Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Uighurs and the World

Ask a Uighur (I have done this) about his or her family background and you may find yourself baffled. You'll get an odd melange of stories about Uzbeks, Kazakhs, perhaps even Tadjiks, but nothing at all about what you thought you were asking for: the background of the Uighurs themselves.

There's a good reason why this is so. That is: the modern "Uighur" identity is in large measure a late-come thing, the work of a fairly small group of urban visionaries who wanted to work to develop the society of Turkic peoples in the Xinjiang basin and knew they had a better chance if had a single identity with some claim at a history.

There is absolutely nothing sinister about this. You could say it is just exactly what almost every European nation has done (not to say however many non-nations) to try to nurture a collective identity. But it helps to explain one problem the Uighurs face in their conflict with "the Han"--the majority Chinese with whom they are in such visible conflict just now. Tibetans really have a history; we'd probably know about them even if they weren't being beaten up on. For Uighurs, the story isn't nearly so rich or textured and therefore harder to tell.

You get a clue from the Uighur Wiki page, where you can find an account of a Uighur empire that ended in 840 AD and followed by--read it critically now--a longish, convoluted, fairly difficult-to-follow account of the adventures and misadventures of various Turkic people. The story only gets bite with the coming of the Soviets in 1921: thenceforward we get a Uighur identity.

None of this for a moment denies the reality of the conflict in Western China, rooted in a long-standing and persistent conflict of cultures. None of this obscures the fact that the Chinese have poured ethnic Han into Western China with the purpose (to all appearances) of swamping and ultimately dissolving the ethnic Turkic peoples. But it may help to clarify just why it is the Uighurs (might as well call them that) have so much trouble developing a story with any traction.

1 comment:

ivan said...

I have a friend originally from the Afghan/Pakistan border area who says the Pashtuns -- he's one - are descendants of the missing Jewish tribes. he says they are descendants of Joseph. I looked it up and there is some credence to his ideas. he says pashtuns are really a mediteranean people. he points out they are lighter in skin color than "bengalis."