The Uyghurs in Modern China

Thum, R. (2018-04-26). The Uyghurs in Modern China. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Link


The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, most of whom live today within the People’s Republic of China. Virtually all Uyghurs are Muslims, and most are oasis farmers, small-time traders, or craftsmen. They constitute the majority population of the Tarim Basin, a region that eventually fell under Chinese rule after the Qing conquest of 1759. Although Turkic speakers predominated in the Tarim Basin for several centuries, the modern Uyghur identity was only named and formalized in the 20th century. During that period, a succession of Chinese states gradually transformed Uyghur lands from a loosely held dependency under the Qing to a closely monitored, assimilationist, settler colony in the 21st century, ruled by a Han Chinese–dominated bureaucracy. Uyghurs inherit traditions rooted in Turko-Persianate Central Asia, elaborated in the 20th century by strong influences from Soviet Central Asia and continually adapted to a political context of shifting outsider regimes punctuated by briefly successful independence movements.


Cultural Change and Continuity in Central Asia (1992)

Edited by Shirin Akiner

This book is about Central Asia in general, but there are a few chapters on Uyghurs (and the other chapters sound really interesting anyway). You can read part of the book on Google Books.


Central Asia has undergone dramatic material and cultural change in this century. Traditional Muslim societies have come under socialist rule and been forced to adapt to new political and economic systems. The emancipation of women, the introduction of universal education and the immigration of large numbers of foreigners into the region are some of the factors that have contributed to the new face of Central Asia.

However, the old ways have not been obliterated. In some cases a synthesis has been achieved between old and new, in others the old survives alongside the new. There has been change, but there is also continuity. This is vividly illustrated in such fields as literature, music, dress and family life.

This collection of nineteen studies by international scholars from a wide variety of disciplines explores themes connected with popular Islam, the role of ritual in family life and linguistic and cultural change. The majority of the studies concentrate on Soviet Central Asia, but some are concerned with cultural change in Afghanistan and Xinjiang.



1 Zaynab and Aman: Love and Women’s Liberation in the 1930s, a Story Poem Hamid Alimjan, David C Montgomery
2 Uighur Literature: The Antecedents, Eden Naby
3 A Late Piece of Nazira or A Symbol Making its Way through Early Uzbek Poetry, Ingeborg Baldauf
4 Religious Themes in the Novels of Chingiz Aitmatov, Irena Jeziorska
5 Script Changes in Xinjiang, Ildiko Beller-Hann
6 Census and Sociology: Evaluating the Language Situation in Soviet Central Asia, Simon Crisp
7 Russian Language Teaching Policy in Soviet Central Asia 1958-86, J M Kirkwood
8 Ritualism of Family Life in Soviet Central Asia: The Sunnat (Circumcision), Ewa A Chylinski
9 Professional Beliefs and Rituals among Craftsmen in Central Asia: Genetic and Functional Interpretation, C Jasiewicz
10 Women and Power: A Perspective on Marriage among Durrani Pashtuns of Afghan Turkistan, Nancy Tapper
11 Golden Tent-Pegs: Settlement and Change among Nomads in Afghan Turkistan, Richard Tapper
12 Ethnic Games in Xinjiang: Anthropological Approaches, C M Hann
13 Continuity and Modernity in the Costume of the Muslims of Central Asia, Jennifer M Scarce
14 Musical Change in Herat during the Twentieth Century, John Baily
15 Tradition and Change in Central Asian Architecture Today,  F Ashrafi
16 The Baha’i Community of Ashkhabad, Its Social Basis and Importance in Baha’i History,  M Momen
17 Islam in China: Western Studies,  Jacques Waardenburg
18 Change and Tradition in Eighteenth-century Kazakhstan: The Dynastic Factor, Alan Bodger
19 The Role of the Hui Muslims (Tungans) in Republican Sinkiang, Andrew D W Forbes

Situating the Uyghurs Between China and Central Asia (2007)

By Ildikó Bellér-Hann, M. Cristina Cesàro, Joanne Smith Finley


Drawing together distinguished international scholars, this volume offers a unique insight into the social and cultural hybridity of the Uyghurs. It bridges a gap in our understanding of this group, an officially recognized minority mainly inhabiting the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, with significant populations also living in the Central Asian states. The volume is comparative and interdisciplinary in focus: historical chapters explore the deeper problems of Uyghur identity which underpin the contemporary political situation; and sociological and anthropological comparisons of a range of practices from music culture to life-cycle rituals illustrate the dual, fused nature of contemporary Uyghur social and cultural identities. Contributions by ‘local’ Uyghur authors working within Xinjiang also demonstrate the possibilities for Uyghur advocacy in social and cultural policy-making, even within the current political climate.

