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ETHNONYMS: Uigur, Uyghur


Identification. The Uighur, a Central Asian ethnic group of the former Soviet Union, are a distinct ethnic group, although unlike larger Central Asian nationalities (such as Uzbek, Kazakh, or Kyrgyz), they are not identified with an autonomous republic. In 1921 the Uighur were officially recognized as a Soviet nationality during the All-Uighur Congress in Tashkent. An official Uighur district (raion ) was established in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Uighur comprise the largest minority in China's Xinjiang Province.

Location. The Uighur reside in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, with a smaller number in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. The Uighur inhabit two main areas of these Central Asian republics: Semirechie in Kazakhstan and Farghana, a territory shared by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Semirechie and Farghana exhibit a great range of microclimatic variation. In Semirechie, sandy deserts to the north and northwest are interspersed with meadows and lush forests along the Ili River. Southeastern foothills give way to hardwood forests, then spruce forests and alpine meadows along the slopes of the northern Tianshan and Dzungarian Alatau mountains (south and southeast). In Farghana, landscapes vary from desert and oasis to foothills and high mountains with glaciers. Climate tends toward dry and continental, and temperatures vary according to elevation.

Demography. The Uighur, with a population of 210,602 in 1979 (up from 173,276 in 1970), were one of the smaller Soviet Central Asian nationalities. In China, however, with a population of approximately 7 million, the Uighur are the predominant Central Asian nationality. According to 1990 estimates, the Uighur population in the former USSR rose to approximately 300,000 (with about 200,000 in Kazakhstan).

In earlier decades (1925 to 1959), the Uighur population actually declined (108,570 to 95,208). This phenomenon resulted from the assimilation of many Uighur in Uzbekistan into the Uzbek nationality, an ethnic group with a similar language and culture. In 1970, 23,942 the Uighur resided in Uzbekstan, 120,881 in Kazakhstan, and 24,872 in Kirghizia, with 3,581 in Tadzhikistan and Turkmenia combined. Although the majority of the Uighur population lives in rural villages, over 50,000 Uighur reside in urban areas (Alma-Ata, 29,618; Frunze, 11,548; and Tashkent, 9,353) (1970 figures).

Linguistic Affiliation. The Uighur language has been classified as belonging to the Southeastern or Eastern ("Turki") Subgroup of Turkic languages. The northern dialect has come to represent the official Soviet Uighur language. The transliteration of Uighur was changed from modified Arabic script to romanization in 1928, but as of 1947, Soviet Uighur has been written in the Cyrillic script.

History and Cultural Relations

The Uighur were an ancient confederation of Turkic tribes that united in the sixth century ("Uighur" means "union") and established a khanate south of Lake Baikal (Mongolia) in AD. 740. It maintained political and military alliances with the Tang dynasty in neighboring China. Trade and marital relations were forged as well, with Uighur princesses often marrying Chinese rulers. In 840 the Uighur Kingdom was conquered by the Kirghiz, another Turkic group. In the successive years, the original Uighur population dispersed south and west, often mixing with local populations. One group of Uighur likely became absorbed into the Chinese Empire, whereas another migrated south to became directly antecedent to the Yugur (Yellow Uighur) of China's Gansu Province.

Many Uighur migrated southwest to the desert-oasis regions north of the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang Province, China). Near Turfan and Kucha they reestablished a kingdom increasingly based on agriculture and trade. Even as its political power declined, art, music, and religion flourished. Uighur established a new script based on the Sogdian writing system (an old Iranian dialect). Buddhism was adopted, along with Nestorian Christianity and Zoroastrianism, but the original state religion of Manicheanism was maintained.

Some Turkic groups, among them possibly Uighur, settled among the indigenous Iranian population in the Kashgar oasis region, southwest of the Tarim Basin. This area became absorbed into the Islamicized Kharakhanid domain during the tenth to thirteenth centuries. Kashgar became an important Islamic center of learning, influenced by Arabic and Persian civilizations.

