Uyghur Historian Kahar Barat Discusses Xinjiang History, Part 1

Uyghur Scholar Kahar Barat

Wang Lixiong

Two extremely compelling and intriguing voices on Xinjiang issues today are those of Wang Lixiong and Kahar Barat. Married to Woeser, an outspoken Tibetan blogger and rights advocate, Wang Lixiong himself is extremely well versed in Tibet issues and one of the most (if not the most) sympathetic Han Chinese voices speaking out on ethnic issues, both pertaining to Tibet and Xinjiang, where his views were particularly enriched and deepened by conversations he had with a Uyghur cellmate during a stint in prison for photocopying “secret” Bingtuan documents – an experience documented in his 2007 book, My East Land, Your West Country . Kahar Barat is a Uyghur scholar and intellectual widely known throughout the Uyghur diaspora for his prolific writings on Uyghur history, culture, linguistics, as well as on modern Xinjiang issues. A favorite of mine, written in Uyghur and titled “Maymaq Uyghurlar,” or “Warped Uyghurs,” is a piercing commentary on how Uyghur artists themselves willingly package Uyghur culture for consumption by the more developed Han by uncritically embracing the image of the oblivious singing-and-dancing stereotype. “Maymaq Uyghurlar” will be translated into English here soon, but for now, here is a translation from Mandarin into English of part one of an interesting and illuminating interview of Kahar Barat by Wang Lixiong, conducted in Virginia not long after the riots last year.

In part one, Barat covers the considerable period of time from the Xiongnu up to the conversion of the region to Islam. Though a serious and clearly well-informed scholar, Barat doesn’t hesitate to make clear his opinions on the relative contributions Buddhism and its successor, Islam, made to the peoples and cultural legacies of the region. Barat further discusses at length the frequently controversial issue of “continuity” between the Uyghurs of the Uyghur Khanate in the 8th and 9th century and the people who have adopted the name “Uyghur” today, placing both within the framework of the gradual and inexorable Turkicization of the sprawl of grasslands stretching from Europe to Mongolia. Barat also shares some fascinating insights on the linguistic evolution of the term “Uyghur” and the complicated and obfuscating relationship the word had with the changing Chinese characters and dialects that recorded the word in the written record. There’s something fascinating to learn from this interview for historians, geographers, linguists, and anybody who can appreciate some good old fashioned Silk Road history. Translations of Parts 2 and 3 of the interview will follow shortly.

This is part of an interview that took place at the home of Kahar Barat of Virginia University in August of 2009, not long after the 7/5 Urumqi riots. This version of the the interview text has been proofread by Dr. Kahar Barat himself.

Kahar Barat is a historian, linguist, and expert on Central Asian history and culture. He is Uyghur, was born in Yili in 1950, earned a Master’s in Turkology from Central Minzu University, and received his doctorate in 1993 at Harvard after doing dissertation research on Central Asia and Altai. Having already taught and conducted academic research at Xinjiang University, at Harvard, Yale, and Indiana University in the US, and at Foguang University in Taiwan, Barat has now become involved in studying Middle and Early Chinese linguistics, Buddhism, phonetics, and other academic areas.

Religious Conversions

Wang Lixiong: Your doctoral dissertation at Harvard was titled “The [Huihu] Uygur1 Xuanzang Biography Volume 9,” and we know that Xinjiang, which is primarily Muslim today, had for a period in history been predominantly Buddhist. Could you please tell us how long the Buddhist age of Xinjiang lasted?

Kahar: Over fifteen hundred years. The earliest Buddhist clerics and translators in China were all from Xinjiang, and the most ancient Thousand-Buddha Grottoes are also in Xinjiang, not in Dunhuang. The ones at Dunhuang are younger than ours by several centuries. The most ancient Thousand-Buddha Grottoes of ours were made in the 4th century. Buddhism’s entrance into China was through Central Asia. Now, Chinese scholars are saying Buddhism came in the 1st century AD. Where did it come from? Not through Xinjiang? We don’t have a solid basis for claims that Buddhism came in the first century, however, there is a record in the form of Buddhist relics and writings from the 3rd and 4th century.

Wang Lixiong: Buddhism existed in Xinjiang until what point?

Kahar: The 18th century. In the past I’ve investigated Badashi Valley in Hami Prefecture, and there Buddhism endured among the Uyghurs until the 18th century. According to folklore the King of Hami at that time was very angry, and said that the whole world had submitted to Allah, how are there still people worshiping Buddha? He dispatched mullahs to go over the mountains to build mosques and make them convert to Islam.

