Sunday, 19 June 2011

Xinjiang - the magical qualities of Jade

The town of Hotan (Chinese Hetian) lies in the south of the Taklamakan desert and was a well-known stop on the southern route of the Silk Road.  It was also famous for the jade deposits of the areas two main rivers, the Karakash (Black Jade) and Yurungkash (White Jade).  Ancient Chinese societies placed an incredibly high value on jade and developed a passion for this precious stone that is comparable to our modern obsession with diamonds and gold.  Jade pebbles and fashioned pieces became the currency of the Silk Road and, more importantly for the history of Xinjiang, was a real driver for trade between China and the people on its western borders.

So what is Jade?

Jade vase (19th century)
Jade is a stone which can be found in rivers, in the form of pebbles or rocks.  It's an incredibly hard stone and difficult to fashion which, no doubt, played a part in increasing its value, as the level of workmanship required to turn jade into jewellery is quite high.  There are two main types of jade: nephrite jade is the more common kind and the type found in the Karakash and Yurungkash rivers.  Jadeite is less common and, as I understand it, can be found in volcanic areas, as it's somehow formed from volcanic rock. 

We mostly associate jade with the colour green, but it can come in a variety of colours and there is a milky white jade from China which is incredibly precious and rare.  Nephrite and Jadeite is found all over the world - Mexico, Guatemala, Canada, Switzerland, Burma and New Zealand have all been major sources of the world's jade deposits.

The Importance of Jade to the Chinese

Jade Burial suit by dericafox
Jade has been a constant in Chinese history, as a symbol of great wealth.  The radical Yu in Chinese word for jade ying yu, has come to mean any precious stone.  Jade was believed to have magical properties and was used to create intriguing burial suits, like the ones found in Mancheng, which are made up of rectangular pieces of jade, held together with silk and designed to cover the entire body.  The Ancient Chinese believed that jade could preserve the human body in death and stop if from decaying. 

Chinese folklore retains stories of the Jade Emperor, who was the ruler of heaven, earth and hell and was one of the most important gods in traditional Chinese beliefs.  Because of its (almost) unbreakable nature, jade was first used to create weapons and later, when the wars were lost or won, it was fashioned into ornamental jewellery which would be worn by the victors (or, more likely, their wives and concubines!)

Understanding the precious Nature of Stones

I must admit, when you sit down and think about it - whether it's jade or diamonds or rubies - you have to wonder why we attach so much importance to bits of rock and stone?  Surely the Stone Age is over and we have the modern wonders of plastic, aluminium and steel?  I guess the value of precious stones is as status symbols and works of art?  The materials they're made from are of limited functional use.  After all, even the world's greatest paintings, Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Leonardo Da Vinci's Joconde/Mona Lisa are nothing more than oil and paper!  Diamonds and jade aren't edible (always an important factor in the value I personally attach to the world around me!).  They can't give you shelter or keep you warm at night!  They don't necessarily bring the bearer love or happiness, yet somehow, in this crazy world of ours, we have managed to transform these bits of rock and stone into valuable commodities that people will die for!

Jade around the World

Jadeite was also believed, by the Mayan civilisations of Central America, to have magical qualities.  The Motagua River in Guatemala is the only known source of jadeite in the Americas and the rarity of jade elevated it to the level of status symbol in Mayan society.  The Maya placed beads of jade in the mouths of their dead, as they believed the stone would hold the spirit of the person, once they had died.  Different colours of jade were important and the exact role that this stone played in Mayan religious ceremonies is something of a mystery to modern researchers, giving Guatemalan jade an added magical quality that appeals to the curious modern buyer!

Hei matau by diveofficer
The south island of New Zealand is called Te Wai Pounamu by the Maori people, which means something like 'the land of greenstone (jade) water', greenstone being the local English-language name for jade.  Jade is only found in the south island and was also highly valued by the Maori, being given as gifts or passed down as part of your inheritance.  They are considered to be taonga or 'cultural treasure' and are often fashioned into neck pendants, like the Hei matau which is a beautiful carving in the shape of a fish hook. 

Jade Goody, Jagger et al

Jade has also become popular as a first name - more so for women in Europe and the West, but also for men in other cultures.  Probably the most famous Jade in England was Jade Goody, the Big Brother contestant who was loved and hated in equal measure by the British public.  She had a fascinating life that ended at the very young age of 27.  She died of cervical cancer in 2009. 

