LOCATION: China (Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region)
POPULATION: 7.2 million
The Uighurs form the ethnic majority of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Their ancestors can be traced back 2,000 years. After the fifth century, many moved to Xiyu (present-day Xinjiang). Three centuries later, the Uighurs formed their own government under the control of the Tang Dynasty ( AD 618–907). Chinese culture spread throughout their lands. Little by little, the Uighurs abandoned their nomadic life and settled down about 1,000 years ago.
After the fourteenth century, there were long periods of conflict in Xinjiang. Order was finally restored by the Manchu government of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). Many Mongols and Chinese were assimilated into Uighur society. However, the Uighurs had no lasting peace until the mid-1940s.
The Uighurs live in the autonomous (self-governing) region of Xinjiang. It is the largest government district of China. The Uighurs live mainly in oases south of the Tianshan Mountains. They are also found in some counties of Hunan Province, in south China. The Tianshan Mountains divide Xinjiang into two parts. South Xinjiang has a huge basin (Tarim) and desert (Taklimakan) at its center. The Uighur population numbered 7.2 million in 1990.
The Uighur language belongs to the Turkic group of the Altaic family. There are three dialects. The written language uses Arabic characters. It has existed since the eleventh century. The name Uighur means "to unite" and "to help."
According to a Uighur tale, the Queen of Kala Khan gave birth to a son with a blue face and a hairy body. His mother breast-fed the infant only once. He then lived on raw meat and wine. He was able to talk right after birth and to walk forty days later. He grew up to be a hero and was called Wugusi. He killed a wild animal, saving many lives. One night, after hunting, he saw a beautiful girl after a flash of blue light. They got married. She gave birth to three sons called Sun, Moon, and Stars. Wugusi married a second wife who also gave birth to three sons. They were called Heaven, Mountain, and Sea. Wugusi's six sons had a total of twenty-four children, who founded twenty-four tribes. Wugusi became a Khan (leader) and united the nearby territories to form a large nation.
In the past, the Uighurs believed in Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Nestorian Christianity. Since the eleventh century, they have turned to Islam.
The Uighurs celebrate the two major holidays of Islam. (They call them the Corban Festival and the Lesser Bairam.) They also have their own traditional holiday, the Naoluzi Festival.
The annual Corban Festival is the biggest celebration. Each family fries twisted noodles and kills a sheep or an ox. Everyone dresses up and goes visiting. The Lesser Bairam (Festival of Fast-Breaking) marks the end of the fast month of Ramadan. After bathing, Muslims (followers of Islam) go to the mosque to pray, take part in rituals, and socialize. The Uighurs visit each other's homes, where guests are offered fried twisted noodles and other special foods.
The Naoluzi Festival is similar to the Chinese Spring Festival. Sports and other activities take place during this month-long holiday.
Uighur families celebrate the birth of a child. Because the Uighur revere wolves, a mother-to-be lies on a mat of wolf fur. If the child is a boy, the Uighurs say the mother has "given birth to a wolf." The ankle bone of a wolf is hung around an infant's neck or over its cradle. This is believed to protect the baby and ensure that he grows up to be a brave man.
Funeral rites follow Islamic law. The body is cleansed with water, wrapped with white cloth, then buried underground three days after death. After the funeral, sacrificial rites are performed.
Uighur friends often embrace each other when they meet after a long time apart. Normally, they bow slightly or shake hands when they meet. The Uighurs are generous. Guests are served a meal of roast lamb and milk tea.
The Uighurs live in small, low, square houses made of adobe. Most are one story high. The door often opens to the north. There are no windows in the walls, only a skylight window in the ceiling. The Uighurs sit and sleep on a solid adobe platform one foot (thirty centimeters) high inside the house. A fireplace is used to cook food and to keep the house warm. Tapestries decorate the walls. Almost every house has a courtyard where trees, flowers, and grapes grow.
Uighurs are monogamous (they marry only one person). Sons and daughters leave their parents when they marry. The man is the head of the family, and children take their father's name. The Uighurs follow the western naming convention: the given name comes first and the family name second, unlike the practice followed by the majority of Chinese.
Men usually wear a cotton robe with no buttons, two colored stripes, and a belt. The women usually wear a dress with a skirt underneath it and a black velvet vest on top. A small four-cornered hat embroidered with silk threads is worn by girls. Both men and women wear boots.
The main foods of the Uighurs include flour, corn, and rice. They eat a nang , flat bread shaped like a bagel or pancake and made with wheat or corn flour. A popular food at festivals is "rice taken by hand." Raisins are boiled with sliced onions, carrots, and small cubes of fried beef. Then they are put on soaked rice and boiled again. The ingredients are steamed for twenty minutes, then served. Before eating, one washes one's hands three times and dries them with handkerchiefs. Sitting cross-legged on cushions, people serve the rice on plates and eat it with their hands. Roast lamb is a special treat usually saved for guests.
There are thirteen universities and colleges and 2,300 secondary schools in the Uighur districts. About 90 percent of children enter school when they reach school age.
"The Twelve Great Songs" is an epic story performed with classical and folk songs, music, and dance. The Uighurs have dozens of musical instruments, including string and wind instruments and tambourines. The Uighur violin is played on one knee. Uighur dance is famous for its spinning. The many traditional dances include both solo and group dances.
Uighur literature includes folktales, fables, jokes, poems, and proverbs. A long poem titled "Fortune, Happiness and Wisdom" dates back to the eleventh century.
Most Uighurs garden and grow cotton. Their cotton growing methods have been copied in other Chinese provinces. The Uighurs are also known for their skill in commerce. They are active in the restaurant, grocery, and clothing businesses in Xinjiang and in many other provinces.
Ball games like basketball and volleyball are very popular. Rope walking is the Uighurs' favorite spectator sport. A pole 120 feet (36 meters) high is hammered into the ground. Then a long rope is connected to the top of the pole at one end and attached to the ground at the other. The athlete climbs up the rope while jumping, rolling, and performing other dangerous acts.
The Uighurs love to sing and dance. Everybody joins in the lively dancing at festivals. Hundreds of people may end up dancing on these occasions. Movies and television are also popular forms of entertainment, and the Uighurs have a number of local musical and theater groups.
The Uighurs are skilled in crafts. Hotan jade sculpture is a fine art. Ingisa (Yengisar) knives are famous for their sharp blades and precious stones. Other Uighur crafts include carpets, tapestries, silk embroidered hats, copper teapots, and musical instruments.
Because they lack natural resources and industry, the Uighurs have little income. They are leaving their homeland in growing numbers for work in other Chinese provinces. However, those who leave often return, bringing wealth and skills back to their communities.
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Ma Yin, ed. China's Minority Nationalities. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989.
Miller, Lucien, ed. South of the Clouds: Tales from Yunnan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.
Embassy of the People's Republic of China, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.china-embassy.org/ , 1998.
World Travel Guide. China. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/cn/gen.html , 1998.
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