In the early thirteenth century, the Buddhist Uighur Kingdom to the north voluntarily submitted to Chinggis (Genghis) Khan's rule. Uighur administrators, advisers, and accountants subsequently became influential in the Mongol Empire. During the Chagatay dynasty ruled by Chinggis's offspring (mid-thirteenth century), the entire Tarim Basin area became united and absorbed under the Islamic aegis. The Uighur name, but not its script or language, virtually disappeared for approximately 500 years. Inhabitants of this oasis region, now known as China's Xinjiang Province (formerly Eastern Turkistan), called themselves according to local or regional affiliations: "Turfanlik" (person of Turfan), "Kashgarlik," "Aqsulik," "Yarkandlik," and "Khotanlik," among others. Alternately, they were known by occupation: "Taranchi" (farmer) or "Sart" (merchant). In the 1600s the Chinese Empire established control of Eastern Turkistan during the Qing (Manchu) dynasty. During rebellions against the Qing in the 1860s, several independent khanates were briefly formed. In 1881 the czarist government annexed the Hi region along the Sino-Russian border from the weakened Qing government. When the Ili region was returned to China after ten years, thousands of inhabitants of Eastern Turkistan migrated across the Russian border. The czarist government offered them citizenship, land, and exemption from taxes for ten years. In 1921, during the establishment of the multinational Soviet state, the Uighur name was revived to unite Kashgarlik, Taranchi, and others into a single ethnic identity.


In Kazakhstan, the Uighur have settled an area that forms an almost uninterrupted belt in the Alma-Ata Oblast. In Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the Uighur live in scattered areas interspersed among the indigenous populations. In the Soviet period, Uighur kolkhoz settlements, often several hundred farmsteads, tended to cluster together according to original Uighur residence patterns, and quarters or villages were modeled after former settlements in China's Xinjiang Province. Although original village boundaries were retained, Uighur kolkhozy have been internally restructured. Formerly, mosques and bazaars dominated the center of town or village. Now administrative buildings, along with farmsteads, clubs, agricultural stores, schools, and other cultural establishments line the streets.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. For centuries, Uighur subsistence was oriented toward oasis agriculture. In czarist and early Soviet periods the Uighur played a key role in developing agriculture, as well as urbanization, in formerly nomadic areas of Kazakhstan. The Uighur engage in both irrigated agriculture in desert regions and dry agriculture in the uplands. Crops include a great variety of grain and produce. In Uzbekistan, cotton has come to dominate much of the local economy, whereas in Kazakhstan animal husbandry has become a key element in the Uighur economy. Uighur meals were traditionally spread on the dasturkhan, a tablecloth laden with fruit, sweets, nuts, and breads, a repast particularly associated with festive occasions. This was followed by lamb and beef dishes, including pilaf.

Industrial Arts. Uighur craft tradition derives from the legacy of medieval guilds in Central Asia, in which specialists in various applied arts were trained. In the late 1800s artisans migrating to Russia settled in towns and urban areas such as Yarkand or Panfilov (Kazakhstan) and Andijian and Osh (Ferghana Valley). Tailors, hatmakers, cobblers, blacksmiths, jewelers, bakers, and barbers set up workshops quartered in the bazaars. Under the Soviet government, Uighur artisans of urban areas were united into trade artels, which became the basis for local industry. With the development of light industry, certain crafts and trades (e.g., silk manufacture) diminished in importance. Garments of tie-died silk (atles ), a fashion traditionally popular among both Uighur and Uzbek women, continue to be produced and sold at state-run stores, but such products are often inferior to traditional handicrafts and goods marketed by local cooperatives.

Trade. In addition to developing agriculture, the early Uighur and other Central Asian peoples became merchants along the Silk Road, which linked Byzantium and Persia to China. Today trade exists on a much smaller scale. Although bazaars no longer dominate the center of town, as in pre-Soviet days, local open-air markets nevertheless do a flourishing business. In Alma-Ata, periodic trade fairs feature Uighur crafts, snacks, and musical performances set up in pastel-colored tents inspired by Kazakh yurts.

Division of Labor. Many crafts and trades have been traditionally monopolized by males, but females have engaged in specific industries such as embroidery, making patterned felt, and weaving rugs. In more solidly Islamic Uzbekistan, women are surrounded by traditional role models of female propriety. In Kazakhstan, however, Uighur women are often encouraged to pursue higher education and white-collar jobs.

