London Uyghur Ensemble

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A brief history of the Uyghurs   (1)

Uyghur history can be divided into four distinct phases. Pre-Imperial (300 BCE - 630 CE), Imperial (630-840 CE), Idiqut (840-1225 CE), and Mongol (1225-1600 CE) with perhaps a fifth post-Mongol or modern phase running from the death of the silkroad in 1600 CE until the present. Their history is the story of an obscure nomadic tribe from the Altai Mountains rising to challenge the Chinese Empire and ultimately becoming the diplomatic arm of the Mongol invasion.

The ancestors of the Uyghur includes the nomadic [Gaoche] People and possibly the [Tocharian] peoples of the [Tarim] Basin. Gaoche meaning ´High Cart´ was a reference to the distinct high-wheeled, ox-drawn carts used to move yurts. The Gaoche were Altaic pastoralists who lived in the valleys south of Lake Baikal and around the Yenisei River (Yenisei = Ana Say, or "Mother River" in Turkic). They practiced some minor agriculture and were highly developed metalsmiths due to the abundance of easily available iron ore in the Yenisei. They became vassals of the [Huns] and manufactured their arms. After the Huns they were passed as vassals to the Rouran and Hepthalite States. In 450 CE the Gaoche planned a revolt against the Rouran that was defeated by the Turk (another Rouran vassal tribe). This incident marked the beginning of the historic Turk-Tiele animosity that plagued the Gokturk|Gokturk Khanate. When the Gokturk defeated the Rouran/Hepthalite state, they became the new masters of the Tiele (the name "Gaoche" was replaced by "Tiele" in historic records around this time). It was also at this time that the Uyghur tribe was first mentioned in Chinese records as a small tribe of 10,000 yurts in the South Baikal region.

The Uyghur participated in a coalition of Tiele under the leadership of the Syr-Tardush tribe which allied with the Chinese [Sui Dynasty/Sui Empire] in 603 CE to defeat Tardu Khan and win their independence. This alliance existed with varying degrees of autonomy from 603 CE until 630 CE when the Gokturk Khanate was decisively defeated by the Emperor Tang Taizong. During this time the Uyghur occupied second position after the Syr-Tardush in the alliance. In the interum between the first and second Gokturk Khanates (630-683 CE) the Uyghur toppled the Syr-Tardush and declared their independence. Then a second Gokturk Khanate was established during the reign. The Uyghurs, again joined with other nomadic Turkic tribes, participated Gokturk empire. After Bilge Khan´s death in 734, the empire declined. After a series of revolts coordinated with their Chinese allies, the Uyghur emerged as the leaders of a new coalition force called the "Toquz Oghuz". In 744 CE the Uyghur, together with other related subject tribes (the Basmil and Qarluq), defeated the Gokturk Khanate and founded the Uyghur Empire at Mount [Ötüken].

745 CE-840 CE. Map of the Uyghur Empire and areas under its dominion (in yellow) at its height, c. CE 820.

Properly called the On-Uyghur (ten Uyghurs) and Toquz-Oghuz (nine tribes) Orkhon Khanate, the Uyghur Empire stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria and lasted from 745 to 840. It was administered from the imperial capital [Ordu Baliq], the first city built in Mongolia. During the imperial phase ´Uyghur´ came to mean any citizen of the Uyghur Empire, and not just a member of the Uyghur tribe. After the An Shi Rebellion, although they considered the conquest of the Tang Dynasty, they chose instead to use an exploitative trade policy to drain off the wealth of China without actually destroying it. In return, they policed the borders and quelled internal rebellions. Large numbers of Sogdian refugees came to Ordu Baliq to escape the Islamic Jihad in their homeland. It was from them the Uyghur were converted from Buddhism to Manichaeism/Manichaeanism. The Uyghurs thus inherited the legacy of Sogdian Culture. In 840 CE, following a famine and a civil war, the Uyghur Empire was overrun by the Kirghiz, another Turkic people. The result was that the majority of tribal groups formerly under the umbrella of the Uyghurs migrated to what is now northwestern China, especially modern "Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region."