Here are some reviews of the book by Pawan (2009) and Gammer (2009). And you can read parts of the book on Google Books.


Part 1

The Historical Perspective: ‘Us and them’ in 18th and 19th century Xinjiang, Laura J. Newby

The Uyghurs as a part of Central Asian commonality: Soviet historiography on the Uyghurs, Ablet Kamalov

Part 2

Uyghur Culture: Issues of Music, Literature and Language: Cultural politics and the pragmatics of resistance: reflexive discourses on culture and history, Nathan Light

Situating the 12 Muqam: between the Arab world and the Tang court, Rachel Harris

Uyghur literary representations of Xinjiang realities, Michael Friederich

Hybrid name culture in Xinjiang: problems surrounding Uyghur name/surname practices and their reform, Asod Sulayman

Part 3

Socio-Cultural Practices: Situating Uyghur life cycle rituals between China and Central Asia, Ildiko Beller-Hann

Shrine pilgrimage and sustainable tourism among the Uyghurs: Central Asian ritual traditions in the context of China’s development policies, Rahila Dawut

The emergence of Muslim reformism in contemporary Xinjiang: implications for the Uyghurs’ positioning between a Central Asian and Chinese context, Edmund Waite

Part 4

Negotiation of Multiple and Hybrid Uyghur Identities: Polo, LAghmAn, So SAy: situating Uyghur food between Central Asia and China, M. Cristina Cesaro

‘The dawn of the East’: a portrait of a Uyghur community between China and Kazakhstan, Sean R. Roberts

‘Ethnic anomaly’ or modern Uyghur survivor? A case study of the Minkaohan hybrid identity in Xinjiang, Joanne Smith Finley

‘Making the oil fragrant’: dealings with the supernatural among the Uyghurs in Xinjiang

Bellér-Hann, I. (2001). ‘Making the oil fragrant’: dealings with the supernatural among the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Asian Ethnicity2(1), 9-23. Link doi

Excerpt from introduction:

Anyone interested in Xinjiang today must take account of the long-term cultural continuities which manifest themselves in many areas of life beneath the practices and institutions of the modern social formation. In this paper, I shall deal with some aspects of traditional modes of dealing with the supernatural, concentrating on rituals and daily practices which link the world of the living to the world of the dead. Indigenous and other sources from before 1949 confirm that veneration of the dead has long been at the heart of popular religious practices among the Turki/Uyghurs. Fieldwork data from the 1990s point to the remarkable persistence of these practices throughout the socialist period, though they have not remained untouched by the dramatic social and political changes.

Uyghur Migrant Life in the City During the “People’s War”

By Darren Byler, 2017

I thought these articles warranted their own post considering they’re semi-academic anyway:

Uyghur Migrant Life in the City During the “People’s War” excerpt:

In May 2014 the Chinese state declared a “People’s War on Terror.” This war was directed at what was perceived to be the Islamic “extremism” of young Uyghur men and women. Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim minority group that is indigenous to Chinese Central Asia, or what in colonial terms is referred to as “the New Dominion” (Xinjiang). This vast area of the nation, whose borders stretch from Tibet to Afghanistan to Mongolia, is the source of nearly 20 percent of China’s oil and natural gas. It is also a central node on China’s New Silk Road initiative, which seeks to expand China’s influence throughout Western Asia. Increasingly the eleven million Uyghurs who call the southern part of this region their homeland are seen as an obstacle in China’s vision of the future.

The new “People’s War” was a response to forms of Uyghur resistance to the Chinese state. Some of these acts of resistance were violent attacks on police and Han settlers, but the vast majority were simply protests over land-seizures, discrimination, arrests without due-process and police shootings. Before the “war” began, one of the primary ways that young Uyghurs resisted the increasing control of the state was by moving. Hundreds of thousands left their rural villages where policing is very intense and job opportunities are rare. They came to the capital city of the region, Ürümchi, in search of urban freedom and the promise of a better life.

Love and Fear among Rural Uyghur Youth during the “People’s War” excerpt:

Since the beginning of the “People’s War on Terror” in May 2014, the everyday life of Uyghurs has been transformed by the presence of intense security measures, regular home invasions, and the mass detention of thousands of young Uyghurs suspected of so-called religious extremism. Although many young Uyghurs are simply interested in practicing a form of pious religiosity, or what in other contexts might be referred to as a Hanafi form of Sunni Islam, the state has determined that this is a threat to the sovereignty of the Chinese nation. In order to exert its authority, the state has required that Uyghur Muslims practice their faith only as permitted by social workers and police monitors. As education policies and religious regulations demonstrate, the state would prefer that Uyghurs embrace Han cultural values and forget about their centuries-old practice of Islamic piety altogether.