Land Tenure. In oasis areas, water rather than land was traditionally subject to inheritance. After the Uighur migrated to Russia, systems of land tenure and water rights were subject to a great deal of flux until collectivization.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. As in other Central Asian family systems influenced by Islam, the patrilineal principle of kinship has prevailed. Polygamy traditionally could occur, but monogamy prevailed. Unlike some other groups that follow old Turkic prohibitions against marriage to close kin, Uighur have often favored vicinal marriage or village endogamy. Among the Uighur of Uzbekistan, however, a divergent trend of out-marriage to Uzbeks has occurred.

Kinship Terminology. Within the extended family, relationships are often categorized according to relative age group. For instance, older brother (aka ) is distinguished from younger brother (uka ) and elder sister (apa ) from younger sister (singil ). Certain relatives are given terms of respect and endearment in addition to more formal titles: aunt (apa ) and uncle (togha ) are also called "little mother" (kichik apa ) and "little father" (kichik dada ).

Marriage. Soviet attempts to secularize wedding ceremonies have evolved into celebrations that combine official state ceremony with traditional celebration (music, dance, and feasting).

Domestic Unit. Older-style farmhouses in the kolkhoz often accommodate extended families, including sons and their wives, who live in adjoining units around a courtyard. Contemporary apartments with several rooms frequently house a nuclear family, although relatives often live nearby.

Inheritance. Before collectivization, property was equally divided among the sons.

Socialization. Deference and respect are paid according to relative age-rank in the family. Female roles are confused by often conflicting influences of Islam (which traditionally favored isolation of women) and Soviet policy.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Unlike Central Asian nomadic and seminomadic groups, the Uighur have lost all sense of tribal and clan association. Social organization and identity among the former Soviet Uighur differ according to regional ties (and, to some extent, class affiliation). The northern Uighur, living in Semirichie, retain a stronger sense of Uighur identity. Intellectuals of this region have promoted ethnic unity with the Uighur across the Chinese border. On the other hand, southern Uighur often identify with a Muslim, Turkic, or Turkistani social group rather than a specifically Uighur one. Such social ties relate to current residence patterns, as well as older affiliations. Whereas southern Uighur have been assimilated to a large extent by the Uzbeks, northern Uighur, living in more isolated groups near the Chinese border, retain a stronger sense of ethnic identity. Such divergence may be influenced by older cleavages as well: southern Uighur were more completely integrated into the Islamic aegis, whereas northern Uighur retained a separate identity (if closely linked to the Chinese and Mongol empires) for a longer period.

Political Organization. Although the Uighur are not identified with a national territory (except for the Uighur National District of Kazakhstan), several official institutions demonstrate evidence of Uighur autonomy. Five newspapers are published, including Kommunizm tughi (Communist Flag), Yengi hayat (New Life), and Bizning watan (Our Homeland). A Uighur linguistic department and Uighur institute were established (1949 and 1969) in the Kazakh Academy of Sciences. The Institute for Uighur Studies was established in Alma-Ata in 1980 as a separate entity. The Uighur are the only nontitular nationality group in Kazakhstan to be granted a special language school.

The evolution of the (former) Soviet Uighur nationality indicates two alternate and sometimes contradictory trajectories, which were promoted at various periods by Soviet policy: merging (sblizhenie ) and fragmentation. Yet assimilation among Central Asian groups, as with the Uighur with Uzbeks, may precipitate pan-Islamicism or pan-Turkism. Alternately, promoting distinct nationalities, while allowing for a "divide-and-rule" program, may engender ethnic separatism or interethnic conflict.

Social Control. After the Soviet system prevailed, the influence of Sharia (Islamic law) and adat (customary practice) courts were gradually undercut and replaced by Soviet courts. Today, an unofficial system of community coercion operates to sanction social and religious activity, such as persuading young people to participate in Islamic rituals.

