Who are the Uighur?

I write this post about the history of the Uighur people as a response to our regular troll Anonymous (aka Ferin), who has a habit of using pseudo-science to justify his discrimination against the majority of non-Han Chinese in this world, in a manner analogous to the CCP-inspired Darwinian view towards other ethnic groups. It is not my intention to write a comprehensive Uighur history. I am only answering a few questions raised in Ferin’s comment.

(As a disclaimer, I hereby declare that I am of Han Chinese heritage. However, in the strictest sense as would have been approved by Ferin, I may not be qualified to such a claim. My DNA results seem to indicate that my genetic makeup has as much African and European components as East Asian ones. That made me wonder where my Chinese ancestors actually came from.)

First of all, let me quote Ferin’s comment:

Natives? Read up on your history. The Uighur did not separate from the Gaoche until around 700 AD, before then the Han Dynasty already established itself across Xinjiang up to within a few hundred KM of its modern Western border.

Not to mention, the Uighur of today are Uzbeks or “Sart-Taranchis”, there is interesting information out on this as well.

The real natives of the Xinjiang would most likely be the Chinese and Tibetans, and then 2,000 years later the Tocharians (who are not related to the Uighur, but share some genetic material).

Islam definitely is not native to Central Asia or anywhere but Saudi Arabia.

The following is my reply:

Dear Ferin,

1. You are the one who needs to read up on your history. Ethnicity is defined by history and culture; it is a matter of identity, not DNA. The way in which you misappropriate DNA information here shows that either you don’t understand the cultural history of the Uighur people or you intend to deny their identity, as Han chauvinists would often do.

2. You should also stop blindly regurgitating CCP racial propaganda. The CCP’s ways of using DNA make-up of population TODAY to define the HISTORY of different ethnic groups in China (and beyond) is not just problematic but also dishonest.

3. The word “Uighur” means “united”. It was a confederation of Turkic speaking ethnic tribes who came together to form an Empire in the 6th century. Their forefathers, however, were descendents of the Xiongnu. The name Xiongnu appeared in Chinese historical sources from as early as 3th century BC, even before the First Emperor established his unified empire of Qin. Xiongnu, according to Chinese historical records, formed a distinct cultural group and had for centuries occupied the interlocking desert, steppe, and forest regions from Heilongjiang and Jilin in the east to XIJIANG in the west before they came into contact with the Han Empire.

4. Throughout history, the Uighur had all along been culturally and ethnically diverse. It has been conquered many times, dispersed and mixed with local population. The name “Sart-Taranchis” means “farmers and merchants”. It was first used by the Uighur after the dissolve of the Mongolian Empire in order to avoid persecution. The Buddhist groups among the Uighur were known to be allies of the Mongolians. For the same reason, some members of the Uighur would refer to themselves by the place they dwelt (such as Kashgarlik or Turfanlik), instead of by their ethnic identity.

5. The indigenous religion of the Uighurs was Manicheanism. However, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity and Zoroastrianism were known to have been popular among the population. Later, Uighur groups that settled among the indigenous Iranian population in the Kashgar oasis region, southwest of the Tarim Basin, became absorbed into the Islamicized Kharakhanid domain from as early as the 10th to 13th centuries. Kashgar had became an important Islamic centre of learning influenced by Arabic and Persian civilizations ever since.

6. The claim that Han Chinese settlement in Xinjiang started from as early as 100AD is nothing short of wishful thinking. Traces of Chinese influence along the Silk Road only attested to the existing of trade relations. A bunch of Han people passing through Xinjiang doing business with local people did not amount to “settlement”.  Large scale Han settlement in Xinjiang is definitely a 20th century phenomenon.

7. As for the so-called “real native” or the Tocharians, where have they gone? Archaeology and historical records seem to suggest that these very ancient nomadic inhabitants of the Tarim Basin did not disappear on the face of the earth after they were defeated by the Xiongnu in the 2nd century BC. A small group of them had fled to the northern part of India. But the majority of them had remained in the Tarim Basin and lived among other ethnic groups. They later became a part of the Uighur Empire, adopted Uighur identity, and practised Buddhism and Manicheanism. This again supported my earlier assertion that the Uighur are a diversified ethnic group with a long history of cultural and religious adaptation. Their cultural identity is further reinforced by religion and the use of a common language.

8. I totally agree with JR that the Uighur are more than qualified to be called “the natives” of Xinjiang.

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12 Responses to Who are the Uighur?

  1. anonymous says:

    1. You are the one who needs to read up on your history. Ethnicity is defined by history and culture; it is a matter of identity, not DNA. The way in which you misappropriate DNA information here shows that either you don’t understand the cultural history of the Uighur people or you intend to deny their identity, as Han chauvinists would often do.

