Oasis Identities: Uyghur Nationalism along China's Silk Road

Oasis Identities: Uyghur Nationalism along China's Silk Road

Oasis Identities: Uyghur Nationalism along China's Silk Road

Oasis Identities: Uyghur Nationalism along China's Silk Road


The rising tide of ethnic nationalism that has swept across Central Asia in the past decade has energized efforts by the Chinese government to win favor among its ethnic minorities. As a result, China has granted the Uyghurs -- a Turkic Muslim people who inhabit the oases of China's far northwestern province, Xinjiang -- special previledges, opening up international borders, reestablishing long-severed transborder contacts and trade networks, and allowing intellectuals the liberty to construct their own versions of Uyghur history.

From the outset, however, this process has been problematic, heightening intra and interoasis tensions. Greater freedoms for the Uyghur people have threatened China's economic, ideological, and military control over this vital region and have produced resistance movements and separatist terror attacks. In this study, a leading expert on Central Aisa explores the history, culture, politics, and geography of Xinjiang's oasis communities, shedding new light on the competing ideas, symbols, and allegiances that make up the many diverse Uyghur identities.

Drawing upon extensive fieldwork in the Xinjiang oasis of Turpan, Justin Jon Rudelson assesses the factors that undermine the creation of a pan-Uyghur identity. He explains the historical and contemporary impact of the geography of the region, where oases are relatively isolated from one another; the fragmented visions and cross-cutting allegiances of the three major social groups (intellectuals, peasants, and merchants); and the inability of the Uyghur elite who spearheaded the nationalist movement to transcend their own provincialism, thereby engendering rival oasis identities and subverting ethnic unity.

Oasis identities is a vivid, ground-breaking work offering insight into not only the trumoil besetting this important but little-studied region but also the barriers facing all emerging nations and cultures struggling to define their national identities.


My heart breaks for you my Uyghur people.
—Abdukhaliq (“Uyghur”), “Awaken! (Oyghan),” 1932

In April of 1990 the reports of violence in China's northwesternmost province of Xinjiang sounded ominous. Turkic Muslims in the far west near the Afghanistan border had rioted, and as many as sixty people were killed. Apparently this violence broke out after local officials in Akto, a small town near the oasis of Kashgar, barred the construction of a mosque. Whatever the cause, the rioting was severe enough that the Chinese crushed the rebellion with troops and sealed the province from outside contact. This was the bloodiest confrontation since the Tiananmen turmoil in June of 1989.

Soon, the newspapers in the United States were ablaze with wild headlines and sensational articles declaring that the Turkic Muslim Uyghurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), the majority nationality in Xinjiang, “the Children of Tamerlane and Attila the Hun,” were on a rampage. the media speculated that cracks were beginning to appear in China's empire. the Chicago Tribune went so far as to proclaim that “China's Ethnic Turks May Wage Holy War” (Schmetzer 1990). Who are these people known as the Uyghurs? What led them to this violence? What is their relationship with the Chinese state, and what will their future be like?

I had returned to the United States from field research among the Uyghurs only one week before. Day after day I read reports in the press . . .

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