Conflict. Modern Uighur history is fraught with border conflict involving both Soviet and Chinese governments. During the period of economic and political turmoil of the Chinese Communist "Great Leap Forward" in the late 1950s and early 1960s, thousands of Uighur fled to the Soviet Union. As Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated in the 1960s, propaganda wars raged on both sides of the border, each attempting to discredit the other's policies while wooing Uighur and Kazakhs. During recent uprisings (1980s-1990s) among Soviet Islamic groups, the Chinese government has become increasingly concerned about the influence of Soviet rebellions on its own Uighur and other Turkic ethnicities. Thus, the Uighur minority, despite its small size, may remain an important consideration, as the former Soviet republics and China carve out policies with respect to ethnic protest and religious or political conflict. The degree of disaffection among Uighur and related Turkic or Islamic groups will also be influenced, to some extent, by the policies of Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Turkey and their relation to the former Soviet Central Asian republics. The Uighur Institute in Alma-Ata is involved in researching moral and political questions that play into conflict within the Middle East as well as the Soviet Union. While eschewing Islamic fundamentalism, it advocates the development of Islamic religious principles among the Uighur.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Several religious traditions influenced the emerging Uighur Kingdom. Buddhism was introduced into Central Asia during the first century b.c. During the following centuries, Zoroastrianism, an Indo-Iranian religion based on the duality of light and dark, and Nestorianism, a Gnostic sect of Christianity, spread throughout much of Central Asia. Such religions coexisted in the region for centuries, but Manicheanism was adopted as the official state religion of the Uighur in 762.

The Manichean religion combined aspects of Zoroastrian, Nestorian, and Buddhist traditions. Like Zoroastrianism, its cosmology centered on the struggle between the dualities of light and dark, associated with good and evil. As in Gnostic Christianity, the soul, which was imprisoned in darkness, sought reunification with Light. As in Buddhism, the soul traveled through successive stages of reincarnation in this journey.

Although Manicheanism was practiced by the elite for several centuries, other religions persisted and prevailed among the Uighur. Shamanism, a religion which called upon spirits of nature for healing and divine intervention, continued to hold sway among the populace. By the time the Uighur Kingdom was reestablished in the Turfan oasis region to the southwest, Buddhism had eclipsed Manicheanism as the state religion.

By the tenth century, however, following the expansion of the Arab Empire, Islam made inroads into eastern Central Asia, and by the fifteenth century, Islam superseded other belief systems or gained a stronghold throughout Central Asia. After the Uighur migrated to the Soviet Union from China, their superficial acceptance of Islam intensified. The majority of the Uighur are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi branch, but some are adherents of Sufistic sects. In recent years, large numbers of Uighur from the People's Republic of China have been making the hajj to Mecca and other sites sacred to Islam.

Religious Practitioners. Despite the all-encompassing influence of Islam, pre-Islamic practices persisted under Islam. In fact, the Central Asian cult of saints (mazar ) attests to shamanistic influence. Shamanism, common throughout Inner and Central Asia before the influx of Buddhism and Islam, revered holy places and objects as manifestations of the divine. Among the Uighur, Islamic mullahs and shamans alike were called upon to perform healing trances. During some pre-Soviet rituals, the shaman circled around a rope suspended from the ceiling while uttering Quranic passages and other chants. Afterward, the healer would beat the patient's body with a dead chicken, in an attempt to transfer the evil spirit to the bird.

Ceremonies. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union conducted widespread campaigns to replace religious celebrations with secular ritual. Muslim celebrations, such as Qorban (Great Sacrifice of Abraham) and Roza (the fast of Ramadan), were downplayed but (sometimes) carried on unofficially. For a period there was a largely unsuccessful attempt to merge the pre-Islamic new year's holiday of Nawruz with the Soviet secular new-year celebration.

