Xinjiang Stories

Uyghur history as everyman’s history.

The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History by Rian Thum. Harvard University Press. 336 pages.

ON MAPS TODAY, China’s Central Asian regions are labeled Xinjiang, literally designating the “New Territories” annexed to the Chinese state during the Qing imperial conquests of the 1750s. In the Western imaginary, the region is more often conceived as the hinterlands of the Silk Road, as a romantic landscape of ruined caravansaries and Buddhist caves. To the Anglo-Hungarian explorer Aurel Stein, the man who did more than anyone to uncover this lost layer of history, it was Serindia, a name he invented to connote a cultural crossroads between China and India. For other Victorian adventurers, it was simply East Turkestan. Once a neutral geographical term, after its adoption by Uyghur nationalists in the 1930s as the name of their independent republic, East Turkestan (or Sharqi Turkistan) cannot now be mentioned in China. Each of these competing names, when deployed by conquerors, explorers, or travel agents, contains a particular rubric of belonging, a statement of to whom and to where China’s west is related.

Yet there is also another way of conceiving the area: that of its Uyghur Muslim inhabitants. On my own travels in Xinjiang a few years ago, I tried to follow the routes described by Muslim scholars and migrants for whom the region was part of a cultural and religious continuum with what is now India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Connected by Persian pilgrimage texts and Arabic genealogical trees, that pre-colonial geography conceived those regions as belonging together before the Chinese, Russian, and British empires divided their territorial spoils. Having spent years wandering through the neighboring landscapes, on my own journey to Xinjiang I hoped to witness the living legacy of the pilgrimage routes that bound together those Asian heartlands with cords of culture if not the chains of empire. I was little prepared for what I found. Mausoleums of sultans had become state museums extolling China’s official history, and shrines of Muslim saints were now exotic stopovers for busloads of Han tourists. There were few Uyghur Muslims at any of these famous spaces, and my attempts to visit more obscure shrines in the countryside were thwarted by Uyghur uncertainty as to their location and the more rigorous deterrent of police roadblocks. Given that as late as the middle of the 20th century that older landscape of Uyghur memory remained as redolent to Turkic nationalists as it did to traditional pilgrims, it became clear to me that a massive transformation had taken place. Moreover, it was a transformation in which both Uyghurs and Han Chinese seemed to have played a role.

Rian Thum’s new book tells the story of that transformation. In The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, he documents how the Muslims of the region now called Xinjiang understood their past in the three centuries before the Cultural Revolution. Then he explains how that historical identity was torn apart, by inside and outside forces, in the course of the 20th century. What Thum presents readers, he says, is a “biography of Uyghur history.”

Given the many names for Chinese Central Asia, the first problem Thum faces is what to call the places and participants of that past. To speak of “Xinjiang” and its “Uyghurs” is already to take sides in the struggle for the historical record. Well aware of both the political implications and historical anachronisms of every available label, like Stein a hundred years ago Thum opts instead to invent his own names. Rather than side with either the Chinese state or Uyghur nationalists and speak of “Xinjiang” or “East Turkestan,” and rather than back-project the notion of a “Uyghur” identity that only emerged in the 1910s, he calls the region “Altishahr” and its Turkic-speaking Muslims “Altishahris” rather than “Uyghurs.” These are labels he derives from the old Turkic name Altishahr, which referred collectively to the region’s most important “six cities” (though no one could agree which cities these were). He likes this pre-modern indeterminacy, so distinct from the clearly marked boundaries on modern maps of China.

Aware as he is of the policing of the past in this part of China, Thum tries to extricate his investigations from official ideology and its easy antithesis, Uyghur resistance. Indeed, he explicitly warns against seeing “Altishahri” understandings of the past in such casually politicized terms. There are tremendous gains in the clear-mindedness of this decision, for it allows him to step back from the present no less than the past and to historicize both Uyghur nationalism and Chinese statism as two stages in a longer story. He is most concerned with a past that lies before and below these higher category ideologies: he is interested in the scratchy Turkic manuscripts and crumbling mud-brick shrines that formed the raw materials of historical knowledge, with what he calls “the means by which people experience history.” In the manner of an archaeologist, but investigating meanings rather than objects, he carefully uncovers a sequence of semantic layers, each with their own material evidence, to show distinct and transitional periods of historical understanding in Altishahr. In so doing, he reveals how the Muslims of western China conceived their past before the wrecking ball of the Cultural Revolution swung through their lands and how those conceptions shaped their relationships with their homelands, neighbors, and one another.

To access those layers of meaning, Thum explores the relation between the writing and reading of manuscripts on the one hand, and the building and visiting of shrines on the other — an interplay that allows him to recover the written (and recited) past as it combined with the experience of the visual (and visited) past. Words and places, books and buildings formed a semantic continuum through which the Muslims of Altishahr were able to not so much study their past as to walk through it, as on pilgrimages to the Sufi shrines where those manuscripts were read out loud. Thum thus focuses not merely on the content of historical knowledge, but on the mechanics of its transmission.


