On the forest-clad mountains, fertile prairies and along the beautiful lakes in the north and northeast of Xinjiang lives an old ethnic group of China -- Kazak ethnic group. The Kazak believe that they are the descendents of white swans. “Kazak”, which means “white swan”, symbolizes purity, freedom and happiness. The Kazak love horse-riding and singing, as an old proverb of them says that “Horse and song are the wings of the Kazak”. It is on the horsebacks and in the songs that the Kazak have created their civilization.
Origin of the Kazak
There are many records on the origin of the Kazak ethnic group in Chinese history. In more than 500 years since Zhang Qian of the Western Han Dynasty went as a special envoy to Wusun in 119 B.C., the inhabitants of the Ili River valley and round the Issyk Kul were mainly Wusun people and part of the Saizhong and Yueshi ethnic people, the forefathers of the Kazak.
As early as the reign of Emperor Wu Di of the Western Han Dynasty, Wusun established tributary relations of alliance with the Han court through the marriage of Xijun and Xieyou princesses and woman official Feng Liao with the Wusun King of Kunmo and senior generals. In the mid-sixth century, the Turkomans founded a Turkic khanate in the Altay Mountains. As a result, they mixed with the Wusun people, and the forefathers of the Kazak later mixed with the nomadic or semi-nomadic Uighurs, Geluolus, Qidans (Khitans), Kelies, Naimans and Mongols of the Kipchak and Jagatai khanates.
In the early 13th Century, as Genghis Khan marched westward, the Wusun, Kelie and Naiman tribes had to move likewise. Part of the Kipchak, Jagatai and Wuokuotai khanates of the Mongol Empire were Kazak pastures. In the 1460s, some of the herdsmen in the lower reaches of the Syr-Darya, under the leadership of Jilai and Zanibek, returned to the Chu River Valley south of Lake Balkhash. As they went eastward to escape the rule of the Ozbek Khanate, they were named "Kazak", meaning "refugees" or "runaways." They then mixed with southward-moving Ozbeks and the settled Mongols of the Jagatai Khanate. As the population grew, they extended their pastures to northwest of Lake Balkhash, the Chu River valley and to Tashkent, Andizan and Samarkand in Central Asia, gradually evolving into the Kazak ethnic group.
Aken and Dongbula
“Aken” is the title the Kazak give to their most outstanding singers who are masters of dongbula, a traditional plucking instrument of them. They are the most popular and respected folk artists who are skilled in improvisation. They write lyrics, sing and play all by themselves.
Legend has it that once there was a beautiful singer on the Altay Prairie who was forced to get married and was finally rescued by a horse flying down from the sky. The horse was the incarnation of her beloved one. It got her on its back and flied away. However, the girl was so nostalgic about the prairie that she dropped her dongbula, which reproduced numerous ones and fell onto earth. Hence, every summer and autumn, the Kazak will host a singing fair which has become a grand gathering on the prairie. Herdsmen from all quarters came to join the fair and akens elected by each tribe stage performances. The fair would lasts for several days, accompanied by various entertainments like horse racing and wrestling etc.
The Kazak girls are as valiant as the boys. The “girl chase” is a recreation on horseback most favored by the Kazak. For years, it has opened a way for the Kazak girls to get away from arranged marriage and pursue free love.
“Girl Chase” is usually hosted during festivals. Girls and boys are chosen from different tribes and offered with the best horses on condition that the girl’s horse is better than the boy’s. They set out for an appointed place, during which the boys could flirt with the girls or even kiss them. In another way, they can do anything they could without being considered impropriate. When they reach the destination, the boy needs to race back promptly and the girl would chase after the boy. If the girl fails, the boy wins. If the girl succeeds, she could punish the boy with her horsewhip for what he has done before. If the girl likes the boy, she would only give a light touch to the boy with her whip. This unique activity has given chances for young boys and girls to fall in love with each other.
Living on the grassland and in the forest, each Kazak is good at hunting. They use falcons rather than modern weapons. Falcons are selected, captured, tamed and trained before they become qualified.
After heavy snow when the sky clears up, it is a good time for the Kazak to hunt with their falcons. The Kazak, by twos and threes, ride on their horses with falcons on their arms. When the preys come into sight, they let go of their falcons which would fly high into sky and dive to the ground for the prey. They can almost catch everything from rabbits to goats and roe deer.
An excellent falcon can fight with wolves to rescue its master, so they are regarded as a mascot, known as “divine bird”. They are the close friends of the Kazak and enjoy a high status. The hunters seldom sell their falcons although they can be sold at a price as high as an ox. Nowadays, falcon taming has become an entertainment for the Kazak, which is popular among the elder.