Some thoughts about the background to the recent events in Urumchi from a sociolinguist’s point of view

13. Jul 2009

Joakim Enwall Associate Professor Chinese Language and Culture Department of Linguistics and Philology Uppsala University

July 12, 2009


The history of Xinjiang is characterised by its position as a transit area for peoples, languages, arts, religions and commercial products. Drastic changes have occurred at many times in its history, as one constellation of the above-mentioned factors has superseded another, but most of these processes of change have been relatively drawn out, often occurring in a time span of several hundred years. Although China has had strong influence in the area since the centuries preceding the Common Era, at least during quite long periods, it is only after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China that this influence has manifested itself in a massive immigration of Han Chinese into the area.

Historical and political overview

In the last years of the 18th century the Eastern Turkestan area was incorporated into the Qing Empire under the name of Xinjiang or “New Dominion”. This was part of a policy of expanding the empire to the areas, which had at some point in history been part of China. The notion of being part of the Middle Kingdom was, however, rather vague, and referred both to areas having been under tight Chinese political and economic control and to former tributary states. Qing officials or ambans were instituted in Xinjiang, and by use of military force the Chinese managed to keep the area as a part of China in spite of several severe cases of rebellion against the Chinese rulers. During the last decades of the 19th century the surrounding powers, Great Britain in India and Russia, initiated political manipulations to increase their respective influence in the area, a process which later became known as the Great Game. The Chinese Empire was getting weaker and the Russian interests temporarily gained the upper hand in Xinjiang.

The linguistic situation around 1900

In the Qing administration there were two official languages, Manchu and Chinese, but Xinjiang was not an area well integrated into the ordinary administrative structure. It was more of a strategic colonial rule, like in Tibet, and the linguistic policies of the empire had but peripheral influence on the majority of the population. In the same way as in most parts of Central Asia, Persian was a widespread language both in the field of administration, in commerce and in literature, and in the religious sphere Arabic played an important rule. Uyghur – at that time not yet defined as Uyghur – was, however, the sole language of communication for the vast majority of the population.

During the first decades of the 20th century the bulk of the literature in Uyghur consisted of hand copied manuscripts and a few lithographed books, produced in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. Apart from works related to Islam and moral themes, there was a great number of romantic and heroic tales, often modelled on Persian originals (Jarring 1979). Only a minority of the population was literate, but there was also a strong tradition of oral literature, which before 1949 was passed on from generation to generation. Nowadays, this tradition is virtually extinct.

The Uyghur revival

The traditional way for a person later defined as an Uyghur to define himself was “Turk” or, alternatively, as originating from one of the major oases “qäshqärliq”, “khotänlik” or “turpanlik”. At a conference held in the 1920s in Almaty it was decided that the term Uyghur be reintroduced for designating the people believed to be the offspring of the Uyghurs who established their empire in western Mongolia in the 8th century. This usage spread to Xinjiang in the 1930s.

The orthography was standardised by Mr. G. Ahlbert of the Swedish Mission Press in his spellingbook for the language of the six cities, published by the Swedish Mission Press in Kashgar in 1929. A few years later the strict orthographic principles and particularly the rules for spelling Arabic loanwords as well as the ways of rendering the Uyghur vowels varied considerably between the authors and publishers of Uyghur language texts.


The demographic changes 1950-1980

According to the census of 1953, two years after Xinjiang was incorporated into the People’s Republic, the number of Uyghurs was 3.6 million, the Han Chinese numbered 300.000 and the other ethnic groups approximately 930.000, of which the Kazak constituted two thirds. For many of the Kazak and Kirghiz, Uyghur was the lingua franca, and it may well be concluded that the use of Chinese was limited to provincial administration and military affairs. Other contacts, including commercial and technical, had been more focused on the Soviet Union than on China proper, and this is clearly reflected in the amount of Russian loanwords in Uyghur as compared to that of Chinese loanwords.