The Uyghur refugees who fled south-west, west and further west established three states in Keng-su (Gansu), in present day "Xinjiang" and in the Valley of Chu River in the West Tengri-Tag Mountains (Tian Shan), respectively. Those who fled west together with other Turkic tribal groups living in Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin, established Beshbalik-[Turpan]-[Kucha] state in the Tarim Basin, Turfan Depression and Dzungaria, merging with the local populations of Tocharians (or Tokharians, whose language was Indo-European). It is probable that, genetics/genetic ally and culturally, modern Uyghurs descend from the nomadic Turkic tribes and the Indo-European-speaking groups, who preceded them in the Tarim Basin oasis-cities, as well as Uyghurs from Mongolia.

Today one can still see Uyghurs with light-coloured skin and hair. Modern studies have found that modern Uyghur populations represent an admixture of eastern and western Eurasian lineages. It is at this time ´Uyghur´ can be used as an ethnic designation.

´Yugor´ -the eastern most of the three states was Ganzhou Kingdom (870- 1036) with capital near present Zhangye city in the Gansu (Keng-su) province of China, where they converted from Manicheism to Lamaism (Tibetan and Mongol (Buddhism). Unlike other Turkic peoples further west they did not later convert to Islam. Thus they are unusual among Turkic peoples. Their descendants live there to this day, they are now known as Yugurs (self identification- ´Yogir´, ´Yugor´, known also as ´Sary Uyghurs´ (Yellow Uyghurs), i.e. (yellow-haired uyghurs) and are distinct from modern Uyghurs. In 1028-1036 CE the Yugors were forcibly absorbed into the Tangut kingdom, being defeated in the bloody war.

´Karakhoja´ -the central state (created during 856-866 ) was the Karakhoja kingdom, also called the Idiqut ("Holy Wealth, Glory ") state, was based around the cities of Turfan (winter capital), Beshbalik (summer capital), Kumul and Kucha. Also a Buddhist state with a state sponsored buddhism and manicheanism it can be considered the epicentre of Uyghur culture. The Idiquts (title of the Karakhoja rulers) ruled independently until 1209 when they submitted to the Mongols under Genghis Khan and as vassal rulers existed until 1335.

´Kara-Khanid´ -(Great Khans Dynasty). The Karahans originated from Uyghur tribes settled in Valley of Chu River after 840 and ruled between 940-1212 in Turkistan and Maveraunnehir. They converted to Islam in 934 under ruling of Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan (920-956) and after taking power over Qarluks in 940 built a federation with Muslim institutions. Together with the Samanids of Samarkand they considered themselves the defenders of Islam against the Buddhist Uyghur Idiqut and the Buddhist [Scythian]-Tocharian kingdom of Khotan.

The reign of the Karahans is especially significant from the point of view of Turkic culture and art history. It is during this period that mosques, schools, bridges and caravansarays were constructed in the cities. Kashgar, Bukhara and Samarkand became centres of learning. In the period, the Turkish language found the means to develop. Among the most important works of the period is Kutadgu Bilik (translated as "The Knowledge That Gives Happiness") written by Yusuf Has Hacib, between the years 1069-1070.

Both the Idiqut and the Kara-Khanid states submitted to the Kara Khitans. After the rise of the Seljuk Turks in Iran the Kara-Khanid Khanate became nominal vassals of the Seljuks also. Later they would serve the dual-[suzerainty] of the Kara-Khitans to the north and the Seljuks to the south. Finally all three states became vassals to Chingis Khan in 1209.

Most inhabitants in the Urumqi [Besh Balik] and Turfan regions did not convert to Islam until the 15th century expansion of the Yarkand Khanate, a Turko-Mongol successor state based in the western Tarim. Before converting to Islam, Uyghurs were Manichaeans, Buddhists, or Nestorian [Christianity|Christians].

