China boasts 5,000 years of history, but like most narratives, much of the story is left unsaid. Taking a train 33 hours west of Beijing, you might find yourself in a world with camels, Arabic-looking script and people with red hair or blue eyes.
Peking University student, Abduletip, loves that Beijing offers much in terms of education and development. Still, compared to his home in Xinjiang: “I don’t like the big city, and I don’t think it’s very sweet for living.”
Xinjiang, formally the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, is one of China’s five autonomous regions. In Mandarin, the words “xīn” (新) and “jiāng” (疆) translate into “new frontier.” The People’s Republic of China took control of this territory in 1949, and its area makes up one-sixth of the country. Recent investments by Sinopec plan to extract natural gas and oil from the region.
A little less than 22 million people live in Xinjiang. Most of the demographic consists of minority groups, including the Kazakh, Tajiks, Hui, Kyrgyz, Oyrat Mongols and Sibes (related to Manchus). The largest group by far are the Uyghur (ئۇيغۇر, 维吾尔, Wéiwú’ěr), who numbered 8.2 million in 2002. Although estimates vary, Xinjiang is also populated by 40 to 60 percent of Han Chinese, many of whom are immigrating for job opportunities.
This has brought many changes regarding language and religious practice. In Ürümqi, the capital, there exists Han, Russian and Uyghur quarters of the city. The professional setting demands the speaking of Mandarin Chinese. Yet, Kashgar, or Xinjiang’s cultural hub, has a style which resembles the Middle East with Uyghur script and Islamic tradition.
My study abroad friend, Quinn, shared about his experience last summer in a language-cultural exchange program in Xinjiang. I also connected with two Peking University students, one of which he met during the program. Abduletip, a second-year university student, and Hörmetjan (“Hörmet”), a third-year university student, provided keen insights into the richness and dynamics of their 2,500 year-old Uyghur culture.
UNESCO reports that 43 percent of the world’s languages are endangered. Uyghur is just one of the 144 of them located in China.
Uyghur originates from the Old Turkic language in the 7th to 13th centuries. Today, 8 to 11 million people speak the language in Xinjiang, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Mongolia among other places. Uyghur has many similarities with Uzbek, as well as influences from Persian, Russian and Mandarin.
“I can maybe communicate with Turkic people in Istanbul and Europe, and we can communicate because our language is one system, it’s like two accents with one language,” Abduletip said.
While the language’s Arabic script is favored for cited reasons of practicality, aesthetics and group identity, it also creates an identity-crisis of sorts. Hörmet explained that, to a certain extent, the Uyghur people have always been “bilingual.” Half of Uyghur vocabulary seems to come from Persian and the other half from Arabic.
“So if you learn Arabic, it feels very frustrating because, why? This is Arabic! . . . Learning Arabic is much easier for us in that way, but . . . you feel you don’t have your own language now,” Hörmet said.
Currently, Uyghur is at the mercy of a 2004 ordinance issued by the PRC that integrates Mandarin Chinese into elementary and middle school curriculum. While this program is supposed to provide an “immersive second-language environment,” a study in Central Asian Survey argues that “bilingual education” is a “euphemism” for making Han Chinese the new lingua franca in Xinjiang. Implementation of Mandarin-language education becomes the “best and worst thing for China’s unity and stability.” At one reported high school in Xinjiang, only teachers in Uyghur language class are allowed to instruct in the language.
During his time in Kashgar and Ürümqi, Quinn observed that most Uyghur people speak their native tongue among themselves. However, it is also easy to be understood when speaking Mandarin.
Both Abduletip and Hörmet speak Uyghur at home and were able to use the language formally until high school. In both formal and informal settings, they have studied Chinese and English. Curiously enough, Hörmet’s grandpa also knows Russian.
A “Different” Culture
While interviewing Abduletip, Hörmet and Quinn, I was surprised by how many times they used the term “different” to describe Uyghur culture. This comes with good reason because it mirrors those in Central Asia and the Middle East more closely than East Asian cultures.
A core element of Uyghur culture is its Muslim influence. While religious activities continue to be suppressed, a policy study by the East-West Center observed that “ethnic identity is linked with religious and linguistic identity.” Islam still manifests itself in Uyghur greetings, dress and cleanliness (i.e. halal food).
Other than the big Islamic festivals, Abduletip and Hörmet listed Xinjiang’s “New Year’” among their favorite holidays. This Central Asian celebration, formally known as Nowrūz, marks the vernal equinox on March 21. Hörmet noted that in ancient times, people celebrated the festival for up to two weeks. One tradition involved placing big mirrors in doorways to reflect sunlight into people’s homes. Today, customs include dancing, kite flying and a big meal.
So, what do Uyghur people like to eat? Basics are noodles, pilaf and other flour-based products such as naan bread. “Even in Beijing, my mom has sent to me,” Abduletip said. Quinn also sampled some unique delicacies during his time in Xinjiang, including a “liver fat” sandwich from a sacrificed lamb and “mystery lamb” kabobs (one of the two kinds sold on the street contained a sneaky piece of liver).
If you’re looking for some good Uyghur food in Beijing, the Uyghur boys will be quick to tell you the places aren’t as good as their parents’ cooking and the lines are too long. But if you really want to wait, try Weigongcun or Ganjiakou. Weigoncun is home to Minzu University (中央民族大学 Zhōngyāng Mínzú Dàxúe), also known as “Ethnic People’s University.”
And to work off that food? Uyghur fun and games are universal. Hörmet recalled a tradition similar to hide-and-seek. Other games included basketball, baseball, China’s feathered hacky sack and duck-duck-goose. There’s also local games. “There’s this really weird game that involves jumping over people. It’s not like leap frog, though, it’s pretty… it would be pretty easy for someone to break their neck,” Quinn said.
Generations and Nations
In Beijing, while there are some cultural differences between the Uyghur people and Han Chinese, the inequality may be far larger in Xinjiang. At Peking University, there is a special dining hall for Muslims, but they are still working on getting snacks on-campus.
Today, it seems the task of keeping the Uyghur culture alive is seen through the analogies of passing a torch to generations and nations. As far as generations go, it is important to preserve the Uyghur language, as well as adapt to the changing tides. On the double-language question, Abduletip and Hörmet are realists. “If you are not good at Han Chinese you have nothing in Xinjiang, in China. We have to comfort them,” Abduletip said.
Yet, Abduletip will also tell you that learning Uyghur is “useless.” Hörmet will argue that, just looking at Wikipedia, there are only 5,000 pages in Uyghur and to translate everything into Uyghur would take way too long in this age of information. “What is important, when the kids are small, we need to teach them their own culture. We need to let them know who they are,” Hörmet said.
This knowledge-sharing also extends to “nations.” Quinn remarked that he learned much about minority cultures, especially how the Uyghur’s situation applies to groups living in the U.S. Thus, with recent acts of violence, how the world relates to the Uyghur people will be crucial. Now is the time to shape a new narrative that goes beyond stereotypes.