What Is a Uyghur?

By Rian ThumOctober 26, 2014

What Is a Uyghur?

IN THE SCRAMBLE to make sense of the violence and repression in China’s Western region of Xinjiang, where many of the Uyghur inhabitants resist Chinese rule, local Uyghur perspectives have gone largely unreported. The following extract, from The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, aims to uncover Uyghur understandings of the region’s history and the forces that shaped those understandings. One example of what is commonly overlooked is the term “Altishahr,” a Uyghur word for the part of Xinjiang traditionally inhabited by the Uyghurs (and, incidentally, the name of the most popular Uyghur rap group). In this extract, the word is adapted as “Altishahri,” that is, a person from Altishahr, to address an unusual obstacle to writing about Uyghur history: as of, say, 1900, there were no Uyghurs. “Uyghur” at that time was the name of an extinct ancient kingdom, while the people of Altishahr called themselves simply “Musulman” (Muslim). In the first decades of the 20th century, Altishahri elites revived the “Uyghur” term as a name for their own ethnic group, but it took quite a long time for the name to catch on. That process, outlined below, was accompanied by the radical shift from a media landscape dominated by manuscripts to the eventual ascendancy of the printed word. The fitful and slow penetration of print ultimately facilitated new imaginations of a Uyghur past, transforming an older system of Altishahri history, which had been characterized by tazkirahs, the biographies of local Muslim saints.  (Adapted from The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History by Rian Thum, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)


Reformers, Nationalism, and the “Uyghur” Identity

Between the fall of Ya‘qub Beg’s state in 1877 and the arrival of Chinese Communist rule in 1949, reform movements laid the groundwork for new ways of understanding the world, which would eventually reshape Altishahr’s approach to the past. Among the new ideas that took root in Altishahr, nationalism represented perhaps the most profound reorganization of Altishahri self-imagination since the arrival of Islam.1 Early ventures in nationalist thought appeared against the background of a dizzyingly complex succession of political upheavals, driven by actors as diverse as Han Chinese anti-Qing revolutionaries, disbanded Qing soldiers, military strongmen, Uyghur nationalists, and communist revolutionaries. In the first half of the 20th century, Altishahr saw Qing imperial rule, tyrannical autocrats, loosely democratic experiments, and early moves toward socialism.2 At the same time, printing, the telegraph, radio, film, and modern industry made their first inroads in the region. There is no room in this study for an in-depth look at all of these phenomena in their interaction, but it would be impossible to discuss the encounter between nationalism and Altishahri tazkirah-based historical practice without providing a thumbnail sketch of the processes by which nationalist thought became a central feature of the new Altishahri worldview.

The earliest proponents of cultural reform and nationalist thought were Altishahris whose worship, education, or business led them to travel widely. Altishahris traveling in the larger Muslim world at the beginning of the 20th century encountered the new language of nationalism, which was developing in a cacophonous global conversation. For influence on Altishahri thought, no manifestation of this conversation was more important than the nationalisms developing in Western Turkestan. These nationalisms included Pan-Turkism, which saw peoples from Anatolia to Altishahr as part of a single Turkic nation, imaginations of a “Muslim Turkestani” nation (limited to Central Asia), and narrower ethnonationalisms such as Ozbek.3 In the early years of Soviet rule in Western Turkestan, there was also a lively debate among émigré Altishahris about the nature of their own identity, and the significance of the increasingly popular term Uyghur, debates which would have great significance for Altishahri self-conceptions.4 The multiple, overlapping, and often confusing notions of nationalism developing in Tsarist and Soviet Turkestan influenced Altishahri society along several vectors, including school reform programs, Soviet nationalities policies, the discourse among the large population of émigrés from Ghulja living in Soviet Yettisu, and the flow of Altishahris studying in Tashkent.

