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16 February 2022updated 02 Aug 2023 11:19am

Historic Uyghur culture is under existential threat

Shaped over centuries by pilgrimage, trade, art and war, a unique culture has been suppressed and exploited by Beijing. Can Uyghur distinctiveness re-emerge?

By Rian Thum and Musapir

In Kashgar’s old city it is hard to miss the Uyghur metal workers. Amid the din of hammers, huge copper teapots chased with intricate floral designs lure tourists to shops stuffed with decorative bowls and basins. Not far away, blacksmiths pound out hinges, shovel heads and other everyday items on anvils in front of their shops.

Kashgar lies within the far western borders of the People’s Republic of China, well connected by rail to the factories of the world’s largest manufacturing economy. Within a few miles of the blacksmith shops, mass-produced hinges and farming tools can be bought at some of the lowest prices in the world. But these items do not look or feel like the hinge or shovel of a Uyghur craftsman, whose business is supported by local customers in Kashgar, many of whom want their hardware to be culturally appropriate as well as functional.

This tenacity of cultural difference pervades Uyghur society, despite the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to compel the Uyghurs to adopt the habits, aesthetics and modes of production of the Chinese Han majority. Across the Uyghur region historic old cities are torn down, but Uyghurs build similarly designed homes on the urban outskirts. In the late 1960s, the Uyghurs’ network of sacred pilgrimage sites was closed for two decades, but when restrictions eased in the 1980s, the shrines sprang back to life. Today, Uyghur musicians use jobs in the state’s propagandist theatrical extravaganzas to support their own artistic endeavours.

[See also: “My culture will survive”: the Uyghur poet Fatimah Abdulghafur Seyyah on her family’s devastating persecution]

In some ways, the sensory experience of a visit to the Uyghur countryside is not much different from a trip to Uzbekistan or northern Afghanistan. The garden courtyards with their intricately carved wooden colonnades; the lilt of Turkic speech embroidered with Persian loanwords; the welcome shade of silvery green poplars planted along the roads – all testifying to a shared Central Asian geography and history. The Uyghurs have been ruled from Beijing for two and a half centuries, but culturally they still face westward.

The Uyghur region, along with the other dry but fertile lowlands that hug Central Asia’s great mountain ranges, had fallen under the rule of nomadic Turkic peoples by the turn of the 11th century. As the Turks gradually abandoned nomadic life, they adopted Islam and funded and consumed the sophisticated arts of the Persian-speaking literary and intellectual elite.

The 11th-century Turkic conqueror Mahmud of Ghazni was known in medieval literature for his love of war booty – one legend has him commanding that his treasures be spread before him as he lay on his death bed – but he also spent his riches funding the composition of the Shahname, the Persian “Book of Kings”, which is now regarded as Iran’s national literary monument.

Despite ruling from what is now Afghanistan, Mahmud also appears in Uyghur epic poems, sending troops to help defeat a Buddhist enemy. And Uyghurs lay claim to the burial place of the most tragic character of the “Book of Kings”, the Iranian hero Siyavush, who was killed by his Turk father-in-law.

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[See also: The Uyghurs’ plight shows the biggest threat to democracy is Western apathy]

Over the centuries, the shared Central Asian heritage has taken on distinctive local forms in the Uyghur region, as seen in the mausoleum of Afaq Khoja, an Islamic mystic who ruled the region in the late 17th century. With a tiled dome over a cavernous hall and minaret-like towers on its four corners, the tomb evokes the turquoise-clad architectural gems with which Tamerlane, Central Asia’s best-known empire builder, embellished his capital at Samarkand three centuries earlier.

But here the Timurid blues are joined with brown, yellow and green tiles, forming stripes, patches and checkerboard bands. The minarets are stout, with the slight bulge of Doric columns. Where the tiles have survived, not a single brick is left exposed; the mausoleum gleams in the sunlight like an enamelled box.

In the first half of the 20th century, before the Chinese government transformed the mausoleum into a tourist site, the building’s local character was more striking. In the front plaza, a pedestal supported a tower of enormous sheep horns. Pilgrims’ flags flew on long, handmade poles alongside yak tails. Hui people, Chinese-speaking Muslims from distant provinces, adopted Uyghur pilgrimage traditions and contributed their own flags, inscribed with prayers in Chinese.

