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date: 14 July 2024

The Uyghurs: Making a Nationfree

The Uyghurs: Making a Nationfree

  • David BrophyDavid BrophyDepartment of History, University of Sydney


The Uyghurs comprise a Turkic-speaking and predominantly Muslim nationality of China, with communities living in the independent republics of Central Asia that date to the 19th century, and now a global diaspora. As in the case of many national histories, the consolidation of a Uyghur nation was an early 20th-century innovation, which appropriated and revived the legacy of an earlier Uyghur people in Central Asia. This imagined past was grounded in the history of a Uyghur nomadic state and its successor principalities in Gansu and the Hami-Turfan region (known to Islamic geographers as “Uyghuristan”). From the late 19th century onward, the scholarly rediscovery of a Uyghur past in Central Asia presented an attractive civilizational narrative to Muslim intellectuals across Eurasia who were interested in forms of “Turkist” racial thinking. During the First World War, Muslim émigrés from Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan) living in Russian territory laid claim to the Uyghur legacy as part of their communal genealogy. This group of budding “Uyghurists” then took advantage of conditions created by the Russian Revolution, particularly in the 1920s, to effect a radical redefinition of the community. In the wake of 1917, Uyghurist discourse was first mobilized as a cultural rallying point for all Muslims with links to China; it was then refracted through the lens of Soviet nationalities policy and made to conform with the Stalinist template of the nation. From Soviet territory, the newly refined idea of a Uyghur nation was exported to Xinjiang through official and unofficial conduits, and in the 1930s the Uyghur identity of Xinjiang’s Muslim majority was given state recognition. Since then, Uyghur nationhood has been a pillar of Beijing’s minzu system but has also provided grounds for opposition to Beijing’s policies, which many Uyghurs feel have failed to realize the rights that should accord to them as an Uyghur nation.


  • Borderlands
  • Central Asia
  • China
  • Citizenship and National Identity/Nationalism

The Origins of Uyghur Nationalism

The Uyghurs comprise one of the largest of China’s official nationalities, or minzu, with an official population of around 12 million. The vast majority reside in the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” a designation for their homeland that was fixed by Beijing in 1955. There is some dispute now as to whether the Chinese term “minzu” is best rendered in English as “nation” or “ethnic group,” and a tendency in Chinese discourse to adopt the less politically weighted “zuqun” (“ethnic group”) as an alternative to it. Uyghurs term themselves a millät, a keyword of Turkophone political discourse which evolved during the 19th century to acquire the meaning of “nation.” Nation, in this usage, refers to a community that self-identifies as one and is not to be equated with the nation-state. While an independent Uyghur state has been the goal of some Uyghur activism in the 20th and 21st centuries, much of the work to flesh out the idea of a Uyghur nation was premised on the end goal not of independent state sovereignty but of obtaining the benefits of national status within the multi-national social systems of Communist Eurasia.

Ask a Uyghur what defines the Uyghur nation, and they may point to some of the objective traits commonly thought of as requirements for nationhood: a distinct language (which belongs to the “Eastern” branch of the Turkic language family), a sense of common homeland, and distinct cultural traditions. Some may describe the Uyghurs in genetic terms as the mixing of Turkic-speaking migrants from the steppe with the autochthonous population of the Tarim Basin. Others might emphasize the role of the Beijing state and its repressive policies in catalyzing a sense of reactive nationhood among the Uyghurs. All of these would be legitimate responses to the question, yet it is the premise of this article that a Uyghur nation only came into being when a significant section of the community thought of themselves as such and started to agitate for the rest of their putative ethnic brethren to similarly identify as members of the Uyghur nation. This took place within a relatively narrow timeframe in the early 20th century and first among people residing not in Xinjiang, but in the Russian Empire. Immediately before, and in the wake of, the Russian Revolution in Turkistan, émigrés from Xinjiang seized the opportunity to mount a radical redefinition of their community as Uyghurs. How they achieved this is the focus of this article (for a more wide-ranging discussion of modern Uyghur history, see the entry “The Uyghurs in Modern China” by Rian Thum).

The case of the Uyghurs stands out among the major ethnic building blocks of the modern Chinese state. Some of these, such as the Mongols, emerged from the experience of Qing rule as distinct constituencies, defined by hegemonic narratives of ethnogenesis. Many more minzu received official recognition in the 1950s, when the Chinese Communist Party conducted its own ethnic classification project.1 The case of the Uyghurs falls between these two state-led taxonomic enterprises. At the fall of the Qing, an all-encompassing category of Muslims (Hui) was one of the putative “five races” (Ch. zu) said to comprise the Chinese republic, but by the victory of the Communist revolution in 1949, this notion of a Muslim race had given way to a much more complicated set of Muslim ethnicities (officially, China is home to ten minzu who practice Islam). This unique experience reflects the history of Xinjiang as a Soviet satellite in the 1930s, when it served as a testing ground for the introduction of Soviet-style nationality policies to China. From its inception, therefore, the discourse of Uyghur nationhood has been inherently transnational.

The idea of a Uyghur nation harks back to an earlier period of Central Asian history. In the 8th century a group called the Uyghurs laid claim to the Turkic imperial tradition, ruling the steppe from what is now Mongolia. In the wake of the Uyghur Empire’s collapse in 840, semi-sedentarized Uyghur principalities emerged in the Gansu corridor and the Hami-Turfan region (known as Uyghuristan), where the elite patronized Buddhism. Uyghurs may have also migrated further west and south and entered into the tribal makeup of new entities such as the Muslim Qarakhanids. The easternmost Uyghur kingdoms were incorporated into the Tangut state in the 11th century, while the idiqut dynasty of Uyghuristan survived intact until the rise of Chinggis Khan in the early 13th century. The Mongol conquerors recruited heavily among the Uyghurs, who served the Chinggisid dynasty in spheres as far afield as Yuan China and Ilkhanid Iran. Like the Chaghatayid Mongols who came to rule the region, the Uyghurs of the Tarim Basin became Muslims in the course of the 14th to 15th centuries, and with this it would seem that a sense of a distinct Uyghur community lost its salience. The last reference to the Uyghurs of Uyghuristan in a local Islamic source dates to approximately 1600, describing the activities of a Sufi shaykh in converting the infidels of Turfan.

In adopting Islam, the Turkic-speaking peoples of what is now Xinjiang entered a cultural sphere that linked them to the sedentary Muslim society of Western Turkistan, territory then in the hands of the Timurid dynasty. This provided them with a narrative of communal origins that blended Quranic genesis myths with tribal genealogies of the non-Islamic steppe tradition. “Uyghur son of Qarakhan” was one among many personified progenitors of the Turks in this narrative, though not a particularly prominent one. Those familiar with chronicles of the Mongol empire may have kept alive a certain knowledge of Uyghur history in Xinjiang, but the most widely circulating Islamic history of the Tarim Basin, Mirza Haydar’s Tarikh-i Rashidi (1546), has almost nothing to say about them. On the Chinese side, Ming dynasty sources continue to speak in terms of Uyghurs, and during the Qing a narrow Sinified elite was familiar with these references. Self-identifying Uyghurs may in fact have survived in western Gansu down to the Qing dynasty, and Qing officials looking on from that vantage point would occasionally use the term “Uyghur” to refer to Xinjiang’s population. Yet while the Qing invested considerable energy in narrating an official account of the origins of groups such as the Mongols and Manchus, the same scrutiny was never applied to the identity of the empire’s “Muslims.” For the most part, the Qing state made no use of genealogical or ethnic discourse in its dealings with the Turkophone Muslims of Xinjiang. When necessary, they would distinguish them from the Chinese-speaking Hui by reference to their distinctive headwear, labeling them the “Muslims who wear Turbans” (Chantou Huizi).