Altishahr’s earliest connection to nationalist thought may have been through the Muslim cultural reformers of the Russian Empire, known as Jadids after the Persian term for the “new method” (uṣūl-i jadīd) of teaching the Arabic alphabet. The originator of the new method, a Crimean Tatar by the name of Ismail Bey Gasprinskii (1851–1914), was a Pan-Turkist, and many of the earliest Jadid intellectual projects shared Gasprinskii’s interest in uniting a single Pan-Turkic nation. Many Central Asian intellectuals soon narrowed their focus to a “Turkestan” that excluded much of Gasprinskii’s Turkic world.5 It is difficult to know exactly how much Pan-Turkist or Turkestani nationalist thought arrived in Altishahr at what time, but many of today’s Uyghur historians suggest that a school established near Kashgar by the Musabayov brothers, Husayn Bay and Bahā ‘al-Dīn Bay, reflected a reformist program as early as 1885.6 The Musabayovs’ new school was eventually linked to a wider reformist network. Beginning in 1910 the Musabayovs’ “Ḥusayniyya” school was led by an Altishahri who had studied in the Ottoman Empire, and in 1914 Husayn Bay helped the Ottoman reformist Ahmet Kemal (mentioned below for his printing press) establish another school in the Artush area. Graduates of the Musabayovs’ and Kemal’s schools eventually fanned out to found their own new schools in towns around Altishahr.

Of the reformers’ programs in Altishahr only the new teaching movement has been studied in any detail, but it provides a rough measure of the spread of the Jadid influences in the region. The new schools multiplied despite difficulties from several quarters. Probably the most important resistance came from the administrations of Xinjiang’s Republican-era Chinese rulers Yang Zengxin (1912–1928), Jin Shuren (1928–1933), and Sheng Shicai (1933–1944), who vacillated between support and suspicion. Many Altishahri elites also resisted the new schools, which undermined established Islamic educational norms, and these elites sometimes looked to the Chinese governments for support in their opposition to the schools. The Altishahri educational movement continued with some strength through the 1910s, but its success was rather uneven. Certainly, the traditional maktab remained the main form of education in Altishahr. Some of the larger towns lacked even a single new-style school, as it seems Qarghaliq still did in the late 1920s and early 1930s.7 However, even though the new schools could not have reached the majority of Altishahris, they likely succeeded in producing several generations of elites familiar with intellectual currents of the Turkic, Islamic, and Russian worlds. These individuals would become influential in the independent East Turkestan Republics (1933–1934 and 1944–1949), establish Uyghur cultural organizations, dominate the national public discourse in the new newspapers, and produce much of the literature that eventually redefined Altishahri culture in its modern Uyghur form.

The new schools incorporated into their curricula a significant attention to history as a distinct subject.8 Sources on the nature of history teaching in Altishahr’s new schools have yet to emerge, but the fact that history was included as a separate subject at all is significant. As Adeeb Khalid has pointed out, the new schools’ separation of history (and other topics, including geography and arithmetic) from “religious instruction,” which had its own time slot alongside the other subjects, marked the beginning of a “process of marking off Islam from the rest of knowledge.”9 This may in part explain why the teaching of “history and geography” was considered particularly offensive by Kashgar’s opponents to the new-method schools.10 Such desacralization of knowledge would later become an important aspect of the tazkirah’s transformation into the nationalist novel. However, for the majority of Altishahris, who still attended the old-style maktab, historical practice remained embedded in sacred knowledge, dominated in the textual realm by the tazkirah.

