Sacred Routes of Uyghur History


A review of The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, by Rian Richard Thum.

The history of a history, our teachers and mentors have told us, is called “historiography,” a stodgy term evocative of pipes and tweed jackets. In The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, Rian Thum opts instead for “biography.” Indeed, his fascinating dissertation makes Uyghur history come alive through the manuscript – the beating and pulsating heart at the center of this excellent study. It was through the manuscript and all its attendant cultural practices—copying, marginal notation, and, especially, recitation at sacred pilgrimage sites—that the settled peoples of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Altishahr (present-day Xinjiang) imagined their history and, in the process, negotiated a collective identity. This conclusion both draws on and proves a valuable contribution to a range of academic fields, from ethnic and Ongian orality/literacy disciplines to Qing frontier and Central Asian studies.

Ed. Note: In addition to being a contribution to our ongoing Chinese History list, this review also constitutes a “preview” of the forthcoming Inner Asian Studies Dissertation Reviews launching in 2012-13. If you would like to have your dissertation reviewed on either of these lists, or any of those listed here, please contact

After a brief introductory chapter setting out the major themes, Thum jumps right into the Altishahri “historical canon.” His concern here is focused, concentrating on those points of the past that were “winnowed” down and molded into an “‘our history,’ the mediated past that matters to a certain group of people, at a certain time [i.e., Altishahris on the eve of the twentieth century]” (p. 10). This Altishahri “our history,” Thum writes, pooled at the convergence of two historical streams, one “inherited” and one “home-grown.” The inherited historical canon consisted of numerous Arabic- and Persian-language religious commentaries, dynastic histories, romances, and stories of the prophets, as well as works translated into the local vernacular. All this mirrored other Central Asian regions, and yet there existed “lacunae” and obvious differences. Altishahris, after all, adopted and adapted only those texts that “captured [their] attention” (p. 36) and “fit [their] needs” (p. 46). For instance, the Persian epic Shahnamah, in its Altishahri adaptation, was “naturalized” and thus stressed stories that resonated with Altishahri readers, such as the Muslim-Buddhist holy wars around the oasis of Khotan. The “home-grown” canon, meanwhile, was dominated by the tazkirah. This literary form, like a hagiography, told the stories of local saints and shrines and, collectively, “made up the history of Altishahr for its Turki inhabitants” (p. 66).

At his core, Thum is a bibliophile. His conclusions about the form of the Altishahri historical canon rest on an exhaustive comparison of holdings from libraries and archives scattered across three continents, as well as his own collection. To bolster his analysis, he turns to the memoirs of European adventurers (especially Gunnar Jarring) who left reports of the books they found in bazaars and shrines or that they collected themselves. Thum includes as part his analysis a section pondering the selectivity bias of archives and preservation.

He next turns to the manuscripts themselves, investigating both their production and materiality. Manuscript technology, at least compared to print, was both flexible and communal. The tazkirah author did not have a monopoly on a manuscript’s production nor, perhaps more importantly, its meaning. As Thum notes, “Rarely, if ever, could the act of reading be considered a simple communication between author and reader. The central text was the joint product of the author(s) and the copyists, and it was enriched by the notations of the owner, and even borrowers” (p. 95). The communal nature of manuscript technology meant that a single tazkirah had a far larger impact than would be expected from a published work in a print-dominated culture. We see here the first shots of Thum’s intervention: that the manuscript was the nexus around which Altishahri identity coalesced.

The manuscript reached a truly substantial number of people at shrines and along pilgrimage routes. Here, Thum adds his own substantial fieldwork experience and ethnographic observation to the textual evidence presented in the first two chapters. Shrines and their associated graveyards—liminal spaces at the borders of life and death, the profane and the sacred—connected Altishahris with “a physical and geographical link to the past” (p. 127). Shaykhs were the crucial pivot and, through recitation of tazkirah manuscripts, mediated the relationship between pilgrims and Altishahr’s sacred history. As with temple fairs and markets throughout the world, those in nineteenth-century Xinjiang attracted a cross-section of local society, “beggars, bakers, thieves, kings, merchants, and farmers” (p. 171). Thum concludes: “The presence of such diverse audiences at local history readings helped foster a sense of the past that could be shared across people of all backgrounds” (p. 153). The tazkirah manuscript was the vehicle that disseminated Altishahri history.

Since a shared history plays such a large role in the formation of a people’s identity, Thum’s work has important implications for the field of ethnic studies. His foil here is the work of scholars such as Justin Rudelson who have argued that Xinjiang’s settled Turkic populations primarily identify with their own local oases. The assumption, implicitly held though rarely elucidated, is that identity is singular and exclusionary, that local affinities and national(ity) loyalties exist in perpetual tension. Thum, however, argues forcefully for a subtle relationship of identities, an understanding that individuals hold multiple, often contradictory, allegiances. Using Andersonian language, he writes of the tazkirah, “it was a kind of modular history from which an imagined community’s narrative could be built with a local focus, but without the local emphases threatening the integrity of the larger story” (p. 196).

A section of particular interest to historians of China ruminates on the importance of Qing rule to Altishahri manuscript culture and identity formation. It is in this section that Thum speculates on that ever-so difficult “why” question. Why did the tazrikah tradition and its unique view of the past blossom during the period of Manchu domination? The Qing system of indirect rule, Thum notes, both enfeoffed and enfeebled local leaders. The hakim begs of the major oasis towns, therefore, held enough power to patronize historical works, but not enough to justify the writing of dynastic histories. Such histories, after all, would merely show their subjugation to Qing conquerors and seriously undermine their political legitimacy. Histories of the region’s Naqshbandi orders, those Sufi lineages long emphasized by scholars because of their rebellions against the Qing order, are similarly absent from the archives. The tazkirah avoided these difficult political issues and became the primary form of historical writing. It was the ambiguities of Qing rule, not the imposition of PRC ethnic labels, that fostered the creation of an Altishahri “imagined community.”

Thum closes his work with a section on the legacy of the tazkirah tradition. In the second half of the twentieth century, print finally overcame the manuscript as the primary mode of indigenous literary production and PRC authorities severely restricted religious pilgrimage. The tazkirah disappeared, replaced after the thaw of the 1980s by historical biographies of Altishahri heroes. Much has changed, and yet in these new works of “fiction” Thum hears the echoes of now long-dead manuscripts. And it appears that modern-day Uyghurs do too, as these works of literature have become the most important source of information about the Uyghur past. For the American academic, meanwhile, Thum’s study, in its complexity and nuance, should prove just as important a window onto this history.

Wesley Chaney
PhD Candidate
Department of History
Stanford University

Primary Sources

Hartmann Collection, Staatsbibliotek Berlin
Jarring Collection, Lund University Library
Library of the Nationalities Research Institute, Central University of Nationalities, Beijing
Mannerheim Collection, National Library of Finland
St. Peterburg branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Xinjiang branch of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, Nationalities Research Institute

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2010. 318 pp. Primary Advisor: Mark C. Elliott.

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