Starting in the early 1950s, large groups of Chinese farmers, demobilised military personnel and intellectuals were sent to Xinjiang in order to construct the new society. The peasants and former soldiers were organised in the bingtuan-system, or para-military colonies, which reminds of the tuntian-system, introduced to Xinjiang by the Chinese 2000 years earlier. These bingtuan-units were established as self-sustaining militia groups around the Taklamakan desert, and apart from being in charge of developing cotton farming by using the water of the Tarim River for irrigation, they were also to serve as a deterring force against possible rebellions among the minority population. Large groups of military personnel were sent into the area, especially after the break up between China and the Soviet Union, and many of them stayed on after their military tasks were completed. The third group, the intellectuals, took charge of the authorities and the schools, and thereby exerted a large impact on the cultural development of Xinjiang. During the Cultural Revolution, red guards entered the area and began propagating the new rules for societal life, which included drastic changes as an imposed pig raising policy for the Muslims. The results of this immigration can be seen in the 1982 census. The number of Uyghurs had increased to 5.9 million, an increase of 63%, while the Han Chinese population reached 5.3 million, thus an increase of 1660% in 29 years. The other ethnic groups showed an increase of some 96%, amounting to a total of approximately 1.8 million in 1982. This process has since then slowed down in percentages, but not in actual numbers of people. A further complicating factor is the large group of retired intellectuals, consisting both of those who were originally sent in the 1950s for developing the area, and of those exiled after the anti-Rightist campaign of 1958 and during the Cultural Revolution. After 1979 many of these chose the option to return to China proper, and also in some cases to resume their original positions at institutions of higher learning and in administration. At the same time, in connection with the abolishment of the People’s Communes and the reorganisation of state enterprises, huge groups of young people became out of work, and some of these found their way to Xinjiang.

Early Chinese minority language policies

Due to the semi-independent status of Xinjiang from the fall of the Qing dynasty until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China minority language policies was not a major concern of the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang. It was more of a struggle for keeping the province within the country and not allowing either the British or the Russians t
o take over. After 1949 the Chinese communists rapidly brought Xinjiang back into the central administration, after it had been semi-independent under the rule of Chinese governors since 1911.

Since the beginning of the 1950s small scale experiments with Cyrillic-based script for the minorities in Xinjiang were carried out. In the Soviet Union the larger ethnic minority groups of Xinjiang were also represented, including the Uyghurs, and in the 1940s Cyrillic-based orthographies for these languages had been devised. The use of Cyrillic in Xinjiang would as well facilitate cross-border contacts within these ethnic groups, but with the deteriorating atmosphere between China and the Soviet Union, such contacts were no longer seen a desirable, but as harmful. In 1958 the Committee for Writing Reform was set up and in 1959 a proposal was put forward. The minority language authorities launched a Latin-based system for Uyghur with 33 letters. Its origins are, however, to be sought in the pre-1958 minority language work, as the orthography contains letters and diacritics which are not present in the 1958 version of the Hanyu Pinyin scheme. Starting from the early 1950s, hundreds of scholars and field-workers had been engaged in a huge project of devising and reforming the writing systems of the ethnic minority groups in China. During the first years of this work, no strict common principles were applied for the choice of possible graphemes, and several proposed orthographies for various languages contained both Latin letters, Cyrillic letters and newly invented graphemes. The latter were mainly borrowed from the Latin-based orthographies used for minority languages in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1958 the People’s Congress of China approved the Hanyu Pinyin Scheme as the official transcription system for Chinese, and consequently the orthographies for minority language should follow the same spelling principles and contain the same graphemes. However, for Uyghur no such change was carried out and Arabic writing remained in use until the mid-1960s, when the Latin-based yengi yezik was introduced.