In order to enforce this human re-engineering project, the Uyghur homeland has been turned into a police state. Most Uyghur rural-to-urban migrants have been forced to return to their home villages, and the state has instituted strict security regulations across the Uyghur homeland in Chinese Central Asia (Ch: Xinjiang). In their hometowns, public life has been filled with imagery reminding rural Uyghurs that their way of life is being transformed. The streets are filled with Chinese flags that each home and business owner is asked to raise to demonstrate their loyalty to the Chinese state and their hatred of “bad” forms of Islam and political ideology. Checkpoints stand at the entrance of every county border, the entrance of every town, every market, every housing development. Those without the proper legal documentation are not permitted to cross these checkpoints. This means that Uyghurs who live in one part of town are sometimes not permitted to travel to the other side of town to visit relatives or buy groceries. Han settlers and tourists, on the other hand, are permitted to move through checkpoints without any restrictions.




Claiming the mystical self in new modernist Uyghur poetry

Byler, D. (2018). Claiming the mystical self in new modernist Uyghur poetry. Contemporary Islam, 1-20. Link



By recuperating the Sufi poetics of the Uyghur past, “avant-garde” Uyghur poets such as Tahir Hamut and Perhat Tursun are claiming a right to speak as heirs to both a religious and a literary tradition. For these modernist poets, finding one’s own way forward through the past is a way of reclaiming the discourse surrounding Uyghur identity, and the cultural symbols built into it, as an extension of the self. By channeling affect in such a way that it appears to derive from conventional Uyghur imagery, these poets demonstrate a measure of self-mastery that restores a feeling of existential security in the midst of political and religious change. This article argues that the purpose of their poems is to force the reader to accept new interpretations of images of Sufi embodiment and spirituality as valid and powerful. It further claims that the new indexing of Sufi imagery in this emerging corpus disrupts the unity of Uyghur poetry in the genres of Chinese Socialist Realism and ethno-nationalist Uyghur tradition, not in a negative process, but in order to create new forms of thought and subjectivity. It forces the reader to interpret the world not by trying to return to mythical Uyghur origins or reaching for a Socialist or an Islamic utopia but instead as a means of self-determination and affirming contemporary life itself.


The more I read this paper the greater my excitement grew, to the extent where I realised I had not felt this much enthusiasm about academia in years; perhaps I need to change my field lol. Personally, I enjoyed this paper most because it explained so much about the intersections of Uyghur culture, religion, poetry, modernism, and the effects of Chinese occupation, and also recounted what the avante-garde poetry scene in Urumchi is/was like (fascinating!). Byler also describes that thing I’ve been noticing in Uyghur poetry where the author puts their name into the last part of the poem. He explains it in this excerpt where he talks about modern poets referencing Meshrep, a famous Sufi mystic and disciple of Afaq Khoja:

…But the most frequent thing they referenced was the way Meshrep wrote himself into the text of Sufism. They were drawn to the way he ended his poems with a reference to himself in the third-person. One famous example of this was how Meshrep wrote of his dexterity as a derwish who leads other derwishes. He wrote: “Dropped into any pot, I will boil. Hence I am called Meshrep” (Light 2008:120). By naming himself, Meshrep is claiming his position as a mystic who can boil with passion in any context. For contemporary Uyghur poets, this “name dropping,” often found at the end or takhallus of a ghazal, is a way of claiming a position within a Sufi lineage.

Closure at last lol.

It’s interesting to see how modernist poets and traditional(-ists?) don’t see eye-to-eye on various issues, and I think it would be really interesting to see what Uyghur traditional poets/literaries have to say about the avante-garde writers. Give me a literary battlefield any day, I am so ready to watch.

It was particularly interesting when he compared Dilber’s writing (which I loved!) to modernist writing and said how it reflects the yearning for the past and the hope that this Uyghur landscape can be brought to the future, whereas modernists speak more of living in the present (despite still being rooted to the past) (perhaps evolving with the times?). Growing up very much embedded in traditional Uyghur-ness but living in the West and influenced by all sorts of cultures, I feel like understand (and want) both? I would like to read more of both either way, that’s for sure.

Perhaps one day when I’m more fluent I’ll be able to read Uyghur academic papers on Uyghur literature that explores current trends in Uyghur poetry, as well as traditional poetry in the modern context; however, this paper was more than anything I could have hoped for at this point and I am beyond hungry for more.