A somewhat regular flow of Altishahri students to schools in Western Turkestan also encouraged the spread of new ideas to Altishahr, thanks both to the contact with new perspectives in Western Turkestan and to the often greater freedom of discourse in that area. A trickle of scholars and merchants had always traveled outside of Altishahr, and some of these began to encounter new ways of imagining identity in the late 19th century. Among these travelers, the famous reformist ‘Abd al-Qādir Damollam was one of the most effective transmitters of new ideas to Altishahr. In 1889 he reached Bukhara, where he studied for eight years, and he later traveled to Istanbul and Cairo. ‘Abd al-Qādir published educational materials abroad that circulated Altishahr, including a catechism that still circulates in Kashgar’s underground book market. In the 1920s and especially in the late 1930s, the stream of traveling Altishahri scholars intensified, as hundreds of Altishahri students went to study in Western Turkestan, especially in Tashkent. During the time of warlord-governor Sheng Shicai’s alliance with the Soviet Union, many students received financial support for their travel. The list of students each year may have even been personally approved by Sheng.11 In dialogue with Soviet ethnic policies, intellectuals of Western Turkestan were shaping the Uzbek, Tajik, Kirghiz, and other national identities, and building for them new national literatures. In the Soviet socialist republics, Altishahri students were exposed to lively public discussions in newspapers and educational programs that included extensive interactions with political thought. The politicized atmosphere continued through the 1930s, when Sheng Shicai was sending over 100 students each year. The memoir of a student during the Sheng era describes Altishahri students learning difficult Marxist texts and producing plays (it is not insignificant that theater was, along with the newspaper, the main form of reformist literature), and participating in a student union.12

There was already a great swell of interest in issues of identity in Western Turkestan before the revolution. Pan-Turkism from both Ottoman and Tatar scholars was popular, as were Pan-Islamic ideas. A “Turkestani” identity was under discussion, and articles appeared in newspapers discussing narrower identity terms such as Sart. The highly self-conscious and explicit examination of Central Asian identities was often paralleled by political aspirations. When Stalin’s Soviet state went about creating the Central Asian Soviet Socialist Republics along ethnic lines, which involved an enormous project of classifying citizens, nationalist imaginings rose to even greater prominence, eventually becoming reified in the state’s official categories. Soviet ethnic policy was influential in Altishahr in at least three ways. First, it encouraged discussions of identity among Central Asian intellectuals and pulled them closer into line with nationalism in the Russian, and thus European, tradition. It was in this intellectual environment that the Altishahri students in Tashkent became part of conversations surrounding national identity. Second, Sheng Shicai adopted much of Soviet ethnic policy, eventually classifying Xinjiang’s ethnicities in much the same way that the Soviets had classified the people of Western Turkestan. Finally, there was a large population of Altishahri descent living within the Soviet Union, especially in the Yettisu region of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, who participated in the wider intellectual discourse of Soviet Central Asia, and whom the Soviets classified ethnically as “Uyghurs” or “Taranchis.” This group probably had as much to do with the shaping of Uyghur identity as any segment of native-born Altishahri society.

The majority of Altishahris in Yettisu were Taranchis, descendants of the farmers whom the Dzungar Mongols and later the Qing forced to move from the Altishahri oases to cultivate the Ili valley in the Tianshan Mountains. The political vicissitudes of the 19th and 20th centuries frequently forced large numbers of refugees to flee the Ili valley, and they usually ended up in the nearby and geographically similar Yettisu region. Other Taranchis arrived in Yettisu for seasonal work in factories. The discourse among the Taranchis has been thoroughly described by David Brophy, who demonstrates a similar interaction between indigenous intellectual debates over national identity and Soviet ethnic policies to the relationship that existed in the rest of Western Turkestan.13 It was among this group that the word Uyghur came into use as an ethnonym for the Altishahris, including the Taranchis. Although the word Uyghur, a name associated with certain pre-Islamic Altishahri kingdoms, had maintained an ephemeral presence in Altishahr all the way into the 20th century, it was not an ethnonym in wide use, and when it was used, it tended to be restricted to subgroups of inhabitants around the northern oases of Turpan and Qumul. The resurrection of the term as an ethnonym seems to have been influenced by European scholarship on the Uyghur Buddhist kingdoms, scholarship that was becoming available to intellectuals in Western Turkestan. In 1910 a Taranchi author published under the pen name Child of the Uyghur (Uyghur Ballisi). By the 1920s, political and cultural organizations were using Uyghur as an ethnonym, and debating whether it should include Kashgaris (Altishahris exclusive of Taranchis) only, Kashgaris and Taranchis, or perhaps even all of the ethnic groups of Xinjiang, including Han. In 1935 Sheng Shicai enshrined the Uyghur category, essentially as it had developed among the Yettisu Taranchis, as an official ethnic category. This formulation of identity largely followed the limits of the Altishahri identity discussed earlier but also tied Turki speakers from places not known to have important tazkirahs, such as the Taranchis and the Turki inhabitants of the marginal oasis of Qumul, closely and explicitly to the Altishahri core.14