In 1958, the anti-Rightist campaign was launched, and as minority languages were generally considered a bourgeois remnant in the Chinese society, most of the work which had been carried out in the 1950s was seen as useless at best, and many collections of folk literature were destroyed. Evening courses for making the peasants literate in their own language were also cancelled. From 1958-1962 between 60,000 and 120,000 Uyghurs fled from Xinjiang to the Soviet Union. After the famine of the early 1960s a few years of relative stability followed, and during this time a few publications in Uyghur appeared. In 1966, however, the Cultural Revolution was launched, and most of the minority intellectuals who had survived the establishment of the People’s Republic and the anti-Rightist campaign, were then purged. Unlike many minority languages, the Uyghur language had been kept as an official language in Xinjiang, although only few publications appeared during the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Minority languages were used almost exclusively for printing translations of works by Chairman Mao and other political publications.

At school, however, both the Arabic script and the yengi yezik were used in parallel, but in 1976 the Revolutionary Committee of Xinjiang decided to make the yengi yezik the only official script for Uyghur. According to information received by Gunnar Jarring in 1978, over half of the population used the yengi yezik at that time, and all official publications appeared in that script (Jarring 1979). Although this new orthography never received wide-spread support it was taught at school until the mid-80s, and it is still used in some publications as an “auxiliary transcription system”, a face saving device of the Chinese authorities. After the reintroduction of the Perso-Arabic script what resulted from the experiment with yengi yezik was virtually a whole lost generation for literacy in Uyghur, as only a part of those who learnt yengi yezik at school later learnt the Perso-Arabic script.

Socio-economic changes after 1980

The political reforms of the early 1980s were followed by radical economic reforms in the mid-80s. Earlier redistribution systems were abolished according to the policy that some areas should become rich first and thereby trigger economic development in the poorer areas. The immediate consequence was an increasing poverty in the areas situated far away from the coast and the big cities, and Xinjiang was one of the regions worst hit by this reform. The local authorities dealing with minority language works were supposed to finance their activities on local revenue, which was scarce or non-existent.

At the same time, the petroleum industry in Xinjiang developed rapidly and this lead to an influx of Chinese workers for the oil wells in the Taklamakan desert. As the oil companies had no trust in the Uyghur population they exclusively employed Han Chinese from the Inland provinces. With increasing unemployment in China a so-called floating, i.e. unregistered, population appeared, and at present its size is estimated to over 150 million. Some of these have sought luck in China’s minority areas, including Xinjiang, and after the resettlement program in connection with the Three Gorges Project, the number of Han Chinese coming to Xinjiang is on the raise. They settle mainly in the Bayangol prefecture, the Urumchi area, and in Dzungaria.

Revival of minority language work

After the third plenary session of the 11th Party Congress in 1979, the former minority policies in China were to be revived, much according to the principles of the early- and mid-1950s.

In 1984 the Arabic-script-based system was reintroduced, and after the orthographic reforms of 1985 it remains unchanged to this day.

The influence of Russian is still very much present in Uyghur and from the principles of coining new words it can be seen that the loanwords from Russian have been well integrated into Uyghur.

Tightening up – new policies after 1994

In the 1980s the Chinese way of living gained ground in Xinjiang and in cities like Urumchi, Kashgar and Khotan typical phenomena of Chinese society like pop music, Karaoke bars, beer drinking and a focus on making money had a heavy impact on the lives of young Uyghurs. There was also an increased interest in mastering the Chinese language, which was a necessary tool for gaining access to the new cultural and societal phenomena. This inevitably led to a clash with traditional values of the Uyghur society, but many older people also saw this as an inevitable consequence of modernity. Nonetheless, since the mid-80s, some radical Islamist groups were formed, and some even went for military training in Afghanistan. Upon their return they initiated sabotage activities and even outright rebellions, albeit on a small scale. Nonetheless, the support for these activities seems to have been quite small among Uyghurs in general. As the Chinese state reacted to these terrorist activities, their measures were over-dimensioned for the purposes they wanted to achieve. After the meeting of the Ethnic Affairs Commission in December 1994, measures like closing down madrasas and strict control of Friday prayer contents made the general opinion shift. The young people who had earlier wholeheartedly embraced the Chinese culture turned to Islam, stopped frequenting Chinese bars and dance halls and started attending the prayers in the mosques. On this, the Chinese reacted with even stronger measures against Islam, and the gap between the two halves of the population was further widened.

