Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Uyghurs and China

Mr. Kasim Tuman, Council Member, Uyghur Association of America was one of the speakers at a seminar on "Ethnicity and Identity in Xinjiang" held at Stanford. My wife and I have been to Xinjiang, in particular to Kashgar where Mr. Tuman came from, and naturally we were interested in what he had to say.

I was struck by some of Mr. Tuman's statements. Since the forum did not offer an opportunity for a real dialogue and discussion, I thought I would offer some counterpoints and observations in response to what I heard.

Tuman said: The Uyghurs are not interested in mixing with the Chinese for fear of losing their cultural identity. They fear being assimilated by the Chinese culture.

My response would have been: Cultures are not static but dynamic and are subject to influences and stimulus especially from other neighboring cultures. Cultures that do not evolve and remain static become endangered and face extinction with time. The Xianbeis, one of many forefathers of the Uyghurs, used to rule northern China, known in Chinese history as the Northern Wei dynasty. They admired the Han Chinese culture so much that they adopted Chinese customs, language and many social and political practices. Indeed the Xianbeis did get assimilated and their own culture became lost to history. But I do not see anything unnatural about this outcome. If people no longer accept or willing to adopt certain cultural values and practices, that culture will fade away.

Cultures can also disappear on the point of the sword. Genghis Khan so thoroughly decimated the Tangut kingdom (Xixia in Chinese), another contributor to the Uyghur gene pool, that there is no trace of the Tangut culture remain. The meaning of their writing is lost as is their historical records. The propagation of Islam was also accomplished by military conquest as the religion spread from the Middle East westward to Spain and eastward to the Indonesian archipelago imposing the Islamic religion on the local people and replacing the previous ways of worship.

But use of force has not been how the Chinese culture has proliferated. Non-Chinese people adopted certain aspects of the Chinese culture that they found more appealing than their own. One can see evidence of the influence of Chinese culture in South Asia, Southeast Asia as well as Korea and Japan. These people were not forced to adopt Chinese manners and practices; they willingly did so.

In an attempt to distinguish the Chinese culture from the Uyghur, Mr. Tuman said that it is very much in the Chinese culture for the young people to study hard and strive to attend the best school and best university and to work hard and make a lot of money. This is not part of the Uyghur culture, he said, as the Uyghurs like to take life as it comes. He used a map from Wikipedia as a platform for his talk. I noticed from the same Wiki article, one of the characteristics attributed ancestors of Uyghurs was "they showed greed without restraint, for they often made their living by looting." Perhaps given that heritage, it is understandable why Mr. Tuman made that distinction between the Uyghur and the Chinese culture.

The map from Wikipedia showed a Uyghur Khaganate that at one moment in history spread from western part of today's Manchuria westward to nearly the Caspian Sea. Mr. Tuman seemed to imply that the Uyghur people has had a long continuous history since as early as 4th century AD. But a close reading of the Wiki article would reveal that there was no such continuity but the Uyghur state, when it existed at all, ebb and flowed with time. With mostly nomads as ancesters, it is understandable that continuity would have been difficult and any sort of ethnic purity and identity even more improbable.

On the one hand, Mr. Tumen assured the audience that the Uyghur culture is quite distinct and unique and no way related to the Chinese culture. On the other, he said that he has learned the value of cultural diversity since he came to the United States nine years ago. I believe China also recognized the value of diversity. Beijing government's policy is to allow the fifty plus ethnic minorities to teach their own language alongside putonghua in their schools and to enjoy certain levels of local autonomy in maintaining their daily lives and traditions. Of course, if the minority wish to succeed in a Chinese dominated economy, that person must also learn Chinese and understand how to operate in a Chinese society. This is no different from an ethnic minority living in America. That person can no more succeed in the U.S. if the person is unable or unwilling to communicate in English.

Mr. Tumen seemed to believe that in a democracy like the U.S., the Uyghur culture can thrive. Apparently he has not been in America long enough to understand what happened to the many different forms of native American cultures that have been obliterated by actual acts of genocide.