An anonymous 1934 article in Kashgar’s New Life speaks at length of the state of nationalist thought in Altishahr:

The children of Adam living across the whole face of the earth are divided from one another into sects [maẕhab] and also separated into several peoples [qawm] and tribes [urughlar], for example Arab, Turk, English, French, Italian, Russian, Indian, Chinese, and the like. . . . Because most of our people here are in ignorance and unconsciousness we have forgotten what tribe we are from. If someone is asked what tribe we are from, he answers, “We are Muslims.” It is correct to say of us that we are Muslims, but in terms of descent and tribe, it is surely also necessary to know what tribe we are from. Is it not futile for a man’s child, upon forgetting his own father’s name, to ask it of another person? So enough then. We are the children of the Uyghurs. Uyghur means our noble national [milliy] name.15

The Uyghur term was not entirely new to Altishahr when this essay appeared. In 1933 the failed East Turkestan Republic, for example, had called itself the Islamic Republic of Uyghurstan on some of its coins. Sheng Shicai, who, at the time of the article’s publication, had recently solidified his control in Kashgar, supported the Uyghur label, and his government would officially establish the ethnonym shortly thereafter. The article suggests that most Altishahris still did not consider themselves to be Uyghurs at this time. Use of the Uyghur name was in all likelihood restricted to educated elites, perhaps those with access, even if indirect, to the intellectual trends in the Altishahri émigré community of Soviet Yettisu. Even the literate readership of the New Life Newspaper needed to be exhorted to promote the Uyghur identity.

By 1985 the Uyghur ethnonym was widely accepted by Altishahris. In that year, Justin Rudelson conducted a survey of 81 Turpan residents, in which all but five respondents ranked Uyghur among their three most salient identities (other choices being Muslim, Turpanliq, Junggoluq, and Turk).16 However, the long journey from the situation that pertained in 1934 to the wide use of the ethnonym Uyghur in 1985 remains largely hidden. While scholars have paid plenty of attention to the development of elite Uyghur nationalist discourse and state ethnic policies, the process by which acceptance of the new (though presented as old) Uyghur identity spread among the ordinary Altishahri population has never been carefully studied, due mostly to a dire lack of accessible sources on the subject. Much of the spread of the Uyghur idea must have taken place during the first three decades of Chinese Communist rule (i.e., 1949–1979) a period for which we have only scant and little-studied sources.17 Despite this dearth, however, it is worth noting a few obvious contributing factors. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) essentially maintained the ethnic categories recognized by Sheng Shicai’s regime. As an official ethnic category, the Uyghur notion must have been a major force in the dramatic reorganization of society that the PRC undertook in Xinjiang. PRC officials developed new alphabets for the language now called Uyghur, replacing the old alphabet, which had been used for both Persian and the various Turkic literary languages of Central Asia, including Altishahri Turki.18 Compulsory schools taught material in Uyghur, from textbooks written in the new alphabets. Identification cards included (and still include) the official ethnic identity of each individual. Ethnic quotas were established for certain positions. We do not know what role Altishahri communities and social structures played in spreading the idea of Uyghurness. However, in one way or another, and with strong encouragement from state policies, the Uyghur identity, and with it nationalist conceptions of the world, had spread widely among Altishahris by the 1980s.


  1. Nathan Light makes this case in detail through his comparison of “the adoption of the ideology of European modernity to the Turkic conversion to Islam,” in Nathan Light, “Slippery Paths: The Performance and Canonization of Turkic Literature and Uyghur Muqam Song in Islam and Modernity” (PhD dissertation, Indiana University, 1998).