Many educated Chinese do not any more feel safe in the area, and as
they can usually get work in China proper they leave the area. This, however, does not lead to a decrease of the Chinese population, as their numbers are well compensated through the influx of non-educated Chinese, who cannot find jobs in China proper.

The response of the Uyghur intellectuals has more often than not been a reinterpretation of the history of Xinjiang (Gladney, 1998). The Uyghurs are seen as the original inhabitants of the area as early as the first centuries BC and as little knowledge about the ancient ethnic setting is available in contemporary Xinjiang, this myth spreads unchallenged. It has also made the local authorities more sensitive about research on the pre-Uyghur ethnic groups of Xinjiang, as the findings could “lead to ethnic contradictions” (yinqi minzu maodun). As long as the present ethnic setting is not challenged, the authorities generally tolerate publications in this field. Sometimes, however, the local government has prohibited historical works in this genre, as for example the famous three books “üch kitap” by Torghun Almas, which were actually published during the years of relative opening up prior to 1989, but later collected and burnt. These books dealt with Uyghur history, Uyghur literature and the history of the Huns respectively. After the prohibition all Uyghur intellectuals were urged to criticise these books in articles in Uyghur newspapers and journals in order to reach the Uyghur readers as well.

The publication activities in Uyghur have, however, increased during the 1990s, though only in the field of strictly controlled works. Apart from the Uyghur Publishing House in Kashgar, books in Uyghur are published by nine publishing houses in Xinjiang as well as by the Nationalities Publishing House in Peking. The total number of titles in Uyghur for the year 1998 was approximately 700 according to the provincial authorities, but at the Uyghur Publishing House in Kashgar the number 876 was given for that publishing house only, with an average edition of 5000. Out of these 70% were original works in Uyghur and 30% translations, mainly from Chinese.

In higher education, this is even more evident, where only few subjects, like the minority language itself, and the minority literature itself are taught in the minority language. The system of schooling of ethnic minority children outside the autonomous regions was introduced in 1987, with the Beijing Tibet High School. The students are recruited mainly from poor families and the students are given the preferential treatment of free high school education. A similar system with schools in twelve Chinese cities for Uyghur children was established in 1997. This kind of system has earlier proven most efficient in training cadres on higher level at the Central Institute for Nationalities (now renamed Central University of Nationalities) in Beijing. Interesting historical parallels are also to be found in the devshirme system for the dhimmi groups in Ottoman times and in the special boarding schools for American Indians in the US and for the Saami in Sweden.

Since the establishment of the Xinjiang classes, the number has increased from 12 to 27, and the total enrolment is over 5000 (Xinjiang ribao wang, 2007-02-14). For the future development, there are plans to enlarge the number of bilingual preschools, and the target is set at 258,000 Xinjiang ethnic minority preschoolers in 2010 (Renmin ribao haiwaiban: 2006-10-12). A further result is that the Uyghur teachers also have to pass exams in Chinese in order to keep their employment at the schools (Xinjiang ribao wang: 2006-07-11).

Concluding remarks

The present situation is characterised by an intensified conflict and a societal division between Han Chinese and Uyghurs, which in many ways reminds of a traditional colonial setting, and which contains many political complications. Unless a significant change is brought about regarding the economic, religious and cultural conditions of the Uyghurs, this tense situation is not likely to change, and hard-core groups will probably gain further support among the Uyghur population. The recent events show that the situation is already on the point of boiling over and it seems unlikely the measures implemented by the authorities will decrease the tension between the two major population groups, the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese, in Xinjiang.


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