The Twelve Muqam are a suite of songs of the Uygur people of northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The pieces may be sung, danced, or instrumental, and may be performed individually or in small groups. Their lyrics are drawn from many sources, including Persian, Turkic, and folk poetry, although the actual origins of the Muqam are hazy. The lyrics are often infused with Sufi imagery.

The Uygur* people of northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region are closely identified with the Twelve Muqam, a suite of songs drawn from several Central Asian traditions that may be sung either individually or in small groups. The Twelve Muqam are related to the Arabo-Persian maqam system; the term muqam is the Turkic-language variant of this Arab term, and many names of suites are also drawn from Arabic. However, musically the Muqam are more closely related to central Asian art-music traditions, such as the Bukharan Shashmaqam (music of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). Unlike the Arabo-Persian traditions, which involve some improvization in performance, each of the Uygur Twelve Muqam is basically a tripartite (divided into three parts) suite consisting of (1) chong naghma (great music)—a series of vocal and instrumental pieces beginning with a meditative, unmetered bash muqam (introduction); (2) dastan (stories)—slower metered pieces; and (3) mashrap (festival)—fast dance pieces.

*The author uses the spelling “Uighur” in her publications, rather than Uygur; changes have been made to reflect encyclopedia style, both in the article and in the accompanying sidebar.

Rhythmic formulas marked out by the hand-held dap (drum) characterize the pieces. Each of the Uygur Twelve Muqam has a defining pitch range and mood, but the modulation of the notes played is so frequent that it is hardly possible to link a Muqam to one mode, or range of notes (as compared to a Western classical piece, for example, which generally stays in one key throughout the course of the piece).

The Twelve Muqam lyrics are attributed to the great Persian and Turkic poets or drawn from folk poetry. They are imbued with Sufi (Muslim mystic) imagery and ideals. Said to have originated in the fifteenth-century Kashgar court (an oasis city on the old Silk Roads, now in Xinjiang Uygur A. R.), their current form is more realistically traced back to the nineteenth century. Muqam may be performed by one singer with a bowed or plucked lute (satar or tanbur) and a drum or with a small group of supporting voices and instruments. Men, women, beggars, and religious men may practice this tradition for religious purposes or for enjoyment. The Twelve Muqam have an important place in Uygurs’ affections and are often referred to in terms of moral authority and spiritual necessity.

Heartbreak in the Twelve Muqam

The Twelve Muqam, an epic suite of songs of the Uygur people, often contain lyrics of heartbreak and loss, such as these from “Rak Muqamining Uchinchi Dastani.”


Ey yaranlar qedirdanlar

Bugun qiyamet qayum dengler

Ishqi otida koydi janler

Ne boldi yarim kelmidi.

Kilurmen dep wede qildi

Kilur muddetidin ashti

Kozum yoligha telmurdi

Ne boldi yarim kelmidi.

Ygen ashim zeher boldi

Keygen tonum kepen boldi

Chirayim zepireng boldi

Ne boldi yarim kelmidi.

Chushtin keyin bolur peshim

Yarning kongli bek ewrishim

Ewrishimdek boylaring’gha

Chirmeship olsem kashki.


Dear friends

Today is the end of the world you say

Love’s fire has consumed my life

Why does my lover not come?

I will come she promised

But the time of arrival has come

My eyes on the road hoping

Why does my lover not come?

The food I eat is poison

My clothes are a winding sheet

My face is sallow like a (flower?)

Why does my lover not come?

What I did in the afternoon

My love is so soft and fine

Like silk her figure

Entwined with her I am happy to die

Source: Li Bai. (n.d.). Ancient air. Retrieved March 13, 2009, from http://www.chinese-poems.com/lb19.html

Further Reading

During, J., & Trebinjac, S. (1991). Introduction au Muqam Ouigour [Introduction to the Uyghur Muqam]. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mackerras, C. (1985). Traditional Uyghur performing arts. Asian Music, 16, 29–58.

Trebinjac, S. (2000). Le Pouvoir en chantent: L’Art de fabriquer une musique chinoise [The power in singing: The art of composing a Chinese music]. Nanterre, France: Societé d’ethnologie.


La Route de Soie, Chine, Xinjiang [The Silk Road, Xinjiang, China] [Recorded by Anderson Bakewell] (1992). On Recordings by Anderson Bakewell [CD]. Boulogne, France: Playasound PS.

Turkestan Chinois/Xinjiang: Musique Ouigoures [Turkestan Chinese/Xinjiang: Uyghur Music] [Recorded by Sabine Trebinjac and Jean During]. (1990). [CD]. France: Ocora.

Uyghur Musicians from Xinjiang (2000). Music from the Oasis Towns of Central Asia [CD]. London: Globestyle.

Source: Harris, Rachel (2009). Twelve Muqam. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2333–2334. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Twelve Muqam (Shí‘èr Mùk?m? ?????)|Shí‘èr Mùk?m? ????? (Twelve Muqam)

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