Robert John PERRINS

View of the Tian Shan range, Xinjiang’s most scenic mountains. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is the largest political unit in China but also one of the least populated. Muslim Uygurs make up Xinjiang’s largest ethnic population (although several other minorities reside there as well). CCP authorities have had a policy of settling Han (China’s majority ethnicity) in the region in an attempt to solidify government rule.

Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, located in northwestern China, is bordered by Russia to the north, Mongolia to the northeast, the Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai to the east, Tibet (Xizang) Autonomous Region to the southeast, Afghanistan and India to the south and southwest, and Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan to the west. Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is the largest political unit in China, covering 1.6 million square kilometers: slightly smaller than Iran. However, despite its size, Xinjiang is one of the least-populated regions of China. Its geography and climate help explain its low population density: Much of the southern half of the region is covered by the vast Taklimakan Desert, whereas the center is dominated by the uninhabitable Tian Shan range.

Xinjiang has long been China’s gateway to central Asia. As far back as the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and Tang (618–907 CE) dynasties, the oasis towns scattered throughout Xinjiang were the backbone of the great Silk Roads, a highway over which merchants carried luxury goods from the Chinese empire to the Arab empires of the Middle East and the kingdoms of central Asia. Despite its strategic location, Xinjiang retained considerable independence during much of its history. The region’s current name, which in Chinese means “new frontier,” can be traced to the conquest of the region by the Manchu armies of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) during the mid-eighteenth century. Even after 250 years of Chinese control, however, Xinjiang retains much of its traditional culture. The region’s largest ethnic group continues to be the Muslim Uygurs, although several other minority nationalities, including Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Tajiks, also have sizable populations. The “minority” population of Xinjiang in 1997 was 10.58 million (61.6 percent of the region’s total population). This population figure is all the more noteworthy because, since 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party took over the governance of Xinjiang, central authorities have had a policy of settling Han (ethnic Chinese) in the region in an attempt to solidify their rule.

This policy, together with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Chinese economic migrants from the eastern provinces and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in central Asia, has resulted in the development of a separatist movement among Xinjiang’s Muslims since the mid-1980s. During the 1990s movement extremists began a terrorist campaign against local authorities in Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi and symbols of the Chinese “occupation” throughout the region. The Chinese government, in an attempt to keep the separatists from acquiring external support, during the late 1990s negotiated a number of agreements with neighboring states to jointly develop the region’s natural resources and to promote trade. Authorities in Beijing hoped to suppress support for Uygur nationalists by promising economic prosperity to the Islamic nations of central Asia.

When world attention was on pro-Tibet protests along the Olympic torch relay route prior to the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008, Uygur separatist groups staged demonstrations in several countries. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is an Uygur group that advocates creation of the Islamic state of East Turkestan in Xinjiang. On 4 August 2008, four days before the Olympics, suspected ETIM members rammed a dump truck into a patrol station in Xinjiang, killing or wounding thirty-two Chinese police officers.

Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is to be a central element of China’s Developing the West program, which was announced by Premier Jiang Zemin in 2000.

Iron Discovery in Xinjiang

The China scholar Joseph Needham discusses the origins of iron-smelting technology in the Xinjiang region of China.

In Xinjiang, in the far northwest of modern China, some surprisingly early dates for iron have been published in recent years. Iron is found in graves which for the most part show no sign at all of Chinese influence and which have surprisingly early radiocarbon dates. The most important early iron artifact type appears to be a small knife…. Archaeological material available…suggests that iron technology came to Xinjiang from the Chust culture of the Ferghana Valley, in modern Uzbekistan. Here iron appears at the beginning of the –1st millennium [BCE], and there is solid evidence of mutual influence between this culture and several cultures of southern Xinjiang.

Farther east, in the Russian Maritime Province, some scholars believe that the use of iron was much earlier, perhaps as early as the –12th century [BCE]. This claim seems to be based on a single radiocarbon date, and should therefore be treated with extreme caution until such a time as more solid evidence becomes available.

It seems reasonable to conclude that the technology of iron smelting came to Xinjiang from further west. Given the present state of Inner Eurasian archaeology, however, further speculation concerning the precise route by which this transmission took place would probably be unwise. On the other hand, transmission to the Central Plain from Xinjiang through Gansu seems uncontroversial.

Source: Needham, J., and Wagner, D. B.. (Eds.). (2008). Science & civilisation in China, Vol. V: 11. Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 91, 97.

Further Reading

Besson, L., Rudelson, J., & Toops, S. W. (1994). Xinjiang in the twentieth century. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Bovingdon, G., & Gladney, D. C. (2000). Inner Asia: Special issue—Xinjiang. Cambridge, MA: White Horse Press.

Dillon, M. (1995). Xinjiang: Ethnicity, separation, and control in Chinese central Asia. Durham, U.K.: University of Durham, Department of East Asian Studies.

Kirk, M. (Ed.). (2009). China by numbers 2009. Hong Kong: China Economic Review Publishing.

McMillen, D. H. (1979). Chinese communist power and policy in Xinjiang, 1949–1977. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

State Statistical Bureau. (1998). China statistical yearbook. Beijing: China Statistical Publishing House.

Weng Weiquan. (1986). Xinjiang, the Silk Road: Islam’s overland route to China. New York: Oxford University Press.

Source: Perrins, Robert John (2009). Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2519–2522. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

View of a lake amid the snow-capped mountains in Xinjiang. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

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