Ethnic identity is a fuzzy concept for several reasons. On the one hand, the very question of what is an ethnic group is not an easy one to answer. On the other hand, once this is established for a specific case, it is yet another task to define who belongs to it, and who does not, and how stable such assignments actually are. This is as true for Central Asia as for any other place in the world, and the fact that, for earlier periods of history, the records—both native ones and others—use a great variety of terms for human populations, does not make it any easier. Thus, it is largely unclear, which of the tribal groups or early statehoods correspond to a contemporary understanding of ethnicity.
Anthropological scholarship on Central Asia has, by contrast, stressed the rather vague and floating categories that people in the region used to define themselves and others. According to this view, the creation of ethnic groups was largely a product of more or less artificial engineering during Soviet times. Before, local communities and extended kin groups, regularly reshuffled and redefined in history, were of much greater importance for people’s identification and alliances than language or assumed genetic ties.
While there is some truth in that, the picture is more complex. Particularly among the Turkic-speaking groups in the region, a steady process of consolidation set in following the decline of the Mongol Empire, resulting in the emergence of contemporary ethnic groups out of earlier configurations. The underlying concepts of attachment and self-understanding vary, however, and can be distinguished in two different modes, roughly corresponding to the divide between nomadic and sedentary groups. Among the former, the idea of patrilineal descent, or a genealogical model, is at the bottom of internal divisions as well as external demarcation; in the oases, the prime criteria are proximity and shared culture, or a territorial model of ethnic identity. Kazaks and Uzbeks respectively represent examples of these two models.
Processes of ethnic demarcation have, however, been greatly accelerated during the Soviet period and its aftermath. Today, a hasty search for national identities can be observed across the region; while following lines of Soviet ethnicity concepts, these identities fundamentally change their understanding as well as inter-ethnic and majority-minority relations. This is still a very open and dynamic process leading to new (inter-)ethnic constellations and political power relations.
Paradise lost, on fire, or on a river of hell: purple prose abounds in descriptions of Kashmir today. But in this instance, the hyperbole may be alarmingly close to reality. Since 1989–1990, Kashmir (i.e., the Valley rather than the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir for which the name is often informally used) has been a battleground pitting a popularly backed insurgency—sometimes accompanied by armed militancy—against Indian state dominance undergirded by one of the highest concentrations of armed forces among civilians in the world. The armed forces are about 700,000 strong in the Valley, producing an astonishing average of one soldier for every eleven civilians. A death toll in calamitous numbers (perhaps 70,000 killed and 8,000 “disappeared”, many of whom are presumed dead) countless instances of rape and torture, and the declining health of civil liberties as of individuals in Kashmir have many worried.
Most accounts seeking to explain this state of affairs begin around August 14–15, 1947. On this day were born not only the two nation-states of India and Pakistan but also the rival claims of both to Kashmir. If Kashmir’s troubles were only about the Indo-Pakistani territorial contestation, 1947 would be where to start. However, the “Kashmir Problem” encompasses other contentious aspects that have drawn less attention and whose roots are buried deeper in time. These include a crisis of legitimate governance and the interweaving of religion and politics—all playing out in the midst of contested relations between different loci of central and local power. A narrow focus on the year 1947 alone, moreover, holds Kashmir’s history hostage to Indian and Pakistani official narratives. This is evident in the work of countless political scientists and policy experts. New scholarship has pushed historical examination to go further back by at least a century, if not more, to capture vital transformations in the understandings of sovereignty, territoriality, and the legitimacy to rule that shaped Kashmiris well before 1947. These changes cast long shadows that reach into the present.
The Armenian people entered the modern era with their historic lands of more than three millennia divided between two empires—the Ottoman and Persian empires. The Ottomans ruled the western and larger part, while the Persians ruled the eastern lands. Ottoman rule extended from the fourteenth century to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. The latter inherited the historic Armenian lands as a successor state to the Ottoman Empire. The Persian Empire ruled Armenian lands in the east until the signing of the Treaty of Turkmenchai in 1828, which, in the aftermath of the Russo-Persian wars, fulfilled Russian imperial expansionist objectives into the Caucasus by replacing Persian rule. For centuries, therefore, Armenians experienced the various aspects and phases of modernization—the Enlightenment, the emergence of capitalism, urbanization, nationalism—as a subject people. They did not achieve modern statehood until 1918 as the Ottoman and Russian empires collapsed under the weight of the First World War.
