Who are the Uyghurs and why are Chinese people scared of them?

People cooking in the street, Urumqi, China - header

China is an ethnically very diverse land comprising of 55 different minority groups, adding up to the total of 105 million people. The Uyghurs are China’s third largest ethnicity with the population of a small European country (11.5 million).

During our 4 months in China we were lucky enough to met many Uyghurs and Han Chinese, and learn about their views of one and other. Many times when we told our Han friends and hosts that we had visited Xinjiang province, where the Muslim Uyghurs live, their reaction surprised us. Uyghurs, according to many of them, are dangerous people who are only interested in separatism and were not to be trusted. This ran so contra to what we had experienced, namely friendliness, hospitality and kindness, that we set about trying to learn why this discrepancy existed. So, who are the Uyghurs and why are Chinese people so scared of them?

Uyghur men playing cards on the street, Urumqi, China

The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group located predominately in the North-Western Chinese region of Xinjiang. Uyghurs are mainly Muslim people and identify themselves as being socially and culturally closer to the nations of Central Asia. Over 80% of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs live in the south-western portion of the region, in the so called the Tarim Basin, but there is a large community in south-central Hunan province, in Taoyuan County, as well as diasporic communities in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkey.

People cooking in the street, Urumqi, China

Brief history of the Uyghurs…

The origins of the Uyghur people, like many things in the region today, are steeped in controversy. The Uyghurs themselves trace their roots back to the earliest Turkic tribes, laying claim to the lands of Xinjiang since pre-history. Chinese scholars, perhaps unsurprisingly, disagree and claim that the Uyghurs are descendants of the Tiele people, who emigrated to Xinjiang upon the fall of the Uyghur Khaganate in the 9th century and displaced the original Han inhabitants. The truth is more complex, however, and it is likely that the Uyghurs are not the descendants of one tribal grouping but of multiple different groups of which the ancient Uyghurs are but one.

More concretely, the first historical reference of the Uyghurs first appeared in 600AD. During a confusing period of ever evolving alliances and wars with fellow Turkic tribes across the Mongolian and Central Asian plains, the Uyghurs were but one small tribe in a larger jigsaw. The rise of the Uyghur Khaganate in 744AD was the result of a culmination of alliance and it should be noted that the name Uyghur at this time was used to refer to all citizens of the khaganate, not just the tribe.

At its peak, the confederacy covered an area stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west to Manchuria in the east and was administered from the imperial capital of Ordu-Baliq in Mongolia. It was not to last for long, however, as it was soon overrun by another Turkic tribe, the Kirghiz who forced the disparate tribes which made up the khaganate to flee to what is now known as north-east China.

Several smaller and less influential kingdoms were established after the fall of the Uyghur Khaganate, and Islam had begun to make its presence felt in the region, but all were swallowed up by the advancing Mongols in the 13th century. The break up of the gigantic Mongol empire, and the consequent fighting for the scraps inhibited the creation of any functioning Uyghur state until the 17th century when a theocratic regime, headed by the Uyghur Apak Khoja (and his Khojijan descendants), managed to unify the area known as East Turkestan, under an empire known as Moghulistan.

In 1759, the Chinese came, invading East Turkestan and incorporating it into the Manchu empire. During this period the Uyghurs revolted 42 times and 41 times it was put down with bloody results. In 1863, however, the Uyghurs successfully expelled the Manchus and established an independent state. Backed by the British, who feared Russian expansion in the area, the Manchus came back in 1876 and annexed Eastern Turkestan renaming it Xinjiang (meaning ‘new territories’ in Chinese) in 1884.

Two further revolts in 1933 & 1944 briefly managed to implement an Eastern Turkestan Republic but military intervention from the Soviet Union proved fatal and when the Chinese Communists defeated the Nationalists in 1949, the Uyghurs fell under Chinese communist rule until the present day.

Mosque in Urumqi, China

What makes them different?

The Uyghurs were amongst the first Turkic people to embrace Islam and religion is a fundamental part to their identity today. Uyghurs are predominately Sunni and those we met followed a particularly conservative approach to religion and life in general.

The Uyghur language is an Eastern Karlik branch of the Turkic family. It has been written in multiple scripts over history including Cyrillic and a modified Latin but it is predominately written using an Arabic alphabet with some modifications.

The 12 Muqams is the national oral epic of the Uyghurs and is listed as by UNESCO as part of the intangible heritage of humanity. The national dance of sanam is popular amongst Uyghur people and is commonly danced at parties, wedding and festive celebrations.

Uyghur cuisine is popular across Central Asia and China with influences from both regions. Lengman is a popular dish and consists of handmade flour noodles and stir-fried meat and vegetables. Other popular dishes include plov, lamb or beef kebabs and dapanji, spicy chicken stew served on a big platter.

Uyghur musical instruments, Urumqi, China

Uyghur musical instruments

The current situation

Tensions between Uyghurs and Chinese have bubbled under the surface for many years but the 21st century has seen things heat up considerably.

On the streets of Urumqi is hard not to notice the sheer amount of police and soldiers on patrol, seemingly standard shopping streets are dotted with armed guards, hidden behind small fort-like structures. The police are also legally permitted to enter and search Uyghur homes, should they suspect any illegal activities.

We walked past a mosque during Ramadan and the worshippers were surrounded by soldiers on high alert. It was a little intimidating and we were only visiting so who knows how the locals felt.

Uyghurs we spoke to complained about the lack of educational, employment and housing opportunities for ethnic Uyghurs, with preference being given to Han Chinese. Furthermore they felt that their religious and cultural rights are being threatened especially since the street protests in the 1990s and during the lead up to the Beijing Olympics.

Uyghur parents are officially prohibited to allow their children participate in religious ceremonies.

One Uyghur we spoke to felt that the change had happened after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, believing that the government began to fear the Islamic Uyghurs like never before.

“The worldwide campaign against terrorism has given Beijing the perfect excuse to crack down harder than ever in Xinjiang,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

The sense that Beijing has used the threat of Uyghur ‘terrorism’ to promote Han cultural assimilation is hard to escape. Mass immigration of Han has not helped the situation, creating ethnic divisions in the larger cities and heavy handed imprisonment of prominent Uyghurs has only served to exacerbate the situation.

Chinese people across the country are, in our experience, fearful of the Uyghurs, making vague claims to terrorism and separatism. Whilst it is true that there have been cases of inter-ethnic violence in Xinjiang, we found that there wasn’t huge enthusiasm for independence amongst the people there. What feelings there were, were borne of the injustice of being a suppressed people and the urge to not be so.

When we informed Han Chinese people that we had been to Xinjiang many times they gave the impression that they were surprised we had made it through alive. Misinformation is alive and well in China and independent news is hard to come by.

Uyghur bread, Urumqi, China

Additional reading:

Have you met any Uyghurs? What was your experience like?

written by: Jon.


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