Sacred Routes is the outcome of what has over the last 15 years or so been called the “new Qing imperial history.” Briefly, this is an approach to the history of China between the 17th and early 20th centuries that tries to look beyond the old notion that the various “barbarians” of China’s last empire were set on a predetermined “civilizing” course, their Sinicization inevitable. Instead, the new history tries to uncover the distinctive contributions made by non-Han peoples to both the polity and society of China, to take seriously the nature of the Qing state as an empire, as a space of cultural no less than political negotiations between multitudes of peoples. This requires a more complex narrative than traditional versions of Chinese history, and means that much of the new Qing imperial history has looked at China’s cultural borderlands. Thum’s attention to what the Qing came to label their Xinjiang or “New Territory” shows its origins in this historiographical club. By drawing on Persian, Turki, and Uyghur materials, he upholds the club’s principle of not privileging Chinese depictions of that complex imperial society, raising the stakes by reading the history of “China” through non-Chinese sources.

Thum’s work also reflects an important development outside China studies: the study of how different Muslim societies have depicted their own past. In the last decade or so, this has become something of a boom topic. Much of the research has focused on the modern era of Muslim nationalism, as in Yoav Di-Capua’s and Farzin Vejdani’s works on the practice of writing history in 20th-century Egypt and Iran. A smaller number of studies have focused on the pre-modern period, including my own book on the texts and territories of Muslim “memory space” in India, chasing the further trails of which led me to Xinjiang. What makes Sacred Routes so valuable is its coverage of both the modern and pre-modern periods, taking us back before the Chinese conquest of Altishahr. This enables Thum to show what happened to the older cultural technologies of manuscript, shrine, and pilgrimage in the age of mass printing, competing nationalisms, and commercial tourism.

To tell this long story, Thum begins with a chapter on what he calls the “textual canon,” the body of written works in Persian and Turkic that, from the 17th century, consolidated a cast of historical characters for peopling the Altishahri past. In their earliest manifestations, long before the Qing conquests of the 1750s, these literary attempts to forge local history drew on imported culture heroes from a wider Muslim world who had to be domesticated to the landscapes of Altishahr. The chief tool for this historical grafting and splicing was the tazkirah, a genre whose Arabic name suggests “memory,” and which were manuscripts devoted to stories of local sultans, martyrs, and especially saints. Since printing did not even begin in the region till around 1900, this practice of making history through manuscripts continued into the 20th century. Before turning later to the age of print (and its familiar partner, nationalism), Thum devotes a chapter to the operation of these manuscripts. He shows that the hundreds of tazkirah produced between the 17th and early 20th century were embedded in social relations that shaped both the composition and reception of texts, due to the “communal nature of reading and writing.” In this way, he makes the case that tazkirah texts reveal conceptions of the past that were collective rather than merely the private concerns of their authors. As a cultural technology, the manuscript served not so much as a storage jar of facts as a starter motor of debate, carried out through comments in margins and discussions in public readings. The emergence of such a manuscript-based public sphere became feasible from the 18th century onward as a result of a big rise in “book access,” which stemmed from the increasing use of written vernacular Turki rather than classical Arabic and Persian.

Yet as the “book of memory” (in Mary Carruthers’s famous phrase), the written tazkirah was never enough in itself to create a collective history for the people of Altishahr, let alone to enable the “experience” of the past with which Thum is concerned. For that, the written past needed the support of the built past, by way of the shrines of the Muslim saints (and occasionally sultans). Not only did those buildings provide pilgrims with a “physical and geographical link to the past,” they also acted as “a fulcrum of historical meaning,” since manuscripts were “attracted to the shrine, circulated there, and […] disputed there.” Moreover, because pilgrims treading the lonely desert trails between different shrines learned to relate the history of one holy place to that of the next on their itinerary, shrine networks served to foster “a regionally shared history” that was both carried and connected by Altishahr’s pilgrim traffic. In this way, Altishahr was not so much the land of “six towns” that the name literally signified, but the land of innumerable shrines whose interwoven histories provided its people with a sense of collective identity.

Though in most respects a work of textual scholarship, Sacred Routes takes several heuristic cues from the social sciences. Thum’s model of pilgrimage, for instance, echoes a classic conception of Durkheimian sociology: pilgrimage creates community by presenting its participants with the proof of their time-honored collectivity. Here, then, lies the slippery boundary between religion as a matter of private conscience and religion as a means of collective organization. And along this interpretive boundary lies the fraught line in modern China between the constitutional pledge to honor the freedom of what it defines as “normal religious activity” and strident state intervention against any attempt to organize religious communities outside of official institutions, which for Uyghurs means a few state-controlled mosques.

