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Volume 52, Number 6November/December 2001

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China’s Western Doorway

Photographed by Kevin Bubriski
Written by Dru C. Gladney

One of the few statues of Chairman Mao Zedong still standing gazes southward across People's Square in the western Chinese city of Kashgar. Mao's presence—and the huge new Bank of China building bordering the square—signal that, though Kashgar is one of the nation's most remote cities from Beijing, it has been firmly under Chinese control since 1949.

But this has not always been the case.

Kashgar is a city with a long and complicated history, located between mountain and steppe, oasis and desert, East and West, at a natural intersection of ancient pathways leading from the capitals of Rome, Persia, Mongolia and China. Its strategic location at the eastern end of the Tarim River basin makes the city a meeting place of many cultures, today as in the past.

Islam contributed Arab, Persian and, later, Turkic civilizations to the region, and Sir Aurel Stein, the 20th century's greatest explorer of Central Asia, characterized it as a "special meeting ground of Chinese civilization, introduced by trade and political penetration, and of Indian culture, propagated by Buddhism."

The new railroad between Kashgar and Urumqi, completed in 2000, now links the city more closely than ever before to China, but Kashgar also lies on the overland routes to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, by way of the famed Karakorum Highway. Bordered by some of the highest mountains in the world—in the north, east, south and southwest by the great Tianshan, Pamir, and Kunlun ranges—and hemmed in from the west by the great Taklamakan Desert, the second-largest in the world, Kashgar remains one of the crossroads of Central Asia, and has been only intermittently under Chinese influence and control during its 2000-year history. The varied faces, languages, clothing, and dwellings of the Kashgaris who inhabit the town, and the hordes of travelers who pass through, are the most enduring legacy of its diverse and multicultural history.

Today, over 77 percent of Kashgar city's 325,000 citizens are Uighur Muslims. The surrounding Kashgar prefecture, with an area of 141,000 square kilometers (54,500 sq mi), has more than three million Uighurs in a total population of 3.3 million. Most of them claim descent from Karabalghasan, the early Uighur kingdom in what is now Mongolia, which was conquered by Kyrgyz tribesmen in AD 840. The Uighur fled south and dispersed in the oasis towns surrounding the Taklamakan Desert, where they had maintained trading relations along the ancient Silk Road. They established Turpan as their new capital and Kashgar as one of their most important trading centers. The regularity of the caravan trade between the oases of Marv, Balkh, Bukhara, Samarkand, Kashgar, Turpan, and Khotan with the distant European and Asian capitals placed Kashgar in a central role as economic broker and cultural mediator, and the Uighurs' far-flung kingdom flourished until the coming of the Mongols in the 12th century.

Islam had arrived in Kashgar by the 10th century, and the city became a center of Islamic learning, producing among others one of the greatest Muslim scholars and lexicographers of the 11th century, Mahmud al-Kashgari, who wrote Diwan Lughat al-Turk (Compendium of the Turkic Dialects), since translated into 26 languages. He was buried just outside the city, in the village of Upar.

It was in Kashgar that the early Muslims encountered strong Chinese, Persian, Turkic, and Indian influences, evidence of which can still be seen in the art and architecture of the region today. The Islamic religion, however, displaced a multi-religious tradition that combined elements of Buddhist, Manichaean, Zoroastrian, and even early Nestorian Christian practices. (There was a Nestorian archbishopric in Kashgar as early as 650.) Especially Hinayana Buddhism flourished from the second century until the coming of Islam: In 644, the traveling Chinese monk Xuanzang recorded not only the widespread practice of Buddhism, but also the vibrancy of Kashgar's bazaar and the multi-ethnic character of its people, some with "blue eyes" and "yellow hair," perhaps of Sogdian or East Iranian origin. That diversity is evident today, where the daily market attracts thousands of patrons—and the famous Sunday bazaar more than ten thousand—including Han Chinese, Uighurs, Russians, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Kazakhs, as well as foreign tourists.

Alternating periods of turbulence and stability mark Kashgar's history. The Han Chinese general Ban Qiao campaigned in the region for 31 years in the first century of our era. Kashgar flourished under limited Chinese control for some six centuries, then succumbed to Tibetan rule from 670 to 694. For the next centuries, the city was under various authorities: Chinese, Tibetan and local. From the 10th to the 12th centuries, the Karakhanid Khanate, an alliance of Turkic tribes that had embraced Islam, established their capital in Kashgar and ruled the surrounding trading centers from Bukhara to Khotan. A Karakhanid Turk named Satoq Bughra, who died around 955, is credited with introducing Islam to Kashgar. Bughra had been converted to Islam by Nasr ibn Mansur of the Samanid family that ruled eastern Iran and much of Central Asia and Transoxiana, and had supposedly been sent to the Kashgar region on a trade mission; he eventually became khan himself. He and his devout successors extended Islamic influence throughout the southern oases, where Buddhism had once boasted 160 monasteries in Khotan alone.

