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The Uyghur (also spelled Uighur; Uyghur: ئۇيغۇر; Simplified Chinese: 维吾尔; Traditional Chinese: 維吾爾; pinyin: Wéiwú'ěr) are an ethnic group of Central Asia. They are one of China's 56 officially recognized ethnicities, consisting of 8.68 million people according to the 2004 Chinese census, but this may be an under-estimation. Throughout the history of Central Asia, they left a lasting imprint on both the culture and tradition. Today in China, Uyghurs live primarily in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (also known by its controversial term Eastern Turkistan). There are also existing Uygur communities in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Turkey and a smaller one in Taoyuan County of Hunan province in South-central China.[2] Uygur neighbourhoods can also be found in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai.[3]

Uygur was originally written with the Orkhon alphabet.



Map of the Western (purple) and Eastern (blue) Göktürk khaganates at their height, c. AD 600. Lighter areas show direct rule; darker areas show spheres of influence.
Map of the Western (purple) and Eastern (blue) Göktürk khaganates at their height, c. AD 600. Lighter areas show direct rule; darker areas show spheres of influence.

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Historically the term "Uyghur" (meaning "united" or "allied") was applied to a group of Turkic-speaking tribes that lived in the Altay Mountains. Along with the Göktürks (Kokturks) the Uyghurs were one of the largest and most enduring Turkic peoples living in Central Asia.

The earliest use of the term 'Uygur' (Weihu) was during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 CE), in China. At that time the Uygur were part of the Gaoche later called Tura (Tiele) people, a group of Turkic tribes, which also included groups such as Xueyantuo(Syr-Tardush), Basmil (Baximi), Oguz (Wuhu), and Yakut (Guligan) from the Lake Baikal Region. The forebear of the Tura belonged to those of Hun (Xiongnu) descendants. According to Chinese Turkic scholars Ma Changshou and Cen Zhongmian, the Chinese word Tiele originates from the Turkic Türkler(Turks) which is a plural form of Türk(Turk) and the word Tujue in Chinese comes from the Turkic word Türküt which is a singular of Türk.[4] The origin of Gaoche can be traced back to the Chidi and Dingling Peoples according to the Han Dynasty circa 200 BCE[5][6] This pedigree is also confirmed in the Book of Sui volume 84 (c. 600 CE).

The first use of 'Uyghur' as a political nationality occurred during the interim between the first and second Göktürk Khanates (630-684 CE). For a more detailed look at the genesis of the Uyghur nation see Uyghur timeline. After the collapse of the Uyghur Empire in 840 CE the Uyghur refugees resettled in the Tarim Basin intermarrying with the local people. It is only after this time that 'Uyghur' can be properly used as a true ethnic designation.

Modern usage of the Uyghur ethnonym is used to give an ethnic definition to a traditional Central Asian distinction between nomads and settled farmers. It refers to the descendants of settled Turkic urban oasis-dwelling and agricultural populations of Xinjiang as opposed to those Turkic groups that remained nomadic. Uyghurs live mainly in Xinjiang, China, where they are the largest ethnic group, together with Han Chinese, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Russians. "Xinjiang" is the Han Chinese name for the (Autonomous) Region meaning "New Frontier." Uyghurs often refer to the region as East Turkistan.


Uyghur history can be divided into four distinct phases. Pre-Imperial (300 BCE - 630 CE), Imperial (630-840 CE), Idiqut (840-1225 CE), and Mongol (1225-1600 CE) with perhaps a fifth post-Mongol or modern phase running from the death of the silkroad in 1600 CE until the present. Their history is the story of an obscure nomadic tribe from the Altai Mountains rising to challenge the Chinese Empire and ultimately becoming the diplomatic arm of the Mongol invasion.