Another famous Jade is Jade Jagger, the daughter of Mick and Bianca Jagger.  Interestingly, Jade Jagger now designs jewellery, which seems quite apt for someone of her name!  Younger readers will know all about Jaden Smith, Will Smith's son, who is a famous musician and actor, friend of Justin Bieber and impossibly famous for someone who was born in 1998 (darn I'm feeling old right now!)

The meaning of the word Jade

It might surprise most Jades and Jadens to know that their name comes from the Spanish word for jade, piedra de ijada, which means 'loin stone' - jade being the loin bit.  Europeans believed that jade cured illnesses related to loins and kidneys, but I can't help noticing the linguistic similarity to China and East Asia, where Jade Gate and Jade Stalk are euphenisms in erotic literature for parts of the female and male body!  There's no doubt about it - Jade is definitely sexy! 

All that glisters is not Jade

Jade Dragon from the British Museum (London) 

A problem for modern buyers is to distinguish authentic jade/greenstones from the many jade substitutes that are on the market.  The quality of jade is not regulated in the same way that diamonds are and even the most expensive jewellers sell 'fake jade', which is often a type of glass, for similar prices to the real thing.  Chinese jade is also incredibly difficult to authenticate, even for experienced antiquarians.  The Chinese tradition of imitating art, as a form of respect for ancestral culture, means that jade ornaments from the 18th or 19th century will often look exactly the same as those of the 12th or 13th century.  So if this blogpost has inspired you to rush out and buy some of these precious stones, get an expert to look at the stones before you invest your hard-earned cash.  To paraphrase William Shakespeare, all that glisters is not (necessarily) jade!

Image credits:

The image of the Jade vase is from one of the Black Country museums in England and you can see this exhibit by visiting the museum or checking out its website.  I found this image on their flickr profile.

The photo of the Jade Burial suit is by flickuser dericafox who is an astronomer from Pennsylvania State University.  You can see more of dericafox's photos at

The image of the two Hei matau was taken by flickuser diveofficer - they show two contrasting pendents, one old and one new and I like the way the colours balance against each other.  You can see more of diveofficer's photos at his photostream on

The image of the Jade Dragon is by native New-Yorker craft*ology who is a librarian and jewellery designer.  You can see more of her jewellery at her website

Thanks to all of the above for sharing your images on flickr using the Creative Commons License. 

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Xinjiang - the lure of the Occident

For most native English-speaking readers, the concept of the Orient will be a familiar one - hot, balmy weather, exotic food and the promise of a truly sensuous experience. The Orient is the East - unknown and frightening, enthralling and exciting.

Defining the Orient

When we use the term oriental in English, we think mostly of China and the Far East, although the original term from the Latin verb orior 'to rise' (ie. the rising sun) was applied to anywhere in the East, including the Arab world and even Turkey. When Germans use this word, they are talking about the Middle East rather than the Far East. I've just learned today that the term oriental, if used about a person in the US, is considered to be incredibly offensive, whilst this isn't really the case in the UK, although perhaps it should be! I've also learnt about equivalents of the Orient in other languages, eg. the Levant in French, Anatolia in Greek, Vostok in Russian and Sharq in Arabic - all of which are connected to the concept of rising.

Book cover from Oriental Stories (1932)

Defining the Occident

The term Occidental, which refers to 'the West', from the Latin occidens for 'sunset/falling', has mostly fallen out of use in English. You'll have noticed that I use the term the West a lot, in this blog - but, of course, it's no longer merely a geographical concept. The West includes parts of the world that are in the South and East (eg. Australia, New Zealand). What I mean by 'the West' is those parts of the world that have, broadly speaking, inherited European laws, customs and cultures.

It also, vaguely, refers to what used to be known as Christendom ie. those countries where Christianity was the prominent religion. Whilst, I think the 21st century West is largely secular and based on principles of the Enlightenment, we do use this term to talk about countries in the developed world that are nominally Christian or Jewish (as opposed to Muslim, Buddhist or anything else).

