Kazakh Chinese

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Kazakh Chinese

ALTERNATE NAMES: Wusun, Turks, Geluolo, Huihu, Kerei, Naiman
LOCATION: China; Kazakstan; Uzbekistan; Turkmenistan; Kyrgyzstan; Tajikistan
POPULATION: 1.25 million
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities; Kazaks


The Kazakh have common historical origins with the ancient tribes of the Wusun (2nd century BC–2nd century AD), Turks (mid-6th century), Geluolo and Huihu (10th-12th century), and Kerei and Naiman (12th-13th century). They all lived in the Ili River Valley and areas around the Lake Issyk, which had been governed in the past by the central government of China. Up to the present, there are still tribes of Kazakh that retain the ancient tribal names. In the 13th century, conquering a number of countries in central and west Asia, Genghis Khan had established quite a few Khan dependencies. Later on, some of the tribes moved to the Talas River Valley and established there a Kazakh Khan. After the 17th century, a part of the Kazakh was conquered by Russia. The other part became one of the national minorities of China.


The Kazakh live in the northern part of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, including Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, Mori and Burqin Kazakh Autonomous County. The rest of them are distributed in Aksay Kazakh Autonomous County. The population was 1.25 million in 2000.


The Kazakh language belongs to the Altaic family, Turkic group. There is not much difference among the various dialects. The Kazakh living in the above-mentioned countries could have a lively conversation without any serious language problems. The name Kazakh was self-given, meaning "free man," "refugee," and "separator." Kazakh writing, based on Arabic characters, has been used since the last century. Owing to the difference between the phonetic systems of Arabic script and Kazakh language, the People's Republic of Kazakh of the former USSR reformed the writing system quite a few times, based on Arabic (1917 and 1924), based on Latin (1929), and based on Russian (1940). In China, a new writing system based on Latin was designed in 1959, but it proved unsuccessful. In 1982, they reverted to their original writing system.


The folklore of the "White Swan" has been so widespread that some believe that it was created by the Kazakh. It was said that there was an orphan shepherd who dreamed one night of a white swan coming from the sky singing and dancing before him. The next day, his dream came true. Unfortunately, a windstorm appeared from nowhere and dispersed all his sheep. With the help of the swan, he finally found them. In fact, he was also rescued by the swan. To his surprise, the swan turned into a beautiful lady, who married the shepherd and gave birth to a number of children, the Kazakh. A similar story states that a general was rescued by a white swan from the desert. It turned into a beautiful lady. They married and had a son who grew up, married, and had three sons—the ancestors of the three largest tribes of Kazakh.

In addition, a myth describes how the Kazakh God of Creation made a man and a woman from mud. But, a demon thwarted their marriage. The God shot the demon with his bow and arrow, thunder being the sound of his shooting and lightning being the sparks flying from the arrows. The God planted the Tree of Life. Every leaf represented a soul. A new leaf appeared on somebody's birth, and a fallen leaf indicated somebody's death.


The Kazakh believe in Islam, although remnants of primitive shamanistic beliefs and reverence for the fire and sun still exist. In pastoral areas mosques are few, but the Muslim priest, called mulla, should be invited to recite scriptures on festivals, weddings, and funerals, or in case of illness. Of course, he will be paid.


The main holidays of the Kazakh are related to their religion. According to Islamic stipulations, December 10 (Islamic calendar) is the Corban Festival. The word corban in Arabic means sacrificial offering. When the day comes, the Kazakh kill oxen or sheep as sacrifice. They all dress up, extend greetings to each other, entertain guests, and present gifts to their friends or relatives. A variety of traditional sports will be held. The Festival of Fast-Breaking (Lesser Bairam) is the day ending the Ramadan. In September (Islamic calendar) every year, every adult Kazakh abstains from food and drink from daybreak to sunset. The beginning and the end of the month of fast depend on the new moon being visible. On the next day, all festive activities will be held in a lively atmosphere. The Nuoluzi Festival in January (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between January 21 and March 19) is also ceremonious. It is similar to the Spring Festival of the Chinese. To ring out the old year and ring in the new, every family will take kuji, a meal made of seven ingredients including beef, barley, wheat, and milk products.


