Among the Uighurs : Uighur History

By Kurlantzick, Joshua | The World and I, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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Among the Uighurs : Uighur History


Kurlantzick, Joshua, The World and I


The Uighurs have lived in Xinjiang for over two millennia. As early as 206 b.c., Chinese primary accounts mention the Uighurs, who had their own kingdom of Eastern Turkestan several times during the various Chinese dynasties. During some of these periods, Chinese travelers and leaders enthusiastically embraced Uighur culture and adopted some Uighur innovations into Chinese society.

Early Chinese explorers such as Wang Yen De, ambassador to the Uighurs' kingdom between a.d. 981 and 984, remarked in wonder at the totems of Uighur civilization, in particular the elaborate handwoven carpets, wall paintings, sculptures, gold vases, and other handicrafts, many of which had been uniquely adapted to fit vast and sparsely populated Eastern Turkestan. (Modern-day Xinjiang encompasses roughly 250,000 square miles covered primarily by desert; 95 percent of Uighurs live in oases.) The Uighurs created a unique culture, and today there are significant Uighur minorities in several Central Asian countries.

The respect for Uighur culture did not prevent bloodshed. Chinese and Mongolian invaders frequently conquered Eastern Turkestan, though rarely without a brutal battle. Only in the mid-eighteenth century was Beijing able to extend its control to encompass most of modern-day Xinjiang. The Uighurs launched over forty revolts against China's Manchu dynasty between 1759 and 1862, expelling the Manchus in 1863. Soon enough, though, they fell victim to the "Great Game," in which Russia and Britain vied for influence over the historic Silk Road trading routes, which passed through Uighur land.

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