ETHNONYMS: Aksulik, Kashgarlik, Uighur, Uygur, Turfanlik

At just under 7,215,000 people, the Uigur are one of China's most populous minorities. They live in Xinjiang Province and make up two-fifths of the population there. The Uigur live primarily in the districts of Hotan, Kashgar, Turfan, Aksu, and Korla, where they occupy oasis land at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert and Tarim Basin. The Uigur language belongs to the Turkic Branch of the Altaic Family and is written in Arabic script, which has been modified to express all the sounds to be found in Uigur. There are a large and growing number of Chinese loanwords in Uigur.

The Uigur have a long and well-documented history, at least in part because it has been so intertwined with Chinese history. In the eighth century, the forerunners of Uigur were under the control of the East Turkic Steppe Confederation. When that confederation fell apart, the Uigur, along with the Karluk, took control of the area (western Outer Mongolia) themselves. They came to the aid of the Tang dynasty in 757 and 762, defeating a rebellious Chinese general. During this period, the Uigur converted to Manichaeism. Later they would adopt Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, and finally undergo a widespread conversion to Islam. In 840, they were routed from the area by the Kirgiz and spread in many directions. Most went west and ended up where nearly all the Uigur are now, in what is now Xinjiang. They set up their own state, but later came under Karakitai control. In the twelfth century they broke away and allied themselves with Ghengis Khan. Following the decline of the Mongol empire, the area was disunified and numerous political powers, in different places and times, held sway. Unification under one leadership did not come until 1884, when the Qing government took control of what they called "Xinjiang." After 1911, it was under warlord rule until 1933, had a short period as a "republic," and was back under Chinese (KMT) rule from 1944 to 1949. Xinjiang became an autonomous region in 1955.

The Uigur traditionally were pastoralists, although the economy had diversified by the tenth century. Some Uigur were oasis farmers. They developed extensive irrigation systems to facilitate growing grains, cotton, fruits, and melons. Many were town artisans and merchants—the area has a number of towns of large size that were points on the Silk Road. Though the Uigur today are heavily involved in manufacturing, mining, oil drilling, trading, and transportation, their pastoralist past still shows itself in their diet; all meals must contain meat (particularly mutton) to be considered a meal and dairy products are part of the daily diet. The arid Xinjiang Province is unsuited to most types of agriculture, but many Uigur are employed in growing cotton. Wool is also a major export of the region. Uigur have largely adopted Western dress. They are noted for their music and dancing.

The Uigur did not convert to Islam until the mid-fifteenth century. For some five centuries before that the name "Uigur" referred specifically to Buddhist and Nestorian oasis dwellers in Xinjiang. Today, however, all Uigur are Sunni Muslims and adherence to Islamic teachings is one of the key markers of their identity.

See also Uighur in Part One ,


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Gladney, Dru (1990). "The Ethnogenesis of the Uighur." Central Asian Survey 9(l):l-27.

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