As of 1990, 12,297 Yugur lived in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province, with 90 percent of them living in the Sunan Yugur Autonomous County. Those living in western Sunan speak Yohur, a language belonging to the Turkic Branch of the Altaic Family and closely related to Uigur and Salar; those living in the eastern part of the same county speak Enger, a language belonging to the Mongolian Branch of the Altaic Family and related to Bonan, Tu, and Mongolian. Other Yugur speak only Han, which also functions as a lingua franca among the various Yugur groups. There is no writing system for either Yohur or Enger; Han is used in written communication. A few Yugur also speak Tibetan.
The Yugur are essentially a people who were separated from the Uigur and who came to have their own identity. After an attack by Kirgiz from the north in the ninth century, the Uigur fled Mongolia. Those who moved into what is now Dunhuang, Zhangye, and Wuwei came under Tibetan control and came to be known as Hexi Ouigurs (later, Yugur). They have alternately been free and under the control of external forces, including the Tufan (Tibetan) kingdom, the Tangut state of Xixia, the Mongol Empire, and the Ming and Qing court. It is during the period between the mid-eleventh and the sixteenth centuries that a distinctive Yugur culture and identity emerged. In this period they moved farther to the west beyond the Great Wall, where they hunted, herded, and interacted with a great many different peoples. By the sixteenth century, the Turfan people had become so aggressive that the Yugur returned to safety behind the Great Wall, in Sunan and Huangnibao. Those who went to Huangnibao became agriculturalists, whereas those in Sunan have remained migratory pastoralists who live in tents.
The Yugur living in the higher elevations raise Tibetan oxen, sheep, goats, horses, and Tibetan/Chinese cross oxen. Those at lower elevations keep Chinese oxen and camels, as well as a few sheep and goats.
The Yugur were traditionally organized into nine tribes, seven of which were ruled by a datomu (great chief), and two of which were associated with each other and independent. In addition, each had a chief and an assistant chief. All three leadership positions were inherited. There were other minor noninherited positions. The tribal leaders also collected taxes from its members (to be paid to the Chinese), and each tribe met several times a year to decide how much each family was to be taxed. Local monasteries worked closely with the tribal leaders. In the past, some of the pastureland was owned by rich households, other lands by the tribe as a whole or by the local Lamaist monasteries. Today, lands are owned by the state.
The Yugur are monogamous, and parents arranged marriages when their children were 12 or 13 years of age. When the couple reached 15 to 17 years of age, the groom's family presented gifts to the bride's family, and this initiated the final preparations for marriage. The wedding involved a feast in which the couple ate a sheep's thigh; they kept the thigh bone for several years afterward. The newlywed bride moved in with her husband's family, except when she had no brother, in which case postmarital residence was with her own family. 1f a woman could not find a mate, she "married heaven," and bore the children of any man she chose.
At one time the Yugur followed shamanistic religions or were followers of a Gnostic Christian sect that spread into Central Asia and China in the eight and ninth centuries. When they moved to Gansu, they came under Tibetan rule and influence, and became converted to Lamaism. Each tribe had its own Lamaist monastery, and all households were expected to contribute to its support. The poorer Yugur maintained a belief in the cult of the emperor of heaven, Han Tengri.
Mannerheim, C. G. E. (1911). "A Visit to the Saro and Shera Yögurs." Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 27(2).
Ma Yin, ed. (1989). Chinas Minority Nationalities, 129-135. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
National Minorities Questions Editorial Panel (1985). Questions and Answers about China's Minority Nationalities. Beijing: New World Press.
Schwarz, Henry G. (1984). The Minorities of Northern China: A Survey, 57-68. Bellingham: Western Washington University Press.