    Not entirely. It’s defined by history, and culture, and language, and blood.

    2. You should also stop blindly regurgitating CCP racial propaganda. The CCP’s ways of using DNA make-up of population TODAY to define the HISTORY of different ethnic groups in China (and beyond) is not just problematic but also dishonest.

    The CCP, as far as I know, does not use “DNA” to justify anything.

    3. The word “Uighur” means “united”. It was a confederation of Turkic speaking ethnic tribes who came together to form an Empire in the 6th century. Their forefathers, however, were descendents of the Xiongnu. The name Xiongnu appeared in Chinese historical sources from as early as 3th century BC, even before the First Emperor established his unified empire of Qin. Xiongnu, according to Chinese historical records, formed a distinct cultural group and had for centuries occupied the interlocking desert, steppe, and forest regions from Heilongjiang and Jilin in the east to XIJIANG in the west before they came into contact with the Han Empire.

    That, we know. The Xiongnu, however, are not the same people as the Uighur today. Simply attesting that you are a part of a culture (one that was broken several times in history) does not give you a right to all lands they have ever walked on. So when Koreans claim to be part of “Greater Han” does that mean all land from Mesopotamia to the Korean Peninsula belongs to them?

    4. Throughout history, the Uighur had all along been culturally and ethnically diverse. It has been conquered many times, dispersed and mixed with local population. The name “Sart-Taranchis” means “farmers and merchants”. It was first used by the Uighur after the dissolve of the Mongolian Empire in order to avoid persecution. The Buddhist groups among the Uighur were known to be allies of the Mongolians. For the same reason, some members of the Uighur would refer to themselves by the place they dwelt (such as Kashgarlik or Turfanlik), instead of by their ethnic identity.

    There is no continuity here. Much of this mythology was spun into ad hoc ethnic identity and created just to suit racial nationalism, which is apparently something you support only for non-Han groups, including neo-Nazis and Islamic fundamentalists.

    5. The indigenous religion of the Uighurs was Manicheanism. However, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity and Zoroastrianism were known to have been popular among the population. Later, Uighur groups that settled among the indigenous Iranian population in the Kashgar oasis region, southwest of the Tarim Basin, became absorbed into the Islamicized Kharakhanid domain from as early as the 10th to 13th centuries. Kashgar had became an important Islamic centre of learning influenced by Arabic and Persian civilizations ever since.

    That’s a convenient way to expand the neo-Caliphate.

    6. The claim that Han Chinese settlement in Xinjiang started from as early as 100AD is nothing short of wishful thinking. Traces of Chinese influence along the Silk Road only attested to the existing of trade relations. A bunch of Han people passing through Xinjiang doing business with local people did not amount to “settlement”. Large scale Han settlement in Xinjiang is definitely a 20th century phenomenon.

    They established commanderies and eventually took over the place. If you’re trying to link the modern Uighur with the Xiongnu you are taking things a bit too far.

    7. As for the so-called “real native” or the Tocharians, where have they gone? Archaeology and historical records seem to suggest that these very ancient nomadic inhabitants of the Tarim Basin did not disappear on the face of the earth after they were defeated by the Xiongnu in the 2nd century BC. A small group of them had fled to the northern part of India. But the majority of them had remained in the Tarim Basin and lived among other ethnic groups. They later became a part of the Uighur Empire, adopted Uighur identity, and practised Buddhism and Manicheanism. This again supported my earlier assertion that the Uighur are a diversified ethnic group with a long history of cultural and religious adaptation. Their cultural identity is further reinforced by religion and the use of a common language.

    That’s convient, I guess that gives Australians with .001% of Aborigine blood the right to live in Australia as well, right? So what you’re saying is that if China proceeds with 1,000 years of political domination of the area and in that time the Han Chinese in the area intermarry with the Central Asians, their right to the area is cemented for the rest of time?

    8. I totally agree with JR that the Uighur are more than qualified to be called “the natives” of Xinjiang.

    I guess Mexicans are more than qualified to be the natives of Spain. Culturally they have adopted many Spanish customs.

  2. anonymous says:

    To illustrate the absurdity of creole or mixed-culture territorial claims…

    Would it make sense to give Mexicans the right to carve out a huge empire spanning from Mexico to California and parts of Spain? After all, the Spaniards generally “contributed” to the culture as the Xiongnu and Uighur of old did. The only problem with this analogy is semantics. But the Mexicans can easily start calling themselves “Pan-Iberians” just as the Soviets revised ethnonyms in the late 1900s.