Pre-630 CE

The ancestors of the Uyghur were the nomadic Turkic Gaoche People and the Tocharian peoples of the Tarim Basin. Gaoche meaning 'High Cart' was a reference to the distinct high-wheeled, ox-drawn carts used to move yurts. The Gaoche were Altaic pastoralists who lived in the valleys south of Lake Baikal and around the Yenisei River(Yenisei = Ana Say, or "Mother River" in Turkic). They practiced some minor agriculture and were highly developed metalsmiths due to the abundance of easily available iron ore in the Yenisei. They became vassals of the Huns and manufactured their arms. After the Huns they were passed as vassals to the Rouran and Hepthalite States. In 450 CE the Gaoche planned a revolt against the Rouran that was defeated by the Türk (another Rouran vassal tribe). This incident marked the beginning of the historic Türk-Tiele animosity that plagued the Göktürk Khanate. When the Göktürk defeated the Rouran/Hepthalite state, they became the new masters of the Tura (Tiele) (the name "Gaoche" was replaced by "Tiele" in historic records around this time). It was also at this time that the Uyghur tribe was first mentioned in Chinese records as a small tribe of 10,000 yurts in the South Baikal region.

The Uygur participated in a coalition of Tura (Tiele) under the leadership of the Syr-Tardush tribe which allied with the Chinese Sui Empire in 603 CE to defeat Tardu Khan and win their independence. This alliance existed with varying degrees of autonomy from 603 CE until 630 CE when the Göktürk Khanate was decisively defeated by the Emperor Tang Taizong. During this time the Uygur occupied second position after the Syr-Tardush in the alliance. In the interum between the first and second Göktürk Khanates (630 -683 CE) the Uygur toppled the Syr-Tardush and declared their independence. Then a second Göktürk Khanate was established during the reign of Empress Wu. The Uygurs , again joined with other nomadic Turkic tribes, participated Gokturk empire. AfterBilge hakan's death in 734, the empire declined.After a series of revolts coordinated with their Chinese allies, the Uyghur emerged as the leaders of a new coalition force called the "Toquz Oghuz". In 744 CE the Uygur, together with other related subject tribes (the Basmil and Qarluq), defeated the Göktürk Khanate and founded the Uygur Empire at Mount Ötüken.

630 CE-1225 CE

Properly called the On Uyghur , Toquz-Oghuz Orkhon Khanate, the Uyghur Empire stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria and lasted from 745 to 840. It was administered from the imperial capital Ordu Baliq, the first city built in Mongolia. During the imperial phase 'Uyghur' came to mean any citizen of the Uyghur Empire, and not just a member of the Uyghur tribe. After the Battle of Talas, although they could have conquered the Tang Empire, they chose instead to use an exploitative trade policy to drain off the wealth of China without actually destroying it. In return, they policed the borders and quelled internal rebellions. Large numbers of Sogdian refugees came to Ordu Baliq to escape the Islamic Jihad in their homeland. It was from them the Uyghur were converted from Buddhism to Manichaeanism. The Uyghurs thus inherited the legacy of Sogdian Culture. In 840 CE, following a famine and a civil war, the Uyghur Empire was overrun by the Kirghiz, another Turkic people. The result was that the majority of tribal groups formerly under the umbrella of the Uyghurs migrated to what is now northwestern China, especially modern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region.

The Uyghur refugees together with other Turkic tribal groups living in Zungaria and the Tarim Basin, established three states in the Tarim Basin merging with the local populations of Tocharians (or Tokharians, whose language was Indo-European). It is probable that, genetically and culturally, modern Uyghurs descend from the nomadic Turkic tribes, and the Indo-European-speaking groups who preceded them in the Tarim Basin oasis-cities as well as Mongols from Mongolia . Today one can still see Uyghurs with light-coloured skin and hair. Modern studies have found that modern Uyghur populations represent an admixture of eastern and western Eurasian mtDNA[7] and Y chromosome[8] lineages. It is at this time 'Uyghur' can be used as an ethnic designation.

Yugor The eastern most of the three states was in the Gansu province in China, around the late 9th century, where they converted from Manicheism to Lamaism (Tibetan and Mongol Buddhism). Unlike other Turkic peoples further west they did not later convert to Islam. Thus they are unusual among Turkic peoples. Their descendants live there to this day, they are now known as Yugurs and are distinct from modern Uyghurs. In 1028-1036 CE the Yugors were absorbed into the Tangut kingdom.

Karakhoja The central state was the Karakhoja kingdom also called the Idiqut was based around the cites of Turfan and Kumul. Also a Buddhist state with a state sponsored manicheanism it can be considered the epicentre of Uyghur culture. The Idiqut lasted until 1209 when they submitted to the Mongols under Genghis Khan.

