Rival ethnic groups in China embrace parkour, a sport more fun than hatred
URUMQI, China — In China’s far-western province of Xinjiang, Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese mix on the street daily but largely lead separate lives. Many Uighurs resent Beijing’s rule. They do not like government efforts to fold them into the “big Chinese family.”
But despite Xinjiang’s tense ethnic divisions, friendships are developing — carefully — among some Uighurs and Chinese. Appreciation of food and music brings the two groups together. So does a love of sports.
Flipping Over Parkour
In many cities of Xinjiang, the latest outdoors craze is parkour. The sport is a training routine that started in France and has spread worldwide. Imagine groups of young people jumping, vaulting and flipping in the air, often using whatever structures they can find — ranging from park benches to rooftops.
As in Europe, the authorities that oversee parks and public spaces in Xinjiang are not parkour-friendly. They fear injuries or “disturbances to public order.”
Even so, it is not hard to find parkour groups that include Han and Uighurs practicing their stunts in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. They are also found in Aksu, a heavily policed city to the southwest.
Jin Xiaolong, 27, helped start a group in Urumqi six years ago that has grown to 25 members. Many started as teenagers, learning about parkour from Internet videos.
"Popular Across China"
“This kind of sport is not only popular in Xinjiang, it’s also pretty popular across China,” Jin said, taking a rest from one of his workouts on a Sunday afternoon. “As soon as guys see it, they become very interested, he said. "When they see it, they feel like, ‘Wow. This is very cool.' "
Government officials and scholars closely watch what Xinjiang’s younger generation are thinking. Uighur men in their teens and 20s are thought to have taken part in several recent attacks against Chinese police and civilians.
Some studies have concluded that younger Uighurs are more likely to turn against the government than previous generations. Part of the reason is that they are closely follow events abroad, such as the “Arab Spring” uprising.
Friendship Beats Discrimination
But unrest in Xinjiang is not limited to Uighurs influenced by extremist ideas. Some, for example, are angry at Chinese restrictions on their dress and appearance — such as men wearing beards.
Before he was arrested and sent to prison last year by a Chinese court, the Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti wrote that Uighurs in Xinjiang are sometimes prevented from getting jobs because of their background. He said the practice has left tens of thousands of young Uighurs unemployed. Some wind up committing small crimes.
This makes the cross-cultural friendships that grow up around parkour all the more interesting.
Parkour is in some ways similar to martial arts. It emphasizes self discipline and being humble, though Jin said his group in Urumqi does not take that to extremes. Members of the parkour club joke with each other like young competitors anywhere.
Parkour "Brought Us Together"
“This sport parkour brought us together from all over, regardless of ethnicity,” Wang Hui, 20, said as he put his arms around two teammates — Parhat and Su Dan. “So we don’t see one another as being from other ethnicities. We are very close. We are like brothers — good friends.”
The group’s members acknowledge it is unusual in Xinjiang for Han and Uighurs to develop close ties and scholars of the region agree.
Timothy Grose is a U.S. professor who studies how different groups of people in Xinjiang interact. He has made several trips to Xinjiang to interview residents. He said Uighurs and Han may form individual friendships, but they continue to cling to the cultural ideas they were brought up with.
“Outside their personal relationships, several of my Uighur friends complain about ‘the Han,’” Grose said.
Passion, And Slick Videos
In Aksu, a city where armored vehicles patrol the streets, the local parkour club is led by Pulat, an 18-year-old Uighur who is finishing high school. He and his brother, a videographer, helped put Aksu on the map by producing some slick parkour videos. Some were set in the scenic Wensu Grand Canyon Park outside of the city.
“I can’t tell you how passionate we are about this sport,” said Pulat, during a recent trip out to the Wensu canyon with several of his friends.
Pulat said that the park officials love the publicity they receive from the club’s videos. At least once, they called his school see if he could be excused from class to finish an ongoing video project, he said.
The Sport That Binds
Tang Qi is a Han college student. He said it is not completely surprising that Uighurs and Han would bond over a sport such as parkour. Taking up a hobby with friends when you are young can make you less likely to accept negative information about them, he said.
Whether such friendships in Xinjiang survive is hard to know. Both Han and Uighurs face family pressures not to socialize closely with each other. Marriage between the two groups remains taboo, said Grose, who specializes in ethnic identity in Xinjiang and other parts of China.
“Uighurs and Han regularly carve out their own social spaces. Some of these social spaces overlap,” he said. “Others are exclusive.”