Mutallip Iqbal

Mutallip Iqbal

University of Xinjiang


What is Uyghur folk Dastan?

The dastan is an important form of oral literature among all the Turkic peoples. Uyghur dastans—epic oral narratives—are long, eventful works that use prose narrative and poetic descriptions to richly depict social life. Dastan demands specialist performers (dastanchi) who are musically and instrumentally adept. Dastanchi usually recite in places where people gather together, namely on the bazaar days in villages, at meshrep gatherings and mazar festivals, or in front of mosques around the time of Friday prayers.

Uyghur dastans are mainly spread throughout Khotan, Kashgar, and Qumul; however, Khotan is the one remaining place where dastan still enjoys popularity. It is still possible to find some lively and active dastanchi in Khotan.

Uyghur folk dastans have particular musical tunes. Many dastans, in fact, assimilate musical features of folk songs, while others have their own, local musical tunes. The epic Siyit Nochi, for example, is performed in distinctly different musical and textual styles in places such as Khotan and Kashgar.

Who is the Dastanchi, and where is Dastan performed?

Dastanchi play an important role in both performing and transmitting the epic poetry tradition to new generations. Some dastanchis are professional and support themselves through their art, while others only perform for personal enjoyment, without being paid. Professional dastanchis perform about such diverse topics as moral imperatives and historical events. After finishing his performance, the professional dastanchi solicits money from the audience. There are currently several representatives of this category with whom I have conducted field research in Khotan, including Ubulhesen, Mamattohti, and Juma Nur, among others.

The amateur dastanchi, in contrast to the professional, performs only at special parties and gatherings aimed exclusively at entertainment. They offer their performance skills when they are asked by an audience to do so. This kind of dastanchi is inclined to delight his listener rather than to seek a reward. Ruzi Tömür and Tudimemet Karim are examples of amateur Khotan performers with whom I have done field research.

My fieldwork has revealed that dastan performances take place most frequently in winter and spring, when most people—namely farmers and small business owners—are free from their work.

Dastanchis tailor their performances to their listeners’ interests and backgrounds. If the audience seems absorbed by the performance, the dastanchi might show the depth of his art completely by performing the entire epics, without omitting any parts or details. If an audience is not fully engaged, the dastanchi may truncate some parts of the dastan, performing only the most vivid and attractive parts that everyone likes to hear. Only in this way can a professional dastanchi attract a larger audience and thus, ultimately, solicit more money.

The process of a Dastan performance

Dastan performances are divided into three sections: introduction, recitation, and conclusion. Before the beginning of a dastan recitation, a reciter will perform a few selections from the muqam (classical Uyghur music) or the local folk music repertoire. Hearing the music, people nearby realise that a dastan is going to be performed, and they gather around the dastanchi. During most performances listeners arrange themselves in a circle, sitting at the front and standing at the back. Dastanchis perform from the center of the circle. Most of the dastanchis perform solo. Sometimes, however, their apprentices accompany their performance on instruments. The dastanchi ends his performance by citing some words of wisdom and advice; he then solicits money from the audience.

Relationship between Dastan and Muqam

Uyghur folk dastans and the Uyghur Twelve Muqams evolved during the long history of the Uyghurs, and underwent modification, completion, and wide dissemination (see Ismayil 2007:73). Dastan was created by reciters and poets, accompanied by music. The Uyghur muqam tradition was created by poets; the musical adaptations came later. Dastan depicts historical events, legends about famous heroes, love stories, and religious myths and legends. The muqams contain lyrics that address some of the same topics. Both dastan and muqam are transmitted orally by performers.While most dastans are set to musical tunes and performed with the help of a musical instrument, the Uyghur Twelve Muqams  have far more complex musical features and themes than dastan. The performance of the Twelve Muqams requires many more musical instruments than does the performance of dastan.

Songs from the Uyghur folk dastan have played an important role in shaping muqam, as dastan texts and melodies are used and sometimes enriched in the Twelve Muqams. There is even a section in the Uyghur Twelve Muqams known as “dastan”. The present version of the Uyghur Twelve Muqams includes 42 songs from thirteen dastans, that is, 792 lines taken from the Uyghur folk dastan traditions (Juma 2011:66). In other words, one in five lines in the Twelve Muqams is borrowed from dastan. Some epic tales, such as Gherip and Sanam, Yüsüp and Zuleyhe, and Perhad and Shirin, are also common in both the Twelve Muqams and dastans. 72 lines of poetry from dastans performed in Khotan, such as Yüsüp and Ehmed, Hörliqa and Hemrajan, and Tahir and Zöhre, have been included in the Uyghur Twelve Muqams.

Thus, the folk dastan and muqam traditions are closely interrelated. They have coexisted throughout a long stretch of history, mutually borrowing some themes, complementing, and influencing one another. Accordingly, they bear common features and occupy similar cultural spaces.


Ismayil, Osman. 2007. Uyghur folk Dastan and problems of its protection. In Miras. Vol. 1. 71-77.

Juma, Osman. 2011. The position of folk Dastan in Muqam text. In Journal of Xinjiang Art Institute. Vol. 1. 65-67.