Modern Armenia emerged when the Republic of Armenia was established as a sovereign state in May 1918, after centuries of foreign rule but in the midst of war and the ongoing genocide by the Young Turks ruling in Constantinople (now Istanbul) against its Armenian population. The fragile Republic of Armenia could not withstand the calamitous consequences of war. Moreover, thousands of Armenian refugees generated by the genocidal policies of the Young Turk regime arrived in the republic. The new government lacked the resources necessary for a functioning economy and polity, and the unfolding military conflicts led to its demise and sovietization after the Bolsheviks consolidated power in Yerevan in 1921. The Communist regime established a dictatorial system in Soviet Armenia and across the Soviet Union, but the severest brutalities were experienced under Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, as his government forced agricultural collectivization and rapid industrialization at the expense enormous human sacrifices. Despite the political difficulties, Soviet Armenia registered successes in the areas of economy and culture in the long term. Armenians benefited from the cultural development witnessed in the 1950s and 1960s, largely as a result of Nikita Khrushchev’s reform oriented policies. By the 1970s, however, the economy had grown stagnant under Leonid Brezhnev, and his successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, in the early 1980s failed to ameliorate the conditions, while the Soviet regime experienced a political legitimacy crisis. In the meantime, nationalism had emerged as a powerful force across the Soviet Union, and calls for secession from Moscow grew louder. Mikhail Gorbachev’s experimentation with perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) could not reverse the loss of legitimacy, a situation further exacerbated in Soviet Armenia in the aftermath of the earthquake in December 1988 and the escalating military conflict in Nagorno-Karabagh. The Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, creating an opportunity for a second declaration of independence for Armenian sovereign statehood in the 20th century. Although independence from the Soviet Union energized the Armenian people and gave rise to expectations concerning their economic and political well-being in post-Soviet Armenia, the country became mired in the twin crises of recovering from the earthquake while at the same time surviving an undeclared war with Azerbaijan, the latter being supported by Turkey. The economic blockade they imposed on Armenia further exacerbated the situation. Since independence, the Republic of Armenia, under its four successive leaders—Presidents Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Robert Kocharyan, Serge Sargsyan, and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan—has struggled to develop its economy and infrastructure and to address the chronic problems of poverty and unemployment. The country lacks the economic and financial ingredients necessary to develop a modern, competitive productive basis for competition in global markets. Further, systemic corruption has obstructed efforts to improve the situation, while various government agencies have routinely engaged in violations of human rights. Efforts by nascent civil society to advance civil and political rights and democratization in general have been undermined by state policies, including gross violations of citizens’ rights in time of elections. The experiences gained after twenty-five years of independence pose major challenges for economic development while offering little hope for democratization. It remains to be seen whether the “velvet revolution” (March 31–May 8, 2018) led by Nikol Pashinyan can introduce fundamental changes in the Armenian political system. Former opposition activist and member of the National Assembly, Pashinyan emerged as the country’s prime minister after the “velvet revolution” forced the resignation of Serge Sargsyan on April 23, 2018.
Huiwen Helen Zhang
An expeditionary force soldier. A jungle war survivor. A patriot who traded opportunities in the United States for a tedious journey home to the newly founded People’s Republic of China. A “counterrevolutionary.” A forced laborer who spent the last third of his life translating English and Russian literature.—A poet. Careful study of Mu Dan’s (1918–1977) poetry enables us to explore a string of moments in modern China’s transformation.
Twenty-two poems by Mu Dan have been selected as a history of China from the climax of the New Culture Movement (1919) through the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1976). Fusing linguistic audacity, philosophical acumen, and historical vision, they weave a thread of themes illuminating the tortured path of a nation and an individual. Further, they span a spectrum of sentiments ranging from those of ordinary people to those of extraordinary intellectuals.
To reveal the turning points in modern China’s history, the twenty-two poems have been contextualized along two axes. A vertical axis, the thread of themes, consists of eleven motifs developed and revisited by Mu Dan from 1940 through 1976; they are: Youth, War, Disillusion, Maturity, Sacrifice, Exposure, Enlightenment, Conversion, Awakening, Anguish, and Reflection. A horizontal axis, the spectrum of sentiments, exhibits Mu Dan’s contradictory attitudes toward modern China’s transformation by identifying him with his countrymen or distancing him from them as a free spirit and cultural critic.