The revival and politicization of Uyghur ethnonym was the result of a convergence of intellectual and political trends of disparate geographic origin. To appreciate the connotations of the term “Uyghur” by the beginning of the 20th century, it is necessary to begin with Orientalist efforts in Europe to map the history of the peoples of the steppe. Scholars there found mention of the Uyghurs in both Islamic and Chinese chronicles, though study of these was at first carried on independently. In the 19th century, Julius Klaproth reconciled a range of written sources to construct a view of the ancient Uyghurs as Turkic-speaking people who had played a leading role in the spread of literate culture across Eurasia. His view made its way into major mid-century works of Orientalist scholarship. In the late 19th century, Klaproth’s image of the Uyghurs as pre-eminent culture-bearers among the Turks was strengthened with the discovery of original Uyghur-language steles in Mongolia. The recovery of the Uyghur past then became a major focus of the wave of archaeological exploration of the early 20th century, which turned up troves of Uyghur manuscripts in the Dunhuang library cave and the sand-buried ruins of the Tarim Basin.

Although most associated with figures such as Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin, these scholarly expeditions drew the interest of Muslim intellectuals in both Anatolia and Russia. In Russia, the exploration of the ancient Turkic past was to some extent a collaboration between Orientalists and native intellectuals. This was particularly the case in linguistics, with Turkologists such as Vasilii Radlov and Sergei Malov making lengthy field trips into Siberia and Central Asia, to locate rare and archaic members of the Turkic language family. Their expeditions into Western China in search of linguistic relics of peoples such as the Uyghurs brought to the fore questions of continuity between the language and identity of the Uyghurs and the contemporary Turkic-speaking peoples of Western China. With the growth of Arabic-script publishing, Tatar periodicals in Russia reported on these expeditions with interest, and the new discoveries also filtered into ongoing debate as to the national identity of the Anatolian and Russian Muslim communities. By the time of World War, I, Tatar intellectuals were making their own scholarly expeditions through Central Asia, hunting for manuscripts and relics of the Turkic past.

Discourse on the Uyghurs was intimately tied up with nationalist efforts to inculcate a new sense of “Turk” identity. While the term “Turk” suffered from lingering connotations of uncouth and rustic, “Uyghur” by now had the unequivocally positive meaning of cultured Turk, which allowed Turkic intellectuals to construct a civilizational narrative to rival their Arab and Iranian neighbors. Romantic racial theorists in Turkey latched on this idea of Uyghurs as a generic species of Turk, whose legacy any Turkic, or indeed Turanian (including groups such as the Hungarians) people, might therefore lay claim to. So removed was this notion from any specific time and place that during Kemal Atatürk’s linguistic reforms the word uyğar came to replace the Arabic madani as the Turkish word for “civilized.” This view of the Uyghurs influences perceptions in Turkey to this day, where all Turkish citizens study the glories of the Uyghur past at school, but few think of the Uyghurs as an actually existing ethnic group.

Conditions in Russia meant that the discourse there would take a different turn. Although witness to the same pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic that were trends gaining ground in Anatolia, among Tatars an equally strong pole of the debate preferred to conceptualize the Turkic peoples as a racial family tree with distinct offshoots—including, most obviously, the Tatars themselves as a stand-alone nation. Consequently, Tatar historians were more willing to conceive of the Uyghurs as a group with a specific history, and not simply the common heritage of all Turks, leading to a tendency to identify heirs to the Uyghurs among the Turks of China. Hasangata Gabashi’s 1909 Comprehensive History of the Turkic People, for example, combined the pan-Turkist narrative with what we might call the “Uyghurist”: on the one hand, the Uyghurs provided the racial stock for a wide-ranging set of Turkic peoples, yet in more recent times their offspring had come to identify themselves as “Chaghatay” and now went by designations such as “Kashgari.” A corollary to this was that the first necessary step toward national revival among these Turks of China would be to recapture their sense of Uyghur identity. Tatar reformists, known as Jadidists for their promotion of “new-method” (usul-i jadid) pedagogies, saw ethnographic work among Turkic peoples as a contribution to this revival, and it seems likely that young Tatar radicals traveling through Central Asia served as a catalyst for a turn toward racial discourse among Muslims from Western China.

In Semireche (in southeast Kazakhstan) there resided a community of Muslims from Xinjiang who identified as “Taranchi,” a name meaning “peasant” that they had acquired in the course of being resettled from the Tarim Basin to the Ili Valley from the 18th century onward. In the wake of Russia’s occupation of the Ili Valley in the 1870s, a large segment of this population had migrated into Russian territory. The Taranchis of Semireche were linked to Russia’s Muslim heartland by not only networks of commerce but also intellectual ties: the imam of the main mosque of the distinct center of Zharkänt, for example, was a Tatar active in late-imperial Muslim reformist initiatives. By the time of World War I, networks of dissident opposition had sprung up among these Taranchis, and it was in these circles that the first efforts were made to appropriate the Uyghur legacy for the Muslims of Western China. One of these activists, Näzärkhoja Abdusämädov, wrote frequently for the Tatar press on the history of Chinese Turkistan and his own Taranchi community and expressed his identification with the historical Uyghurs by adopting the pen name “Child of Uyghur” (Uyghur balisi).

Creating the Uyghur Nation in Soviet Central Asia

The first efforts to invoke the Uyghur name as a mobilizing tool came in the wake of the October Revolution. Throughout 1917, local Taranchi activists had organized themselves into a Taranchi Committee, which became the Taranchi-Dungan Committee when joined by members of the local Chinese-speaking Muslim community (the ethnonym “Dungan” is the Central Asian equivalent of Chinese “Hui”). With the establishment of Soviet rule in late 1918, this committee split. Many of its more senior members fell victim to vigilante violence that engulfed Semireche in this period or else fled to China. Only a youthful minority remained behind to collaborate with the Bolsheviks; none of these were party members themselves, though most would join soon enough. The network included experienced Jadidists such as Abdusämädov as well as lesser-known activists such as Abdulla Rozibaqiev (1897–1938). On February 2, 1918, they founded a “Uyghur Club” in Vernyi. While carrying on tradition of pre-revolutionary Jadidist circles—staging drama productions, for example—members of the Uyghur Club were also drawn into party building activities. In 1919 Rozibaqiev became a member of the Muslim Bureau, a network of Muslim organizations that Moscow was supporting against Turkistan’s Old Bolsheviks. This provided him with entrée into international work, staking out a role for the Taranchi Communists in formulating policy toward Xinjiang.

The Taranchis were not the only constituency in Central Asia for a revolutionary politics directed toward Western China. Soviet Central Asia was likewise home to Kashgari migrants—some of them refugees from 19th-century rebellions against the Qing, some more recent arrivals with Chinese citizenship. The Chinese citizens among them, mostly traders and seasonal laborers, were particularly vulnerable to the violence of the Civil War and found themselves stranded on Soviet soil when Chinese officials decided to close Xinjiang’s long border with the Soviet Union. To meet their welfare needs, organizations of Chinese citizens sprang up; these included a Committee of Poor Chinese Citizens in Almaty (as Vernyi was now known), led by a man named Qadir Haji Hashimhajiev (1891–1938?), who became the leading Kashgari activist of the period. Similar groups existed throughout the Ferghana Valley, as well as in Samarqand and Bukhara. On the initiative of Chinese consular officials, these groups became linked to the Union of Chinese Workers (Soiuz kitaiskikh rabochykh), which sought to provide support for Chinese in the Soviet Union in the absence of official diplomatic relations.