Occidental Women

1930's poster from Hong Kong museum
To the Chinese, the West has been equally exotic and alluring, equally frightening and barbaric. It included not only modern Xinjiang, but other parts of the western China that were inhabited by nomadic people, such as the Mongols, Hui (Chinese Muslims) and Tibetans. As I've been reading about some of the horrific human rights' abuses that have been happening in Xinjiang/Uyghuristan in recent years, it's hard to believe that there is any love or fascination of the Occident in Chinese hearts, but I guess it's a love/hate thing and it's often the case that something can repulse and attract us in equal measure.

To the Chinese, the West has represented freedom from a centralised form of government, but also lawlessness and lack of civilisation. China has wanted to capture the West and, like a wild animal, to tame and possess it. The portrayal of Turkic women in Chinese history, has reflected everything that is alluring and exotic. Sexist? Yes, but there is no denying that, throughout history, the women of enemy tribes have symbolised the ultimate trophy and token of conquest.

Khoja Iparhan - the Fragrant Concubine

The Fragrant Concubine by Giuseppe Castiglione
One of the most potent symbols of China's relationship with the Uyghurs is the legend of the Fragrant Concubine, Khoja Iparhan (Xiāngfēi in Chinese). There was a period of about 1,000 years, when China had very little to do with the region that is now Xinjiang, but the advent of the Manchurian Qing Dynasty (China's last dynasty) in the mid-17th century, brought a renewed interested in conquering the West. The legend of Khoja Iparhan comes from that period and, although it's a legend, it's believed to be based on a real Uyghur woman, who was, reputedly, the most beautiful woman on earth and exuded a natural body odour that drove men wild with desire and earned her the nickname 'the Fragrant Concubine'.

The Chinese and Uyghur versions of the story are somewhat different - in the Chinese version, she is captured and brought to the Imperial Palace in Beijing, where the Emperor becomes enthralled by her and does everything he can to seduce her, including bringing a native tree, the jujube, from her homeland and creating a bazaar outside her window, so she will feel less homesick. For the Chinese it's a tale of conquest and submission. In the Uyghur version, she also pines for her native land, but never submits to the will of the Emperor and resists his sexual advances until she is finally murdered by the eunuchs of the Imperial Court.

Cai Wenji and the Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute

Hu-Jia Art by Kosi Gramatikoff
Of course, this can go both ways and another famous example of kidnap is the story of the Han Dynasty (Roman era) poetess Cai Wenji who was captured by Xiongnu (western) nomads from her home in Henan province, taken West and married to a nomad Chieftain, to whom she bore children. After twelve years, her father paid a ransom, so she could return to China and she dutifully went home, leaving her children behind her. The story of Cai Wenji is an important example of the values of Confucian China, which includes loyalty to your ancestors. She has been held up by Chinese nationalists, as an example of loyalty to China, above everything else, including loyalty to your children.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

As part of my research for this blog, I (re)watched Ang Lee's award-winning movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) which is a modern take on China's relationship with its western regions. The young woman, Jen (played by Zhang Ziyi) is the daughter of a Qing Dynasty aristocrat, who had been appointed as governor of one of the western regions. She is due to be married, but longs for the freedom of the western deserts and pines for a young nomad she met there, who was her first love.

It's a beautiful movie and was partly filmed in Xinjiang. The portrayal of the young nomad, Lo is incredibly sympathetic and seems to sum up the complex nature of China's feelings for its western neighbours. The film is based on the fourth novel of the Crane Iron Pentology by Wang Dulu. These novels, which romanticised the nomadic lifestyles of people like the Uyghurs, were published in the 1930's, at a time of great tension between the (then) Republic of China and Turkic nationalists of East Turkestan.

I'm going to leave you with a trailer for the movie. If you haven't already seen it, I definitely recommend it!

Image credits:

All images except the 1930's poster are taken from Wikipedia and are deemed to be in the public domain, either because their copyright has expired, or because the image creator has released their image for re-use.

The photo of the 1930's poster was taken by me on my iPhona museum in Hong Kong.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Xinjiang - how to make Dà pán jī

Not surprisingly, Uyghur cuisine is incredibly similar to the cuisine of Central Asia and some of my favourite dishes from Uzbekistan, like plov (pilau rice) and laghman (a kind of stretched noodle) are also staples in Xinjiang.  Of course, a lot of our culture is connected to the food we eat and the food which is eaten in Xinjiang very much depends on who is cooking and eating it!  I tried to find something that was a crossover between Uyghur and Chinese cuisine and stumbled upon Dà pán jī or 'Spicy Chicken Sauté', also know as Big Plate Chicken

It seems to be a Uyghur dish with a Chinese name and I found a recipe on Jamie Oliver's website, of all places - the version I made was based on this.  I must say, it was much spicier than anything I tasted in Uzbekistan and the sheer amount of ingredients in this dish was overwhelming!