Also the poems/translations in this paper were gr9

Coincidentally, Kafka is mentioned in there too – I’ve noticed a lot of the things I read (most recently Murakami and Omar Musa I believe?) reference or seem to be inspired by Kafka and I’d literally read some of his work yesterday… I’ll probably talk about him in another post (basically, I think he’s hilarious). Another reference I saw in there was Edward Said which has been recommended to me a number of times in the last few months. Once I finish this degree it’s over for you all…

The Pain of a Nation: The Invisibility of Uyghurs in China Proper

Rayila, M. (2011). The pain of a nation: The invisibility of Uyghurs in China Proper. Equal Rights Review6, 44-57. Link

Really interesting article on ‘Floating Uyghurs,’ or Uyghurs who have migrated to Inner China, and their backgrounds, health issues, access to housing and employment, treatment by Han Chinese and the government, discrimination, and domestic and international laws that pertain to their treatment.

Advancing “Ethnic Unity” and “De-Extremization”: Ideational Governance in Xinjiang under “New Circumstances” (2012–2017)

Klimeš, O. (2018). Advancing “Ethnic Unity” and “De-Extremization”: Ideational Governance in Xinjiang under “New Circumstances” (2012–2017). Journal of Chinese Political Science, 1-24. Link



The central role of ideology has been one of the key features of the political system of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949. One of the places where the phenomenon can be observed is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a vast, important, and rich borderland area inhabited by some 10 million Turkic Muslim Uyghurs. Since 1949, the central government has managed to win only a limited degree of Uyghur support for its policies, leaving the region riven with protest and violence. The central government has therefore sought to devise and implement policies so as to simultaneously address multiple aspects of Xinjiang’s reality, including ideational affairs. This paper examines the party-state’s ideational governance, i.e. efforts to define and regulate Uyghur values, beliefs, and loyalties so that they are instrumental in maintaining the political stability of the PRC. Firstly, the novel approach to Xinjiang policy adopted by the Xi leadership during its first functional term (2012–2017) is examined, namely its concern with Xinjiang’s growing geopolitical significance and with the security dimension of the Xinjiang problem. Two main focuses of Xinjiang governance are introduced, particularly the advancement of centripetal inter-ethnic relations (officially called “ethnic unity”) and the eradication of religious or cultural practices deemed as potentially subversive (“de-extremization”). Secondly, the ideology relating to Xinjiang is examined within the framework of the CPC’s national-level ideology. Thirdly, new legislation, by which the authorities seek to legitimate Xinjiang policies, is considered. Fourthly, several grassroots “ethnic unity” and “de-extremization” activities are reviewed as examples of the party-state’s efforts to use the Uyghur religion and other intangible domains as ideational apparatuses to inculcate desirable political values. The conclusions reached in this article raise the broader question as to whether the party-state’s resolve to strengthening its ideational governance over the Uyghurs will bring about a change in the security situation in Xinjiang.

The Rise of China in Central Asia: The New Silk Road Diplomacy

Pradhan, R. The Rise of China in Central Asia: The New Silk Road Diplomacy. Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1-21. Link


China’s relationship with Central Asia has grown manifold since the foundation of Shanghai Five in 1996, which in June 2001 became the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The impetus to the relationship has further been accentuated when China–Russia friendship treaty was signed in July 2001. The US-led war in Afghanistan against Taliban and Al-Qaeda has yet again cemented Chinese position in Central Asia, and the recently concluded Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has undeniably dramatically underscored the strategic value of Central Asia to the west and has opened up possibilities for Chinese security, political and economic interests. Geostrategically enmeshed with Central Asia, China will remain an integral and increasingly influential player in Central Asia. This research paper contextualises China’s emergence and interests in Central Asia discarding the much talked about great game thesis and asserts by analysing the rise of China in the region as an unmatched and unchallenged power which has been testified once again with the recent BRI of Beijing.

The Turkic World in Mahmud Al-Kashgari

Golden, P. B. (2015). THE TURKIC WORLD IN MAHMÛD AL-KÂSHGHARÎ. Complexity of Inter Action along the Eurasian Steppe Zone in The First Millennium CE/ed by J. Bemmann, M. Schmauder.–Bonn: Vor-und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, 503-555. Link


The author uses Mahmud Al-Kashgari’s writings to discuss the Turkic world and “Turk”. He also mentions that Mahmud Al-Kahgari “…makes a number of pointed comments about his ancestral town [Kashgar] and its populace, including the remark that they are “the worst of people” (bodun yawuzı Barsğân;Kâšγarî/Dankoff 1982–85, I, 331; II, 217).” which I thought was hilarious because of course lmao.

He also discusses some of Kashgari’s life and family which is really interesting. It talks pretty extensively on Uyghurs and Qarakhans and Qarluqs and all the other Turkic people who may(?) all be ancestors of modern-day Uyghurs based mostly on locality. The author also refers to the eastern half of the Qarakhan empire as Eastern Turkestan which is nice.