From the top of the Prince of the Sky’s tower, the pavement below is a vertigo-inducing abstraction, a gray expanse dotted with people-like specks. But the Prince, one of the best tightrope walkers in the world, doesn’t think about the pavement. He looks towards his destination — another high tower on a distant hillside — and contemplates the thin steel cable strung across the expanse.
For Aisikaier Wubulikaisimu, 41, tightrope walking is more than a circus act — it’s a national sport with two millennia of history.
Aisikaier, hailed as the Prince by his publicist, is Uighur, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group from Xinjiang Province in China’s far northwest. He has wide-set eyes, a burst of knotty dreadlocks and a gnarled scar just below his jaw, from when he fell from a low wire as a child and impaled himself on the protruding end of a metal coil. In his native language, tightrope walking is called dawaz, and like all dawaz performers, he refuses to use safety equipment. Every walk is a dance with fate.
“I represent the people of Xinjiang,” Aisikaier says in stilted Mandarin. “If I fail, people will think I’m a joke. So I don’t think about failure. Either I succeed, or I die.”
He laughs. Suddenly, Xinjiang music blares from the speakers below — a sweep of hand-drums, fiddles and lutes — and he steps on to the wire.
‘Weapon of the weak’
Aisikaier is, by most metrics, a success. He works for a small theme park in rural southwest China, which pays him well. He has broken four Guinness world records, most of them for speed-mad 100m dashes across dizzyingly high wires, and frequently appears on Chinese television.
Yet for Aisikaier and other Uighurs, navigating Chinese society is itself a tightrope act, fraught with an equal degree of peril. They are China’s most beleaguered ethnic group — feared, misunderstood and economically marginalized. Cozy up to Han society and they could be ostracized. Struggle against it and they could be jailed.
“I think [dawaz] is a nice metaphor for the sort of place that Uighurs find themselves in, between Chinese society and central Asian society, between Islam and Chinese secularism,” says Dru Gladney, an expert on China’s ethnic minorities at Pomona College in California.
While the Chinese government supports traditional Uighur music and dance, staging elaborate shows to showcase the country’s ethnic diversity, it barely touches dawaz. The sport is too rugged, too individualistic.
“You can say it’s a weapon of the weak, but it’s also a very effective way of showing the resilience of Uighur culture,” he says.
Every month seems to bring news from Xinjiang underscoring the region’s entrenched ethnic divide. In November last year, 11 people died when a Uighur mob attacked a police station. On Dec. 15, a clash between gun-toting police and machete-wielding Uighurs took 16 lives in the region’s arid west. The unrest reached Beijing in October, when an SUV ploughed through pedestrians in Tiananmen Square and caught fire, killing five and injuring dozens. Authorities identified the driver as Uighur and described the incident as an act of terrorism, motivated by “religious extremist forces.” Uighur activists abroad called it a last-ditch protest against religious and cultural constraints.
Tensions in Xinjiang reached boiling point in July 2009, when knife-wielding Uighurs rioted in the region’s capital, Urumqi, indiscriminately killing scores of Han Chinese. Since then, authorities in Xinjiang have kept up a relentless campaign of surveillance cameras, Internet monitors and paramilitary troops. They pressure women to remove their veils, discourage fasting during Ramadan and prohibit young Uighur men from visiting mosques, fearing they will organize protests. Han and Uighurs frequent different restaurants and nightclubs. Intermarriage is rare.