Kara-Khanids or The Karahans (Great Khans Dynasty) . The Karahans ruled between 990-1212 in Turkistan and Maveraünnehir. They converted to Islam before the 11th century and built a federation with Muslim institutions. Together with the Samanids of Samarkand they considered themselves the defenders of Islam against the Buddhist Uyghur Idiqut and the Buddhist Scythian-Tocharian kingdom of Khotan. The reign of the Karahans is especially significant from the point of view of Turkic culture and art history. It is during this period that mosques, schools, bridges and caravansarays were constructed in the cities. Kashgar, Bukhara and Samarkand became centres of learning. In the period, the Turkish language found the means to develop. Among the most important works of the period is Kutadgu Bilik (translated as "The Knowledge That Gives Happiness") written by Yusuf Has Hacib, between the years 1069-1070.

Both the Ididqut and the Khanate submitted to the KaraKhitans. After the rise of the Seljuk Turks in Iran and the Kara-Khanids became nominal vassals of the Seljuks. Later they would serve the dual-suzerainty of the Kara-Khitans to the north and the Seljuks to the south. Finally all three states became vassals to Chinggis Khan in 1209.

Map of the Uygur Khaganate and areas under its dominion (in yellow) at its height, c. AD 820.
Map of the Uygur Khaganate and areas under its dominion (in yellow) at its height, c. AD 820.
Wall painting of Uyghur Princes, from the Bezeklik caves
Wall painting of Uyghur Princes, from the Bezeklik caves

1225 CE-1600 CE

Most inhabitants in the Besh Balik and Turfan regions did not convert to Islam until the 15th century expansion of the Yarkand Khanate, a Turko-Mongol successor state based in the western Tarim.

Before converting to Islam, Uyghurs included Manichaeans, Buddhists and even some Nestorian Christians.

Post 1600 CE

The Manchus who set up a huge empire in China, invaded the East Turkistan in 1759 and dominated it until 1864. During this period the Uighurs revolted 42 times against the Manchu rule with the purpose of regaining their independence. In the last revolt of 1864, the Uyghurs were successful in expelling the Manchus from their motherland, and founded an independent Kashgaria kingdom under the leaderhsip of Yakub Beg. This kingdom was recognized by the Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia and Great Britain. But for fear of Tsarist expansion into Eastern Turkestan, Great Britain supported the Manchu court to conquer East Turkestan. The money for the Manchu invasion forces was granted by British banks.

Large forces under the overall command of General Zho Zhung Tang attacked Eastern Turkestan in 1876. After this invasion, Eastern Turkestan was given the name Xinjiang or Sinkiang which means "New Dominion" or "New Territory" and it was annexed into the territory of the Manchu empire on 18 November 1884.

In 1911, the Nationalist Chinese, under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, overthrew Manchu rule and established a republic.

The Uyghurs, who also wanted to free themselves from foreign domination, staged several uprisings against the Nationalist Chinese rule during this period. Twice, in 1933 and 1944, the Uyghurs were successful in setting up an independent Islamic Eastern Turkestan republic. But these independent Islamic Republics were overthrown by the military intervention and political intrigues of the Soviet Union. It was in fact the Soviet Union that proved a deterrent to the Uyghur independence movement throughout this period.

In 1949 the Nationalist Chinese were defeated by the Chinese communists. After that, East Turkestan fell under Chinese rule.

Currently Turkic and Islamic cultural elements are dominant in the Tarim, which reflects a thousand years of Turkic rule in the region and resulted in the replacement of previous religious traditions by Islam. This has had an effect on modern politics because of a very long off-and-on political and military relationship with China. In the remote past in these regions, China ruled sporadically until the battle of Talas in Tang dynasty. This history goes a long way to explain the troubled relationship with past and present Chinese institutions and with the dominant ethnic group in China, the Han Chinese.

'Uyghur' is widely credited as having been used for the first time in 1921 with the establishment of the Organization of Revolutionary Uyghur (Inqilawi Uyghur Itipaqi), a Communist nationalist group with intellectual and organizational ties to the Soviet Union. There is some evidence that Uyghur students and merchants living in Russia had already embraced the name prior this date, drawing on Russian studies that claimed a linkage between the historical khanate and Xinjiang's current inhabitants.

Official recognition of the Uyghurs came under the rule of Sheng Shicai who deviated from the official Kuomintang five races of China stance in favor of a Stalinist policy of delineating fourteen distinct ethnic nationalities in Xinjiang.

