Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Uyghurs: an Unsettled History

An example of the famed whirling Uyghur dancing mentioned several times in my reading. It looks to be an exotic blend of Indian, central and western Asian styles.

Slowly, very slowly, I am beginning to grasp the overwhelming complexity of the Silk Road. I've just finished my fifth book with Silk Road in the title, and just beginning to feel I know my way round a little.

For instance, when I read today on the BBC news that two 'ethnic Uyghur men', Memtieli Tiliwaldi and Turson Hasan, have been executed by the Chinese, I know that the meaning of the term 'Uyghur' has changed over the last couple of thousand years. In 832 the Uyghurs lived in Mongolia and had only recently stopped being nomads. The Kaghan, their emperor, kept a yurt on the top of his palace, coated in gold, to remind him of his origins. Their capital, Karabaighasan, was a sumptuous and sophisticated place and, in one of the particularly interesting tales in Life on the Silk Road, The Princess's Tale, I learnt about the life of its last queen, Taihe. She was Chinese, and sent as a tribute-bride in an attempt to maintain peace between the two empires. She seemed to take to her new home because when various opportunities to leave arose she didn't take them.

The Uyghur were of Mongolian stock, although the language they spoke was more like Iranian. The start of the end of the Uyghur empire came not from the Chinese but from the Kirghiz. These were tall, fair-headed people with green and blue eyes and came from the north-west i.e. the central Steppe lands of Russia to the south west of Lake Baikal. The Uyghurs, forced to flee from the Kirghiz in 840, set up camp at the border with China. The arrived en masse in an impressive city of yurts. This, understandably, caused consternation. At first, Princess Taihe was able to ensure (via her royal relatives) they were looked after, but within a couple of years her influence seems to have become disregarded because Uyghurs they were attacked by the Chinese. Those that escaped the massacre settled in the Tarim Basin. The princess herself sought, and was eventually given, sanctuary in Chang'an (the then captital of China near present-day Xi'an).

The population of the Tarim Basin was already mixed. There were Sogdian merchants, Persians, Indians, Chinese Mongolians and Tibetans - to name just a few. But in the places where the Uyghurs settled (Kocho and Ganzhou) were mainly Indo-Europeans - descendents of the red-haired, pale-skinned Tochian mummies found buried there. They were Manicheans and Buddhists and, at that time, antagonistic to the Arabic city-states to the west. The Uyghurs intermarried, and the resulting genetic mix has recently been estimated to be 40% Indo-European and 60% Mongolian.

It is an area that has been fought over for centuries. For many years the Arabs from the West, the Uyghurs form the north, the Chinese from the east and the Tibetans from the south. Later, the British (looking after their imperial interests in India) were involved too, and in the twentieth century the political struggle has been mainly between the Russians and Chinese.

Kashgar is on the western end of the Xinjiang autonomous zone. The Chinese have made a determined effort to encourage Han Chinese to immigrate into this region so they have become the majority, and it is this which has caused the recent resentment. The Uyghurs are Muslim now, and so this has become a religious as well as ethnic struggle, but really this recent unrest in Xinjiang is just another battle in a war that has been going on for hundreds of years.


Anonymous marly youmans said...

Although there are things I know about here and there in this, mostly it comes across as a fantastic history... Our own world is as strange and marvelous (and violent) as any fantasy.

Thu Aug 04, 07:38:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Strange you should mention fantasy, Marly! It's what I like about this place and era - so much that is weird and fantastic. They must have really thought they on the edge of the world.

Thu Aug 04, 11:06:00 pm  
Blogger Sue Guiney said...

My younger son spent a summer traveling in Western China and living with the Uyghurs. he loved it there and that is where his academic interest in the minorities of central Asia came from, which he is now pursuing as a Social Anthropology major at Harvard and a Persion scholar. So, be forewarned...this stuff is habit forming:-) But I think you knew that!

Fri Aug 05, 08:11:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Very impressive, Sue! And very adventurous. There can't be many westerners who have done that. The conditions sound extreme, and it must have been very interesting experiencing how they cope. It will be just a transient 'visit' for me, though! (And not, alas, in person - strictly by the book).

Fri Aug 05, 08:24:00 am  

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