[Marxism] Uyghur Nation

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 21 07:32:39 MDT 2017


The Times Literary Supplement, April 21 2017
Identity politics
by NICK HOLDSTOCK

David Brophy
UYGHUR NATION
Reform and revolution on the Russia-China frontier 368pp. Harvard 
University Press. £29.95 (US $39.95).
978 0 674 66037 3

The history of China's 10 million Uyghurs is politically fraught. Those 
who believe that Uyghurs have a legitimate claim to self-determination, 
or at least to greater autonomy, within the far western region of 
Xinjiang often argue that their association with the region stretches 
back to antiquity. Conversely, those who believe that Uyghurs don't 
deserve special status may claim that Uyghur ethnicity is an entirely 
modern creation imposed by the state on the Muslim inhabitants of a 
scattered set of oases in the early twentieth century. Trying to 
navigate between these extremes is complicated by the frequency with 
which many accounts, intentionally or otherwise, blur the already fuzzy 
conceptual line between "nation" and "ethnicity". David Brophy's Uyghur 
Nation offers a fresh perspective on Uyghur history by using Russian, 
Chinese and Turkic sources to chart the development of the discourses 
that would ultimately produce the modern Uyghur identity.

One of the challenges for anyone attempting to write about Uyghur 
history is how to deal with the relationship between the pre-modern and 
more contemporary usages of the term "Uyghur". The first historical 
reference to Uyghurs occurred in the sixth century, when they were 
described as a nomadic people. During the eighth century they 
established a kingdom in Mongolia, but the following century they were 
driven south by invaders into presentday Gansu and Xinjiang in China. 
There they founded a Buddhist kingdom, referred to as "Uyghuristan", 
which soon diverged into different kingdoms, into which Islam made 
gradual inroads from the eleventh century onwards. By the sixteenth 
century the people of the region were more likely to be identified in 
terms of their religion and language than in terms of any connection to 
"Uyghuristan". It wasn't until the late nineteenth century that Ottoman 
and Tatar intellectuals, drawing on orientalist scholarknown ship, 
reintroduced what Brophy calls, in recognition of its multiple strands, 
"Uyghurist" discourse.

The title of Brophy's book may suggest the author intends to explain the 
ethnogenesis of today's Uyghur identity in terms of an anticolonial 
struggle against the Chinese, but as he quickly makes clear his aim is 
not to reinterpret the past "through the lens of conflicts that were yet 
to come". His main focus is on the places and peoples on both sides of 
Xinjiang's western frontier rather than on events in the region itself. 
Brophy makes a persuasive claim that while Xinjiang was part of the Qing 
Empire from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth, it was 
culturally and economically orientated towards the regimes that bordered 
it, principally the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Accordingly, he 
compares frontier areas around Kashgar (in south-west Xinjiang) and the 
Ili region (in the north-west) to treaty ports such as Shanghai, and 
traces the development of the different intellectual and political 
debates that arose in these regions during the late nineteenth century. 
In the Ili region, where Xinjiang émigrés were as "Taranchis", there 
were attempts to promote Jadidism, a Central Asian reformist educational 
movement that sought to introduce secular elements to traditionally 
religious schools. Around Kashgar, which was more orientated towards the 
Ottoman Empire, notions of pan-Turkism held more sway.

Even after Uyghurist ideas were reintroduced at the start of the 
twentieth century they remained contradictory, and they often didn't 
correspond to the people to whom the term now applies. Some Ottoman 
intellectuals regarded Uyghurs as pioneers of Turkic civilization, but 
without particular reference to the peoples of Xinjiang; one scholar 
counted "Ottomans, Hungarians, and particularly the Finns" as Uyghurs. 
Nor was there an obvious groundswell of opposition to the Qing Empire 
within Xinjiang that was ready to be mobilized by Uyghurist discourse. 
For Brophy, the crucial factor that allowed Uyghurist discourse to gain 
wider acceptance was the opportunity that resulted from the Russian 
Revolution. By that time there were around 100,000 Uyghurs in Soviet 
territory, and those in Semireche (modern day south-eastern Kazakhstan) 
were most closely aligned to communism. They used the Stalinist theory 
of nationalities to shape Uyghurist discourse into a clearer sense of a 
Uyghur nation, though the term remained bedevilled with confusion. In 
the 1920s "Uyghur" was still primarily a mark of political affiliation 
(i.e. communist) rather than an ethnic badge.

Today's Uyghur identity may have been conceived in a Soviet milieu, but 
Brophy makes it clear that the Soviet authorities had little interest in 
Uyghurist ideas and generally didn't favour using the concept of a 
"Uyghur nation" to foment rebellion in Xinjiang. Even after Uyghur 
became an accepted Soviet nationality in 1926, the authorities weren't 
convinced that the Taranchis and Kashgaris were a unitary group. Despite 
these doubts, the Chinese authorities eventually started to use "Uyghur" 
in official discourse in the mid-1930s, a practice the communists would 
continue. Although a substantial Uyghur population remained in Soviet 
Central Asia, after the Sino- Soviet split of 1960 they were unable to 
connect with Uyghurs in Xinjiang for the next two decades. The 
discriminatory nature of Chinese government policy in Xinjiang since the 
communists took control - Uyghurs have been economically and culturally 
marginalized and are subject to considerable religious restrictions - 
has inadvertently served to strengthen Uyghur identity, which nowadays 
is often defined in opposition to Han Chinese.

The Uyghur story is, Brophy concludes, "a history of creative responses 
from below to imperial, national, and revolutionary state policies", and 
this valuable contribution to the field will no doubt encourage scholars 
to think about the history of the peoples of Xinjiang in a wider Central 
Asian context. A question remains, however - and one beyond the scope of 
this inquiry - as to how the new state-promoted "Uyghur" category came 
to be adopted by people in Xinjiang in the decades after the communist 
takeover of the region. What is remarkable is that a "palimpsest of 
Islamic, Turkic and Soviet notions of national history and identity" 
created by activists outside Xinjiang could have resonated so widely 
among Xinjiang's diverse population. In this respect, the Uy



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