All posts tagged: History

Uyghur Names as Signal and Noise

On May 10, 2017, Xinjiang University, the largest university in the Uyghur Autonomous Region, held a mass rally in the school’s sports complex. Thousands of Uyghur, Han and other ethnic minority students and faculty members were asked to attend the event in order to hear Communist Party leaders discuss what they referred to as “the overall goal.” This goal was to “mobilize the masses” in the ongoing war against the “infiltration” of destabilizing Islamic forces. They emphasized that China too had joined in the so-called “Global War on Terror” by proclaiming its own “People’s War on Terror” in 2014. The “terrorists” the Party leaders were referring to were members of the ethnic minority indigenous to the southern part of the region – the Uyghurs. They were also referring to a discursive shift in official policy. This discourse first described Uyghur claims to ethno-national autonomy in the 1990s as “separatism.” Following 9/11, descriptions of the same Uyghur rights protests, and emerging forms of Islamic piety, came to be categorized as “religious extremism” and “violent terrorism.” In …

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 …

Bringing “Blood-sweating” Horses Back to Xinjiang: Chen Zhifeng and his Million-Dollar Horses

Behind Chen Zhifeng’s hotel and gallery in northern Ürümchi are giant Jurassic Park-style gates often guarded by a huge hound (which I’m told is Chen’s personal pet). Inside the gates is something Chen refers to as an “Ancient Ecology” park: a collection of rare Xinjiang artifacts. There is a forest of petrified wood, a collection of meteorites, sand-polished boulders, mysterious stone balls, and a collection of ancient Turk ancestor stelae known as balbals. It is here, among propped-up 3,000-year-old desert poplars (the iconic symbol of Xinjiang), that Chen meets visiting heads of state and domestic dignitaries for business negotiations and history lessons in Xinjiang style. In the northeast corner of the park Chen has a motley crew of camels, eagles, peacocks, deer, and cows – but most impressively, a small herd of 38 wild horses from which his brand gets its name. These horses, known as the horse “discovered” by the famous Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky, or as the horse of the Jungar Mongols, are native to the steppes of Northern Xinjiang. Przhevalsky and the Jungars did not …