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. 
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