Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

China's restive far west hopes to win hearts with 'Princess Fragrant' cartoon

By Sophie Brown and Serena Dong , CNN
updated 5:34 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ipan Khan, the main character of an upcoming Chinese cartoon based on the tale of an 18th century Uyghur concubine.
Ipan Khan, the main character of an upcoming Chinese cartoon based on the tale of an 18th century Uyghur concubine.
  • New cartoon seeks to foster cultural understanding between ethnic groups in Xinjiang region
  • "Princess Fragrant" is based on the tale of a Uyghur concubine who marries an emperor
  • A symbol of national unity for Chinese, modern Uyghur interpretations portray her as a sex slave
  • Animation seeks to be entertaining while fulfilling "political needs," director says

Hong Kong (CNN) -- China has struggled to contain ethnic tensions in the far northwest region of Xinjiang, recently launching a crackdown after a series of violent attacks left hundreds dead in recent months.

But authorities think they may have found a new tonic to mend the cultural differences between the region's indigenous Uyghurs -- a mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking group -- and China's dominant ethnic group, the Han Chinese.

Her name is Ipal Khan. The wide-eyed Uyghur beauty is the protagonist of an upcoming cartoon based on the well-known tale of a girl from the city of Kashgar who captivated China's Qianlong Emperor with her good looks and sweet fragrance in the 18th century and became his concubine.

According to the legend most Chinese are familiar with, the girl fell in love with the emperor and became his cherished consort.

"She is a figure that has contributed much to cross-cultural communication," Deng Jianglei, director of the cartoon, "Princess Fragrant," told CNN. The animation is set to become a television series at the end of 2015, and a film the following year.

Deng's company, Shenzhen Qianheng Cultural Communication Company, won a tender to create the 3-D animation last year, as part of a campaign by Xinjiang authorities to promote social harmony among China's different ethnic groups and raise awareness of the folk customs of the Uyghurs.

During a visit to the province in June, Deng and his colleagues were inspired by the natural beauty and rich culture of Xinjiang -- a region the size of Iran that shares borders with eight countries.

"The cultures there and the folk arts are exquisite. But the place's economy is less developed. So we wanted ... to help them promote their cultures," he said.

But appealing to both Han and Uyghur audiences may prove a challenge.

Princess or sex slave?

Selecting a musician to compose the theme song, for example, took over a year, China's Global Times reports, because it was difficult to find a composer who was familiar with both Han and Uyghur traditions.

Then there are the alternative versions of the Uyghur girl's story.

Although the legend of Fragrant Concubine has become a symbol of national unity for many Chinese, modern Uyghur interpretations of the tale portray her as an imperial sex slave who was murdered by the emperor's mother after stubbornly rejecting the emperor's advances.

Deng said he wants the series to be entertaining while also fulfilling "political needs."

"(The cartoon) is a re-understanding of the friendship between Han and Uyghurs, which is especially significant to the re-education of the children and teaching them to accept different cultures."

His animation company, working in collaboration with the government of Kashgar, has plans to show the cartoon in China and abroad, especially in Islamic regions.

Xinjiang has a long history of ethnic unrest. Some Uyghurs have expressed resentment toward the Han Chinese in recent years over what they say is harsh treatment by security forces, discrimination and a lack of economic opportunities.

Muslim separatists have been held responsible for a series of recent deadly attacks, with Chinese authorities launching an anti-terror campaign in May. Measures to end the violence have ranged from executing convicted terrorists to banning beards and Islamic dress in some areas.

But authorities have not ignored the role of soft power.

"It is similar as fighting a war in the realm of ideology. If we don't pass on positive energy, the opposite side would occupy the battlefield," Sheng Jun, a deputy director of cultural industry office at the Xinjiang Bureau of Culture told The Global Times.

Finding common ground, however, was difficult even among the animators.

Some of the more conservative Xinjiang artists who were consulted in the making of the cartoon objected to the use of animal characters because of the negative connotations associated with some creatures like snakes according to Islamic traditions, and because Uyghur families rarely own pets, the Global Times reports.

"The difficulty is that you have to respect history and culture while catering to the market," Deng said.

When it came to the animals, Deng insisted they should stay. "It's all about compromise," he said.

READ: Xinjiang and tensions in China's restive far west

READ: China executes Tiananmen Square attack 'masterminds'

READ: China bans beards, veils on buses

Intern Linda Yan contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
A smuggler in Dandong, a Chinese border town near North Korea, tells CNN about the underground trade with North Korean soldiers
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Yenn Wong got quite a surprise one morning earlier this month when she found out an exact copy of her Hong Kong restaurant had opened in China.
updated 11:15 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.
updated 10:54 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
As its relationship with the West worsen, Russia is pivoting east in an attempt to secure business with China.
updated 10:29 PM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
Aspiring Chinese comics performing in Shanghai's underground comedy scene hope to bring stand-up to the masses.
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Liu Wen is one of the world's highest-paid models and the first Chinese face to crack the top five in Forbes' annual list of top earners.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist? C.Y. Leung was a relative unknown when he came to power in 2012.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
 A man uses his smartphone on July 16, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Only 53.5% of Japanese owned smartphones in March, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Communications on July 15, 2014. The survey of a thousand participants each from Japan, the U.S., Britain, France, South Korea and Singapore, demonstrated that Japan had the fewest rate of the six; Singapore had the highest at 93.1%, followed by South Korea at 88.7%, UK at 80%, and France at 71.6%, and U.S. at 69.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Japan had the highest percentage of regular mobile phone owners with 28.7%. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
App hopes to help those seeking a way out of China's overstrained public health system.
updated 8:20 PM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yards from pro-democracy protests, stands the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's armed forces.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
The massive street rallies that have swept Hong Kong present a major dilemma for China's leadership.
updated 3:07 AM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
Chinese wine drinkers need to develop a taste for the cheap stuff, not just premium red wines like Lafite.
updated 9:09 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, set off a media kerfuffle this month when he spoke about his next reincarnation.
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
He's one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong — he's been called an "extremist" by China's state-run media — and he's not old enough to drive.
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
China has no wine-making tradition but the country now uncorks more bottles of red than any other.
updated 5:29 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
updated 1:38 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.