The Noodles

I was feeling adventurous at the weekend, when I made this, so I decide to make my own noodles from scratch.  It's not the first time I've made my own noodles, as I also did this when I cooked the Mongolian dish, Tsuivan, back in November 2009!


Soft dough made of flour, water and egg
300g flour
200ml water
1 egg (beaten)
A pinch of salt

I started by mixing the flour, water and beaten egg in a bowl with a pinch of salt.  Then, using plenty of extra flour, I put the mixture on the kitchen counter and kneaded it until it formed a flexible dough.  I then used my rolling pin to flatten the dough to a very thin sheet, which I divided in two and cut into thin strips, by folding the sheets over on each other, putting flour on each fold and cutting the folded mixture lengthways.

Roll the dough out flat

Divide the dough in two

Rest the noodles on a dry tea-towel
I'd watched a video online of a Chinese woman making noodles, then made it up as I went along.  I also saw a video of a man in Xinjiang stretching noodles and then whipping the dough in a circular motion until it formed a long rope-like shape.  I briefly attempted something similar, but the bits of dough flying around my kitchen were enough to convince me to stop and leave it to the experts!

Once I'd cut the noodles, I hung them on a small table, on top of a dry tea-towel and left them to dry, as I got on with cooking the rest of the meal. 

Hey presto!  Home-made noodles!!
When the time came to cook the noodles, I brought a pot of water to the boil and chucked them in.  Amazingly they didn't all stick together or form a gloop at the bottom of the pan, but behaved really well, as noodles from a packet might - the only difference being that home-made noodles are about a hundred times tastier than anything from a packet!

The Spicy Chicken Sauté


You can see most of the ingredients that I used in the photo - except for a can of beer, which I used to boil the mixture.

A veritable feast
200g Chicken fillet (or other parts of the chicken, if you prefer - chopped into bite-sized chunks)
2/3 Bay leaves
Cinnamon powder (or Cinnamon sticks)
White Pepper Powder
Cumin seeds
Ground Cumin powder (Cumin is very popular in Central Asian dishes!)
Fresh Ginger
2 Tomatoes on the vine
1 green Pepper
1 red Pepper (although I left this out in the end, as it was already a lot of food!)
1 Carrot (cut into sticks)
4 red Chillies
1 White Onion (I'd never cooked white onion before, but it was delicious!)
2 Spring Onions (slice the bulbs and shred the stems, or cut them into diagonal slices)
2 potatoes (parboiled and chopped into small pieces)
4 whole Star Anise
Black peppercorns
Fresh Coriander

Prepare the ingredients

I chopped all the vegetables and prepared the spices, putting them on saucers and in bowls, grouped according to which ones would be added to the wok together. 


I heated up some groundnut oil in the wok, then added the red chillies, black peppercorn and sliced spring onion bulbs.  Once these had cooked a bit, I added the fresh ginger and dried spices (bay leaves, cinnamon powder, white pepper powder, cumin seeds, ground cumin powder and star anise).

Next I added the raw chicken, stirring it around in the (increasingly aromatic) spices and cooking it until it was completely white.  Then I added the potatoes and, a few minutes later, the shredded spring onion stems and carrot sticks. 

Add the onion bulbs, chilli and black peppercorns

Add the fresh ginger and dried spices

Add the chicken pieces and cook through
I then poured in a full can of beer and brought the mixture to boiling point before reducing the heat and simmering for 15 minutes.

Add the potatoes, carrots and spring onions

Simmer in beer for about 15 minutes

Finally, once I was convinced that the potatoes were tender enough to slice with a spoon, I added the white onion and chopped tomatoes.  I simmered the whole lot for another ten minutes or so, until the onion and tomatoes had cooked, before spooning the mixture onto a bed of home-made noodles, topping the dish with a handful of freshly-chopped coriander.

Add the tomatoes and white onion

Big plate chicken!

The result was a fusion of Central Asian and Chinese tastes, which went down a treat with my Kalmyk partner!