    Would it make any sense to you to give “Burmese” all of the Mekong Area and Tibet, and Yunnan? They have traditional settlements there.. that is before the Tibetans broke off and became their own various ethnic groups.

    This pan-Turkic nonsense involves a historical narrative where Turks have a claim to every single piece of land their “forefathers” have ever touched regardless of who the natives were. “East Turkestan” represents more or less the periphery of some “Greater Turk” Empire spanning from Anatolia to Manchuria, which is ironic because all of these places were populated by other peoples before they were replaced and marginalized by the Turks.

  3. Bill says:

    Are you trying to confuse the Han chauvinist with facts again ? If it didn’t came out from the CCP propaganda machine, he dare not agree with it. It is the lack of courage, the scared cat mentality, the frightened chicken syndrome that control them. And you can’t fight cowardice. It is their Chinese characteristics.

  4. anonymous says:

    What an idiot. Han chauvinism is a hyped up myth, used by terrorists and nazi lovers like yourself to increase “defense” spending.

  5. Weichen says:

    Ms. Yeung:

    I agree with most of your views – however, I have a question about your claims that the Uighurs are the descendants of the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu, as far as I know, is an ethnic group that is shrouded in mystery. It’s not even known what language they spoke! So can you direct me to the sources that told you that the Uighurs are the descendants of the Xiongnu?

    Also, is it possible for you to write a post that details the history of Xinjiang? Not the history of the Uighurs, but that of the region of Xinjiang? I know this is not typical of this blog, but even this is not possible, can you perhaps direct your readers to links where you can find information?

    Third of all, I’d like to point out that history rarely had any play in matters of sovereignty. For example, it can be safely said that India has a history that is completely different than that of Britain, yet that didn’t stop Britain from taking over India. I think that politics play a bigger role in sovereignty than anything (big surprise). So I think that it’s rather pointless for pro-China or pro-Uighur supporters to drag out arguments based on history, and instead focus on things such as human right abuses, etc…

    Finally, I want to ask a question that I had really wanted to ask: WHAT CAN WE DO? Frankly, I’m kind of sick and tired of sitting in my room, listening to different people arguing back and forth on Fool’s Mountain about China’s bad policies regarding the ethnic minorty. If policies are in need of being changed, then what can we do to change them?

  6. C.A. Yeung says:

    “The CCP, as far as I know, does not use “DNA” to justify anything.”

    Are you sure? My source seems to tell me that the PRC government is one of the major sponsors of DNA research that aims at supporting the premise that all ethnic groups in China have the same origin. Google the words “DNA China national minorities” under “Google scholar”. You’ll be surprised at what you can find.

    “There is no continuity here. Much of this mythology was spun into ad hoc ethnic identity and created just to suit racial nationalism …”

    But isn’t this what the PRC government has all along been doing. If you don’t trust me, check out Berry Sautman’s article titled “Racial Nationalism and China’s External Behaviour”.

    Ferin make the following two statement, all at one breath. Can someone see the contradiction there?
    1. “Simply attesting that you are a part of a culture (one that was broken several times in history) does not give you a right to all lands they have ever walked on…”
    2. “They established commanderies and eventually took over the place” (with reference to the myth of Han settlement in Xinjiang in 100AD)

    The trouble is, if you refer to historical record, even up till Tang dynasty, the so-called Tang frontier commanderies at the Tarim Basin was guarded by 2 soldiers maximum at a time. So where were the “Han settlement”?

    I won’t be responding to any of Ferin’s other comments until he learns to write clearly and accurately.

  7. C.A. Yeung says:

    Weichen,

    1. The possible ethnic link between Gaochen and Uighur are discussed in: Peter B. Golden’s “An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples” and Cen Zhongmian’s “Tujue Jishi”. Discussions of possible links between Xiongnu and Gaochen can be found in Sima Qian’s “Shiji” (Records of the Historian) and the “Suishu” (History of Sui).

    For a comprehensive look at history of non-Han ethnic groups before the rise of the Xiongnu, the best reference source is Nicola Di Cosmo’s “The Northern Frontier in Pre-Imperial China”. You can find this paper in the Cambridge History of Ancient China.

    I’m on leave at the moment and don’t have access to my work archive. So I won’t be able to provide more detailed citation.

    2. I’d like to write about Xinjiang, if I have time. I do have some interesting information on hand about how Xinjiang would have been like during Tang Dynasty.

    3. Ditto to what you’ve said. I couldn’t put it better myself.

    4. I’m not a PRC national. The only real change to Chinese government’s ethnic policy can only come from within China. However, it is important for the international community to voice our objection against any possible human rights abuse. In this respect, I think that civil societies outside of China will play a more effective advocacy role than those in China.

