The religious ceremony, or nikka, is held at the bride’s home, attended only by immediate family. An imam reads from the Quran, and asks both families for their consent, after which the couple exchange their vows. While the groom affirms his ‘I do’ loudly and promptly, the bride is supposed to reply quietly, and only when asked for the third time.
Next, the couple each eat a nang flatbread which has been soaked in very salty brine; salt to symbolise the strength of their commitment, sugar for the sweet life ahead of them, and bread for their welfare together. There’s a race to stomach it: it’s believed that the person who manages to finish their nang first will be the most loyal in the marriage. The groom then returns home with his family to prepare for the festivities.
As bridal finery goes, the prized Khan Atlas, or ‘royal’ silk, is the fabric of choice for formal and wedding wear. A more traditional wedding dress in ‘lucky’ red might display the geometric Uyghur ikat, a print which the desert oases of the historic Silk Road were especially renowned for. Highly valued, these garments would once make up a large portion of a bride’s dowry. As with elsewhere in China, however, a great many brides today opt for a frothy meringue of a dress, with suits and ties for the men.
The exchanging of rings has recently been adopted for the same reason. Beauty-wise, a dark, furry unibrow is considered a sign of beauty, and women will often use kohl to draw in a thin connecting line. Multiple long braids are another very Uyghur characteristic, but as a married woman post-nikka, the bride can wear her hair in two plaits to signify her new status. The final touch is a white veil covering the face, which is not lifted until the reception, even in multi-day weddings.
The dress code for guests, meanwhile, is relatively informal – semi-casual, topped with colourful headscarves for women, and skullcaps for men. Another option is the four-cornered pillbox hat known as a doppa.
Married women may be seen in the heavy horsehair niqab known as paranja, although after being outlawed during Soviet years, Iranian or Turkish style headscarves are now often the preferred option. Any form of veiling is, of course, nominally banned by the CCP along with long beards for men in a policy known as ‘Project Beauty’, which requires women to unveil to enter petrol stations, hospitals, banks and other public places.
A few hours – and more food – later, the groom and his party return to the bride’s house to whisk her away. It’s a noisy, boisterous affair, which causes more than its fair share of traffic. In larger towns and cities, the parade includes a cavalcade of cars and flatbed trucks, upon which the groom’s friends jig, catcall and bellow bawdy jests at passing women. Chanting and bridal songs are soundtracked by tambourines and a raucous naghra sunay band, usually featuring kettledrums, the fluted sunay horn and the long-necked, stringed rawap.
Although the singing style has historically been influenced by the Arabs’ maqam, the Uyghur muqam is entirely homegrown. Its sonic precursor was the Great Western Region Melody of China’s Han and Tang dynasties, and today, each of Xinjiang’s main oasis towns boasts its own unique muqam.
Upon arriving at the bride’s house, the party finds the family waiting at the door, blocking the entrance. The groom can only proceed by giving them gifts. Sometimes the groom even has to complete a set of playful tests to prove how well he knows his betrothed. After the groom successfully makes it through, the bride’s side takes its turn to sing, dance and entertain the arriving guests.
Finally, it’s time for the bride’s family to give her their blessings in front of the assembled crowd, before she tearfully departs with her spouse. As the procession makes its way back to the groom’s house – led by the couple – it will likely be stopped several times by local kids, who allow them to proceed only when they receive the customary gifts, usually candy. More traditionally, these barricades would be built with rope or cloth, and symbolised the villagers’ reluctance to let the bride go.
Outside the groom’s house, a small fire will have been built; the newlyweds circle it three times, hand in hand, before entering. This custom is believed to protect their marriage from any obstacles, and derives from an ancient Turkic rite of a husband leading his new bride thrice around a fire built in the centre of his yurt. (The barricades, blocking and crying are all Chinese customs.)
In keeping with the Uyghur etiquette of never stepping on the threshold when entering a house, the bride is carried over it. The couple then walks on a bolt of red silk, which has been unfurled to form a path between the front door and the living room. People line up on each side of this red carpet to shower them with rice or confetti, and welcome them into the household. As soon as the couple pass, the cloth is ripped to shreds, with guests each pocketing a piece as a good luck memento.
It’s time for more dancing and the unveiling of the bride, who is gifted a red silk headscarf, beautifully embroidered with gold thread. Songs are sung about her beauty, followed by feasting and dancing. In bigger cities, it’s far more likely that this reception takes place at a banquet hall, rendering the fire circling impossible. The Chinese custom of setting off firecrackers is verboten as an alternative, as it is seen as a sign of superstition.
Yet if Chinese weddings are about drinking, Uyghur weddings are all about dancing. More likely than not, the venue will be invisibly divided by gender, with women and men sitting on separate sides, meeting only in the middle of the hall to dance.
Even while they share the same dancefloor, it is customary for men to dance with men and women to dance with women, although this is changing. The music itself is a mix, ranging from folk dances like the senem to Uyghur pop and late-night techno.
This segregation can extend to ethnicities, with Han guests – business contacts or colleagues – seated away from the Uyghurs. It’s worth noting, too, that although hotels and public places are supposed to run on Beijing time (a directive largely followed by the Han, who immigrated into Xinjiang en masse), Uyghurs, meanwhile, mostly follow an unofficial Xinjiang time, two hours behind.
Yet as the plates have been cleared and as the dancing gets underway, it’s easy to think that these differences don’t matter, if only for a few hours.