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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The Uygur: An Introduction to a unique people

Kashgar Image Courtesy BBC The Uygur Letter is dedicated to the Uygur people of Xinjiang. It’s raison d’etre is to help promote world awareness of the Uygur and the situation they currently face in China.

If they are known at all, then they are known to a majority of people as just one of the 56 Ethnic groups in the world’s most populated nation. Their “claim to fame” is that they suffer human rights violations at the hands of a nation of people, whom predominantly are ethnically and culturally different to them.

Their story to many is very much a contemporary one, one of international politics, dissent, nationalism and human rights. A story of an indigenous people battling to maintain their culture and way of life in the face of a rolling juggernaut.

But the Uygur are more than that.

The Uygur have an incredible history. They have an wonderful culture that has had an immense impact on Central Asia, China and the world. Their music and dance for example is both beautiful and passionate.

The Uygur people are enigmatic. They have a timelessness about them that one can not describe.

Like the wolves that figure prominently in their folklore, they have a presence that speaks of an unstated superiority in the scheme of things. It is not the “superiority” of say an American an Englishmen or a German. It is somehow different, it speaks of having seen it all and having survived, of waiting.

Over a period, depending on how news breaks, I would like to introduce you to them. Their history, their culture, where and how they live. I think it is important to put a face to the people.

Today I would like to talk very briefly of the early history from their days of nomadic roaming across Mongolia and southern Siberia through to their empire and eventual migration to what is now China.

The History.........

Uygur history has been played out on a stage that would try even the most inventive of fantasy writers in their attempt to recreate it. Towering snow caped mountain ranges, blistering deserts, rugged mountain passes and verdant oases. All in an area that is the farthest point from any ocean on our planet.

Add to this scenario marauding tribes of "barbarian" nomads, battles and conflicts, in-fighting, historic trade routes and political intrigues at the highest office of some of the greatest empires and Dynasties in history, the Uygur were at the center of it all. Not only as bystanders but as active participants.

The influence of the Uygur on the history of central Asia is undoubted by any who know it; their influence on the history and culture of the world is grossly unacknowledged and underestimated.

For over two thousand years the Uygur have played a central role in the historical and cultural development of the central Asian region. Around the time of Christ the Uygur were emerging as a potent political, military and cultural force.

In constant battle or confederation with the numerous tribes of the region as well as the dynasties of the Han and Tang Chinese the Uygur grew into a great Central Asian empire. Their influence as concerns religion, literature, law making, diplomacy, industry and trade was immense.

Compared to the Europeans of that time, the Uyghurs were far more advanced.

Albert von Lecoq

The consequences of these experiences combined with their political and intellectual maturity would eventually, through their subsequent influence on the Mongols, have ramifications felt around the world and have a very real influence upon civilisation as we now know it.

Being at the very crossroads of two great cultures, East and West, the Uygurs acted as conduits for the transference of culture and tradegoods. Over the centuries they have been involved, one way or the other, in the intrigues, the strategic and political positioning of great religions, nations and empires.

The Chinese Dynasties, British and Russian Empires, the Soviets, the communist Chinese and lately the Americans all have wooed the Uygurs and just as many times betrayed them. Buddhism and Islam have both been championed by the Uygurs and their influence in the growth of these religions in both in Central Asia and China is very significant.

To a modern world, that knows little or nothing of them, claims as to the Uygur's global influence would come as a great surprise. However, in learning more about these unique people, surprise will give way to admiration of a people that for 2,000 years have defied great events and empires to develop a unique and wonderful culture in the very crucible of modern civilisation.

A people who have, to this date, over 2,000 years, maintained their cultural an ethnic identity in the face of immense military and political powers and pressures.

Ab Initio: Rise and Supremacy

The tribes and clans that would eventually become known as the Uygur rose in Mongolia and Southern Siberia and were first mentioned in Han Dynasty histories in the first century BCE.

There is hypothesis that the Uygur were descendants of the Hun, however this does not seem to be proven. Chinese records would indicate that they can definitely be traced back to the Dingling nomadic tribe that roamed north and north western present day China and in areas south of Lake Baykal (south central Siberia) and between the Intush River and Lake Balkush.

In 744 CE the Uygurs threw off the yoke of the then ruling Go Turk tribes and under ruler Khutlugh Bilge Kul Khagan (Khagan meaning Ruler/King) founded the first true state constituted under the name Uygur.

The Uygurs commenced the building of this empire by subjugation of other Turkic tribes of central Asia and eventually extended Uygur sovereignty north to Lake Bayakal, east to present day Gansu China and South west to present day India. The capital of the Uygur empire was established in Togabash on the banks of the Okhun River and their empire became known as the “Orkhun Uygur Empire”

As an example of their power and prestige in the years 755-757 The Tang Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom China were facing an internal rebellion and requested help from the militarily powerful Uygur to help quell it.

The Uygur successfully prosecuted several campaigns and eventually the Tang where triumphant. In reward they bestowed favourable trade terms on the Uygur as well as an annual Tribute measured in silk. The Chinese Emperor also gave his daughter as a bride to the Uygur Khagan and all told in the period 740 - 840 CE three Chinese Princesses would become Uygur Khatuns (Khagan’s wives)

The Uygur empire came to an end in 840 when the Kyrghiz, another Turkic tribe, brought the Uygur predominance to a close.

It was after their defeat at the hands of the Kryghiz that the Uygur migrated to the Tarim Basin area in what is now present day Xinjiang and to the now Gansu Province in China, areas that had formed part of their previous empire.

Further Recommended Reading

Some Quotable Quotes

Albert Gruenwedel:
(Along the Ancient Silk Routes: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York April 3 - June 20, 1982)

"Turfan(Turpan) is without doubt a forgotten Asian city of extraordinary interest. The size of it is remarkable: the inner, holy city, consisting only of temples and palace, measures 7,400 feet at the widest point of the still extant walls. Hundreds of terraced temples and grandiose vaulted edifices cover an extensive area of lane."

Fredinnad de Sassure:

"Those who preserved the language and written culture of Central Asia were the Uyghurs." 47

Albert von Lecoq: (Shuyl Unver, Uyghurlarda Tababet, Istanbul 1936. pp. 4,5,6.)

"The Uyghur language and script contributed to the enrichment of civilizations of the other peoples in Central Asia. Compared to the Europeans of that time, the Uyghurs were far more advanced. Documents discovered in Uyghur Region prove that an Uigur farmer could write down a contract, using legal terminology. How many European farmers could have done that at that period ? This shows the extent of Uyghur civilization of that time." 48

Lazlo Rasonyi: (Lazlo Rasonyi, Tarihte Turkuk, Ankara 1971, pp. 105, 107)

"The Uyghurs knew how to print books centuries before Guetenberg invented his press." 49

Wolfram Eberhard: (Wolfram Eberhard, Cin Tarihi, Istanbul 1947, p. 116)

"In Middle Ages, the Chinese poetry, literature, theater, music and painting were greatly influenced by the Uyghurs." 50

Next Instalment: More about the Empire Years

The Uygur (Uighur) of Xinjiang need the support of the world in the attainment of basic human rights. This blog of news commentary and analysis hopes to add to pressure on the People's Republic of China to bring about positive change.