Uygur couple on donkey cart head to market with produce in baskets. Turfan, Xinjiang. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Uygurs are a Turkic group in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. During most of the past ten centuries they lived under the control of Mongolian peoples. After the Uygur rebellion of 1931–1934 the Chinese government granted the Uygurs the status of a minority people.
Uygurs are the largest of the Turkic groups who live in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, with an estimated modern population of 8 to 15 million in 1997. Uygurs account for almost half of the population of the area, with an additional third represented by the Han Chinese and members of other minority ethnicities accounting for the rest. During most of the past ten centuries these people lived under the control of Mongolian peoples. The Uygurs live in the Tian Shan range as nomads (although the nomadic population is decreasing). They herd sheep, cows, horses, goats, and camels. In oases near the Taklimakan Desert they farm with the help of irrigation canals or underground waterways to run meltwater. Popular crops are wheat, cotton, corn, and fruit (grapes, watermelons, and muskmelons). Trade is conducted across borders in the southwestern cities, where people weave traditional carpets.
The Uygurs today are Sunni Muslims, but earlier in their history they inclined to Manichaeanism (since the eighth century) and then Buddhism (since the tenth century). Before that they practiced shamanism and believed that heaven (tengri) gives order, power, and wisdom to people. Archaeologists have uncovered fragments of many kinds of texts on Manichaeanism, Buddhism, and Nestorian Christianity at archaeological sites in Uygur areas. Islam came to Uygur territory along the Silk Roads, and almost all Uygurs had become Muslims by the end of the fifteenth century, replaced Manichaeanism and Buddhism.
The Chinese government during the reform era (since 1978) has maintained an appeasement policy regarding religious expression, supporting the revival of religious activities, including reconstruction of mosques and religious schools and supporting publication of books in Uygur in an effort to promote reform and an open-door policy. This policy is an attempt to mend the damage done by the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), when much of the culture of the pre-Communist period was destroyed. Muslim Uygurs hope that this policy will lead to a resurgence of religious and ethnic autonomy, but their optimism is cautious. They fear that their cultural and ethnic sovereignty will be overwhelmed by the region’s burgeoning Han Chinese population. China, for its part, is sensitive about issues affecting its sovereignty over the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The term Uygur originally was the name of one of the Nine Tribes (Tokuz Oghuz), a confederation of Turkic nomads that first appeared in the annals of Chinese history in the early seventh century. A clan of the Uygur tribe, the Yaghlakar, founded a state (744–840 CE) in what is now Mongolia. This state’s most noteworthy contribution was the military rescue of the Chinese Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) from the crises created by the rebellion of General An Lushan (703–757). In return, the Chinese emperor gave the Uygur state a large monetary award each year. The Uygurs strengthened their relationship with the Sogdian merchants (Sogdians were a people who lived in Transoxiana, now Uzbekistan), who traded horses from the Uygur state for silk from China. In 763 the Uygurs allowed the Sogdians’ to perform Manichaean missionary work. The city of Ordubalik (Town of the Palace), located on the Orkhon riverside and later named “Karabalghasun,” enjoyed its greatest era during this time. The Sogdians traded with their colonies along the Silk Roads leading to China and the Uygur state.
The ruling classes of the Uygurs attempted to strengthen economic and social relations with the Sogdians, an attempt that caused unrest among nomadic Uygurs, who were suffering from famine and pestilence, and, in 839, from heavy snowfall. Probably recognizing the chance to take advantage of the situation, a large number of Kyrgyz—a Turkic tribe in the upper Yenisey Valley—allied with a discontented Uygur general and invaded and burned Ordubalik, bringing down the Uygur government in 840. Both Uygur nomads and nobles of the ruling classes emigrated, settling eventually in the area from the Tian Shan range to Gansu Province in northwestern China. Immigrant Uygurs established at least two new states—the Uygur kingdom of Ganzhou (890–1028) and the West Uygur kingdom (early tenth century–1284). Descendants of the Ganzhou Uygurs may be the Yugur in Gansu, traditionally known as the “Yellow Uygurs.”
The Tangut people (herders from the Ordos Desert area of northern China) absorbed the Uygur kingdom of Ganzhou into their Xi Xia kingdom in 1028. In the 1130s the West Uygur kingdom fell under the control of the Kara Khitan. In 1209, unable to bear the tyranny of the local Kara Khitan magistrate, the king of the Uygurs had him killed. The king no doubt was emboldened by the promise of protection from a new and more powerful overlord: the Mongol conqueror Chinggis Khan (often spelled Genghis Khan). The king surrendered the West Uygur kingdom to Chinggis Khan in that same year; it survived as a Mongol vassal state until 1284. The Uygurs originally were supposed to provide military service for the Mongol empire but ended up holding higher positions in government.
At the end of the thirteenth century a dispute over succession among the Mongol khans turned the Uygur lands into a battlefield, and by the early fourteenth century the castle towns in the Turfan Basin were devastated by war. The Uygur royal family and its subordinates found refuge in Gansu in 1284, and the Uygur lands came to be ruled by the descendants of Chagatai Khan, son of Chinggis Khan. When the Kashgar Khojas, Islamic nobles, gained power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Islam and Islamic culture—for example, the Naqshbandiya order of sufi (Islamic mystics)—spread among the Uygur people. Galdan Khan (1645–1697), leader of the Oirats of western Mongolia, occupied the land of the Uygurs for seventy years after an invasion in 1679. During the first half of the eighteenth century under Galdan’s successors, many Uygur farmers (later called “Taranchis”) of southern Xinjiang were forcibly relocated to the Ili Valley on the northern border.
In 1760 the Uygur territory was conquered by military expeditions of the Chinese Qing dynasty (1644–1912). In 1881 approximately forty-five thousand Uygurs relocated to Semirechie in Kazakhstan. The Uygur people in the oases around the Taklimakan Desert came under Chinese rule in 1884 when Xinjiang Province was established there. After the Uygur rebellion of 1931–1934 the Chinese government granted the Uygurs the status of a minority people at last, which provided them with national recognition, various rights to promote their own culture, and, in the modern era, the right to disregard China’s one-child policy.
The Uygurs, with China’s Kazakh minority, founded a state (the East Turkistan Republic) in northern Xinjiang in 1944–1949, but the newly founded People’s Republic of China absorbed it in October 1949. In 1955 the Chinese opened an administrative office in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region at Urumchi. About sixty thousand people, including Uygurs and Kazakhs, emigrated to Kazakhstan in 1
962. Today more than two hundred thousand Uygurs are citizens of Kazakhstan.
Uygurs gained a certain amount of international attention in 2008 due to several violent incidents in western China by Uygur nationalists on ethic Han Chinese, resulting in fatalities. While the Uigurs have had nationalist movements since the establishment of the PRC in 1949, it is since the attacks of September 11, 2001 that the government of the People’s Republic of China has used new techniques to encourage harmonious relationships between the Uygur minority population and the rest of China, and has focused on promoting all minority groups in the new face of China’s ethnic milieu.
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Drinking the water of a well, one should never forget who dug it.
Chī shuǐ bù wàng wā jǐng rén
Source: Oda, Juten. (2009). Uygurs. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2380–2383. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Xinjiang Urumqi Market, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Uygurs (Wéiwú’ěrzú 维吾尔族)|Wéiwú’ěrzú 维吾尔族 (Uygurs)