Where do the Uyghurs come from?
Uyghurs are a Turkic people native to Central Asia and inhabit parts of the Tarim, Junghar, and Turpan basins. Uyghurs themselves refer to this area collectively as “Uyghuristan,” “East Turkestan,” and sometimes “Chinese Turkestan.” This area encompasses 2,000 kms from East to West and 1,650 kms North to South—bordering Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, as well as China’s Gansu and Qinghai provinces and Tibet Autonomous Region. China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) comprises nearly one-sixth of China’s territory.
A 2003 Chinese government census set the number of Uyghur-speakers at nearly 9 million, making them the fifth-largest of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities, although unofficial estimates set the figure higher. Before 1949, Uyghurs accounted for 95 percent of the population in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. After 60 years of Chinese Communist rule, Uyghurs officially represent 45 percent of the population. Han Chinese account for more than 40 percent of the region’s population of 23 million, up from 5 percent in the 1940s as a result of large-scale Chinese migration. Uyghurs, like other ethnic minorities, are mostly exempt from the central government’s “one child per family” policy.
Historically, the inhabitants of the Uyghur region practiced Shamanism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorianism, and Islam. Uyghurs officially adopted Islam in 960 C.E. under the Sultan Sutuq Bughra Khan.
Many Uyghurs in the XUAR resent Chinese rule and complain that Han Chinese immigrants—encouraged to migrate by Beijing’s “go West” campaign — benefiting disproportionately from economic and educational opportunities there. Unemployment among Uyghurs is very high. They also resent the phasing out of Uyghur-language instruction in schools and universities, restrictions on the practice and teaching of Islam, travel restrictions, and other curbs that they regard as harassment, such as local regulations banning women from wearing headscarves or men from wearing beards.
Experts note that while Chinese law guarantees equal treatment and autonomy for ethnic minorities, these principles in many instances aren’t honored in practice. Human rights groups accuse Beijing of taking advantage of the U.S.-led “war on terror” that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to pursue a rigorous crackdown on suspected Uyghur separatists. China has accused Uyghur separatists of fomenting unrest in the region, particularly in the run-up to and during the Olympics last year, when a wave of violence hit the vast desert region. The violence prompted a crackdown in which the government says 1,295 people were detained for state security crimes.
The name “Uyghur—also written Uighur or Uygur—first appeared in the Orkhun Kok Turk inscriptions and in early medieval Uyghur, Manichaean, and Sogdian scripts, as well as in Arabic-Persian scripts. The Uyghurs and their forebears are an ancient people who have lived in Central Asia since the first millennium B.C. 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 Greco-Roman civilization with Indian Buddhist culture and Central and East Asian traditions. Burgeoning trade, commerce, and cultural exchange brought a cosmopolitan character to the Uyghur region, marked by linguistic, racial, and religious tolerance.
Turkic peoples have historically used Uyghur as a literary language. The ancient Uyghur language, which was used in the 8th century during the Uyghur Khanate, is the same as the language of the Orkhun-Yenisay inscription, called ancient Türki. The literary language of the Iduqut Uyghur Khanate and the Uyghur literary language of Khaqaniyid were very similar. Modern Uyghur belongs to the Ural-Altaic language family, a Turkic language group of the eastern branch, and is similar to Uzbek, Kazakh, and Turkish. Historically, the Uyghur language has used seven different writing systems. Now Uyghurs use an Arabic script-based modern writing system.
The Uyghurs are indigenous to Central Asia and, as such, are culturally closer to their Central Asian neighbors than to Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China. They have developed a unique culture and made significant contributions to Asian literature, medicine, architecture, music, song, dance, and fine arts. The Uyghur economy is based on light industry and on the farming of fruits, cotton, wheat, and rice, made possible throughout this arid region by an irrigation method invented by the Uyghurs more than 2,000 years ago. In addition, the Uyghur region is rich in oil and mineral reserves.
For two thousand years, the area of today’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was controlled by a succession of nomadic Turkic empires, notably the Uyghur Khanate, which ruled in the eighth and ninth centuries. The Uyghurs and their ancestors established their reign under the Huns, Kangkil, the Jurjan, and the Kok Turk. The Uyghurs also established states throughout their history. The term “Uyghur Äli,” found in a medieval Uyghur manuscript, means “The Country of the Uyghurs.”
After China’s Manchu government invaded and claimed the region during the Qing Dynasty in 1884, the region became known as “Xinjiang,” which means “new territory” or “new frontier” in Mandarin Chinese. Uyghurs twice declared independent Eastern Turkestan Republics in 1933 and 1944. China took control of the region in 1949 and renamed it the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1955.