  8. Pingback: Xinjiang, Quote of the Week « Justrecently’s Weblog

  9. anonymous says:

    Are you sure? My source seems to tell me that the PRC government is one of the major sponsors of DNA research that aims at supporting the premise that all ethnic groups in China have the same origin. Google the words “DNA China national minorities” under “Google scholar”. You’ll be surprised at what you can find.

    They already failed miserably, because it turns out research confirms strong suspicions that not even the Han Chinese share all their DNA with each other, and in fact there is a huge genetic divide between South and North that practically makes the “Han Chinese” two races. Hopefully this will stop “Han chauvinism” from mutating into anything seriously harmful like Zionism, neo-Nazism, pan-Turanism, pan-Slavism, and Fundamentalism of all kinds.

    1. “Simply attesting that you are a part of a culture (one that was broken several times in history) does not give you a right to all lands they have ever walked on…”
    2. “They established commanderies and eventually took over the place” (with reference to the myth of Han settlement in Xinjiang in 100AD)

    There is no contradiction here. As Weichen said, control over an area is not dictated by history. The first sentence is there to illustrate the absurdity of Uighur nationalist claims, the second is there to suggest that the Han Chinese have always had that region well-within their geopolitical grasp (contested with the Gokturk and Xiongu and then Uighur), even before the Uighur formed itself as a polity.

    The trouble is, if you refer to historical record, even up till Tang dynasty, the so-called Tang frontier commanderies at the Tarim Basin was guarded by 2 soldiers maximum at a time. So where were the “Han settlement”?

    And yet all of the Tarim Basin non-Han “settlements”, glorified by various media outlets, never surpassed maybe up to a few thousand people or less at any given time up until the 1800s. Are you really saying that two soldiers oversaw trade in the face of a Xiongnu or Gokturk threat and still successfully exerted some level of command over the region, *and* built the Western portion of the Great Wall later? Do you have sources to support this?

    The possible ethnic link between Gaochen and Uighur are discussed in: Peter B. Golden’s “An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples” and Cen Zhongmian’s “Tujue Jishi”. Discussions of possible links between Xiongnu and Gaochen can be found in Sima Qian’s “Shiji” (Records of the Historian) and the “Suishu” (History of Sui).

    By Gaochen do you mean the Gaoche? As far as anyone knows, what became the Uighur later were part of the Gaoche, and Gokturk. And according to excavations at Egyin Gol, 89% of specimens extracted were of A, C and D haplotypes (like modern Mongols) if I’m not mistaken. As you can see, the modern Uighur population has changed considerably from their paternal ancestors:

    Described here: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1180365

    A majority (89%) of the Xiongnu sequences can be classified as belonging to an Asian haplogroup (A, B4b, C, D4, D5 or D5a, or F1b), and nearly 11%

    Note because I’m sure you will accuse me trying to “steal” history with DNA, let me say that the Chinese (North and South alike) share very little DNA with the Mongolians even though they are both Northern Asians and related.

    As far as the Xiongnu go, it is hypothesized that they were Kets. And it is hypothesized that the Kets are related to the Tibetans, who are related to the Han Chinese. Again, not a claim on the area- but just a clarification. In anthropology there is a giant black hole spanning from Central Asia to most of Northern and Central China, and a lot is still being learned at the moment.

    What is the point of all of this? Basically, the Sart-Taranchis or Uzbeks located in Xinjiang today have almost no connections whatsoever with the Xiongnu, and especially little with the Gaoche and Gokturk. Indeed if they deserve a homeland, “Western” Turkestan could fairly be considered it. People like them have a much stronger and longer lasting presence there. Meanwhile, in times thousands of years back, people much like the Mongols laid claim to most of Xinjiang, with Tibetans in the South and Chinese pressing from the East.

    Likewise if you are to go by Chinese historical records (which are surprisingly accurate), the birthplace of the Sino-Tibetan branch of humanity is around the Kunlun mountains around or after the Holocene, which are as you recall the Southeastern border of Xinjiang around the rim of the Tarim Basin. Calling the entirety of “Xinjiang” an “Uighur Autonomous Region” is a Marxist vestige that does not hold water today. On that front the Chinese have also been overgenerous.

    The racial claims favoring Indo-Europeans in Turkish nationalism are outlandish in a historical and especially geopolitical light.

    In this respect, I think that civil societies outside of China will play a more effective advocacy role than those in China.

