Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China

General Info about Travel

General China Information

The Land

This is a vast land of deserts and mountains in the northwest region of the People's Republic of China - a region called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Though this region is primarily desert, the land is highly valued by the Chinese government. Besides the human resources, there are large deposits of oil (with the oil industry centered in the city of Korla), uranium and minerals. Xinjiang serves as a nuclear testing ground (with radioactive contamination reported in several Uyghur towns) and satellite launching pad. The major cities include Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province and the world's most landlocked city; Turpan, an important oasis between the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts; and Kashgar (also called Kashi), an ancient city once visited by Marco Polo and part of the silk road.  There are a number of interesting websites including:

The Uyghur People

One of the most interesting things about the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are the wonderful Uyghur people.  The estimated 7.6 million Uyghur comprise the third largest people group in China. The Uyghurs' origins can be traced back to Turkish nomads who lived in the former Soviet Union, south of Lake Baikal. History tells us that they became independent of the Turks in 744; however, in 840, less than 100 years later, they were forced by the Kyrgyz to leave their homeland. It was then that most of them immigrated to the Xinjiang province of western China, where they have remained until today. In the twelfth century they aligned themselves with Genghis Khan, but never became unified under one leadership until 1884. For centuries the Uyghurs, whose name means "united" or "allied," were an important link between China and the rest of the world. They lived along the Silk Road and worked as caravan drivers transporting Chinese goods. The strategic location of their oasis homes allowed them to be the "middlemen" for commerce between the orient and Europe.

Various political, religious, and ethnic conflicts have characterized the history of the Uyghurs. Nevertheless, they are still described as being a "proud, happy, and independent people." Music, dance, and epic ballads are important parts of their social life. They possess a unique blend of cultural elegance all their own. While remaining isolated enough to preserve their rural simplicity, they successfully made many contacts with other cultures. Such a rare mixture of simplicity and sophistication has given the Uyghurs a unique and obvious charm.

A large number of Uyghur left their homeland when the Chinese government asserted control over the region in the 1940s. Many settled in neighboring Kazakhstan and in smaller numbers in Russia, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Small Uyghur communities can also be found in Taiwan, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Germany, England, Australia, and the USA. The Uyghur people have suffered from persecution under communism, especially during the Cultural Revolution when many mosques were burnt by the Red Guards.

Until recent times, the Uyghurs lived in self-governing villages, but this is now changing. The Chinese government relocated more than 5 million ethnic Chinese (Han) into Xinjiang in order to increase China's influence in the region and to thin out the minority control. As a result, the province is now almost 50% Han Chinese. The Chinese government, aided by the growing number of Han the government moved into this area, have attempted to harness the independence of the Uyghurs by forcing their self-governed villages to become communes. Such changes have stirred the desire of the Uyghurs to remain autonomous and fueled resentment against the Chinese government. Military troops keep an eye on the area, for at least 7 Muslim organizations are working for the secession of Xinjiang from China. In the fall of 1996, over 50,000 people were jailed, and more than 1000 people executed in a government crack-down. Nevertheless, the Uyghurs' thousand-year-old traditions are slowly beginning to disappear as they are forced to embrace this new way of life.  For more information about the Uyghur people, see the Uyghur Dictionary Project Links.

Islam has been the dominant religion of the Uyghurs since the 10th century. In the past, most Uyghurs followed a folk Islamic religion mixed with superstition, but there is a renewal taking place among them. One hundred percent of the Uyghurs now claim to be Hanafite Muslims. Mosques in the capital city, Urumqi, are overflowing with followers. On the pavement surrounding the mosques, worshippers kneel on their prayer mats and offer prayers faithfully. Islamic literature is freely bought and sold, and the graves of Muslim saints are highly venerated. Fundamentalist Islam is stronger in southern Xinjiang than in the north.

The Uyghur have had almost no opportunity to hear about Christianity. The most recent opportunity was in the 1930s, when the Swedish Missionary Society established a fledgling church of about 200 Uyghur Christians in Xinjiang.  Every single Christian who refused to renounce their faith was killed in an uprising by local Muslims. This was the second time when all known Christians were killed by either a radical Muslim group or by the government.  There are only a few portions of the New Testament translated into the modern Uyghur language. The Jesus Film has just become available in Uyghur. The Joshua Project has additional information about Christianity among the Uyghur in their Uighur Profile.