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me - please feel free to reuse these images, using the Creative Commons license, Share Alike Attribution (especially to this blog) and Non-Commercial. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Xinjiang - a sum of its parts

I first became aware of Xinjiang in 2001, when I bought the Lonely Planet guide to Central Asia, in preparation for my move to Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Previous to that, I had little awareness of who lived in the western part of modern-day China or the fact that this region was a kind of continuum of the Turkic and Persian cultures of Central Asia. Of course, 2001 turned out to be somewhat of a turning point for Western societies, particularly the US. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the newly-independent stans of Central Asia, as well as Xinjiang started to become better-known to other parts of the world.

During my time in Central Asia, I visited Kyrgyzstan and took a trip up to Lake Issyk-Kul and the town of Karakol, which is not far from the Chinese border, on the other side of the mountains from Xinjiang. Whilst I left Central Asia with an awareness of Xinjiang and a desire to someday go there, I left with no real understanding of the different parts of the region and this is something I'd like to explore in this blog post.

The Tarim Basin and Turfan depression

Turfan Depression by Atou Hsu
Xinjiang is, in reality, a land divided into two main parts, which are separated by mountains running, more or less, diagonally across the top half. The southern part holds the Tarim basin, which used to be a separate 'mini-continent' that partly submerged when the Indian subcontinent crashed into the greater Eurasian landmass.

If I've understood it correctly, the Tarim basin is slowly being pushed underground by the mountains to the north and south of it. One part of the basin, the Turfan depression is, at its lowest point, 300 metres below sea level, which is amazing when you consider that some of the surrounding mountains are thousands of metres above sea level. It's a hot and dry area, so hot, in fact, that previous generations of Turfan's inhabitants lived in underground caves, to escape the scorching temperatures of the surface.

Lop Nor

Also part of the Tarim basin are the salt marshes of Lop Nor.  They occupy an area that used to be an actual lake but was eventually cut off from the sea by the shifting landmasses.  It's an area of great archaeological interest and has been the source of some very well-preserved mummies that tell us a lot about the area's original inhabitants.  In the 1960's, the Chinese government started testing nuclear weapons in the Lop Nor region, a controversial activity that has been (sometimes violently) opposed by the local population. 

The Taklamakan

Children in Kashgar by Kvitlauk

Most of the Tarim basin is a desert called the Taklamakan. It's the 18th biggest desert in the world and, at approximately 100,000 square miles (270,000 square kilometres), it covers a land area which is greater than the UK and slightly less than Italy. For my US readers, it's slightly smaller than Colorado. It has a reputation for being incredibly inhospitable and the name Taklamakan is believed to mean something along the lines of 'abandoned place'. Despite its inhospitable reputation, people have managed to settle in the Taklamakan, mostly in oasis towns with underground water sources, which are a result of melting ice from the northern Himalayas creating rivers that run under the Tarim basin. It's the heartland of Uyghuristan and the most important Uyghur towns, like Kashgar, Aksu and Khotan, lie on the periphery of the Taklamakan, in the foothills of the various mountain ranges that encircle the desert.


Urumqi skyline by Ying Chen
The northern part of Xinjiang, which is also where most of the Han Chinese currently live corresponds, more or less, to the ancient land of Dzungaria - previously inhabited by Dzungars or Western Mongolians (from the Mongolian for 'left hand'). The landscape in Dzungaria is more like the Mongolian or Kazakh steppe than the Taklamakan desert and this part of Xinjiang has seen more changes in terms of population shift than any other part of the region. It's of particular interest to me, as my partner is a western Mongolian (Kalmyk), whose ancestors moved from Dzungaria to the Volga delta (and later the southern Russian steppe, where the modern Kalmyk republic is). When I say 'ancestors', it was a relatively recent move, in the 1600-1700s. Dzungaria no longer exists, but this region is the heart of Han Chinese Xinjiang, with the regional capital at Urumqi.

The Tian Shan mountains

Tian Shan Mountains by zz77
Of course, one of the main features of the region is its amazing mountains. The Himalayas and Pamir ranges in the south and the Tian Shan mountains, also know as Tengri Tagh, running across the north of Xinjiang, dividing the bottom two-thirds of the region (the Tarim basin) from the top one third (the Dzungarian basin). The Chinese name translates as 'heavenly mountains' and the highest peak is Victory Peak (Пик Победы Pik Pobedi in Russian, or Жеңиш чокусу Jengish Chokusu in Kyrgyz). It's known as Tömür in Uyghur, which is the Turkic and Mongolian word for 'iron' (and the modern boys' name, Timur). Another famous peak is Khan Tengri which means 'lord of the skies' in Uyghur.