Holy graves punctuate every corner of the Uyghur landscape, though few rival the monumental scale of Afaq Khoja’s mausoleum. Away from the cities, the finery of brick and tile becomes less common and, at remote desert sites, flags and animal offerings dominate the landscape. At some shrines, the flag poles are tied together in great bunches like upturned brooms, reaching ten metres or more into the sky. Their similarity to the Buddhist labtse, or arrow-spear shrines, of neighbouring Tibet suggests shared cultural roots.

Home economics: meat dumplings are prepared at a family-owned Uyghur shop. Photo by Carolyn Drake/Magnum Photos

Pilgrims once converged in great festivals on the graves of Afaq Khoja and other saints. Bazaars popped up, storytellers worked for tips, devotees sought miracles and absolution. Devotion, trade and entertainment bled together. Locals vied to bury their dead near shrines such as Afaq’s and returned to pray at their family graves. Today, Afaq’s reputation is mixed. While some Uyghurs see him as a holy man, others remember him as a traitor. Around 1679 he visited Tibet and convinced the Dalai Lama to support a Mongol invasion of the Uyghur region. Less than a century later, those same Mongols were conquered by the Qing empire, and the Uyghur homeland was claimed by the emperor in Beijing.

The Qing emperor enforced his new claim to the Uyghur region with a military invasion, taking the key city of Kashgar in 1759. With the exception of rebellions and a few short-lived independent states, the territory has been governed from China ever since. Many Uyghurs blame Afaq Khoja for starting this chain of outside rule and regard him with disgust. In the early 2000s, a tour guide who sometimes worked at Afaq’s mausoleum told a visiting researcher: “I ask forgiveness from God every time I go there.” Geography memorialises national villains as well as heroes.

Landscape and architecture create sacred connections to the land for the living too. In Ekhet Turdi’s 1999 novel Sersan Roh (“Vagabond Soul”), a traveller named Ekber weeps with joy as he steps off an aeroplane on to the sand-dusted tarmac in his home town, Kashgar. He reaches down, places a handful of the sand in his pocket, and “begins to walk, his body feeling so heavy, dragged down to the land and anchored in place”.

This reconnection to the land offers the protagonist surrender and relief. Vagabond Soul tells the story of Ekber and his father, Atikhan, who set off on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1948 – the year before the Communist Party of China took control of the Uyghur region. They reach Mecca. But they discover that the rulers of the “New China”, of which their homeland is now a part, have closed all roads home. The father dies in Egypt after decades of yearning for home; Ekber returns upon China’s reopening in the 1980s.

One of the ironies of the Uyghurs’ wide transnational affinities – not just with the rest of Central Asia, but with India, Persia, Arabia and Turkey – is that for most of the past 70 years, China has rarely allowed ordinary Uyghurs to leave their conquered homeland. Vagabond Soul has been immensely popular among Uyghurs because it addresses a thirst for the experience of distant but kindred lands. As the reader follows the protagonists through vividly rendered neighbouring countries, they learn about the once-typical route of the Hajj pilgrimage and the trials that pilgrims endured to reach the goal of their sacred journey.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there were liberalising reforms throughout China in the wake of Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, loosening limits on expression and ushering in a golden age both for modern Uyghur literature and for Uyghurs’ personal freedoms. It was this brief political opening that not only brought the fictional Akbar home, but also made Vagabond Soul possible. Ekhet Turdi, a craftsman’s son from Kashgar, became a state-sponsored novelist in 1989, at the age of 38, following years of work as a magazine editor. He was able to travel the world during the post-Mao relaxation, interviewing Uyghur exiles as research for his novel, and he published his story of cross-cultural connection in the state publishing house, Kashgar Uyghur Press. Today, merely expressing interest in the foreign settings of Vagabond Soul is enough to land Uyghurs in a Chinese indoctrination camp.

[See also: Behind Xi Jinping’s Great Wall of Iron]

Vagabond Soul is ultimately about the love of home. Though it is an adventure story that takes place in exotic, sanctified places, its end point, for both protagonist and reader, is in its opening pages, set during Kashgar’s blazing summer:

“His house was on Janan street. Its neat and spacious courtyard cheered the heart of anyone who entered. An acacia tree’s lush, budding branches stretched up high to the roof of the broad colonnade, with its beautifully crafted wooden eaves. On either side of the acacia were saplings, one fig, the other pomegranate. Figs emerged here and there, glistening like yellow buds, and the pomegranates blossomed deep red, shining with their own peculiar form… Returning home, Atikhan drank a bowl of cold tea and went to the upstairs reception room… The house’s interior was peaceful, cool, and dark. Its secluded, restful atmosphere lulled him into daydreams, and in a moment he was asleep.”