The birth of a baby is a particularly happy event for the Kazakh and a reason to entertain guests at dinner. The Kazakh, men and women, are adept in horsemanship; horsemanship, therefore, plays an important role in their festivals. One particular festival, extremely popular with the young people, is called "Women's Pursuit." Young men and women, each mounting his or her own horse, stride slowly in pairs toward a designated place; the lad is allowed to tease the girl whom he likes, and she should not get angry. But, as soon as they arrive at the designated place and start to get back, the girl pursues the lad in mock revenge. The game is designed to foster love between the two.

The Kazakh funeral follows Islamic stipulations. The body should be washed with clean water, wrapped in white cloth, and buried three days after death. On the seventh day and the fortieth day after the funeral, sacrificial offerings are mandatory. The horse used by the deceased during his or her lifetime is not allowed to be mounted any longer. The horse tail should be cut after the master's death. The horse should be killed one year later for sacrifice. When Kazakh migrate to new pasture lands, the hat and clothes of the deceased should be put on horseback and moved with the family. The women of the household sing a mournful song when they pass each nomadic colony.


Long-separated friends usually embrace when meeting again. Usually, they talk about their livestock first, then the families greet each other. The Kazakh are warm, sincere, and straightforward. They will spare no effort to assist a member of the clan who is in trouble. A traveler, no matter what his nationality may be, will be put up for the night in any Kazakh's yurt. On account of Kazakh hospitality, one finds no beggars among them. "As long as there are Kazakh on the way, you may travel for a year without a cent or a grain in your bag," goes a saying. Another proverb states: "One could never wipe out the disgrace of letting guests leave at sunset." They offer their best food to the guests; for distinguished ones, they will kill a live sheep with yellow head and white body. Respectfully, the host will offer a tray containing the sheep head. The guest receives it, cuts a slice of meat from its right cheek and puts it on his own plate. He should then cut an ear, give it to the youngest one at the banquet, and return the sheep head to the host. The guests sit cross-legged on the felt rug. They must not straighten their legs. It is very impolite to take off one's shoes and point the sole of the foot to people.


The great majority of the Kazakh engage in nomadic animal husbandry; only a small number engage in agriculture and settle down. The herdsmen move from place to place in search of water and grass. In spring, summer, and autumn, they live in a yu, a round-shaped yurt that may be dismantled and carried on horseback when they migrate. The framework of the yurt is made from locally grown Chinese tamarisk. They enclose the paling (fence-like framework) with splendid achnatherum, a kind of grass with long, narrow leaves, grown in grassy shoals. Then, they cover the side with a layer of felt rug. There is a skylight for ventilation at the top of the conic roof of the yurt. The yurt usually opens to the east. Inside the yurt, the horse gear, hunting gear, food and cooking utensils are placed on each side of the door, with the plank beds overhead. Opposite the door are the suitcases, covered with sitting cushions.

After the fall, they move to their adobe house for the winter pasture.


Before 1950, the well-to-do and the nobles were polygamous. Now, they practice monogamy. The man is the person of authority in the family. The wife must obey her husband. Sons and daughters must obey their father. The women have neither power nor property. The marriage of children and the distribution of property are all decided by the father. As soon as a male has grown up and married, he leaves his parents, builds his own yurt, and receives a part of the property from his father. The family property will ultimately be inherited by the youngest son.

In the past, a wedding required betrothal gifts from the bridegroom to the bride's family—in particular, dozens of heads of livestock. As a result, poor families would exchange their daughters, thus canceling the need for betrothal gifts. A widow had to marry her brother-in-law or another member of the clan. Although a married woman had no right to ask for divorce, a man was allowed to abandon his wife any time at will. Nowadays, according to the new dispositions of the law, Kazakh women are free to marry and to divorce.


The herdsmen's clothes are mainly made of fur, usually loose for the convenience of horse-riding. In winter, the men usually wear a durable, single-layered, sheepskin overcoat or camel's wool waded topcoat. They have a leather belt with figures on the waist and wear a sword on the right. Their trousers are mostly made of sheepskin. The women wear dresses, mostly red. In winter, they add a cotton-padded overcoat. Young girls like to wear silver ornaments or coins and embroidered cotton trousers. Men in different districts wear different hats. Married women almost always wear a long scarf with colored figures. All Kazakh like to wear boots, with a pair of felt stockings in winter.