Although it is easy to look back with hindsight at this early Taranchi and Kashgari activism as steps toward a new Soviet-style Uyghur nationalism, it was not inevitable that the two tributaries would merge into a single stream. For reasons both of citizenship and class, Kashgari activists were less well versed in (and probably less interested in) the avant-garde cultural politics of Russian Jadidism. No national imagination was necessary to establish their ties to Xinjiang: the Tarim Basin was their home, and they knew its politics intimately. Unlike in Semireche, where cultural initiatives privileged the “low culture” of the village and sought to vernacularize the written language, Kashgaris identified with the common “high culture” of Islamic Turkistan and its trans-regional literary standard, known as Chaghatay. They therefore saw little need to distinguish themselves ethnically from the sedentary Muslims of Soviet Turkistan—the people who would soon end up registered as Uzbeks. While the Taranchis rallied behind the “Uyghurist” position, there is some evidence that Kashgaris aligned more easily with the “Chaghatayist” outlook of Western Turkistani intellectuals, described by Adeeb Khalid as the foundation of the Uzbek national project.2

There was little contact between the two groups up until the middle of 1921, when the Turkistan Bureau of the Communist International convened a meeting of branches of the Union of Chinese Workers, with the goal of founding the “Altishahr-Jungharia Revolution Union.” The conference set itself a range of objectives, chief among them to wrest influence away from the Xinjiang-appointed headmen (aqsaqals) who wielded authority among Chinese citizens on Soviet soil. At the same time, the meeting was a sign that sections of the Soviet bureaucracy were favoring a more proactive approach to Xinjiang itself. Taranchi and Kashgari activists had been trying to persuade Moscow that there was a foundation for a Soviet intervention there, There was also interest from wider circles of Muslim nationalists who were collaborating with the Bolsheviks, most notably the Turkish war hero-turned-exile, Enver Pasha. While in Moscow in early 1921, Enver Pasha conceived of a plan to use a revolutionary Muslim state in Eastern Turkistan as a base from which to launch an attack on British India.3 Arguing against such proposals, the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs worried that revolutionary activity could jeopardize negotiations with Beijing or hinder outreach to the Nationalist Party (Guomindang). There was also opposition among officials in Central Asia, many of whom some saw the resumption of trade with Xinjiang as a greater priority than revolutionary work. While congress delegates met in Tashkent, in Moscow the Bolshevik party’s Central Committee debated whether or not to endorse a Comintern plan to Sovietize Xinjiang and ended up rejecting it.

Although technically an organization for foreigners, the Almaty “Uyghurists” made a prominent intervention into the Tashkent congress. Abdullah Rozibaqiev spoke twice at the event and moved a motion to merge his Uyghur club with the Revolutionary Union, thereby lengthening its name to the “Revolutionary Union of Altishahri-Jungharian Workers–Uyghur.” This was clearly a step forward in popularizing the “Uyghur” name, but it was primarily an organizational unification. The Union included anyone with ties to Xinjiang, and its Central Committee contained not only Taranchis and Kashgaris but Turks, Tatars, and Dungans. (Surviving membership lists show Kirghiz members too.) The Union’s multi-ethnic composition highlights the fact that this was a political vehicle first and a forum for clarifying questions of national identity only second. In political terms it was equally diverse too, including many non-Communists. This non-party wing soon became dominant, and within a few months, the Union’s leadership had thrown in its lot with Enver Pasha in Bukhara, who had come out against the Soviets and was mobilizing armed resistance to the Red Army. The debacle signaled the end of the Union in its original form, with only its politically orthodox Semireche section permitted to survive. Here the Taranchi Communists sought to put work on a more stable footing by reorganizing themselves as “Uyghur” sections of local Communist Party branches, united by a coordinating body in Almaty. This was a step in the direction of treating the “Uyghurs” as a nationality, though the sections continued to talk of themselves as representing a diverse constituency of “Uyghur peoples” in the plural.

In the middle of the decade, the arrival of the Bolsheviks’ much-vaunted national delimitation policy presented a challenge to this fluid use of Uyghurist discourse, requiring as it did much greater clarity on the national identity of the region’s peoples. For those not entitled to a republic of their own, the policy held out the possibility of “nested” autonomy within these larger units. This led to lobbying activities in both Semireche and the Ferghana Valley, which strained relations between the Taranchis and Kashgaris. The Taranchis in the Ferghana Valley saw their main priority as clawing back rights to land that they had lost to the Kazakhs in the early 1920s. This involved emphasizing the pre-revolutionary history of the Taranchis as a distinct, recognized nationality (narodnost’) of tsarist Semireche. By contrast, the main challenge for Kashgari activists in the Ferghana Valley was to prevent their putative constituents from being registered to surrounding groups such as the Uzbeks. Having originally been wary of the language of Uyghur nationhood, these Kashgaris found value in it as a means of establishing their national distinctiveness and warding off the threat of assimilation. Ultimately the divergent priorities that emerged in the course of the national delimitation prevented meaningful collaboration between the two groups.

By the late 1920s, more and more activists were capable of describing the Uyghurs as a people who satisfied the Stalinist criteria for nationhood: a common territory, language, culture, and economy. Yet a cohesive national movement was still a remote goal. Meanwhile, at the official level, there was still little clarity as to the identity of the Muslim immigrants from China, let alone the ethnic composition of Xinjiang. During the 1927 Soviet census, interviewees who gave their nationality as “Uyghur” were asked follow-up questions as to whether they were Taranchi, Kashgari, Dungan, or Qalmaq. The outcome of the census indicates that it was Kashgaris with Chinese citizenship who were most willing to identify themselves as Uyghurs. New policy initiatives such as the Latinization of the Uyghur language continued to bring to the fore the divergent cultural politics of the Kashgaris and Taranchis, though critics of Uyghur unity were increasingly marginalized toward the end of the decade as an attack on ex-Jadidist intellectuals was stepped up. Something of a coda was put on this debate in a linguistic conference in Almaty in 1930, where Uyghurs lobbied Soviet institutions to stop using the terms “Taranchi” and “Kashgari” in administration. By the time of the 1937 census such activism, combined with a Union-wide desire to cull and rationalize the list of national categories, had remedied an unstable situation, and the Uyghurs became a fixture of the Soviet Union’s national taxonomy.

Dissemination and Recognition in Xinjiang

Until this time, activists had made little headway in Xinjiang. After the failure of the Revolutionary Union–Uyghur, Taranchi Communists made a turn away from framing Xinjiang as part of the revolution in the Islamic world toward thinking of it as part of China, with socialist Mongolia offering a possible model for its liberation. This orientation won them new backing from the Central Asia Bureau in Moscow. Part of this support went to expanding the print run of the main Uyghur periodical, Voice of the Poor (Kämbäghällär Awazi), which is said to have also been distributed in Xinjiang. Plans were drawn up for a secret conference in Semireche of radicals from Xinjiang, with the goal of establishing a national revolutionary party. Such initiatives came to an abrupt halt, however, with the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Soviet Union in 1924, which officially committed the Soviets to refrain from activities harmful to Chinese interests.

Sino-Soviet friendship ensured that Soviet support for Uyghur activities would be dependent on the state of Soviet-Chinese relations, a situation that remained the case throughout the Soviet Union’s existence. Broadly speaking, Taranchi activists were cautious, making sure to present possibilities in Xinjiang in terms likely to win Moscow’s backing. Among the Kashgaris, politics was more freewheeling, as activists in the frontier zone with Soviet training, but not necessary Soviet support, increasingly took matters into their own hands. The relative independence of these Kashgari activists eventually aroused fears that anti-Soviet networks were gaining a foothold in such circles. These security fears would only intensify in the early 1930s and lead to a series of crackdowns on Uyghur organizing.

Scholarship on Xinjiang tends to treat any and all acts of resistance in Xinjiang as part of the history of Uyghur nationalism, but the focus here will be on the fate of the discourse of Uyghur nationhood. The question of how to conceptualize the struggle in Xinjiang in national terms was deeply influenced by the political baggage that various terms carried. In the 1920s, those looking on from Xinjiang identified the “Uyghurs” primarily as a political organization that enjoyed Soviet patronage. British consul in Kashgar C. P. Skrine’s reports speak of the “Uyghurs” in precisely these terms: “Whereas in 1922 the numbers of “Uighuri” were estimated at 2000, now upwards of 30,000 are said to have been enrolled, including the whole population of many villages in the Andijan and Marghilan districts which were colonized two generations ago by Kashgaris.”4 Given the close association between this organization and the Soviet Union, the Soviet consul in Kashgar was probably right in saying that “in Xinjiang, the word ‘Uyghur’ is almost synonymous with the word ‘Bolshevik.’ ”5 Uyghurists themselves has a slightly more nuanced view of the situation, tending to imagine the Uyghurs as the latest incarnation of the radical Jadidists who had previously been known as “short-shirts” and the like. Muhämmäd Imin Bughra, a scholar and political leader from the oasis of Khotan and author of a History of Eastern Turkistan, identified the term as an innovation not so much of the Bolsheviks but of Tatar intellectuals.6