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The "Kokbayraq" flag. This flag is used by Uyghurs as a symbol of the East Turkestan independence movement. The Chinese government prohibits using the flag in the country.
The "Kokbayraq" flag. This flag is used by Uyghurs as a symbol of the East Turkestan independence movement. The Chinese government prohibits using the flag in the country.

[citation needed].

Following 9/11, China stated its support to the United States of America in the war on terror and many human rights organizations are concerned that this is being used as a pretext to crack down on ethnic Uyghurs. Most Uygur exile groups today claim their cultural rights are being suppressed by the Chinese government and that the PRC responds to Uyghur expressions of their culture, religion or demands for independence with human rights violations. A large proportion of the Uygur diaspora supports Pan-Turkic groups and there are several organizations such as the East Turkestan Party. The name Xinjiang is considered offensive by many advocates of independence who prefer to use historical or ethnic names such as Chinese Turkistan, East Turkistan (with Turkestan sometimes spelled as Turkistan) or Uyghurstan.

Though most Uygur separatists support peaceful, secular Uygur nationalism, there are some radical Islamic militant groups (such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and East Turkestan Liberation Organization) vying for independence as well. This has caused much confusion with regard to names and belief of Uygur political groups. Often the Chinese government refers generally to East Turkestan and to ‘terrorists’.


3 Uygur girls at a Sunday market in the oasis city Khotan (Hotan / Hetian), in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China.
3 Uygur girls at a Sunday market in the oasis city Khotan (Hotan / Hetian), in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China.

Toward the end of the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th, scientific and archaeological expeditions to the region of Eastern Turkestan’s Silk Road discovered numerous cave temples, monastery ruins, wall paintings, as well as valuable miniatures, books and documents. Explorers from Europe, America and even Japan were amazed by the art treasures found there, and soon their reports were capturing attention of an interested public around the world. These relics of the Uygur culture constitute today major collections in the museums of Berlin, London, Paris, Tokyo, Leningrad (St-Petersburg) and the Museum of Central Asian Antiquities in New Delhi. The manuscripts and documents discovered in Xinjiang (Eastern Turkestan) reveal very high degree of civilization attained by the Uyghurs. This Uygur power, prestige and civilization, which dominated the Central Asia for over a thousand years, went into a steep decline since the Manchu invasion to their homeland.

The local Uyghur people operate of off "Xinjiang time", two hours earlier than what the rest of the city, and the Han Chinese operate off of, "Beijing time", known among the locals.


The Uyghurs are known as educated people, they worked in chanceries and embassies of different states, and they were teachers, military officers, and ambassadors in Rome, Istanbul, and Baghdad, scholars in Tabriz. There are hundreds of famous Uygur scholars and the Uygur literature is vast. Some Uygur books have been translated into different western languages. The Uygurs had been printing their books for hundreds of years before Gutenberg invented his printing press. In the 11th century the Uyghurs accepted the Arabic alphabet.

Most of the early Uygur literary works were represented by translations of Buddhist and Manichean religious texts, but there were also narrative, poetic and epic works. Some of these were translated into German, English, Russian and Turkish. After embracing Islam the Uygur continued to preserve their cultural dominance in Central Asia. World-renowned Uighur scholars emerged, and Uygur literature flourished. Among hundreds of important works surviving from that era are "Qutatqu Bilik"(Beneficial Lore) by Yusuf Balasaguni (Yüsüp Has Hajip) (1069-70), Kashgarli Mehmud's (Mähmut Qäşqäri's) "Divan-i Lugat-it Türk"Turkish Language Dictionary, and Ähmät Yüknäki's "Atabetul Hakayik".

Throughout the centuries the Uyghurs used the following scripts:

  1. Confederated with the Göktürks in the 6th and 7th centuries, they used the Orkhon script.
  2. In the 5th century they adopted Sogdian italic script which became known as the Uighur script. This script was used for almost 800 years not only by the Uighurs, but also by other Turkic peoples, the Mongols, and by the Manchus in the early stage of their rule in China.
  3. After embracing Islam in the 10th century the Uyghurs adopted the Arabic alphabet, and its use became common in the 11th century.
  4. The Uyghurs of the former Soviet Union use Cyrillic.
  5. The Uyghurs of Xinjiang (Eastern Turkestan) use the Arabic and Latin alphabets and the Uyghurs of Turkey use the Latin alphabet.