On the eastern end of the Tarim River basin, however, Uighurs continued to practice Buddhism. And among the Muslim converts, mystical groups—especially Yasawis from Central Asia and, later, Naqshibandis—gained many followers. Painful interethnic and religious rivalries increased until Kashgar fell under Mongol rule, conquered by Chagatai, the son of Genghis Khan. The Persian historian 'Ala al-Din Juvaini, who visited Kashgar, even called Mongol rule a "divine mercy," felt by local Kashgaris to reduce intra-religious factionalism in the region.

Throughout the period of Mongol rule—from the 12th to the 14th century, interrupted briefly in the mid-14th century by Tamerlane's army—Kashgar prospered as an important overland trade center, protected by the Pax Mongolica. After this period, Islam flourished again in the Kashgar region, and the great 'Id Gah Masjid (Festival Place Mosque) was established in 1444. The influence of mystics called khojas (from the Persian khwaja, "master") led to more internecine struggles for power that raged between Kashgar and the region's other major city, Yarkand, from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The khojas' conflicts ended only with the coming of Qing rule under Emperor Qian Long in 1754.

Unlike the Chinese Ming dynasty before them, the Manchu Qing were more interested in trade with Central and Inner Asia, and Qian Long extended China's rule through powerful military and economic integration of the region.

Just over a century later, however, Qing rule was interrupted by the rise of a Kashgari ruler, Yakub Beg, who took advantage of shifting power relationships in the region to establish a Uighur Muslim kingdom that lasted from 1866 to 1877. This was the period of the "Great Game," when the Russian, British, and Chinese empires competed for control of the strategic overland routes that ran through the Kashgar region. The "game" ended in 1884, when Qing imperial control rule was reasserted and the name Xinjiang came to be widely used to refer to the entire region as China's "new dominion." With the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1910, however, the region once again became the site of intense competition for control, and in the 1930's a Turkestan Islamic movement declared a short-lived Muslim Republic of Eastern Turkestan.

Civil war; inter-ethnic conflict between Hui Chinese Muslims, Uighurs and Han Chinese; nationalist rule under Sheng Shicai; and fear of Russian expansion all combined to lead Kashgaris weary of war and civil strife to welcome the "peaceful liberation" of the city by soldiers of the People's Liberation Army in 1949. By 1957, Kashgar was a key city of the newly formed Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and the government of the People's Republic of China sought to further integrate the region through national education, telecommunications, and political development.

Today, the 162 mosques in Kashgar alone prove the enduring presence of Islam, though Buddhist influence can be found in the extraordinarily varied artwork, music, and dance produced by the Uighur people. Muslims still gather at the 'Id Gah Masjid to celebrate the major holidays, 'Id al-Fitr and 'Id al-Adha. On those days, Uighurs dance the "sama" in the square, recite the great Uighur Mukharum epics—locally produced poetry and music set down in the 16th century—and celebrate the unity of Islam in the region. The seventh-century monk Xuanzang's comment is still true: Kashgar today is a green center for the production of fruits, vegetables, rice, wheat, beans and cotton. Vast energy and mineral resources in the region have made the oasis city an important part of China's "Great Western Development" campaign, launched two years ago, and increased its importance to China's modernization goals. But in spite of the country's official policy of religious freedom and the cultural-preservation programs enshrined in Chinese law, the Uighurs' main challenge in the 21st century will be to maintain cultural and religious continuity with those vibrant institutions and traditions of the past that made Kashgar a diverse and welcoming stopping-place for the weary traveler on the Silk Road. Increasing Han Chinese migration to the region, developing cross-border trade with the new Central Asian states and growing international tourism—the modern continuation of the themes of Kashgar's 2000-year history—have once again opened the city to an array of international influences. One can only hope that Uighur and other local cultures will continue to flourish and develop in this new period of globalization.

Kevin Bubriski ([email protected]) became interested in Kashgar as a Guggenheim fellow in 1994. Author of two books on Nepal, his photographs are widely exhibited and collected. He lives in Shaftsbury, Vermont.

Dru C. Gladney, associate professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, has conducted field research in China, Central Asia and Turkey, most recently in Xinjiang among Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh semi-nomads. His next book, Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities, and Other Sub-Altern Subjects, will be published by C. Hurst & Co.

This article appeared on pages 34-43 of the November/December 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 2001 images.