In analyzing political discourse in Republican Xinjiang, it is important to recognize that most political strategies relied on the idea of cultivating outside support, and therefore one’s self-presentation had to be tailored to different audiences, be they Chinese, Soviet, or Muslim. The decade of the 1920s saw little in the way of political mobilization, but in 1931 a major revolt broke out in Hami, which eventually spread throughout the province and led to the formation of the East Turkistan Republic in Kashgar in late 1933. A Russian account claims that in its earliest phase, the primary slogans of the uprising were those of jihad against the Chinese infidel.7 This would have served as an adequate basis for the Hami group’s initial alliance with Hui Muslims from Gansu, led by the teenage Ma Zhongying 馬中英‎. When this collaboration broke down, the rebel camp made contact with the Mongolian People’s Republic. In this correspondence, they made recourse to Qing terminology, and spoke in terms of the “Chantou” people (the term by which they were known in Mongolia, but which Soviet-aligned activists in Xinjiang rejected as racist). It is also in this correspondence that the rebels first describe themselves as the nucleus of a new state—the “Republic of the Peoples of East Turkistan.”8

The available documentation prevents us from describing with any certainty the degree of support for “Uyghurist” slogans in the uprising, though there is evidence that they became more prominent as the rebellion spread to Turfan in 1932. The idea of Uyghur as a mythical progenitor of the Muslim Turks of China, who were therefore the “sons of Uyghur” (Uyghurning baliliri), can be found in the poetry of the Turfani Abdukhaliq Uyghur as well as Mämtili Äpändi from Artush—both of whom had previously spent time in the Soviet Union. As revolutionary martyrs, these two men have been heavily mythologized, and published editions of their writings should be treated with caution. Yet we do have a set of songs which can be reliably dated to the period of the Turfan uprising, which invoke the same calls for the Uyghurs to wake up and throw off Ürümchi’s tyranny. These lines, for example, come from an “Uyghur march” (Uyghur marshi):9

Uyğuristan Uyghuri ach közüŋ ach     bu qarangghu jahanda sen közüŋ ach

Oh Uyghur of Uyghuristan, open your eyes!     Open your eyes to this dark world.

The author of these songs signed his name as Y[. . .] [. . .]di Turfani, which must stand for Yunus Säidi (1902–1938, Chinese name Yu Wenbin 鬱文彬‎), a native of Turfan who had previously studied in Ürümchi’s Institute of Russian, Law and Politics. The identification is important, as Säidi was centrally involved in subsequent events. As the rebellion spread, he headed south to Kashgar and was appointed to the position of civil administrator (xingzhengzhang). With the founding of the East Turkistan Republic in November 1933, he was made minister of the interior, and following its collapse he served in Ürümchi, where he was involved in discussions on reforming the province’s national classifications.

Talk of Uyghurs and Uyghuristan was only a minor note in the propaganda of the short-lived East Turkistan Republic in Kashgar, indicating that individuals such as Säidi, who publicly espoused a discourse of Uyghur nationalism, were likely in a minority. Much of the support for the Republic came from people who were wary of the Soviet Union and its nationality policies. The venture’s defeat led to the capture or flight of its anti-Soviet core, while those associated with President Khoja Niyaz Haji, who occupied a political middle ground, went on to collaborate with province’s new Soviet-aligned warlord, Sheng Shicai 盛世才‎. Aided by Soviet advisors, Sheng initiated a series of reforms in the province, guided by the “Six Great policies.” The vehicle for these reforms was the Anti-Imperialist Union, which established a series of national cultural associations, known in Chinese as a “Cultural Promotion Associations” (wenhua cujinhui) and in Uyghur as “Enlightenment Unions” (aqartish uyshmisi).10 In the period 1934–1937, appointments of Uyghurs to official positions in Xinjiang peaked.

In his memoirs, Burhan Shahidi, a Tatar who held a leading position in the Anti-Imperialist Union (and went on to serve as chairman of the provincial administration during the PRC), describes discussions with Yunus Säidi on the need for Sheng’s administration to abolish the term “Chantou” and replace it with “Uyghur.” The Uyghur Enlightenment Association sent a petition to Sheng to this effect, and a meeting of the Anti-Imperialist Union endorsed the proposal. The change was announced at the 2nd Congress of People’s Representatives (Minzhong quanti daibiao dahui), held in Ürümchi in 1935, alongside a range of similar reforms to the nomenclature of nationality in Xinjiang. The term “Burut,” for example, was replaced with “Kirghiz,” and the centuries-old Central Asian designation for China and the Chinese, “Khitay” (the origin of English Cathay), was decreed offensive and banned.11

In Kashgar, the Uyghur Enlightenment Union took control of publishing, and the local newspaper in this period exhibits a sharp turn toward popularizing a sense of Uyghur identity. Alongside the “Society for the Promotion of Education” (nashr-i maʿarif jamʿiyyati), the Union realized a long-standing Jadidist goal of confiscating the income of pious endowments (waqf) and redirecting it toward educational institutions, funding a considerable expansion in local Muslim schooling.12 Throughout the Republican period, the Unions remained the main vehicle for primary education in Xinjiang. According to a report delivered in 1949, the Uyghur Enlightenment Union was running a total of 701 schools across the province, with 4,559 teachers responsible for 108,525 students.13 Apart from promoting education, the Unions were focal points for much groundbreaking cultural production, particularly in the literary realm.

The Guomindang in Xinjiang and the Critique of Uyghur Nationhood

The introduction of Soviet-style ethnic policies brought with it the same contradictions that scholars have identified in the case of the Soviet Union: while licensing certain claims in the name of national identity, they also served to foreclose political possibilities. A new freedom to promote national culture in Sheng Shicai’s Xinjiang was accompanied by a strict insistence on maintaining the unity of the nationalities. The Uyghur minzu performed the “double assimilation” that Francine Hirsch has described: by ascribing membership in a category that informed the structure of the province’s administrative system, individuals found themselves more closely linked to the state than had been the case in the more hands-off regimes of Sheng Shicai’s predecessors.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the unfolding of a new national taxonomy was accompanied by a critique of the system. Writing in Afghanistan in the 1930s, Muhämmäd Imin Bughra argued that Sheng Shicai’s policy was grounded in “the anti-Turk policy by which the Russian Bolsheviks had divided up the people of Turkistan” This perspective came to dominate the outlook of those Xinjiang Muslims, like Bughra, who chose to collaborate with the Guomindang in the 1930s and 1940s.14 These included Isa Yusuf (Alptekin), who had served in the Chinese consulate in Andijan and seen Soviet policies firsthand, as well as Masud Sabri, who had been trained as a doctor in late-Ottoman Istanbul and had experienced earlier Jadidist conflicts around schooling in his hometown of Ghulja. These three men, known as the three “effendis” (a term of Anatolian origin, connoting a modern gentleman), drew on Guomindang support to carry on publishing activities in Nanjing and Chongqing and brought students from Xinjiang to study in Guomindang schools. In making this critique of Sheng Shicai’s policies, these activists were able to draw on the official Guomindang position, which held that China’s population was made up of only “Five Races.” No less an authority than Sun Yatsen had described the “Muslim race” (Hui) as “Turks who believe in Islam.”

This collaboration was not entirely harmonious. Some Chinese intellectuals rejected the idea of the Turkic racial origin of the “Chantou” Muslims of Xinjiang, incurring the wrath of Muhämmäd Imin Bughra.15 Masud Sabri encountered similar resistance when he spoke at a Guomindang congress in 1941 and claimed the Kazakhs as fellow Turks.16 Yet despite these ructions, the Guomindang had need of men such as these to establish influence in Xinjiang. When Sheng Shicai shifted from a pro-Soviet position to reliance on Nanjing in 1942, the Guomindang took the opportunity to dislodge him. To put up a credible opposition to the ethno-nationalism emanating from the Soviet Union, in 1947 the Guomindang sent the three effendis back to Ürümchi as their native front-men.