Arts. The Uighur, whether through indirect legacy or direct history, claim a long tradition of achievement in the plastic and performing arts. In the oasis kingdom near Turfan, cave paintings featured Buddhist dieties, princesses, and noblemen. After Islam gained influence and discouraged direct depiction of human and animal figures, decorative art prevailed. Plaster carving and embroidery alike featured geometric forms, arabesques, and plant motifs. Although few examples of Uighur architecture exist in the former Soviet Union, the delicate decorative work is prevalent in China's Kashgar. Pomegranates, flower buds and vines, and interlaced tendrils carved in panels are among the most popular designs. Blue, aqua, saffron, and white are the most popular hues, rendered on plaster, tile, and wood. A wider range of colors (including bright red) and naturalistic flower and landscape motifs often derives from Chinese or Western influences of the past few centuries. Whereas applied arts are minimally developed among the Soviet Uighur, they flourish in China's Uighur community of Kashgar. Dozens of embroidery styles on caps formerly varied with locale but now seem to be merely identified with gender: delicate white stitchery on a green background or embroidery of moons and arabesques on black (male caps) contrast with elaborate beadwork on purple velvet, needlework in a multihued patchwork mosaic, and flower designs in metallic fabric (female caps).

Modern Uighur literature ranges from short stories, essays, and love poetry to epic folk legends (dastans ), historical-heroic songs and oral narratives, proverbs, and riddles. Drama is a flourishing genre as well, with a separate Uighur theater housed in Alma-Ata, where musical (or dance-drama) and spoken plays are performed. The Uighur trace the beginnings of their literary tradition to the seventh to eighth centuries, with the runic inscriptions of the Orkhon texts in southern Siberia. These ancient Turkic epigraphs include the Moyun-Churu text, which mentions the emergence of the ancient Uighur state.

Uighur literary tradition combines two separate historical trajectories/legacies. The northern oasis area of eastern Central Asia, adjacent to the Chinese Empire and Mongol region, was heavily influenced by Buddhism, Manicheanism, and Nestorianism. In the tenth century, Buddhist writings such as the Sutras of the Golden Luster were translated from Sanskrit into the old Uighur script, which was derived from Sogdian (an ancient language of eastern Iran). Poetry, narrative plays, and the epic of Oghuznama, a tale common in northwestern Turkic-speaking areas, were also prevalent.

The classical tradition of Uighur literature that developed in the south in the following centuries reflects a strong Islamic influence. Many of these works were written in Chagatay, a medieval Turkic language written in script derived from Arabic. Foremost among such works is Mahmud Kashgari's Dictionary of Turkic Dialects of the eleventh century. Other important works include didactic and ethical poetic writings, including Yusuf Khass Hajib'e Balasaghuni's "Knowledge Which Gives Happiness" of the eleventh century and Iagnaki's "The Gift of Reasons" of the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Medieval Uighur literature includes Islamic religious (devotional) works and legends as well: Rabghuzi's Tales of the Prophets of the fourteenth century and Oghuzname (Legend of Oghuz Kagan) of the fifteenth century. In the fifteenth century, the Timurid Turkic poet and philosopher Alishir Nowai, now claimed by Uzbeks as well as by Uighurs, based epic poems on the Irano-Central Asian love stories of Leyla and Majnun and Farhad and Shirin.

In the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries, in spite of political decline throughout Central Asia, lyric genres such as the ghazal and gasida flourished. In addition to themes of heroism, romantic imagery was popular. Motifs of the beloved and lover alternately expressed earthly love and divine union, a Sufistic theme. Famous poetic works of these centuries include "Muhabbatnama we Mihnetkame" (Love and Bitterness Intertwined) by Hirkit, "Wandering" by Nowbit, "Gul we Bulbul" (The Rose and the Nightingale) by Shah Yari, and "Muhbbatnama" (Love Letter) by Molla Abdureyim. In the nineteenth century Uighur literature included songs of resistance as well as tales of love.

Uighur classical music, influenced by Persian and Arabic musical theory (al-Farabi), features the Twelve Mugam, an elaborate suite of over 120 songs, interludes, and so forth. Folk music varies according to occasion, and varied folk genres are associated with the meshrep (informal gatherings of music and activity, often held during the evening) and toy (weddings and other celebrations). Official and informal organizations alike promote musical and dance performances. Young people who receive training from specialists in Tashkent join the Uighur Musical (Comic) Drama Theater in Kazakhstan and smaller ensembles. In Alma-Ata Oblast, "Uighur Cultural Days," attended by Uighur, Kazakhs, and Russians alike, feature musical performances and staged events. The Uighur Theater in Alma-Ata offers performances of Western drama translated into Uighur (including plays by Shakespeare and Molière), as well as time-honored Central Asian and Persian classics (the tale of Laila and Majnun). Weekly Uighur television programs aired in Alma-Ata include comic vignettes and musical performances by Uighur pop singers. Such song-and-dance numbers, which feature bucolic scenes and coy lovers, borrow heavily from Indian musical cinema, which is popular in Uzbekistan.

