Among the Uighurs : Muslim Minority of West China

By Kurlantzick, Joshua | The World and I, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Among the Uighurs : Muslim Minority of West China


Kurlantzick, Joshua, The World and I


On a typical Friday afternoon last summer, the streets of Kashgar, a city in China's massive western province of Xinjiang, were packed. People wandered happily through the alleys and roads, celebrating the beginning of the weekend. Most were Uighurs (pronounced Wee-gurz), a Turkic ethnic group that has traditionally resided in Xinjiang. Despite the general frivolity, many young Uighurs privately expressed anger and sorrow. Uighurs may constitute a majority in their own province, but they are a tiny, somewhat repressed, Muslim minority within China's overall population.

Part of China since 1949, the Uighurs of Xinjiang remain reluctant citizens of the People's Republic. It has rarely treated them as equals. Over the past decade, though, matters have worsened. As Beijing has grown more paranoid about any dissent or expression of non-Chinese ethnicity, it has cracked down severely on many aspects of Uighur culture. In certain places, the Uighurs have managed to retain and even update some of their traditions. At other times, however, their culture has been ravaged.

In the beautiful interior courtyard of a traditional Uighur stone house, two young women explained how difficult it has become for them to advance in society while preserving their cultural heritage. Government policies, they told me, as well as the overwhelming impact of the increasing migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang, are pressuring many young Uighurs to adapt to Chinese ways and ignore their ancestors and traditions. "Chinese students in Xinjiang attend better schools, with teachers who are better paid and more dedicated," said one young woman. "They have more places reserved for them at the university."

"We have to learn Chinese well," the other woman continued, "because you cannot go to a university taught in Uighur. We have to learn more about Chinese history and culture. We don't learn much about Uighurs or Uighur culture at school."

In fact, the central government has instructed Xinjiang's most prominent university to stop instruction in Uighur. Beijing also ships the brightest Uighur junior high students to boarding schools in eastern Chinese cities. Nevertheless, in some areas, Uighurs have steadfastly defended aspects of their vibrant traditions against cultural barriers erected by China. Traditional culture remains particularly strong in the province's west and south, where the Chinese historically have had less control.

Some things persist

Most notably, carpet weaving, the Uighurs' best-known folk art, seems to be surviving its confrontation with modernity and Chinese influence. Historically handwoven, Uighur carpets vaguely resemble Persian rugs. Most come from the southern city of Hotan. They are valued by collectors for their high knot-count, beautiful pomegranate-dye colors, and elegant combinations of silk and wool. These carpets are normally used to cover all floor space in Uighur homes. "Carpets are the key to every Uighur household," I was told by one Xinjiang resident. "Anyone who gets money will spend it on better carpets for his family and on trying to make the pilgrimage to Mecca."

I saw this firsthand in one home where I enjoyed a long lunch after visiting Kashgar's frenzied Sunday market. The dining room floor was covered with three layers of carpets, each more intricate than the next. The family and their visitors ate sitting on the floor, gathered around a central tray piled with traditional treats: dried apricots and plums (Xinjiang is renowned for producing China's tastiest fruits); round, dense breads akin to Middle Eastern bagels; fresh cantaloupe and sweet hami melon; plov (lamb mixed with rice); thimble-sized glasses of fresh pomegranate nectar; and local pistachios.

Over the past three decades, the Xinjiang government has forced many well- known younger Uighur carpet weavers into state-owned factories. There, they are paid a low wage and taught to use machines.

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