Intellectuals in Ürümchi who gravitated to the three effendis requested a wholesale revision to the nationalities policies inherited from Sheng Shicai: that ethnonyms such as Uyghur, Kazakh, and even Tajik (an Iranian-speaking group) should be combined into a single category of “Turk.” The primary mouthpiece for this activism was the newspaper Freedom (Ärk), first launched in Lanzhou in 1947 by Isa Yusuf Alptekin and the writer Abdurehim Ötkür. In a programmatic article, Polat Qadiri wrote that the Uyghurs were not a nation but simply one “tribe” (aymaq) of the Turk nation to which all of Xinjiang’s people belonged, though he rejected accusations that this was a pan-Turkist position, since it was impossible to unify all the world’s Turks in a single political entity. Although requests to merge the Enlightenment Associations into a single Turk Union were dismissed, the Ürümchi intellectuals went ahead to organize what they termed the “Turk-Uyghur” Union (other organizations were similarly designated, e.g., Turk-Tatar Union etc.). Chairman of the new Union was Abdulaziz “Chingiz Khan” Damolla, who had recently returned to Xinjiang from a long stay in Cairo. There he had published a series of works, including a grammar of Uyghur and a history of Turkistan, in which he insisted that “The history of the Turks cannot be separated from the history of Islam.”17 The Union’s meeting hall was decorated with quotations from the Qurʾan, and courses in Anatolian Turkish were held.18 Continuing to draw from Anatolian models, in 1948 this group founded the dernek (Turkish for “association”), which was the scene of discussions on topics such as orthography and the validity of the name “Turkistan.”

It is not entirely clear how successful the three effendis were in promulgating this more traditional Turkic Muslim orientation across the network of Enlightenment Unions throughout the province. Judging from their periodicals, their contacts extended to the mid-Tarim region, with “Turk-Uyghur” Unions established in Korla, Bügür, and Aqsu. Freedom had subscribers as far away as Kashgar. Meanwhile, Ghulja remained a stronghold of Soviet-style ethno-nationalism, with activists there equally interested in extending influence into the south. Here intellectuals expounded a primordial view of the Uyghurs with much less emphasis on Islam or on a common Turkic identity. They were particularly scornful of the three effendis’ use of the term “Chinese Turkistan” for Xinjiang, which they deemed a concession to Chinese colonialism.

The Uyghurs as a Minzu in Communist China

Although these two factions were in theory united in a coalition provincial administration from 1946 onward, deep divisions between them prevented local leaders from presenting a united front against the political forces that were being brought to bear on Xinjiang. In 1949, as the Civil War in the Chinese interior wound up, the Guomindang leadership in Ürümchi announced that they would not resist the Red Army’s march on Xinjiang. This cleared the way for the province’s “peaceful liberation.” While much of the top leadership of the East Turkistan Republic were killed in a plane crash, those who remained switched their membership from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the Chinese Communist Party and entered into collaboration with a newly arrived cohort of Chinese Communists led by Wang Zhen 王震‎. Some anti-Communist leaders escaped into exile; many of those who remained behind were executed. Those who went abroad sought support from a range of Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia, and Turkey eventually provided a domicile for Isa Yusuf Alptekin and Muhämmäd Imin Bughra. This fledging exile movement was stymied by the presence of Xinjiang natives in Taiwan, who helped to prop up a façade of a provincial government-in-exile still aligned with the Guomindang.19

The question of how the CCP’s policy of national autonomy would be implemented in Xinjiang was a delicate one. In 1951, former ETR minister Säypiddin Äzizi organized a series of meetings in Ghulja and Kashgar, which called for the creation of an Uyghuristan along the lines of the neighboring Soviet Republics of Central Asia.20 Although the Chinese Communist Party had previously envisaged a federative structure for post-revolutionary China, it now insisted on greater centralization. National autonomy was introduced in Xinjiang from the bottom up, with large territories designated as autonomous prefectures and counties for Xinjiang’s non-Uyghur nationalities (e.g., Mongols, Kazakhs, Kirghiz), prior to the launch of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1955. This did nothing to staunch local agitation for greater recognition of Uyghur national rights. In the course of the anti-rightist campaign of 1956, criticisms were voiced at high-level discussions of nationality policy. The party’s response was a turn toward a frontal attack on “local nationalists” in Xinjiang, carried out through lengthy meetings and criticism sessions, which saw many punished. This was a political defeat for what was left of the ETR faction in Xinjiang, though elements of this network remained intact until the 1960s. During the Cultural Revolution, some of these networks became active again, inspired by the belief that the Soviet Union was on the verge of intervening militarily in Xinjiang, or at least backing Uyghur militancy. Hostile relations between China and the Soviet Union ensured that there was little contact between Soviet Uyghurs and those in Xinjiang from the late 1950s onward.

The state of research on PRC Xinjiang allows us to draw few conclusions as to the reception of Chinese nationalities policies across the region, but it is safe to say that minzu paradigm aided the on-going spread of Uyghur national consciousness, while Chinese migration heightened a sense of ethnic difference, particularly in the north of the Autonomous Region. Until the end of the Cultural Revolution, the ideological framing of Uyghur nationhood was culturally non-descript, emphasizing interethnic collaboration in socialist modernization. This shifted during the 1980s, allowing for the canonization of a set of Uyghur cultural paragons such as the medieval scholar Mahmud Kashgari, a revival of forms of national historiography harking back to a Uyghur Golden Age, as well as historical novels dealing with more recent events. At the same time, the Chinese state has remained hostile to anything that smacks of pan-Turkism or highlights the centrality of Islam to Uyghur identity. This has led to a constant back and forth with Uyghur intellectuals as to the boundaries of permissible cultural expressions of Uyghur identity and a tendency for rigid top-down definitions of Uyghur culture to produce or enforce stereotyping. Music and dance, for example, is the most visible aspect of Uyghur culture throughout China. Many Uyghurs appreciate state efforts to promote these art forms (registering classical muqam on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, for example), yet the accompanying tendency to typecast Uyghurs as a singing and dancing ethnic minority is also widely resented.

Fueled by a sense of national crisis, intellectual efforts to redefine and revive the Uyghur nation have continued in increasingly narrow confines. Recent works have emphasized Uyghur autochthony in the Tarim Basin and described the negotiation of Uyghur identity as part of a global, and not simply Chinese, dialogue. At the same time, the policy pendulum has swung steadily in the direction of efforts to integrate the Uyghurs more closely with the Chinese mainstream, limiting space for the promotion of distinct cultural and historical traditions. This has seen a gradual phasing-out of Uyghur-language schooling, the banning of previously authorized works, and campaigns to inculcate orthodoxy on historical questions. At the time of writing, the pace and intensity of these assimilationist policies was on the increase, as party secretary Chen Quanguo 陈全国‎ led a major security crackdown in the name of combatting the “three evil forces” said to be assailing Xinjiang from abroad (terrorism, ethnic seperatism, and religious extremism), as well as a purge of “two-faced people” from the ranks of the party.

Discussion of the Literature

In both the Soviet Union and China, the creation of national identity was treated as the recognition of a pre-existing reality. Early efforts to write a history of the Uyghurs in the Soviet Union identified a national liberation struggle in existence since the early 19th century, if not earlier. Abortive efforts to write a history of the region in the 1930s received fresh encouragement during the 1940s, during the period of the East Turkistan Republic, yet these too ran into political difficulties from the 1950s.21 It was not until the 1970s, and the Sino-Soviet split, that conditions permitted scholars to give a public appraisal of the 1920s in works such as those by Mashur Roziev, which celebrate the Soviet Uyghur experience to draw a contrast with Maoist policies in Xinjiang.22 Kazakhstan remained a center of Uyghur studies in the Soviet Union, with Munir Erzin’s study of the Soviet Uyghur a standout work from the 1980s. Since then, Ablet Kamalov has made important contributions to the study of Uyghur historiography and historical memory.23 Valerii Barmin was the first Russian scholar to make use of freshly available Soviet archives in the 1990s. Works by Stella Gubaeva and Liudmila Chvyr present the findings of the Soviet tradition of descriptive ethnography.24 Sergei Abashin’s more theoretically informed studies of nationalism in Central Asia also contain discussion of the Uyghurs.25