    If Ned and Ivan (among others) are your idea of cultural ambassadors then I’m sure your ideals are being set back more than anything. All they seem to accomplish is draw out very obvious comparisons of the total genocide of Australian Aborigines to the relatively benign minority policies of the PRC.

  10. C.A. Yeung says:

    Ferin,

    I have to give you credit this time around. This is by far the most coherent comment you’ve written so far. The source that you quoted is a good find. However, the conclusion you are drawing from the cited paper seems to be different from that of the authors, as well as others who published about the same excavation.

    You are suggesting that the DNA results of the Xiongnu burial site uncovered at Egyin Gol Valley in Mongolia indicates that the present day Turkic tribe of Uighur in Xinjiang bears no relationship with the Xiongnu.

    The authors in the paper you cited, however, did not draw the same conclusion. This is the paragraph that you have partially quoted:

    A majority (89%) of the Xiongnu sequences can be classified as belonging to an Asian haplogroup (A, B4b, C, D4, D5 or D5a, or F1b), and nearly 11% belong to European haplogroups (U2, U5a1a, and J1). This finding indicates that the contacts between European and Asian populations were anterior to the Xiongnu culture, and it confirms results reported for two samples from an early 3rd century B.C. Scytho-Siberian population (Clisson et al. 2002).

    This is the conclusion of the paper:

    After the fusion of the A and B sectors, new graves were dug in the west. These graves correspond to a group of genetically linked individuals, since they belong to a single paternal lineage. Interestingly, this paternal lineage has been, at least in part (6 of 7 STRs), found in a present-day Turkish individual (Henke et al. 2001). Moreover, the mtDNA sequence shared by four of these paternal relatives (from graves 46, 52, 54, and 57) were also found in a Turkish individuals (Comas et al. 1996), suggesting a possible Turkish origin of these ancient specimens. Two other individuals buried in the B sector (graves 61 and 90) were characterized by mtDNA sequences found in Turkish people (Calafell 1996; Richards et al. 2000). These data might reflect the emergence at the end of the necropolis of a Turkish component in the Xiongnu tribe.

    The Genome News Network has also published an article about findings of several studies on this burial site. All these studies seemed to have supported a linkage to the present day Turks. The report says and I quote:

    DNA from a 2,000-year-old burial site in Mongolia has revealed new information about the Xiongnu, a nomadic tribe that once reigned in Central Asia. Researchers in France studied DNA from more than 62 skeletons to reconstruct the history and social organization of a long-forgotten culture.

    The researchers found that interbreeding between Europeans and Asians occurred much earlier than previously thought. They also found DNA sequences similar to those in present-day Turks, supporting the idea that some of the Turkish people originated in Mongolia.

    [ ….. ]

    The oldest section of the burial site contained many double graves. This may reflect the ancient practice of sacrificing and burying a concubine of the deceased along with horses and other animals. This practice, reserved for the more privileged members of society, was apparently abandoned—later sections of burial site revealed no double graves.

    The most recent sector of the necropolis contained only the remains of related males, a burial grouping that had never been seen before.

    Skeletons from the most recent graves also contained DNA sequences similar to those in people from present-day Turkey. This supports other studies indicating that Turkish tribes originated at least in part in Mongolia at the end of the Xiongnu period.

    Apart from the DNA study that you quoted, the article also mentioned findings of another study of double graves at an old section of the same burial site. Here is the citation of the paper:

    P Murail; E Crubezy; H Martin; L Haye; et al. “The man, the woman and the hyoid bone: From archaeology to the burial practices of the Xiongnu people (Egyin Gol Valley, Mongolia)”. Antiquity: Sep 2000; 74, 285; pp. 531 – 536.

    Go and read the paper, and then compare it with other archaeological findings (including DNA testing) of double burial sites uncovered at the Altai mountain areas. You’ll be surprised at what you can find.

  11. anonymous says:

    The problem with that though is that all Turkic peoples, from the Yakuts in the far Northeast to the Turks in Turkey, vary wildly in genetic makeup in ways that are often counter-intuitive. Even within borders, countries, etc Turkic-speaking individuals are now a very genetically diverse group. If they were to say the genetic profile matches Turks, one immediately wonders which Turks they are talking about.

    When they say it “Skeletons from the most recent graves also contained DNA sequences similar to those in people from present-day Turkey” you have to know which individuals they tested, specifically.

    What we do know is that the origins of nomad culture appear to be at the more “Eastern” extreme, and the genetic contributions from the “West” are often from Iranic or Indo-European, which suggests that the confederations were predominantly “Mongol” ruled.

  12. anonymous says:

    Iranic or Indo-European peoples*

    and language replacement hints at “Turko-Mongol” dominance, I should have clarified.

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