xinlei also offers tailor-made photography workshops for all levels ranging from RMB 250-500 per person, per section.
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