Uyghur scholars of national history have stressed continuities between the Uyghurs of the past and the present, an approach that has invited political attack in China—most notably with the banning of Turghun Almas’s flagship national history, The Uyghurs (1989). It has similarly been difficult for Uyghurs to explore the more recent transregional intellectual and political history of their community. Abdushükür Muhämmädimin’s History of Uyghur Philosophy (1997) is one of few works that describe the activities of the Revolutionary Union—Uyghur.26 For the most part, Uyghur history in Xinjiang is told in novelistic form, with the works of Ziya Sämädi, and Abdurehim Ötkür among the most important.27 Chinese scholarship tends to show little interest in the Uyghur perspective on Xinjiang, focusing instead on the history of state control. A foundational work of this school is Zeng Wenwu’s History of the Administration of Xinjiang (1936), and the tradition will continue in the forthcoming Comprehensive History of Xinjiang, which sets the entire history of Xinjiang within a Chinese dynastic framework.28

In the West, the study of ethnic minorities in China took off in the 1980s, led by anthropologists such as Dru Gladney.29 The first to conduct serious fieldwork among the Uyghurs of Xinjiang was Justin Rudelson, who applied a strongly constructivist position to data from Turfan, arguing that Uyghur society was too divided along oasis lines to produce national unity and describing Uyghur identity as as primarily a top-down official imposition.30 Elaborating on this position in collaboration with William Jankowiak, the two concluded that state recognition of “Uyghur” identity was a deliberate move by Sheng Shicai and his Soviet allies to defuse political opposition.31

The idea that the province’s Turkic speakers were bystanders in the ethnic classification of Xinjiang fit with the prevailing view of nationality in Soviet Central Asia, which treated national classifications as part of a “divide-and-rule” strategy to weaken opposition among the Muslims of Turkistan. Yet this approach encountered criticism in the 1990s, as the study of Soviet nationalities policy broke with the “totalitarian” perspective and took advantage of new archives. A view has emerged of Soviet nationalities policy as responsive to a more diverse range of policy goals, as well as to local aspirations, though debate continues between those who treat Soviet policy as a sincere, if limited, effort to decolonize the region and those who emphasize the use of categories of identity as a means of social control.32 A series of monographs on Soviet nationalities now provide a wealth of comparative material for the study of Uyghurs in the Soviet 1920s.33

It was fieldwork opportunities, not archives, that drew scholars to the Uyghurs in the 1990s, though much of this work blended anthropological findings with historical insights. With intimate knowledge of Kazakhstan’s Uyghur community, Sean Roberts’s work emphasized an anti-colonial impetus toward national unity.34 Roberts’s work highlighted the important role of Soviet Uyghur Communists in fashioning a new discourse of Uyghur nationalism and drew attention to the value of Soviet Uyghur publications. In the field of political theory, Gardner Bovingdon’s study took the view that Uyghur nationhood provided a viable means of contesting the dominance of the Chinese party-state in Xinjiang. Even if intended as a means of control, structures of national autonomy in Xinjiang had ended up exacerbating a sense of national injustice among Uyghurs.35 Other anthropological work has dealt with ways in which in- and out-group boundaries have been constructed and maintained in shifting social conditions in Xinjiang.36 As a tradition influenced by a wide variety of social and political forces, Uyghur music has attracted a significant amount of interest.37

Although eschewing the notion of a long-standing “national liberation struggle,” historians writing in English have maintained an interest in the extent to which political movements have given expression to communal aspirations, or simply served elite, or even foreign, interests. The debate between Linda Benson and David Wong on the nature of the second East Turkistan Republic serves as an example of this.38 Kim Ho-dong’s study of the Yaqub Beg rebellion insists that in the late 19th century only slogans of Muslim unity and Holy War could serve to mobilize the population against the Qing.39 Laura Newby’s work on Qing Xinjiang led her to the view that roots of Uyghur identity could nevertheless be found in this earlier period. Reaching similar conclusions, though with a different methodology, Rian Thum’s work describes the place of popular Islam, particularly the circulation of hagiographic manuscripts and shrine pilgrimage, in establishing the contours of an “Altishahri” community during the Qing period.40

The most recent contributions to the study of Uyghur nationalism have been those of Klimeš, who adopts a strongly linguistic approach, and Brophy’s Uyghur Nation, which gives greater weight to political dimensions of the question.41 While these works continue to place the discourse of Uyghur nationhood at the center, scholars have also identified trends at official levels in China to call into question existing nationalities policy.42 This coincides with a growing sense among Uyghurs that their ability to frame claims in terms of national rights has reached a dead end and difficulties for exile nationalist organizations to monopolize the discourse as they once did. Although the notion of Uyghur nationhood was at the center of much of the region’s contested politics in the last century, there is no certainty that it will occupy the same place in the years ahead.

Primary Sources

Soviet and Chinese archives and periodicals constitute the main base of primary sources for this history. Many state archives in Russia contain materials touching on Xinjiang, but the most important is the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), which holds the files of the Central Asia bureau, the Bolshevik Party’s plenipotentiary body for Central Asian affairs. Here can also be found the archive of the Communist International, where files on Uyghur history survive from bodies such as the Turkistan Bureau of the Comintern and the Communist Party of China. This archive also holds files on Uyghur students who studied in Soviet institutions, some of whom went on to become prominent activists. Certain of RGASPI’s more noteworthy holdings have been published in the Komintern i kitai series (for which full German and partial Chinese translations exist) and the Sovetsko-kitaiskie otnosheniia compilations.43

Less well utilized, but no doubt equally rich, is the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation (AVPRF), containing the files of the Soviet foreign ministry and its representatives in Xinjiang, which from the mid-1920s onward consisted of consuls in Altai, Tarbaghatay, Ghulja, Ürümchi, and Kashgar. (For the earlier period, scholars should consult AVPRI, the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire, also in Moscow.)

Naturally these archives primarily represent the viewpoint from the center. The archives of the former Soviet republics provide a more grassroots perspective on Uyghur activities (and hence contain a higher proportion of documents in Uyghur). In Kazakhstan, scholars have access to the State Archive (GARK), the Presidential Archive (APRK), as well as the archive of Almaty Oblast (GAAO), all of which contain rich holdings on the local Uyghur community.44 In Uzbekistan the Presidential Archive is closed for the time being, but the State Archive (O’zbekiston Respublikasi Markaziy Davlat Arkhivi) is an important resource. The archives of Kirghizstan also provide perspectives on the activities of Uyghur organizations in the 1920s and 1930s. Ideally, future research in Central Asia should also take into account the holdings of regional archives, for example, those in the Ferghana Valley.

Political conditions in Xinjiang itself prohibit systematic archival research. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Archive is in practice off limits to scholars, be they foreigners or locals. Although by no means mitigating these restrictions, the archive has published some of its holdings in themed compilations.45 The Second Historical Archives in Nanjing (the archive of the Chinese Republic) is in theory more accessible and has recently published a large amount of Republican-period documents on Xinjiang.46

During the Republican period, much of the archive of Chinese foreign relations was relocated to Taiwan, where it is now held at the Institute of History, Academia Sinica. Its catalog is online, and researchers can apply for permission to download files. Some of these documents can be found in published form in the Zhong-E guanxi shiliao series.47

The flagship publication of the Semireche Uyghur Communists was Voice of the Poor (Kämbäghällär Awazi). The Kashgari counterpart to this was Liberation (Qutulush). The newspaper section of the Russian State Library (Khimki branch) is a good place to consult these publications, and runs can also be found in Almaty and Tashkent. In the 1990s, the journalistic writings of important individuals were edited and published in Kazakhstan.48 Apart from Central Asia, Jadidist and early Soviet Uyghur publications can also be found in the Oriental sections of the Russian State Library (Moscow), the National Library of Russia (Saint Petersburg), and the library of Kazan Federal University. Fewer such publications survive from Republican Xinjiang, but among its rich collection of manuscripts and printed works, the Jarring Collection at Lund contains a valuable set of Kashgar newspapers from 1933 to 1936. Since the 1980s, Uyghur and Chinese editions of the Xinjiang Historical Materials (Ch. Xinjiang wenshi ziliao; Uy. Shinjang Tarikh Materiyalliri) have published memoirs and local histories. Notable historical works by Xinjiang Uyghurs include those of Muhämmäd Imin Bughra, Polat Qadiri, and the memoirs of Isa Yusuf Alptekin.49 From the pro-Soviet East Turkistan Republic camp, there exist memoirs by Alikhan Törä and an edition of the articles and speeches of Akhmätjan Qasimi.50

Links to Digital Materials

There is a small but growing collection of materials concerning the modern history of Xinjiang in the Wilson Center Digital Archive. The site includes curated collections on the emergence of the Uyghur exile movement in the wake of the Communist victory in 1949 and political conflict surrounding the question of “local nationalism” inside the Xinjiang party in the 1950s.