The Ili Valley

The Ili Valley of Xinjiang reminds me of the Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan, for several reasons, namely:

- it's the most fertile part of the whole region

- it's completely separate to the rest of Xinjiang

- its separate identity and closeness to Kazakhstan has earned the Ili Valley the reputation of being a hotbed of resistance to Chinese culture and rule

Lavender Harvest in Ili Valley by Arthur Ngai

The valley has been passed back and forth, down through the years, between various different rulers, but it seems to have maintained an identity, that is neither wholly Kazakh or Chinese, Uyghur or Russian. It must have been one of the most tense border crossings between China and the (then) Soviet Union and continues to provide a refuge, escape route and different perspective from the rest of Xinjiang.

The Silk Road: trade and migration

I read an interesting theory that the history of Xinjiang is the history of trade through the Taklamakan and migration through the Dzungarian Gate. The theory goes that, because of the inhospitable nature of the Taklamakan desert, even bandits couldn't survive there, which made it a safer route to transport precious goods between China and the West. The 'southern route' became the preferred option for the Silk Road, whereas the 'northern route' via Dzungaria was too dangerous, as the steppe and colder climate could support marauding tribes. However, in terms of moving populations, the northern route was preferable, as the Taklamakan was too perilous for large numbers of humans to cross. So, goods went south, people went north.

Perhaps this explains why the south of Xinjiang (the Tarim Basin) remains to be a Uyghur stronghold, as it has been for centuries. On the other hand, more recent population movements, ie. the millions of Han Chinese who have moved to China's western province, have settled in the north, where earlier populations, such as the western Mongolians have been displaced and moved on!

Image credits:

The image of the Turfan Depression was taken by flickruser Atou Hsu - you can see more of Atou's photos at

The picture of the kids in Kashgar was taken by kvitlauk aka Audun K who is from Bergen in Norway.  You can see more of Audun's photos on his flickrstream or contact him via his website (it's in Norwegian, but even I could understand it!)

The image of Urumqi in the evening, with the skyline, is by a journalist called Chen Ying aka chenyingphoto - you can see more of Chen Ying's photos at or on the website

The stunning image of the Tian Shan mountains was taken (on the Kyrgyz side) by flickeruser zz77 who is from Moscow.  See more of zz77's photos on

The image of women harvesting lavender flowers in the Ili Valley was taken by flickruser ckngai23 aka Arthur Ngai - see more of his photos at

I've used a lot of images from flickr today - partly for the pleasure of my readers and to illustrate my blog, but also because I want to showcase some of the amazing imagery that is available through flickr.  Thanks to all photographers for making these images freely available using the Creative Commons license.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Xinjiang - Qarshi alimiz, huān yíng!

It's approximately 6,426 miles (10,341 kilometres) from Milwaukee in Wisconsin to Urumqi in Xinjiang, the next place on my learning journey!  Xinjiang is nestled around the Tian Shan mountains, with the Central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to the west, Russia and Mongolia to the north, Pakistan, India and Tibet to the south and the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Gansu to the east.  It's right in the heart of the Eurasian land mass and, geopolitically, has been very much at the centre of human history, whether as an Empire in its own right, conquering neighbours far and wide, or as a buffer zone between China and the rest of Eurasia. 

Xinjiang has a fascinating history, but you'd hardly know it, so low was the region's profile in terms of world affairs in the 20th century.  Whilst Tibet has ranked high in terms of Western causes célèbres, the situation in Xinjiang has languished in obscurity - only the protests of March 2008 and even worse violence in Urumqi in July 2009 brought Xinjiang to the world's attention. 

What's in a name?

It's pretty indicative of the complex political nature of Xinjiang that the hardest part in beginning this blog post was finding an acceptable name for this part of the world.  The choice is between the Chinese name for it's western part, Xinjiang (or more accurately, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) and the Uyghur name Uyghuristan (which hints at the idea of an independent republic, like the other 'stans' in Central Asia).  

Taklamakan Desert by Kiwi Mikex

Is it Xinjiang then?