Wang Lixiong: Which King of Hami was that?

Kahar: I’m not sure which one. There were Kings in Hami from 1697 up to 1930. When I say 18th century that’s a conservative estimate, it’s even possible that Buddhism in Xinjiang continued up to the 19th century. A copy of the “Golden Light Sutra” from the Kangxi Era written in Huihu Uyghur script was excavated in Gansu, this isn’t strange at all. According to my research, the Buddhism among the mountain villages was not the Huihu Uyghur Buddhism that came from Turpan, but rather was the Lama Buddhism practiced by Mongols and Tibetans. Local people told me that during the daytime they would worship at the mosque but after going home would secretly worship their own little Buddhist images. Later the mullahs (dispatched by the King of Hami) were gradually shooed away by the local people. Villagers even brought me to see the ruins of a mosque on a hill near the entrance of the village. Typical historical texts maintain that Xinjiang Buddhism ended in the 15th century, and that’s correct regarding the larger cities, but in the villages tucked away among the mountain valleys, it continued on as before for several centuries.

Historically speaking the stable eras in Xinjiang were quite long lasting. During the Buddhist period there were no wars, and according to Xuanzang’s written accounts, everyone was doing quite well. The King gave alms to the poor year after year, and several thousand people would be able to eat food donated to Buddhist monks as alms. Buddhism is a very benign religion, and as a result the crime rate among society was very low.”

Wang Lixiong: How did the conversion from Buddhism to Islam occur?

Kahar: Buddhism is a benign religion. Explorers have excavated monastic Buddhist clothing with bloodstains in Turpan coming from that period in history. Also, poems eulogizing Islamic holy war proudly write, “We destroyed the infidel temples of the Huihu Uyghurs, we shat and pissed on their shrines.”

Wang Lixiong: So you’re saying that the religious conversion relied on violence to be achieved?

Kahar: Yes. Islam first came through Kashgar via peaceful methods, through arriving missionaries, later, when expanding from Kasghar to Khotan, Turpan, and other places it was spread through holy war, brought with the sword.

Wang Lixiong: Which came first, the entrance of Islam into Xinjiang or the Mongol conquest of Xinjiang?

Kahar: The Islamic conquest came first. Islam arrived at Kashgar in the 10th century AD, but at this time it never went beyond the area from Kashgar to Khotan, and primarily existed in southern Xinjiang. After Islam had established a stable foundation in Kashgar, Kashgar dispatched troops to make war with Khotan, and they fought for 40 years. There weren’t any Mongols during that period. After being vanquished by Kashgar, Khotan’s millennia-old Buddhist dynasty was annihilated. However, Turpan remained a Buddhist state. Then the Khitan arrived, ruling over Xinjiang for 80 years, and after that, the Mongols. All those regions became part of Mongolian domains, however, the Mongols were also gradually assimilated by the local Turkic peoples.

Wang Lixiong: Did Islam continue to spread under Mongolian rule?

Kahar: After a century or two of Mongol rule, the upper strata of urban Mongol society gradually became Turkicized. They were the ones who brought soldiers to kill the Buddhist monks of Turpan and spread Islam to Turpan.

Wang Lixiong: In your view, was this religious conversion benificial or harmful?

Kahar: Islam arrived just as the Silk Road began disintegrated and as civilization was entering a dark age. Nevertheless, Islamicization strengthened the ethnic and cultural unity of the Uyghurs and made Uyghurs become a member of a powerful religious community.

Ancient Xinjiang Dynasties

Wang Lixiong: For many Han Chinese today the history of Xinjiang is entirely a blank space, they know it only as a region, and at most know a little about Zhang Qian and Ban Chao… from a territorial standpoint, did ancient Xinjiang exist as a single, intact unit, or was it rather divided into different countries? What approximately was the scope of its territory?

Kahar: Xinjiang existed in a divided state for two thousand years. High mountains, deserts, and poor transportation allowed several city-state polities to endure for several centuries, even a millennium. In 552, when the Western capital of the Göktürks2 was established in Yanqi, the ultimate Turkicized fate of the Xinjiang area was sealed. By the 10th century, all of Xinjiang had already completely Turkicized, or Uyghur-ized if you will. Later, even the Mongol invasion was unable to transform the Uyghur and Muslim aspects of Xinjiang society.

The Huihu Uyghurs were a branch of the Göktürks. After the Göktürks, in 744 the Huihu Uyghurs carried on the great grassland empire for another century. After the Uyghur Huihu Khanate was destroyed in 846, the Turkic people would never again unite into a single great Khanate. However, practically speaking the grasslands from Mongolia to Eastern Europe had all fallen into the hands of Turkic peoples.