Post 1600 CE

The Manchus who set up a huge empire in China, invaded the East Turkistan in 1759 and dominated it until 1864. During this period the Uyghurs revolted 42 times against the Manchu rule with the purpose of regaining their independence. In the last revolt of 1864, the Uyghurs were successful in expelling the Manchus from their motherland, and founded an independent Kashgaria kingdom under the leaderhsip of Yakub Beg. This kingdom was recognized by the Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia and Great Britain. But for fear of Tsarist Russia expansion into Eastern Turkestan, Great Britain supported the Manchu (China) court to conquer East Turkestan. The money for the Manchu invasion forces was granted by British banks.

Large forces under the overall command of General Zuo Zhong Tang attacked Eastern Turkestan in 1876. After this invasion, Eastern Turkestan was given the name Xinjiang or Sinkiang which means "New Dominion" or "New Territory" and it was annexed into the territory of the Manchu empire on 18 November 1884. In 1911, the Nationalist Chinese, under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, overthrew Manchu rule and established a republic.

The Uyghurs, who also wanted to free themselves from foreign domination, staged several uprisings against the Nationalist Chinese rule during this period. Twice, in 1933 and 1944, the Uyghurs were successful in setting up an independent Islamic Eastern Turkestan republic. But these independent Islamic Republics were overthrown by the military intervention and political intrigues of the Soviet Union. It was in fact the Soviet Union that proved a deterrent to the Uyghur independence movement throughout this period. In 1949 the Nationalist Chinese were defeated by the Chinese communists. After that, East Turkestan fell under Chinese rule.

Currently Turkic and Islamic cultural elements are dominant in the Tarim, which reflects a thousand years of Turkic rule in the region and resulted in the replacement of previous religious traditions by Islam. This has had an effect on modern politics because of a very long off-and-on political and military relationship with China. In the remote past in these regions, China ruled sporadically until the Battle of Talas in Tang dynasty. This history goes a long way to explain the troubled relationship with past and present Chinese institutions and with the dominant ethnic group in China, the Han Chinese.

´Uyghur´ is widely credited as having been used for the first time in 1921 with the establishment of the Organization of Revolutionary Uyghur (Inqilawi Uyghur Itipaqi), a Communist nationalist group with intellectual and organizational ties to the Soviet Union. There is some evidence that Uyghur students and merchants living in Russia had already embraced the name prior this date, drawing on Russian studies that claimed a linkage between the historical khanate and Xinjiang´s current inhabitants. Official recognition of the Uyghurs came under the rule of Sheng Shicai who deviated from the official Kuomintang "five races of China" stance in favor of a Stalinist policy of delineating fourteen distinct ethnic nationalities in Xinjiang.

The East Turkestan independence movement

The "Kokbayraq" flag. This flag is used by Uyghurs as a symbol of the East Turkestan independence movement. The People´s Republic of China/Chinese government prohibits using the flag in the country.

Following 9/11, China stated its support to the United States of America in the war on terror and many human rights organizations are concerned that this is being used as a pretext to crack down on ethnic Uyghurs. The Chinese government has often called Uyghur nationalists terrorists, but have gotten more global support since 9/11. Most Uyghur exile groups today claim their cultural rights are being suppressed by the Chinese government and that the PRC responds to Uyghur expressions of their culture, religion or demands for independence with human rights violations. A large proportion of the Uyghur diaspora supports Pan-Turkism/Pan-Turkic groups and there are several organizations such as the East Turkestan Party. The name "Xinjiang" is considered offensive by many advocates of independence who prefer to use historical or ethnic names such as East Turkestan or Uyghurstan.

Though most Uyghur separatists support peaceful, secular Uyghur nationalism, there are some radical Islamic militant groups (such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and East Turkestan Liberation Organization for independence as well. This has caused much confusion with regard to names and belief of Uyghur political groups. Often the Chinese government refers generally to East Turkestan and to ´Terrorism/terrorists´.

Executions, and imprisonment of Uyghur nationalists is not uncommon.

Ref- China ´crushing Muslim Uighurs´ BBC News Online, [2007-04-21]. Retrieved On 9 February 2007 Ismail Semed was executed by the Peoples Republic of China for "attempting to split the motherland"



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