  2. For detailed accounts of the political history of the period, see Andrew D. Forbes, Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia: A Political History of Republican Sinkiang 1911–1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Justin Matthew Jacobs, “Empire Besieged: The Preservation of Chinese Rule in Xinjiang, 1884–1971” (PhD dissertation, University of California, San Diego, 2011).

  3. Adeeb Khalid, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 214.

  4. My sketch of the émigrés’ role in shaping the new Uyghur identity is based on the work of David Brophy, along with that of Sean Roberts. David Brophy, “Taranchis, Kashgaris, and the Uyghur Question in Soviet Central Asia,” Inner Asia 7, no. 2 (2005): 163–184; David John Brophy, “Tending to Unite?: The Origins of Uyghur Nationalism” (PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2011); Sean R. Roberts, “Imagining Uyghurstan: Re-evaluating the Birth of the Modern Uyghur Nation,” Central Asian Survey 28, no. 4 (2009): 361–381.

  5. Khalid, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform.

  6. Abliz Niyaz, “Parlaq Musapă—Shărăplik Ăslimă,” in Hüsăyniyă rohi— tăklimakandiki oyghinish, ed. Ibrahim Alp Tekin (Ürümchi: Shinjang khălq năshriyati, 2000), 49. For the founding of the school, see Shirip Khushtar, “Musabayov vă uning soda karkhanisi,” in Hüsăyniyă rohi—tăklimakandiki oyghinish, ed. Ibrahim Alp Tekin (Ürümchi: Shinjang khălq năshriyati, 2000), 37. The 1885 date is cited in many Uyghur-language secondary sources. The source of this date is not cited specifically, but Khushtar had access to archival materials from the Musabayovs’ descendants. Shirip Khushtar, “Uyghur yengi ma’aripi vă tăntărbiyisini tarqatquchi aka—uka Musabaylar,” in Hüsăyniyă rohi— tăklimakandiki oyghinish (Ürümchi: Shinjang khălq năshriyati, 2000), 230.

  7. Abdurishit Khojăhmăt, “Qarghiliq nahiyisining 1926 yildin 1936 yilghichă bolghan 10 yilliq tarikhidin ăslimă,” Shinjang tarikhi materiyalliri 12 (1983): 202, 245.

  8. Khushtar, “Musabayov vă uning soda karkhanisi,” 36.

  9. Adeeb Khalid, “The Emergence of a Modern Central Asian Historical Consciousness,” in Historiography of Imperial Russia: The Profession and Writing of History in a Multinational State, ed. Thomas Sanders (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1999), 173.

  10. Ahmet Kemal, Çīn Türkistān hatıraları (Izmir: marifet matbaası, 1925), 35, 55.

  11. Săypidin Ăzizi, “Tashkăntkă berip oqush,” in Tashkăntchilăr, ed. Abdurakhman Abdulla (Ürümchi: Shinjang khălq năshriyati, 2002), 11.

  12. Ăzizi, “Tashkăntkă berip oqush.”

  13. Brophy, “Taranchis, Kashgaris, and the Uyghur Question in Soviet Central Asia,” 163–184.

  14. This overview of Taranchi discourse is based on Brophy, “Tending to Unite?” It is of course possible that tazkirahs may be discovered for tombs in the Ili valley or Qumul, though is unlikely that they will be found in such numbers as to suggest an important place in the popular tradition.

  15. “Uyghur Ne Dimakdur,” Yangī hayāt, September 13, 1934.

  16. Rudelson, Oasis Identities.

  17. The only sustained study is Donald H. McMillen, Chinese Communist Power and Policy in Xinjiang, 1949–1977 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1979).

  18. Latin-, Cyrillic-, and Arabic-based alphabets were introduced at different periods, but the government eventually settled on a modified Arabic script. This script is different enough from the Perso-Arabic script that had been used before PRC rule that Uyghurs educated only in the new script cannot read manuscripts written in the Perso-Arabic form.


Rian Thum is Assistant Professor of History at Loyola University New Orleans.

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Rian Thum is Assistant Professor of History at Loyola University New Orleans.


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