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Can this cartoon Muslim princess soothe China’s ethnic tensions?

Quartz, 26 August 2014

Princess Fragrant is the eponymous star of a 104-episode animation series from China in which the Uyghur princess, alongside her brother and their Han and Kazakh friends, embark on a quest to save her captured father. The goal of the series? To show “that ethnic unity is the most powerful weapon in the face of adversity,” the production’s director, Deng Jiangwei, told the New York Times.

To anyone familiar with the glaring ethnic tension and violence between the Uyghur minority and Han Chinese majority, it would be easy to have a skeptical, even pessimistic view as to what the animation is trying to achieve. And those thoughts are widely justified.

For starters, the legend of Princess Fragrant is perceived very differently by the two factions. For Uyghurs, the traditional story is closely tied to the history of intrusion onto Uyghur lands. In their version, Iparhan (as the Princess Fragrant character is known) was captured while she was fighting for Uyghur autonomy—to be a concubine to the emperor. This telling varies greatly from the one told to Han Chinese, who know Princess Fragrant as Xiangfei. In the Han version, the Qianlong emperor was so enraptured by Xiangfei’s fragrant scent that she was brought before him, wooed with lavish gifts, and lived in harmony with the emperor.

Alim Seytoff, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, an organization of exiled Uyghurs, was critical of the cartoon’s attempt to showcase ethnic unity, telling Quartz the animation portrays a “fabricated story of her as a princess marrying the Manchu emperor” rather than as a woman who is taken against her will to lead a tragic life as a concubine. Seytoff also says he was unable to recognize that the character was an Uyghur princess based on the way she was dressed.

“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. But Millward also thinks we “should give this company and its official Chinese supporters 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.”

There have been other signs that the government is ready to convey a different tone than before on the subject of ethnic minorities, assessing perhaps that some tensions could no longer be ignored. The second Central Work Forum on Xinjiang, held by the Politburo in May, marked one of the first times that the Chinese government went beyond its typical response of promoting economic development as a way of fostering greater relations between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, acknowledging that bridging the ethnic division would help bring greater stability to Xinjiang (where 45% of Uyghurs live and where much of the unrest has taken place). The forum also called for greater integration between the two groups.

In making their cartoon series, producers reportedly cooperated with the local government in Xinjiang and purposefully sought a musician that is culturally acceptable to both Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Deng, the director, has said that the cartoon would steer away from topics of politics and religion, allowing audiences to focus instead on elements of cultural unity.

It will be a tough sell. Seytoff tells Quartz that the series is a form of propaganda made by people who understand only one side of the conflict. “It’s like the Chinese government is trying to make the cartoon without understanding Uyghur culture and then showing it to Uyghurs hoping that they will love it.”