This conceptual framework assists in examining the interaction between history and literature. It demonstrates how modern China’s history informs, provokes, and shapes a poet whose life span coincides with it and, at the same time, how poetry can be and is being read as history itself. This reading allows more than new access to the historical events that mold a poet and his poetry. Reading poetry as history uncovers lost sentiments, struggles, observations, and critiques that advance our understanding of modern China.
With an estimated thirty million or more in Pakistan, twelve million in Afghanistan, and perhaps a million or more in a global diaspora, Pashtuns or Pukhtuns comprise a complex ethno-linguistic population with a rich cultural tradition and literature, varied political and economic contexts, and diverse national and Islamic identities. Historic and literary references to communities that have been thought to identify “Afghans” date to the 10th century and, according to the source and scholar consulted, many centuries earlier. The assumption of any uniquely “Pashtun” identity as equivalent to the diverse “Afghan” cultural, religious, and ethnic identities that evolved over centuries has obfuscated a full understanding of the emergence of distinct regional Pashtun ethno-linguistic communities and the origins of frequently studied cultural idioms. Millions of Pashtuns have lived in close and daily contact with many other ethnic groups (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baluch, Punjabis, etc.), and color-coded maps of ethnic homelands in Afghanistan and Pakistan are best seen as guides to often complex social geographies rather than absolute markers of ethnically pure settlement areas.
For perhaps a thousand years, Pashtuns and regional forefathers have circulated within imperial and merchant networks connected by Silk Road pathways, Persian and north Indian trade routes, and Indian Ocean sea lanes. Pashtuns sought livelihoods as horse traders, military entrepreneurs, agrarian pioneers, and regional rulers in the northern, eastern, and Deccan regions of India. An Afghan state with variable territorial claims consolidated after 1747. Leading Pashtun clans from around Kandahar and the eastern districts took positions in the dynasties that soon ruled from Kabul and core provinces.
Pashtuns between the Oxus and Indus rivers adapted to, avoided, and served 18th- and 19th-century Russian and British imperial economic and political forces. In the high European “new imperialism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Afghan territories were framed by treaty-negotiated boundaries. Never colonized, Afghanistan became economically dependent on British–India subsidies and linkages. Into the mid-20th century, Afghanistan’s Pashtun political dynasties and Islamic and political activists on both sides of the British-Indian Durand Line offered leadership and alternative visions of the future to anticolonial and Muslim nationalists, including those in British India.
In recent decades, core Pashtun homelands and diasporic communities have fully experienced the disruptions and violence that followed the partition of British India in 1947, postcolonial “national” consolidation, conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Cold War alliances and conflict, the rise and fall of the Taliban, and civil war. Like others, Pashtun lives were shaped by the transnational dynamics of economic globalization, urbanization, migration, and the international crises that traumatized the world after September 11, 2001.
The lifetime of Sayyid Ahmad Khan (“Sir Syed”) (1817–1898) spans profound transformations introduced to India and the wider world by the twin forces industrial capitalism and British imperialism. Sayyid Ahmad’s intellectual responses to a changing world and his leadership in the establishment of educational institutions, voluntary associations, and a broad public sphere all played a significant role in defining what it means to be Muslim, especially in India and what would become Pakistan but also in wider cosmopolitan and global networks.
The development, compromises, and contradictions of Sayyid Ahmad’s ideas and projects over time track the challenges he faced. If these efforts pointed the way to some sort of modernity, it was rooted in the Indo-Persian and Islamic formation of his early years and developed by selectively adopting bits and pieces of European ideologies, technologies, practices, and organizational arrangements. He has been claimed or condemned by advocates and opponents of a wide range of ideological and political tendencies under circumstances that he would barely have recognized in his own time: nationalism, democracy, women’s equality, and religious and literary modernism. At different points in his career one may find mysticism, scriptural literalism, and daring rationalism with respect to religious texts; charters for Muslim “separatism” and calls for Hindu-Muslim unity; demands for autonomy and political representation and opposition to it; bold critiques of British rulers; and proclamations of “loyalty” to the colonial state. A major figure in the advancement of the Urdu language, he later argued for the superiority of English, of which he himself had little, for the purposes of education and administration. Most of all, he helped establish an intellectual and institutional framework for contemporaries and future generations to debate and pursue collective goals based on religion, language, social status, or class interest.
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.