My main reason for using Xinjiang wasn't a political one, but because it starts with the letter X and, therefore, fits quite nicely into my alphabetic approach to learning about the world!  I must admit, I don't, personally, like the term Xinjiang, which translates roughly as 'new territory' and smacks of 19th century colonialism, the period when this term was first used by the Chinese.  Previously, the Chinese called this region Xiyu meaning 'western region' which is only marginally better!  Some people might object to using a Chinese name at all, considering the legacy of colonialism in this part of Asia, however, I think the situation in Xinjiang is slightly different than in Tibet, the main reason being that more than 40% of Xinjiang's current population is Han Chinese (compared to 6% of Tibet's population).  Like it or not, Han Chinese people are a significant part of modern Uyghuristan and will also help shape the region's future. 

What about East Turkestan?

Many Uyghurs might also use the name East Turkestan, which causes a lot of offence in China, as it's associated with Islamic militant groups.  I'm not too fond of this term either, as it also sounds colonial (from the West and Russia this time) and is a bit old-fashioned in a 21st century where West Turkestan has ceased to exist.  It also suggests that the population of the region is exclusively Turk but, apart from the Han Chinese, Xinjiang is also home to non-Turkic peoples, such as Hui, Tajiks, Russians and Mongols.  It's true that the name Uyghuristan is even more exclusive, as it doesn't even include other Turkic peoples, like the Kazakhs or Kyrgyz, but we already have Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan etc., so it would be good to recognise the cultural importance of the Uyghurs in this region.  What's more, the term Uyghur is believed to have originated as an inclusive term for the various tribes who've inhabited this region since time immemorial.  

Historical names

Sheep at Kashgar Market by Kiwi Mikex
The region also has some historical names which have dropped out of use, some of them (like High Tartary) sound impossibly romantic to my 21st century ears!  To kick off my research into the region, I'm reading a fascinating book called Wild West China: the Taming of Xinjiang by Christian Tyler. He lists some of the region's other names, such as East Chagatay, Mugholistan, Chinese Turkestan (could be an interesting compromise?), Kashgaria, Altishahr, Little Bokhara and Serindia. also refers to the name Qurighar which it says is the preferred name Uyghurs give to their homeland. 

Uyghur or Uighur?

My next issue was to decide on which spelling I should use, Uyghur or Uighur?  It's interesting that a search on the BBC's website suggests that there is no such country as Uyghuristan or East Turkestan, only Xinjiang.  Tibet, on the other hand, does exist, but I think this is in keeping with the fact that most Western readers would recognise the name Tibet, but probably not the official Chinese name for Tibet, which is Xizang.  The BBC does refer to the Uyghur people, but they use the Uighur spelling which, I guess, is also easier for an Anglophone readership. 

Old man in Khotan by Kiwi Mikex
I've plumped for the other option, for precisely the opposite reason, ie. it's difficult to spell/pronounce and therefore more exotic!  As a linguist, I also like the fact that Uyghur preserves vowel-harmony, which is important in Turkic languages.  I also believe the way that we pronounce this word in English (ie. wee-gur) isn't entirely accurate.  I first learnt about Uyghur people through Russian language sources and the way Russians and Uzbeks pronounce this word is with a slightly more complicated vowel sound at the beginning, which I feel is reflected better in the Uy- spelling. 

Beyond the politics

I think there is always a peaceful solution to situations like the one in Xinjiang.  Unfortunately, it's not always the time for peace and I'm not sure how ready this part of the world is for what the future has in store for it.  Anyway, now that I've explained my choices and made my political excuses, I'm hoping I'll be able to move beyond the politics to explore the music, history, culture and food of this little-known part of the world.  I'm sure I will have other opportunities, in future blogs, to delve more closely into Han Chinese, Kazakh, Hui (etc) cultures, so a lot of what I'll be blogging about, this time round, will involve Uyghur music, food and culture.  Nevertheless, I'll try to keep an eye on the region's whole population, present and past, to fairly represent the contribution each has made to Xinjiang, as it is today. 

Image credits:

The stunning photos that I have added to this blogpost are by flickuser Kiwi Mikex aka Mike Locke from Nelson, New Zealand.  He doesn't seem to have a website, but you can see more of Mike's photos at - there really are some amazing images there.  Thanks Mike for sharing these with us, using the Creative Commons License.