Further Reading

  • Bellér-Hann, Ildikó. Community Matters in Xinjiang, 1880–1949: Towards a Historical Anthropology of the Uyghur. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.
  • Benson, Linda. The Ili Rebellion: The Muslim Challenge to Chinese Authority in Xinjiang, 1944–49. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1990.
  • Bovingdon, Gardner. The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
  • Brophy, David. Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia-China Frontier. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
  • Forbes, Andrew D. W. Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia: A Political History of Republican Sinkiang 1911–1949. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Gladney, Dru. “The Ethnogenesis of the Uighur.” Central Asian Survey 9, no. 1 (1990): 1–28.
  • Haugen, Arne. The Establishment of National Republics in Soviet Central Asia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Hirsch, Francine. Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.
  • Jacobs, Justin M. Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016.
  • Khalid, Adeeb. Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.
  • Klimeš, Ondřej. Struggle by the Pen: Uyghur Discourse of Nation and National Interest, c. 1940–1949. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.
  • Martin, Terry. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.
  • Newby, L. J. “The Begs of Xinjiang: Between Two Worlds.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61 (1998): 278–297.
  • Roberts, Sean. “Imagining Uyghurstan: Re-evaluating the Birth of the Modern Uyghur Nation.” Central Asian Survey 28, no. 4 (2009): 361–381.
  • Schluessel, Eric T. “Thinking Beyond Harmony: The ‘Nation’ and Language in Uyghur Social Thought.” In On the Fringes of the Harmonious Society: Tibetans and Uyghurs in Socialist China. Edited by Trine Brox and Ildikó Béller-Hann, 318–345. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2014.
  • Thum, Rian. The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Yasushi, Shinmen. “The Eastern Turkistan Republic (1933–1934) in Historical Perspective.” In Islam in Politics in Russia and Central Asia (Early Eighteenth to Late Twentieth Centuries). Edited by Stéphane A. Dudoignon and Komatsu Hisao, 133–164. London: Kegan Paul, 2001.


  • 1. Pamela Kyle Crossley, A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); and Thomas S. Mullaney, Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

  • 2. For a time, the Almaty branch of the Union of Chinese Workers referred to itself as the “Chaghatayist Union.” Kara-Kul’skii gorodskoi gosudarstvennyi arkhiv, f. 516, op. 1, d. 1, l. 35b. Many thanks to Niccoló Pianciola for this information.

  • 3. Manabendra Nath Roy, M. N. Roy’s Memoirs (Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Ltd, 1964), 406–408.

  • 4. India Office Library and Records, MA EurF 154/39. Many thanks to Daniel Waugh for permission to cite this reference from a forthcoming work.

  • 5. Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial’no-politicheskoi istorii, fond 514, op. 1, d. 995, l. 22.

  • 6. Muhämmäd Imin Bughra, Shärqi Türkistan Tarikhi (Ankara, Turkey: Emek Ofset LTD. ŞTİ, 1998), 465.

  • 7. Stepan Ivanovich Smigunov, “Sobytie v Sin’tsziane,” Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv rossiiskoi federatsii, f. R-5873, op. 1, d. 8, ll. 91–91ob.

  • 8. Ündesnii töv arkhivyn Mongol ardyn namyn barimtyn töviin san khömrög (ÜTA), kh. 4, d. 4, kh.n. 187, p. 102.

  • 9. UTA, kh. 4, d. 4, kh.n. 187, p. 156.

  • 10. It is worth noting that some contemporary descriptions of these organizations use the Qipchaq Turkic form aqartuw, clearly indicating the Tatar inspiration behind them.

  • 11. Baoerhan 包尔汉‎, Xinjiang wushi nian 新疆五十年‎ (Beijing: Wenshi ziliao chubanshe, 1984), 244.

  • 12. Shimizu Yuriko 清水由里子‎, “Kashugaru ni okeru Uiguru jin no kyōiku undō (1934–37 nen) カシュガルにおけるウイグル人の教育運動‎ (1934–37 ‎),” Nairiku Ajiashi kenkyū 22 (2007): 61–82.

  • 13. “ʿIsa Bäg Äfändim Ṭäräfidin Väkillärgä Sözlängän Söz,” Ärk, May 19, 1949, 1–2.

  • 14. Bughra, Shärqi Türkistan Tarikhi, 465.

  • 15. Muḥämmäd Imin Bughra, Qalam Küräshi (Ürümchi, China: Altay, 1948).

  • 16. Masʿud Sabri, Bir Nutq: 1941-inchi Yili Chunchindä 8-inchi Firqä Qurultayida Sözlängän (Ürümchi, China: Altay, 1947).

  • 17. ʿAbd al-ʿAziz Chingiz Khan, Uyghur Sarfï (Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Murabbawiyya, 1939); and Turkistan: Qalb Asiya (Cairo: al-Jamʿiyyat al-Khayriyya al-Turkistaniyya, 1945).

  • 18. ʿHashimi, “Türk-Uyghur Uyushmasi Öz Yolida Ishläydur,” Ärk, September 8, 1947, 2–3; and “Uyghur Uyushmasining bir Ḥäräkäti,” Ärk, November 3, 1948, 2.

  • 19. Justin M. Jacobs, Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), chap. 6.

  • 20. Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv noveishei istorii, f. 5, op. 49, d. 130, ll. 164–176.

  • 21. A. N. Bernshtam, Uyghurlar Tarikhi (Almaty, Kazakhstan: 1951); Malik N. Kabirov, Pereselenie iliiskikh Uigur v Semirech’e (Almaty, Kazakhstan: Akademiia nauk Kazakhskoi SSR, 1951). For the critique this work encountered, see F. Kireev, “Kniga, idealiziruiushchaia feodal’nye khanstva,” Kazakhstanskaia pravda, April 9, 1952, 2.

  • 22. Mashur Ruziev, Yanglivashtin Tughulghan Uyghur Khälqi (Almaty, Kazakhstan: Qazaqstan, 1968); and Ärshidin Hidayätov, Ili Uyghurlarning Milliy-Azatliq Härikätliri (Almaty, Kazakhstan: Nauka, 1978).

  • 23. For example, A. Kamalov, “Uyghur Memoir Literature in Central Asia on Eastern Turkestan Republic (1944–49),” in Studies on Xinjiang Historical Sources in 17–20th Centuries, ed. James A. Millward, Shinmen Yasushi, and Sugawara Jun (Tokyo: The Toyo Bunko, 2010), 257–278; and “Ethno-National and Local Dimensions in the Historiography of Kazakhstan’s Uyghurs,” Central Asian Survey 31, no. 3 (2012): 343–354.

  • 24. Stella Sitdikovna Gubaeva, Naselenie Ferganskoi doliny v kontse XIX—nachale XX v. (Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Fan, 1991); and L. A. Chvyr’, Obriady i verovaniia uigurov v XIX–XX vv (Moscow: Vostochnaia Literatura, 2006).

  • 25. Sergei Abashin, Natsionalizmy v Srednei Azii v poiskakh identichnosti (St. Petersburg, Russia: Aleteiia, 2007).

  • 26. Abdushükür Muhämmädimin, Uyghur Pälsäpä Tarikhi (Ürümchi, China: Shinjang khälq näshriyati, 1997).

