All posts filed under: History

Book Review: The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History

This review first appeared in the journal Milestones: Commentary on the Islamic World on March 1, 2017 Rian Thum, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, Harvard University Press, 2014, 336 pp. Historical scholarship on the Uyghurs often focuses on the imperial ambitions of the states that surrounded Chinese Central Asia and, in turn, the political intrigue that surrounded the emissaries of those states. Instead of asking how Uyghurs themselves imagined their community, these studies focus on relations of conquest and resistance and the gravity of wealth and power. Of course, the colonial domination of the Uyghurs is an important part of their history, but it is not the beginning of their story. Rian Thum’s work seeks to amplify how Uyghurs themselves imagined their community prior to the state, prior to modernity, perhaps even prior to Islam. Drawing on an ethnography of oral traditions and an extensive archive of sacred texts from shrines across the Uyghur homeland, Rian Thum’s work does something different. It seeks to amplify how Uyghurs themselves imagined their community prior to the state, prior …

Why are Uyghurs so Good at English?

Ever since Kasim Abdurehim, the founder of the private English school Atlan, took third place in the national English speaking contest in 2004, Uyghurs have found their way into the final rounds of almost every major English speaking competition in the nation. This year was no exception. The main difference is that now Uyghurs are learning how to be confident in their English ability at a younger age. It is because of people like Kasim and dozens of other award winning role models that kids like 14 year-old Tughluk Tursunjan feel confident on a national stage. Although Uyghurs represent less than one percent of China’s population, they still consistently beat Han contestants from the best schools in the country. Tughluk, who was this year’s winner of the Junior High School division of the “Outlook of Hope” contest on CCTV was taught by an English instructor named Nemo, a young Uyghur man who teaches at the Web English school in downtown Ürümchi. It was Nemo who coached him on how to speak with commanding gestures and …

The Giant Buddhas of the Western Region

The giant 41 meter Buddha faces directly west. It seems to embrace the new construction on the other side of Bright Red Mountain in on the Northeast periphery of Ürümchi.  Behind him the constant ring of hammers and the roar of Bingtuan Construction Engineering Company trucks rises from the still unfinished wing of the brand new Hilton hotel and the alien-looking international expo center. Every few minutes the low industrial roar is punctuated by the “dong” of a giant bell just to the left of the huge gold figure. Chants of “A-mi-tuo-fo” are carried intermittently on the breeze. The temple complex is symmetrical. Gates and bridges; fierce gods of war; giant rock gardens made of plaster; hobbit-style caves made of grape arbors;  opposing ornate temples filled with auspicious jade from Hotan for middle-class consumers; matching rows of elephants bearing Tibetan prayer wheels line the causeway. In the center of the complex is a rotund reclining Buddha covered by dozens of naughty golden children. People place their wishes inscribed on red ribbons here. They light incense …

The Story of the Production and Construction Corps

A rifle and sword tied together with a red flag over a meter of Gobi sand welcomes visitors to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Museum in the city of Shihezi – 136 kilometers northwest of Ürümchi.  This museum, filled with patched and dented artifacts and hundreds of large scale historical photos, is the premiere monument to the Han experience of the recent past in Xinjiang. It shows us the narrative of experience necessary to understand the history of the people who self-identify as “constructors” (jianshezhe) of Xinjiang. The Bingtuan, as the Corps is referred to by locals, is a state-sponsored farm system that is spread across the territory of Xinjiang – an area as large as California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico combined. Hundreds of regiments are still in operation 60 years after their founding. Out of this population of around 3 million military farmers, 90 percent are Han. The exhibition begins with giant images of people (at that point, in the early 1950s, mostly men) tilling the soil by yoking themselves …