The Origins of Uyghur Nationalism


A review of Tending to Unite? The Origins of Uyghur Nationalism, by David Brophy.

This is transnational history at its best. David Brophy has taken a simple question — the origins of Uyghur nationalism in Xinjiang — and provided his readers with an exhaustive account spanning three empires, as many languages, and at least as many national archives. At a time when the idea of primordial ethnic identities has come under sustained and much deserved assault by the academy, a curious fog continues to obscure the historical origins of the Muslim Uyghurs of China’s northwest. It is not for any profusion of intellectual naïveté that this fog runs so thick — scholars have long known that the ethnonym ‘Uyghur’ is a relatively recent invention — but rather due to the extreme difficulty of interrogating any historical question situated on the margins of empires that did not leave records in English or French. Out in Xinjiang, the crossroads of Eurasia, the historian is tasked with rescuing history not from just one nation, but from several. Brophy has done precisely that, providing us with the first attempt to place the ethnogenesis of the Uyghur within a sober historical context. He is uniquely qualified to do so: had the author been unable to parse through primary-source documents in Russian, Chinese, and Turkic, we would have been left with a two-legged ‘ding’ tripod, ever vulnerable to the gravitational pull of national history.

So how did the oasis-dwelling, Turkic-speaking farmers of Xinjiang come to find themselves labeled as Uyghurs? The answer, as Brophy illustrates, is unique in the annals of modern nation-building efforts. Most people familiar with the history of modern Xinjiang know that it was the Han warlord Sheng Shicai (1897-1970) who was formally responsible for institutionalizing the category of ‘Uyghur’ during his shift toward the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Before Sheng, the most common turn of phrase in Chinese discourse referred to these same people as ‘Turbans’ (chanmin, chantou, or chanzu), or simply ‘Muslims’. As for the ‘Turbans’, if they did not appropriate this allegedly derogatory label for themselves, the usual response to any inquiry regarding some sort of transcendent group identity was either ‘I am from here’ or ‘I am a Muslim’. There were other names floating about as well, none of which were ‘Uyghur’. Whenever someone from the southern oases traveled beyond the Chinese empire and passed into Central Asia, he was most often called a ‘Kashgari’, while those from the north were known as ‘Taranchis’. As Brophy writes, ‘the name “Uyghur” was hardly known in Xinjiang at the turn of the twentieth century’ (p.21).

The author devotes the first chapter of the dissertation to tracing the pre-modern pedigree of this term, from its first appearance as the name of a Turkic kingdom contemporary with the Tang empire, to a multivalent referent of flexible application last recorded in Xinjiang during the sixteenth century. From there, however, the trail runs cold for nearly three centuries, until European scholarship on the Orient, obsessed with the pedigrees of charter-state civilizations and ideas about the depths to which their latter-day heirs had sunk, wondered aloud whatever became of the Uyghurs. Long story short, after positing various Mongol, Tangut, and Turkic origins without a consensus, Orientalists in Russia, Germany, and France redirected their efforts to a far more satisfying pastime: vilifying one another. Nevertheless, the very fact that intellectuals from powerful foreign nations thought the origins of the Uyghurs worthy of an academic brouhaha alerted others to the potential of appropriation. Before long, Tatar and Ottoman intellectuals brought palatable expositions and translations of Orientalist scholarship on the Uyghurs to nascent Turkic nationalists in Central Asia, thus setting the stage for twentieth-century nation-building projects.

What is unique about the Uyghur nation-building project, however, is the way in which its genesis took place mostly outside the territorial confines of Xinjiang, where its putative referents were largely to be found. By the early twentieth century, Brophy estimates a population of roughly 100,000 people in Russian Turkestan who retained some sort of familial or ancestral ties to Xinjiang. It was this demographic mass, by no means united, that nevertheless provided a focal point around which politically active émigrés could agitate. The shift from empty soapbox rhetoric to tangible political activism occurred during the Russian civil war, when Xinjiang expatriates suddenly found the geopolitical environment conducive to revolutionary organization. Originally banding together to protect life and limb during the chaos of civil war, these émigrés soon found that they could also pursue political goals, some of which were aimed squarely back at their homeland and ‘brethren’ in Xinjiang.

But the Uyghur idea was young, and none of the committees formed during this time succeeded in convincing their rivals of the desirability of uniting beneath such a banner. Taranchi, Kashgari, Uyghur, and even Dungan (Hui) all continued to exist as legitimate terms to describe a Turkic-speaking peasant or merchant from Xinjiang. In some ways, this was an opportunity lost to Turkic nationalists — never again would Russian and Chinese political regimes evince as weak a hold over their Central Asian Turkic subjects as they did during the late 1910s and early 1920s. Once the Soviet state had established a firmer foothold, the awkward position of Xinjiang émigrés in a foreign country would play itself out in a cruel farce. That is, Soviet affirmative action policies, while providing key inspiration and guidance to politically active Xinjiang ex-pats hoping to transform their homeland, failed to make the leap from domestic to foreign policy. Thus, those willing to identify as Uyghur and call the Soviet Union their permanent home could look forward to national autonomy at the local level, within the umbrella of a larger Central Asian republic. Conversely, those eager to identify themselves and their homeland as Uyghur and hoped to return to Xinjiang to put their plan into action were doomed to disappointment. In every case, the larger geostrategic interests of Moscow trumped those of left-leaning Uyghur émigrés pining for a republic of their own. Moscow had its own plans for China and, with one brief exception in the 1940s, these plans required the Soviets to respect Chinese claims of sovereignty over Xinjiang, even when they came at the expense of Soviet Uyghurs.

The details are in the reading, and they are rich. Suffice to say, David Brophy’s tale concludes with a supreme irony: encouraged by a demonstrable Soviet commitment to Turkic nation-building throughout Central Asia in the 1920s, ten years later Uyghur activists found that Moscow would only permit their return to Xinjiang in exchange for their assistance in helping to buttress the edifice of Han rule over the province. Their consolation prize? Recognition of ‘Uyghur’ as an official ethnic group in Xinjiang, but with the added caveat that such recognition would entail nothing more than autonomy in cultural affairs — and nothing in matters of political or territorial import. With that, Brophy concludes his excellent dissertation by setting the stage for Chinese Communist policy in Xinjiang, which would mimic many of the features forged by their warlord predecessors.

At long last, David Brophy has brought the Uyghurs of Central Asia down from one of the most durable perches of national mythmaking left in the twenty-first century. In its place, we now have a supremely commendable account of the true life cycle of the Uyghur project in Xinjiang. Shunned at birth by the Chinese, the Uyghur idea was adopted by the Soviets, set adrift during its tempestuous teen years, reconciled amid a reunion that could not last, cast out during a midlife crisis, and then finally dumped at the foot of the Chinese. Now a bitter old man, unwanted by the only father figures he has ever known, it should not surprise us in the least if the behavior of Uyghur intellectuals and activists today seems decidedly ambivalent.

Justin M. Jacobs
Assistant Professor
Department of History
American University

Primary Sources

State Archive of the Russian Federation
Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History
The Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies
Central State Archive of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Central State Archive of the Republic of Uzbekistan
Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica (Taiwan)
India Office Library and Records, Political and Secret Department

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2011. 420 pp. Primary Advisor: Mark C. Elliott.

Image: Kämbäghällär avazi (Voice of the Poor), the leading Soviet Uyghur newspaper of the 1920s.

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