Medicine. Classical medicine was influenced not only by folk cures, but by Islamic and Greek philosophy and science. In the seventeenth century, Imaddidin Kashgari and his disciples advanced surgery, skin and eye treatment, and medical research.

Death and Afterlife. Traditional Uighur beliefs about death and afterlife have been influenced to a large extent by Islam. After a death, Quranic prayers are chanted, and the body is cleansed and wrapped in white gauze. The tombs of Islamic holy men are revered as sacred places. Islamic practices continue to provide a vital link among members of Uighur communities.

See also Uigur in Part Two, China


Akiner, Shirin (1986). Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union: An Historical and Statistical Handbook. 2d ed. London: KPI.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush (1986). Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Gladney, Dru C. (1990). "The Ethnogenesis of the Uighur." Central Asian Survey 9(1).

Kolarz, Walter (1952). Russia and Her Colonies. New York: Praeger.

Rakowska-Harmstone, Theresa (1983). "Islam and Nationalism: Central Asia and Kazakhstan under Soviet Rule." Central Asian Survey 20(2).

Rossabi, Morris, ed. (1983). China among Equals. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Yasinov, D. (1989). "Osak Wadisida Shadiyana Tantana: Panfilov Rayonidiki Uighur Madaniyiti Kunliri." Bizning Watan (Alma-Ata), no. 19:306.


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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 618907). 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 (16441911). 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.


Heberer, Thomas. China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

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, 1998.

World Travel Guide. China. [Online] Available, 1998.

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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 merchantsthe 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, Russia and Eurasia


Ecsedy, H. (1964). "Uigurs and Tibetans in Pei-t'ing (790-791)." Acta Orientalia Hungaricae 17:83-104.

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

Ma Yin, ed. (1989). Chinas Minority Nationalities, 136-151. 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. (1976). "The Khwajas of Eastern Turkestan." Central Asiatic Journal 20:266-296.

Schwarz, Henry G. (1984). The Minorities of Northern China: A Survey, 1-16. Bellingham: Western Washington University Press.

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Uigurs, Uighurs, or Uygurs (all: wē´gŏŏrz), Turkic-speaking people of Asia who live mainly in W China. They were the Yue-che of ancient Chinese records and first rose to prominence in the 7th cent. when they supported the T'ang Chinese in central Asia. In 744 the Uigurs seized control of Mongolia and established their capital on the Orkhon River, near the site of later Karakorum. Ousted (840) from Mongolia by the Kyrgyz, they moved to Turpan, in Xinjiang, where they founded an empire that lasted until the Mongol onslaught of the 13th cent. Unlike other peoples of central Asia, the Uigurs were not exclusively nomadic but practiced some agriculture and trade. They were converted to Manichaeism but later became Sunni Muslims. The Uigurs transmitted their script to the Mongols.

A movement promoting Uigur independence has existed for many years, and there were attempts to establish an East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang in the 1930s and 40s. Since the Chinese Communist victory in 1949 there have been sporadic antigovernment protests and violence and government antiseparatist crackdowns; in 1954 there was a Uigur uprising in Hotan. In 2009, in the worst recent incident, there was deadly street fighting between Uigurs and Chinese in Ürümqi. Uigur unrest has been aggravated in recent years by resentment over the increasing number of Han Chinese in Xinjiang and government restrictions on Islamic practices. Today half of the population of Xinjiang (reorganized as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in 1955) is of Uigur descent; there they number about 8 million. Another 1 million Uigurs live in Central Asia and elsewhere.

See C. Mackerras, ed., The Uighur Empire (1968, repr. 1973).

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