ETHNONYMS: Kirghiz, Kyrghyz, Kyrgyz
In 1962 the Kirgiz living in China numbered 66,000, but by 1990 their population had grown to 141,549. This latter figure, however, represents only 7 percent of the entire worldwide Kirgiz population, most of which lives in Kyrgyzstan. More than three-fourths of the Kirgiz in China live in the southwestern part of the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region, and most of the rest live in the southern counties of that region. The Kirgiz language is a member of the Turkic Branch of the Altaic Family. Following their conversion to Islam, the Kirgiz developed a writing system that uses the Arabic alphabet. There are two major Kirgiz dialectical divisions, the northern and the southern.
The ancestors of the Kirgiz, the Xiajias, lived in the upper Yenisei River region; they were under the domination of the Turk Khanate in the sixth century but were able to break away in the seventh century. Later, the Uigurs established dominance in the area, but the Xiajias drove them off in the ninth century. By the twelfth century, the Kirgiz ancestors (by then known as the "Jilijis") were fighting with the Oirats; when the Mongols defeated the Oirats, the Jilijis moved into their territory (the Tianshan Mountains), where the Kirgiz live today.
The majority of Kirgiz are migratory pastoralists who raise cattle, horses, sheep, camels, and especially goats, which provide their preferred drink, goat's milk. The only plants grown are cabbages, onions, and potatoes. Wheat flour, rice, tea, salt, and sugar are imported. A small percentage of the population engaged in swidden agriculture prior to the Communist Revolution. The migratory Kirgiz live in square felt tents, whereas the settled ones live in adobe houses. Kirgiz men herd the animals and cut grass and wood; women graze the animals, milk and shear them, and do household work. Only men inherit land.
Marriages are arranged by parents, often early in life. A man courts his bride-to-be with a roast sheep. Before the wedding, the bride's family ties the couple to posts and releases them only when the groom's family asks for "mercy" and presents gifts to the bride's family. Following the Muslim wedding, the couple lives in the husband's parents' tent.
Kirgiz are organized into tribes. There are two major groups of tribes, north and south, corresponding to the dialectical divisions.
The majority of Kirgiz belong at least nominally to the Ismail sect of the Shiite Muslims. A small number of Kirgiz never became Muslims and practice shamanism or Lamaism.
See also Kyrgyz in Part One ,
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Shahrani, M. Nazil Mohib (1979). The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan. Seattle: University of Washington Press.