Despite his careful attempts at “eschewing political polemic,” it’s here that Thum reaches the point in his biography of Altishahr’s past when it becomes necessary to describe the destructive impact the People’s Republic has had on its Uyghur citizens’ sense of their own history. He recounts his own efforts to make pilgrimages that the state has criminalized. In Thum’s case, and in mine, attempts to visit shrines has led to being detained by police; in one case on a road to a mausoleum that, like many others, he learned had been closed down and possibly demolished. Describing a policy of the “museumification” of some shrines, and the outright destruction of others, he details the way such policies have effectively divorced the Uyghurs from their collective heritage. “State restrictions have thoroughly disrupted the festival traditions and removed the shrine festival from the experience of most Uyghurs,” he notes. The impact of this denial of ordinary Uyghurs’ ability to access their past has been confounded, he continues, by the confiscation (and presumed destruction) of tazkirah manuscripts and the ban on reading them at those shrines that still remain open. It is little wonder that the shrines I was able to visit had so few Uyghur visitors. Though the shrines of Xinjiang suffered a different fate from their still bustling cousins in India and Pakistan, they lived a parallel life with those of Soviet Central Asia. Soviet restrictions ended with Russia’s great imperial retreat in the early 1990s, but the situation for the Uyghurs remains unchanged and has arguably worsened in the last few years.


Such policies have not managed to suppress Uyghur historical identity entirely, in part because the 20th century saw the emergence of a print-mediated past. Between the 1890s and 1930s, a self-consciously new type of Turkic intellectual appeared in Altishahr, influenced by Muslim reformist and Soviet nationalist ideologies, both disseminated from Russo-Soviet Central Asia (or “West Turkestan”), where many people traveled from Altishahr for education and trade. The impact of these new intellectuals was magnified by their leading role in the founding of schools and newspapers that promoted a nationalist conception of Altishahris as “Uyghurs.” Taken from one of the region’s pre-Islamic Turkic kingdoms, this ancient moniker was only resurrected in 1910 as the penname of a poet who dubbed himself “Child of the Uyghur” (Uyghur Ballisi). In the 1920s and ’30s, other reformist intellectuals took it up as a name for the entire people Thum dubs “Altishahris.”

After 1949, the impact of these new notions of identity was magnified by the Chinese Communist Party, and it is here that Thum is at his most analytically adept. Keeping his eye on the rapidly evolving target of his inquiry, and carefully steering his argument through the rapids of Chinese statist and Uyghur nationalist ideologies, he shows how Chinese policy inadvertently served to compound and continue transformations that were already underway among Uyghurs themselves before the People’s Republic annexed the short-lived Second East Turkestan Republic in 1949. For through the PRC’s conception of the Uyghurs as constituting a minority ethnic nationality or minzu (itself an idea borrowed from Japan and ultimately Europe), after reclaiming Xinjiang from the Uyghur nationalists the PRC inadvertently sided with the new intellectuals’ conception of a “Uyghur” historical identity, even while suppressing its political implications. In short, the name Uyghur survived in modern China while the name Turkestan cannot be spoken.

Thum argues that this entailed a shift from place to personage as the primary focus of historical knowledge in Altishahr. As shrines were closed down and tazkirah manuscripts confiscated, the old ways of experiencing the past were replaced by a new purveyor of history: state-approved print. From the late 1970s, the end of the Cultural Revolution allowed for more sympathetic portrayals of the “feudal” pre-Maoist past. At the same time, the state maintained tight restrictions on the pilgrimages that had supported the old nexus of shrine and manuscript. And so the scene was set for the rise of a new genre through which a now self-consciously “Uyghur” people could access their past. That genre was the historical novel. Like the tazkirah, the historical novel was also a textual wanderer, albeit this time from Western Europe via the Soviet Union, where Central Asia’s first Turkic novels had been written in the 1920s. Sold in shops rather than read at shrines, and as often as not portraying the saints through the lenses of Marxist anti-clericalism, in the 1980s such blockbuster Uyghur novels as Săypidin Ăzizi’s Sutuq Bughrakhan (Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan) replaced the shrines and manuscripts that flourished half a millennium before the Cultural Revolution. Through the most unlikely of alliances, both the “how” and the “what” of Altishahr’s historical identity were wholly transformed.


There are many lessons that readers might take from this book. As Uyghurs increasingly enter the news in a pattern that looks set to continue, Rian Thum tells the story of their evolving sense of the past. His measured opinions help navigate the informational blackout — the Chinese clampdown on independent reporting — from what is China’s largest administrative region. But at its core, Sacred Routes is not a political study, and Thum is explicit about the analytical limits of understanding Uyghur self-histories as forms of “resistance” or “opposition” to the People’s Republic. Refusing to reduce his “biography of history” in Altishahr to a simplistic binary of oppression and opposition, Thum instead leads readers beyond the familiar ideologies of modern times toward older ways of knowing and belonging. The empathy and magnitude of this humanist project show the experience of the past in a society few have tried to understand in its own terms. “Uyghur notions of history,” he concludes, “expand our sense of how humans can and do interact with the past.” This is Uyghur history as everyman’s history.


Nile Green serves as director of the UCLA Program on Central Asia and on the editorial board of the International Journal of Middle East Studies.

LARB Contributor

As Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA, Nile Green brings global history into conversation with Islamic history. He has researched and traveled in around 20 Muslim countries, including Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. His many books include The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London, Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction, and How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding. Green also hosts the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam, which is available on all major platforms.


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