The Uyghurs had an extensive knowledge of medicine and medical practice. Chinese Song Dynasty (906-960) sources indicate that a Uyghur physician Nanto traveled to China and brought with him many kinds of medicine not known to the Chinese. There are 103 different herbs for use in the Uyghur medicine recorded in a medical compendium by Li Shizhen (1518-1593), a Chinese medical authority. Tartar scholar, professor Rashid Rahmeti Arat in Zur Heilkunde der Uighuren (Medical Practices of the Uygurs) published in 1930 and 1932, in Berlin, discussed the Uygur medicine. Relying on a sketch of a man with an explanation of acupuncture, he and some Western scholars suspect that acupuncture was not a Chinese, but a Uygur discovery.


The cave paintings at Bezelik.


Sunni Islam is practiced by many Uygur people in China and Kazakhstan.

Famous scholars' statements about Uyghur people

Kashgarli Mehmud: (Kashgarli Mehmud:, Turkish language dictionary, 11th century)

Uyghurs are the best among Turks. Their language is called Hakaniye Turkchesi (King's Turkish).

Albert Gruenwedel: (Along the Ancient Silk Routes: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York April 3 - June 20, 1982)

Turfan (Turpan) is without doubt a forgotten Asian city of extraordinary interest. The size of it is remarkable: the inner, holy city, consisting only of temples and palace, measures 7,400 feet at the widest point of the still extant walls. Hundreds of terraced temples and grandiose vaulted edifices cover an extensive area of lane.

Ferdinand de Saussure:

Those who preserved the language and written culture of Central Asia were the Uyghurs.

Albert von Lecoq: (Shuyl Unver, Medicine in Uyghurs, Istanbul 1936. pp. 4,5,6.)

The Uyghur language and script contributed to the enrichment of civilizations of the other peoples in Central Asia. Compared to the Europeans of that time, the Uyghurs were far more advanced. Documents discovered in Uyghur Region prove that an Uigur farmer could write down a contract, using legal terminology. How many European farmers could have done that at that period? This shows the extent of Uygur civilization of that time.

Lazlo Rasonyi: (Lazlo Rasonyi, Turkic in History, Ankara 1971, pp. 105, 107)

The Uyghurs knew how to print books centuries before Guetenberg invented his press.

Wolfram Eberhard: (Wolfram Eberhard, History of China, Istanbul 1947, p. 116)

In Middle Ages, the Chinese poetry, literature, theater, music and painting were greatly influenced by the Uyghurs.

G. Sadvakasov, (Brief History of Uyghur Litarature , Almaty, 1983, p. 7.) Russian scholar Pantusov writes that the Uyghurs manufactured their own musical instruments; they had 62 different kinds of musical instruments and in every Uyghur home there used to be an instrument called a "dutar".

Wang Yen De, the Chinese ambassador in the Karakhoja Uyghur Kingdom in 981-984, wrote the following in his memoirs:

I was impressed with the extensive civilization I have found in the Uyghur Kingdom. The beauty of the temples, monasteries, wall paintings, statues, towers, gardens, housings and the palaces built throughout the kingdom cannot be described. The Uyghurs skilfully make things of silver and gold, vases and pitchers. Some say that God has infused this talent into these people only.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ [A Historical Collection on the History of the Turks]. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1958): 6-7.
  5. ^ Peter Golden, An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1992): 94.
  6. ^ Sima Qian, Shiji [Records of the Historian] Vol. 110: Xiongnu; and Ban Gu, Han Shu [History of the Han Dynasty], Vol. 94: Xiongnu.
  7. ^
  8. ^


  • Findley, Carter Vaughn. 2005. The Turks in World History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516770-8; 0-19-517726-6 (pbk.)
  • Mackerras, Colin. Ed. and trans. 1972. The Uighur Empire according to the T'ang Dynastic Histories: a study in Sino-Uyghur relations 744–840. University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 0-87249-279-6
  • Rall, Ted. "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?" New York: NBM Publishing, 2006.
  • Millward, James A. and Nabijan Tursun, "Political History and Strategies of Control, 1884–1978" in Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland (ISBN 0-7656-1318-2).
  • Rudelson, Justin Ben-Adam, Oasis identities: Uyghur nationalism along China's Silk Road, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

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