The novel offers its readers the ache of nostalgia for a place most have never left, and likely never will.

In the autumn of 2005 Emet, a farmer in Tashmiliq, south-west Xinjiang, decided to host his village’s first meshrep of the season in his courtyard, the centre of a home much like the one in Vagabond Soul. The meshrep – a village gathering with a range of entertainments – would be a good way to celebrate the birth of his new daughter, but also an opportunity to show off his latest woodworking and the beautiful carpets his sister Ayshem had recently finished knotting.

Before the shifts of the last five years, meshrep was connected to the agricultural cycle, which sets the rhythm of life for the small-scale farmers who make up the majority of the Uyghur population. After the late-summer harvest, people would preserve foods for the winter and sell their surplus in weekly markets. The autumn brings an end to an intense period of farm labour, and people would look forward to the regular meshreps that helped pass the long, dry winter.

Emet toured the village, hiring renowned storytellers, musicians and comedians to perform. Throughout the cold months, the “time of meshrep”, people would be watching to see where the most venerated artists performed, and they would defray the cost of hosting with tips. Some of those artists spent their summers on spiritual journeys, travelling to sacred shrines where they met with other artists, learning new stories or melodies. But they made sure to come back to their own village before winter, in time for the meshrep season.

In Emet’s village of Tashmiliq, a typical meshrep began under the guidance of a local notable. Guests danced to an orchestra of two-stringed lutes, the banjo-like rabap, frame drums and other instruments. A mock legal court, staffed in part by the comedians, sentenced certain guests to show off their talents or participate in farcical games. Young lovers traded glances while the storytellers improvised on classic tales of war and romance. An auction might have been held to benefit a local family fallen on hard times. If laughter and song stretched late into the night, the host knew his meshrep was a success.

The Chinese state has taken an interest in the meshrep, which is now central to its cultural industry in the Uyghur region. In 2010 the Chinese government won recognition for it on Unesco’s “List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding”. The Chinese state supports lavish staged performances in the regional capital Ürümqi and tourist destinations such as Kashgar, and it trains musicians in official, scripted versions of the meshrep at the Xinjiang Arts Institute.

These performances pry the meshrep out of its community context in favour of large theatres. The audience is composed of strangers, who spectate rather than participate. Community aid, social interaction and any lyrics deemed “religious” are all gone. “The time of meshrep” under the moon has become the time of variety shows under the klieg lights.

Today, restrictions on gatherings of more than a few Uyghurs in private settings have made the meshrep almost impossible. The loss for Uyghurs accustomed to the interweaving of art, life and cultural transmission in the domestic heart of their local communities is expressed in a folk poem, recorded by the Uyghur ethnographer Rahile Dawut:

I’ll take my day of meshrep over your royal throne
I’ll take my songs and melodies over your comforts and ease

As the Chinese state prosecutes an unprecedented war on the Uyghurs, officials often describe their assimilation policies as the gift of modernity. Villages are destroyed and replaced with clusters of identical concrete buildings. Farmers are forced into factories. Those who dissent find themselves in concentration camps, billed as vocational training centres preparing Uyghurs for a more “civilised”, Chinese life.

Some small part of this compulsory Chinese modernity is widely attractive to Uyghurs, but much is not. Better roads and more access to cars and electronics over the last 20 years cause few complaints. But the cost has been the destruction of the Uyghurs’ most important historic sites, the removal of children to boarding schools designed to block cultural transmission, the criminalisation of everyday Uyghur etiquette, and even the forced redecoration of homes with Chinese-style furniture.

If history is any guide, the success of this assimilation campaign will be uneven, and if Uyghurs are ever allowed to choose their own jobs, beliefs and habits again, Uyghur distinctiveness will re-emerge, changed but not severed from its past. It will be a small consolation for what is destroyed.

Rian Thum is senior lecturer in East Asian History at the University of Manchester and the author of “The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History” (Harvard University Press). Musapir is the pen name of a Uyghur academic

This article appears in our series, The Silencing, on China and the Uyghurs

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War