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Chinese animators hope cartoon princess can help ease ethnic tensions in Xinjiang

The cartoon “Princess Fragrant” is based on the true story of a Uighur Muslim woman who married a Chinese emperor in the 18th century. She is highly regarded as a figure of unity. (Shenzhen Qianheng Cultural Communications Company)

At a time when the restive region of Xinjiang has witnessed executions of alleged separatists, knife attacks on train passengers, and clashes between the Chinese government and forces it has identified as Muslim extremists, a film company believes that it has the answer: a cartoon princess.

With the encouragement of the authorities, a Chinese animation company is turning to a Disney-like character for help in bringing ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese together.

“Princess Fragrant” is a 104-episode show based on the historic figure Ipal Khan.

In a phone interview, its creators said they think the story of a princess from the Uighur Muslim minority who married a Chinese emperor in the 18th century could ease the ill will on both sides — or at least begin that process with the next generation.

For years, some Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have agitated against China’s authoritarian government. Their anger is a reaction, Uighur groups say, to oppressive official policies, religious restrictions and widespread discrimination.

The cartoon is set to air next year in Mandarin and Uighur. (Shenzhen Qianheng Cultural Communications Company)

Meanwhile, the government has presented its increasingly severe crackdowns as counterterrorism measures against rising extremism.

Since August 2013, the animation company Shenzhen Qianheng Cultural Communications has spent more than $3 million producing the 3-D princess cartoon, which will air next year in Mandarin and Uighur.

The company, based far from Xinjiang in the southern city of Shenzhen, is taking part in a government program that pairs 13 inland Chinese cities with cities in far-western Xinjiang in an effort to spur development.

Deng Jiangwei, director of the cartoon, said the animators chose to focus on Princess Fragrant — rendered with classic Disney-pixie cuteness and wide-eyed innocence — because of her historic contributions to ethnic unity and stability. She remains highly regarded in both Uighur and Han Chinese societies.

“Ethnic epic of splendor,” touts one poster.

In the cartoon, Princess Fragrant and her friends set out on an adventure to find her father, who was abducted by “evil forces” from the West. The villain was after a family heirloom, which turns out to be spiritual rather than monetary.

The company approached the Kashgar government last year with the idea. A supposed tomb of Princess Fragrant is one of the major tourist attractions in the city of Kashgar, even though historians doubt she is buried there.

Government officials eagerly welcomed the idea and promised funding, but the company has not yet received state financial support, Deng said. The company set up offices in Kashgar, and one-third of the employees there are Uighurs.

But tackling such a divisive relationship proved difficult, even in the imaginary world of cartoons.

Most members of the design team in Shenzhen are Han Chinese, although for the cartoon they traveled in Xinjiang in an attempt to better understand its culture and history, and local experts were included to correct errors in their work, Deng said.

Deng said they had to avoid making too many references to Islam in the cartoon, even though Princess Fragrant was a Uighur.

“We cannot promote religion in our work, but we do refer to some aspects of the Islamic culture, such as etiquette, things that are easily acceptable to most people,” Deng said.

He described their challenge as finding a balance between authentic Islamic culture and an entertaining story.

Despite their overt political aim, the producers said, they tried not to get too preachy in the message.

“It’s about family and growing up,” Deng said.

The princess is not the first cartoon character called upon to promote ethnic unity. Last year, Xinjiang children were treated to the TV series “Legend of Loulan,” about an ancient kingdom swallowed by shifting sands. It featured characters of different ethnicities banding together to beat a sand monster and save the kingdom.

Huang Zhiyong, who directed the Loulan series, said: “Kids are impressionable, and they like to imitate. Things they see on TV can greatly influence their values.”

The show aired last year in Mandarin only — a notable fact in the face of Uighur accusations that the government is trying to replace their traditions and language with Chinese ones. Huang said it is now in the process of being dubbed in Uighur.

William Wan is the Post's roving national correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He previously served as the paper’s religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent and for three years as the Post’s China correspondent in Beijing.


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