Meet Gulpiya Jelili: The Xinjiang princess of aerial tightrope walking

As the sound the rawap, a traditional Uygur stringed instrument, starts to echo across the room, 10-year-old Gulpiya Jelili begins to dance along a tightrope.

Gulpiya Jelili, a 10-year-old tightrope walker, practices her skills at a school in Yengisar in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

As the sound the rawap, a traditional Uygur stringed instrument, starts to echo across the room, 10-year-old Gulpiya Jelili begins to dance along a tightrope.

The performance is called dawaz, a traditional form of acrobatics in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The performer holds a balancing pole, tiptoes along a tightrope and undertakes movements such as walking, lying down and jumping. The greater the skill, the more challenging the movements.

Dawaz was added in to the national list of intangible cultural heritage in 2006.

A regional acrobatics troupe recently visited 10 regions in Xinjiang looking for talented performers to cultivate and develop the art.


Gulpiya Jelili practices her skills.

Jelili’s tightrope walking career began in the country’s only dawaz training school in Xinjiang’s Yengisar County. The school was opened by Adil Uxur, a sixth generation dawaz performer.

Studying dawaz is not easy, but when Jelili heard about the school, she begged her mother to send her. The then 8-year-old even threatened to go on hunger strike if she refused.

Tightrope walking was not only an amazing skill to learn, but it also allowed her to escape the two people in her life she most disliked — her biological father, who abandoned his children after divorce, and her distant step-father.


Gulpiya Jelili and fellow students are training in the morning session. 

Most of Jelili’s 22 fellow students also come from difficult childhoods: some were orphans, others were abandoned after parents divorced.

“I wanted to provide them with a path that will lead to a good life,” Uxur said.

From the moment she was accepted, the determined Jelili was identified as a potential key performer and given more rigorous training, Uxur said.

Before dawn, the girl and her classmates do handstands on a long bench, their legs against the wall. They typically stay in a handstand for 10 minutes, but as a key performer, Jelili must continue for an extra five minutes, causing the blue veins to appear on her temples, and the muscles of her arms to shake.

Uxur has set seven world records in tightrope walking, and knows only too well the risks of the performance.

“There is essentially no safety equipment in dawaz, so every bead of sweat they shed in training is important, because more practice means less chance of falling during a performance,” the coach said.


Gulpiya Jelili puts on toe shoes before practising tightrope walking.

Uxur remembers Jelili falling from the rope after losing her balance as she prepared to do a leap. She landed on cushions and was not hurt, but was frustrated with her mistake, constantly punching her fist into the cushion, he said.

“The rope is very thin, so it is inevitable that performers fall down at some stage,” said Sattar, another coach at the school. “But once you master the skill, you feel at ease on the rope.”

Although she has barely completed two years’ training, Jelili has already performed in major cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, with her performances earning her the title of “the Xinjiang princess of aerial tightrope walking.”

“Even though I haven’t traveled to as many places as my older teammates, I am the only person in my family who has been to these big cities,” Jelili said.


Gulpiya Jelili shows her paintings.

In her spare time, when most teenage girls gossip about celebrities, Jelili prefers to paint her experiences. She wants to share what she has seen outside Xinjiang with her mother and sister.

Jelili said becoming a well-known tightrope performer was not her only goal.

“When I grow up, I want to write a book about dawaz,” she said. “I will have good memories about the places I have seen, the people I have met and the jokes they told me. I think it will be fun.”

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