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Uyghurs and Uyghur Identity

Dolkun Kamberi, Ph. D


Great politicians will pass from the earth, and the strongest imperial states will collapse and disappear from a new generation’s memory, but wisdom, civilization, and cultural heritage will continue to play a significant role among human beings as long as there is human history.

The land of the Uyghurs today consists of the Tarim, Junghar, and Turpan basins, situated in the center of Asia. This region has had great importance since early times because of its favored geographic location on the ancient trade routes between the East and the West, connecting the Greco-Roman civilization with Indian Buddhist culture and Central and East Asian traditions. Burgeoning trade, commerce, and cultural exchange gave the Uyghurs’ land a cosmopolitan character, marked by linguistic, racial, and religious tolerance. The Uyghurs’ culture and art developed not only on the basis of the inheritance and preservation of their traditional culture, but also through cultural exchanges with others in the East and the West.

“Uyghur-land” in this article denotes a geographical location rather than a geopolitical entity. It is situated in the eastern part of Central Asia and measures at its maximum 2,000 kilometers from east to west and 1,650 kilometers from north to south. Uyghur-land comprises about one sixth of China’s territory; it is now the largest Autonomous Region of China. The Uyghur region includes a great portion of Central Asia, from the northeast to the southwest; it borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet, and India.

Not only is Uyghur-land situated in a strategic position on a vital communication line in Central Asia, among three large imperial states, China, India, and Russia—it also has a unique geographic environment, rich natural resources, and a special climate. Its arid climate has helped to preserve ancient tombs, mummies, petroglyphs, city sites, Buddhist caves, innumerable cultural relics, and underground antiquities and treasures. Twenty-four different scripts, used for writing seventeen ancient languages, have been unearthed from the Tarim and Turpan basin oasis cities and are well known to scholars.[1]

In Chinese sources, at various periods, this land has been called the “Western Region” or the “Western Countries.” In non-Chinese sources, it was known as “Uyghuristan,” “East Turkistan,” “Chinese Turkistan,” or “Chinese Central Asia.” The term “Uyghur Äli,” found in a medieval Uyghur manuscript, means “The Country of the Uyghurs.” In 1884, the Qing Dynasty of China began to call the region “Xinjiang,” which means “new territory.” After 1955, the name “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” was given to it by the government of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

According to the July 1, 1990, official Chinese census, the Uyghur-speaking population was at that time 7.2495 million and comprised more than 60% of the region’s population. The Han Chinese population was 5.7466 million, comprising about 30% of the 15 million total population of the Uyghur homeland. A decade later, the Chinese official census of 2000 indicated that the population of Uyghur-speakers was near 9 million, but independent sources claim that the Uyghur population is currently about 16 million. In the past ten years, the Han Chinese population in the region increased almost 32 percent. By contrast, in 1949, Uyghurs accounted for more than 90 percent of the region’s population, while the Han Chinese accounted for only 5 percent of the roughly 5 million people in the Uyghur homeland at that time. Thus the Chinese population had increased 500 percent in the last half of the twentieth century.

The Uyghurs historically formed the largest population group in the Central Asian region. They possessed a rich literary art and music as well as a strong economy and military. They had the ability to conduct state affairs, even to help other groups solve their problems as well. They showed generosity: the abundant hospitality that they offered was recorded in detail both in Chinese history and in the excavated Uyghur manuscripts of various periods.

The Uyghurs and their ancestors established their reign under the rule of the Huns (second century B.C.E. to second century C.E.), the Jurjan (third century to fifth century C.E.), and the Turkish empires (522 to 744 C.E.). The Uyghurs also established their own states throughout history; these included the Uyghur Äli (744 to 840 C.E.), the Ïdïqut Uyghur (605-840 to 1250), the Uyghur Qarakhan (tenth to thirteenth century), the Uyghur
Chaghatay (thirteenth to sixteenth centuy), the Yärkänt Uyghur Khanate (1514-1678), the Qumul and Turpan Uyghur Baks (from the end of the seventeenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century), and finally the Yakup Bak (1820-1877), which lasted until the Qing invasion. The Uyghurs reclaimed Uyghur-land as the Republic of Eastern Turkistan in 1933 and as the Eastern Turkistan Republic in 1944-1949.

The last Uyghur republic, established in 1944, was strongly supported by the Soviet Union. In the early 1940s, the Stalin regime sent a Soviet Army political commissar to every unit of the Eastern Turkistan Republic army, to control and monitor the situation of the latter. These Russian commissars fed information about the political views of the main leaders of the Eastern Turkistan Republic directly to Moscow. The Chinese Communist Party also closely monitored the political situation in Uyghur-land. The Eastern Turkistan leadership made a strong demand for independence from both Russia and China. Joseph Stalin endorsed the decision for the Uyghur people made at the secret conference with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt at Yalta in 1945. He firmly believed that the Chinese Communist Party would agree to build a new China following the USSR’s ideological doctrine. Stalin immediately called Alihan Tore, the Soviet-supported President of Eastern Turkistan, to Russia in 1946; Tore lived in Tashkent until 1976.

Alihan Tore’s successor, Ahmatjan Qasim (1914-1949), Eastern Turkistan Army Chief General Isaqbeg (1902-1949), Deputy Army Chief General Dalilkan Sugurbayev (1902-1949), and a member of Eastern Turkistan Central Government, Abdukerim Abbasov (1921-1949), all died in a mysterious plane crash on August 22, 1949, on their way to Beijing to participate in the first Chinese Communist Party Central Committee meetings that would decide the political fate of the Uyghurs and the Eastern Turkistan Republic.

From 1946 to 1949, Russia and China attempted many governmental structural reforms in Uyghur-land. During these reforms, both Russian and Chinese government representatives promised the Uyghurs again and again that the presence of the Chinese army in Uyghur-land was intended to promote democratization, free elections, and greater autonomy, to help build the new Xinjiang, even to provide for the eventual independence of the Uyghur lands.[2]

The content of those promises is similar to Zhang Zhizhong’s promise at the summit of Chinese Nationalists, Communists, and Uyghurs in Urumchi in 1946. After 1950, “the communist revolutionary moment” in China touched almost every aspect of traditional culture, especially during the Cultural Revolution.

The revolutionaries found that every aspect of culture in Uyghur-land was different from that of China. This included languages, writing system, arts, literature, ideas, values, attitudes, history, religion, customs, music, dance, songs, and thought, even the personal features of the people, including their clothes, style of house decoration, and food. All of these differences were attacked by the Chinese government in an attempt to change them.

The government, for example, has twice changed the writing system of the Uyghurs, Kazaks, and Kirghiz, and it has punished all levels of educated intellectuals for political reasons four times in fifty years. Furthermore, the politicians reorganized and merged the Eastern Turkistan troops into Chinese Army units. After 1966, it caused the army units of former Eastern Turkistan—as well as their generals and high-ranking commanders—to disappear.

One goal of this publication is to offer the evidence needed for the world to have a better understanding of the distinctiveness of Uyghur identity.

[1] Dolkun Kamberi, “Xinjiang Yeqinqi Zaman Arheologiyisi wä Qeziwelinghan Qädimqi Yeziqlarni Qisqichä Tonushturush [Brief Introduction of Xinjiang Contemporary Archology and Unearthed Various Ancient Scripts],” Xinjiang Ijtima-i Pänlär Tätqiqati, 1 (1984): 60-70.

[2] Zhang Zhizhong, Cong Dihua Huitan Dao Xinjiang Heping Jiefang [From Urumchi Summit to Peaceful Liberation of Xinjiang] (Urumchi: Xinjiang Renming Chubanshe, 1987), pp. 166-67.

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