Mr. Tumen also stated that there are 20 million Uyghurs living outside China, implying that they were originally from China. This implication is most misleading. Uyghurs are not just native to the Xinjiang Automomous Region but also in nearby Central Asian countries. If there is a Uyghur diaspora of 20 million, somebody needs to clarify as to what portion have their roots in China and what portion from outside of China.

When we visited Xinjiang, we learned a little about the colorful Uyghur dress, beautifully crafted music instruments to accompany the Uyghur music and dance, Uyghur food and how Uyghur kids are raised. We were not there long enough to detect any racial tension or alienation. After visiting many parts of China with autonomous regions belonging to various enthinic minorities, we did get the impression that the Chinese government is trying hard to be a nation for all ethnicities. Go to here for further discussion of ethnic minorities in China.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read your article with interest. You managed to hit most of the important disinformation being propagated by East Turkestan Republic (ETR) promoters. You could have also added one other important historical development that would lay bare the falsity of any claim to a unique Uyghur Culture.

Today, Uyghurs identify themselves with Islams and Uyghurs culture is seen to be essentially Islamic in contents. However, during the rule of Uyghur Khaganate (that stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria and lasted from 745 to 840), large numbers of Sogdian refugees came to its imperial capital Ordu-Baliq, the first city built in Mongolia, to escape the Islamic Jihad in their homeland. They converted the Uyghur nobility from Buddhism to Manichaeism. Thus, the Uyghurs who had been religiously Buddhists, inherited the legacy of the Sogdian Culture. In 840, the Uyhgur Khaganate was overrun by the Kirghiz, another Turkic people. As a result the majority of tribal groups formerly under Uyghur control migrated to what is now northwestern China, especially to the modern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region.

Following the collapse of the Uyghur Khaganate, the Uyghur gave up Mongolia and established kingdoms in three areas: present day Gansu, Xinjiang, and the Chu River West of Tian Shan (Tengri-Tag) Mountains:

Yugor, The eastern-most of the three Uyghur states was the Ganzhou Kingdom (870–1036 CE), with its capital near present-day Zhangye in the Gansu province of China. There, the Uyghur converted from Manichaeism to Lamaism (Tibetan and Mongol Buddhism). Unlike other Turkic peoples further west, they did not later convert to Islam. Their descendants are now known as Yugurs (or Yogir, Yugor, and Sary Uyghurs, literally meaning "yellow Uyghurs") and are distinct from modern Uyghurs. In 1028–1036 CE, the Yugors were defeated in a bloody war and forcibly absorbed into the Tangut (Xisia) kingdom.

Karakhoja, This central of the three Uyghur states was based around the cities of Turpan (winter capital), Beshbalik (summer capital), Kumul, and Kucha. A Buddhist state, with state-sponsored Buddhism and Manicheism, it can be considered the center of Uyghur culture. In 1209, they submitted to the Mongols under Genghis Khan and, as vassal rulers, existed until 1335.

Kara-Khanids, This westernmost of the three Uyghur states originated from Uyghur tribes settled in the Chu River Valley after 840 and ruled between 940–1212 in Turkistan and Mavera√ľnnehir. They converted to Islam in 934 under the rule of Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan (920–956 AD) and, after taking power over Qarluks in 940, built a federation with Muslim institutions. Together with the Samanids of Samarkand, they considered themselves the defenders of Islam against the Buddhist Uyghur Idiqut. The first capital of the Karahans was established in the city of Balasagun in the Chu River Valley and later was moved to Kashgar. During this period mosques, schools, bridges, and caravansarais were constructed in the cities. Kashgar, Bukhara and Samarkand became centers of learning. Turkic literature developed, particularly in Kashgar.

All three states became vassals to Genghis Khan in 1209 and only Kara-Khanids converted to Islam around 934. Most Uyghur inhabitants of the Besh Balik and Turpan regions did not convert to Islam until the 15th century expansion of the Yarkand Khanate, a Turko-Mongol successor state based in western Tarim. Before converting to Islam, Uyghurs were Tengriist, Manichaeans, Buddhists, or Nestorian Christians.

I have long been aware of the fact (from various readings) that Uyghurs have not always been Islamic. Your article prompted me to surf the web and excerpt the sketch above on the evolution of the Uyghur culture/religion which has been anything but unique or static as some present day Uyghurs seem to believe.