  • 27. Abdurehim Ötkür, Iz (Ürümchi, China: Shinjang Khälq Näshriyati, 1985), and its two-volume sequel, Oyghanghan Zemin; and Ziya Sämädiy, Zhillar Siri (Almaty, Kazakhstan: Zhazushï, 1985).

  • 28. Zeng Wenwu 曾問吾‎, Zhongguo jingying Xiyu shi 中國經營西域史‎ (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1936). Mention should also be made of Zhang Dajun 張大軍‎, Xinjiang fengbao qishi nian 新疆風暴七十年‎ (Taipei, Taiwan: Lanxi chubanshe, 1980).

  • 29. Dru Gladney, “The Ethnogenesis of the Uighur,” Central Asian Survey 9, no. 1 (1990): 1–28.

  • 30. Justin Rudelson, Oasis Identities: Uyghur Nationalism Along China’s Silk Road (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

  • 31. Justin Rudelson and William Jankowiak, “Acculturation and Resistance: Xinjiang Identities in Flux,” in Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland, ed. Frederick Starr (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004), 302.

  • 32. Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001); and Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).

  • 33. Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015); Adrienne Edgar, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); and Ben Loring, “Building Socialism in Kyrgyzstan: Nation-Making, Rural Development, and Social Change, 1921–1932” (PhD diss., Brandeis University, 2008).

  • 34. Sean Roberts, “Uyghur Neighborhoods and Nationalisms in the Former Sino-Soviet Borderland: An Historical Ethnography of a Stateless Nation on the Margins of Modernity” (PhD diss., University of Southern California, 2003); and “Imagining Uyghurstan: Re-evaluating the Birth of the Modern Uyghur Nation,” Central Asian Survey 28, no. 4 (2009): 361–381.

  • 35. Gardner Bovingdon, The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

  • 36. Jay Dautcher, Down a Narrow Road: Identity and Masculinity in a Uyghur Community in Xinjiang China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009); and Joanne Smith Finley, The Art of Symbolic Resistance: Uyghur Identities and Uyghur-Han Relations in Contemporary Xinjiang, Inner Asian Library 30 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013).

  • 37. Nathan Light, Intimate Heritage: Creating Uyghur Muqam Song in Xinjiang, vol. 19, Halle Studies in the Anthropology of Eurasia (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2008); and Rachel Harris, The Making of a Musical Canon in Chinese Central Asia: The Uyghur Twelve Muqam (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009).

  • 38. Linda Benson, The Ili Rebellion: The Muslim Challenge to Chinese Authority in Xinjiang, 1944–49 (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1990); and David D. Wang, Under the Soviet Shadow: The Yining Incident (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1999). For Benson’s review of Wang, see “Review of David D. Wang, Under the Soviet Shadow: The Yining Incident,” China Review International 9, no. 1 (2002): 277–280.

  • 39. Hodong Kim, Holy War in China: The Muslim Rebellion and State in Chinese Central Asia 1864–1877 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).

  • 40. Rian Thum, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

  • 41. Ondřej Klimeš, Struggle by the Pen: Uyghur Discourse of Nation and National Interest, c. 1940–1949 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015); and David Brophy, Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia-China Frontier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016). For discussions of recent scholarship on Xinjiang, see Peter C. Perdue, “Xinjiang Studies: The Third Wave,” Cross Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 21 (2016): 137–156; and Ildiko Bellér-Hann, “Xinjiang Close-Up,” Journal of Asian Studies 76, no. 4 (2017): 1092–1100.

  • 42. James Leibold, Ethnic Policy in China: Is Reform Inevitable? (Honolulu: East-West Center, 2013).

  • 43. Titles and publishers in this series vary. Russian: VKP(b), Komintern i natsional’no-revoliutsionnoe (or Sovetskoe) dvizhenie v Kitae (Moscow: 1994–); German: KPdSU(B), Komintern und die national-revolutionäre Bewegung (or Sowjetbewegung) in China (Berlin: 1996–); Chinese: Gongchan guoji, liangong (bu) yu Zhongguo geming wenxian ziliao xuanji 共产国际、 联共‎ (‎) 与中国革命文献资料选辑‎ (Beijing: 1997–). See also Shen Zhihua 沈志华‎, ed., Eguo jiemi dang’an: Xinjiang wenti 俄国解密档案‎: 新疆问题‎ (Wulumuqi: Xinjiang renmin chubanshe, 2013).

  • 44. Only the Presidential Archive has published a guide to its holdings: Arkhiv prezidenta respubliki Kazakhstan: Putevoditel’ (Almaty, Kazakhstan: Zheti Zharghï, 2001).

  • 45. For example, Xinjiang weiwuer Zizhiqu dang’an guan 新疆维吾尔自治区档案馆‎, ed., Xinjiang yu E Su shangye maoyi dang’an shiliao 新疆与俄苏商业贸易档案史料‎ (Ürümchi, China: Xinjiang renmin chubanshe, 1994); Ma Zhongying zai Xinjiang dang’an shiliao xuanbian 马仲英在新疆档案史料选编‎ (Ürümchi, China: Xinjiang renmin chubanshe, 1997); and Jindai Xinjiang Menggu lishi dang’an 近代新疆蒙古历史档案‎ (Ürümchi, China: Xinjiang renmin chubanshe, 2007).

  • 46. Zhongguo di-er lishi dang’anguan 中国第二历史档案馆‎, ed., Minguo shiqi Xinjiang dang’an huibian 民国时期新疆档案汇编‎ (Nanjing: Fenghuang chubanshe, 2015). See also Tong Lu 童鹿‎, ed., Minguo shiqi Xinjiang jinrong dang’an shiliao 民国时期新疆金融档案史料‎ (Nanjing: Fenghuang chubanshe, 2014).

  • 47. Zhongyang yanjiuyuan jindaishi yanjiusuo 中央研究院近代史研究所‎, ed., Zhong E guanxi shiliao 中俄關係史料‎, 10 vols. (Nangang: 1959–1961).

  • 48. M. Rozibaqiev, Ismayil Tayirov (Almaty, Kazakhstan: Qazaqstan, 1990); A. Rozibaqiev, Burhan Qasimov (Almaty, Kazakhstan: Rauan, 1992); Abdulla Rozibaqiev [AU: Please expand the author name here], Khälqim Üchün Köyüdu Zhüräk (Almaty, Kazakhstan: Zhazushï, 1997); and Näzärghoja Abdusemätov, Yoruq Sahillar (Almaty, Kazakhstan: Zhazushï, 1991).

  • 49. Muhämmäd Imin Bughra’s history was first published in 1947; but the most widely disseminated version is a modern Uyghur edition published in Ankara in 1998. Shimizu Yuriko has edited and published the 1940 autograph manuscript of the work: Muḥammad Amīn Bughra, The Autograph Manuscript of Muḥammad Amīn Bughra’s Sharqī Türkistān Tārīkhi, 2 vols. (Tokyo: TIAS: Department of Islamic Area Studies, The University of Tokyo, 2016). For the work’s full textual history, see Shimizu’s introduction to vol. 1. Polat Qadiri’s work has been republished as Polat Kadirî, Baturlar (Ülke tarihi): Doğu Türkistan Millî Mücadele Tarihi (1930–1949) (Ankara, Turkey: Berikan Yayinevi, 2009). The two volumes of İsa Yusuf Alptekin are Esir Doğu Türkistan için (Istanbul: Doğu Türkistan Neşriyat Merkezi, 1985) and Esir Doğu Türkistan ičin—2: İsa Yusuf Alptekin’in Mücadele Hatıraları (1949–1980), ed. Ömer Kul (Ankara, Turkey: Berikan Yayınevi, 2007).

  • 50. Alixonto’ra Sog’uniy, Turkiston Qayg’usi (Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Sharq, 2003); Alihan Töre Sagunî, Türkistan kaygısı, trans. Oğuz Doğan Kutlukhan-Edikut Şakirov, vol. 5, Istanbuler Texte und Studien (Würzburg, Germany: Ergon in Kommission, 2006); and Ähmätjan Qasimi, Maqalä vä Nutuqlar (Almaty, Kazakhstan: Qazaqstan, 1992).