Most foodstuffs come from livestock. There are a variety of milk products, including cheese, butter, and skin on boiled milk. In spring or summer, the herdsmen pour a mare's milk into a leather bag, stir frequently, and wait for fermentation. The final product is a semi-transparent sour mare's milk wine, a favorite beverage in summer. Another popular beverage is a special hot milk tea made of tea, butter, salt, and cow or camel milk. Food made of rice and flour includes crusty nang (shaped like bagels and pancakes), "rice taken by hand" (cooked and steamed rice with raisins, sliced onions and carrots, and small cubes of fried beef), fried dough, etc. The Kazakh eat a lot of mutton, mostly cooked in water and taken by hand. They make smoked meat in the late fall. Sausage made of mare's meat has a special flavor and can be preserved for a long time. The herdsmen eat fewer vegetables and fruits.


Because of the nomadic way of life of the Kazakh, there are many mobile primary schools. The teacher visits the yurt and teaches the children on the spot. This explains the high rate of illiteracy in pastoral areas. In farming areas close to the cities, there are many schools for formal education. High schools and universities have been established in Tacheng, Altay, and Ili. Overall, the cultural and educational level of the Kazakh is higher than the average level of the national minorities in China.


Kazakh music and dance have distinctive features and are noticeable by the large number of participants in each performance. The Kazakh are good at singing and dancing. A two-stringed, guitar-like instrument, the dongbula, is very popular with the men. Because of illiteracy in the past, the ancient poems, stories, proverbs, and fables were all handed down orally. A group of folksingers, called aken, visit the grazing lands to collect and collate oral literature. Kazakh writers have begun the publication of their ancient literature.


For centuries the Kazakh have led a nomadic life, their main occupation being animal husbandry (ox, sheep, horses, and camel). Only a small number of them engaged in farming. There were very few craftsmen and very little handicraft industry. Almost all productive tools and daily necessities were fashioned by family members at home or purchased through barter for grains, tea, cloth, and household utensils. In the last few decades, the Kazakh have begun to combine agriculture and stockraising, gradually settling down and abandoning their nomadic ways. Small-scaled tannery, wool mill, and oil press factories have been established. The mode of production of the Kazakh is now in transition.


Wrestling and "Snatching the Lamb" (diaoyang) are popular sports that attract large crowds; they are part of every festival. In the game of "Snatching the Lamb," a venerable elder puts a headless lamb on the grass. At a full gallop, five to eight horsemen try to grab the lamb with one hand. The winner is the first horseman who brings the lamb to a designated place.


With the gradual introduction of movies and television into Kazakh colonies, villages, and towns, their traditional singing and dancing have become more and more restricted to festive occasions. Film projection teams frequently visit the herdsmen's colonies, thus enabling them to enjoy the modern entertainment of movies.


Kazakh artisans are well-known for the quality of their felt products (hats, shoes, and boots) and embroideries (especially women's clothes and hats). Folk art also includes wooden articles, ironware, bone implements, and ornaments made of gold, silver, and jade.


The grassland environment of the Kazakh does not favor a diversified economy. The combination of agriculture and stockraising has already improved the living conditions of the Kazakh. One promising avenue for further development is border trade with the Kazakh on the other side of the Chinese border.


The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. However, among the Kazakhs certain traditions persist to deny women equal rights in practice.

Since 1950, the practice of polygamy has been discontinued, but the man of the household retains ultimate authority and all family members, including the wife, must obey him. While according to law, women have equal rights, in Kazakh society women traditionally hold no property and the family property is inherited by the youngest son. As China modernizes, these traditions are changing slowly. In the past, married women had no access to divorce, while a man was free to abandon his wife. With the guarantees afforded by Chinese law, Kazakh women are increasingly taking action to marry and to divorce according to their own interests.

China has strict family planning laws. It is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age (22 for men), and it is illegal for single women to give birth. Though minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. Today, urban minority couples may have two children while rural couples may have three or four.


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—by C. Le Blanc