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Who are the Uighurs?

An area under much scrutiny

Historically known as East Turkestan, officially called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, yet called by the Chinese simply as Xinjiang. In China’s far west, Xinjiang is a sparsely populated province that accounts for more than one-sixth of China’s total territory and a quarter of its boundary length.  The current territorial size of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is 1,626,000 sq. kilometers which is four times the size of California.

In recent decades, abundant oil and mineral reserves have been found in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. It is home to many ethnic groups including the Hans, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Huis, Uighurs, Kyrgyzs, Mongols and Russians. Since China has opened up to the West, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region has increasingly become a popular tourist destination.

A bit of history

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region lies in the very heart of Asia and borders eight countries, namely Pakistan, India, Russia, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Located along the ancient Silk Road, it has been a prominent center of commerce for more than 2000 years. The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region gave birth to several great civilizations and at various points in history, has been a cradle of power, scholarship, and culture. The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region has a diverse geography and a rich history. It has magnificent mountains, grand deserts, beautiful grasslands, rivers and forests.

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The people

In 1949 the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’s population was approximately 85% Uighurs and 8% Han Chinese, today it is about 45% Uighurs and 40% Han Chinese. Over the last 50 years or so, the Chinese government has paid Chinese Hans to move to the region. Tourists, who visit the area, may notice that almost all the cities with major Han and Uighur populations are segregated into distinct districts with little intermingling.

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Most Uighurs are Muslim, which is an important part of their life and identity. Their language is closely related to Turkish and is written in Arabic script. Uighurs regard themselves as ethnically and culturally close to the Central Asian nations.  Looking at the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region map, you’ll see it’s beyond China’s boundary, the Great Wall.

Culturally and historically, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is not a part of China but of Central Asia and its people are not Chinese but Turks. With a history of more than 4000 years, the region’s economy is significantly dependent on trade and agriculture.

Islamisation

Independent states which were established not only by ancestors of Uighurs but also by other indigenous groups, prospered and thrived in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (though it was called East Turkestan for most of its history) throughout history. Because of its location along the Silk Road, Uighurs played a prominent role in the cultural exchanges between the West and the East, which influenced the development of their diverse civilization and culture.

In the initial years, before the arrival of Islam, the Uighurs, just like many Turkish people found in Central Asia, were followers of Manicheism, Buddhism, and Shamanism. But in the 9th Century, Islam invaded, and many Uighurs converted. The Islamisation of Uighur society accelerated during the reign of the Karahanidin kings and Kashgar became one of the leading Islam learning centers. Islamic institutions nurtured the pursuit of art, literature, music and science.

Invasion by the Manchu Empire

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region maintained independence until 1876 when it was invaded by the Chinese. Eight years of bloody war ensued until the East Turkestan Army was defeated. The territory became a part of China in 1884 and was renamed Xinjiang, which means new frontier or new territory.

The Chinese takeover of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region led to a steep decline in Uighur culture and power. Today, Mandarin has become the primary language used in most major cities (although Uighur is still an official language). Most official signs are in Chinese and Uighur.

Chinese rule in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region

In 1911, the Chinese Nationalists overthrew the Manchu Empire, and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region was then under Nationalist Chinese government. The Uighurs always wanted to be free of foreign domination, and there were several uprisings against Chinese rule.

In 1944 they managed to set up the independent East Turkestan Republic, which had closer links with the Soviet Union than with China. In October 1949, however, Chinese troops returned, this time, Chinese Communist forces, and effectively ended the East Turkestan Republic.

Chinese Communism

The darkest chapters in the history of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region was during the Chinese Communist reign. During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and China were constantly at loggerheads, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, though under Chinese occupation, was the buffer between the two communist giants.
This region was and is still of great interest to China for security reasons. Even though the Cold War has ended and Russia no longer poses a threat to China, China still maintains large military bases in the region and houses most of its nuclear arsenal there.

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Today

Even currently, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’s indigenous groups are rising against Chinese rule and the Chinese army carries out vicious campaigns to brutally and unceremoniously crush any sign of rebellion. The oil, minerals and natural gas resources are vital to China economically. There have also been attempts by the Chinese military to eradicate Islam, which has proved rather unsuccessful.

Tourism is flourishing, and the Uighurs are becoming renowned for their honesty, kindness, and open-mindedness towards outsiders but not towards Han Chinese.

More than 50 cities in China have domestic flights to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Direct trains run there from most Chinese cities. There are many spectacular and unique things to see and do in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

You can walk along the Silk Road and visit the superbly well-preserved ancient city ruins around Turpan. You can study Uighur culture in Kashgar or enjoy amazing scenery near the snow-capped mountains on the Karakoram Highway. You can even ride camels into the desert near Hotan and even live with nomadic people on the grassland in North Xinjiang.

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