Wang Lixiong: After the Huihu Uyghur Khanate, would Xinjiang itself ever again be fully united under a single kingdom?

Kahar: Two major powers emerged in Xinjiang after the Huihu Uyghur Khanate. The first was the Gaochang Huihu Khanate based in Turpan. As several historical documents attest, its territory reached north to Balasagun, which is in Kyrgyzstan, and south to Shazhou, which is Dunhuang. Also, there was the Qarakhanid dynasty of Kashgar, which stretched to Turkmenistan. With a century or two of the Mongol invasion, the upper class of the local Mongols had completely Islamicized and Uyghur-icized. They established the Yarkand Khanate. Turpan was the older brother, Yarkand was the younger brother, they belonged to one family. There were both Islamic powers. There is a phenomenon particular to Central Asia significant to world history that has been neglected by the historian community: in the two millenia from the Xiongnu to the Manchu, pastoral-nomadic powers of the grasslands and settled city-state powers existed in parallel. Two types of culture, two types of societies prospered and existed together. For the most part, the horseback peoples were the colonizers and the settled city-states were permitted self-rule. This is the dual nature of Central Asian history. This is very infrequently seen in throughout the world.”

Wang Lixiong: Where was the heart of the Huihu Uyghur Khanate located?

Kahar: The center of the Huihu Uyghur Khanate was Kharabalghasun, located at Karakorum in outer Mongolia. The Huihu Uyghur Khanate founded five cities, adopted Manichaeism as the state religion, and also began opening up land for cultivation, setting it apart from the Turkic Khanates that came before and after it and illustrating a move towards a settled lifestyle. Recently twenty, thirty fortresses established by Huihu Uyghurs were discovered in Tuvan regions of southern Siberia. It’s possible that Tuvans are descended from the men under General Julumohe who fled north in 840 seeking asylum among the Kyrgyz. At that time the center of the Huihu Uyghurs was the Yenisaitula river area. “Tuva” is a inflexion of “tula.” Mongols today still call it the Tuva River.

Wang Lixiong: How are today’s Uyghurs and the Huihu Uyghurs related?

Kahar: The words Huihu and Huihe are Old Chinese, Uyghur is the modern word. Huihu represents the Buddhist era, Uyghur represents the Muslim era, these are differences in the wording of the Chinese characters. These really are one people, one thing. There are two reasons its written this way, first, during the Yuan Dynasty a new northern Mandarin appeared and began to replace medieval pronunciations from the Tang dynasty, and many things had to be transliterated once again. The two characters “Huihu,” used during the Tang Dynasty, were written in the Yuan dynasty using the three characters “Weiwuer,” and consequently it was the Chinese language and pronunciation itself that changed.

Wang Lixiong: In that case, did the name Uyghurs used to refer to themselves also undergo changes?

Kahar: There were some changes. It appears that in medieval times “Uyghur” had a glottal consonant and a labiodental: “Hudghur.” We don’t know when exactly the glottal consonant turned into a vowel, but judging from the change in Chinese characters from “Hui” to “Wei” it occurred at least sometime before the Yuan dynasty. The change in the labiodental “d” to the semivowel “y” happened after the 10th century. For example, the change from “adaq” to “ayaq” for the word “foot,” and the change from “adiq” to “ayiq” for the word “bear”, et cetera. The “Yugur”3 ethnicity is simply a Han Chinese mispelling. The “Yugurs” are Uyghur, and local Han Chinese represented their ethonym through the two Chinese characters “Yugu.”

Wang Lixiong: Were the ancient cities of Gaochang and Jiaohe Uyghur, or did they belong to outsiders?

Kahar: At their earliest stages Gaochang and Jiaohe weren’t Uyghur, they were founded by local aboriginals, they’re very ancient city states, two millenia old. Apparently their most ancient names involved the sounds *KU and *CHI, which probably is related to the later terms Guizi and Cheshi. “Gaochang” also is a transliteration of this. Later the Rouran and Gaoche would fight over this area. The Rouran most likely were an Altaic people. Many scholars assert a link between the Gaoche and the Huihu Uyghurs. After the Rouran defeated the Gaochang, they set up the Qu clan, half-Sinicized barbarians, as the Kings of Gaochang. They used Chinese characters but had their own spoken language. The Book of Zhou says this. Consequently Chinese texts and documents excavated in Turpan have soom extremely strange characters and sentences, and we suppose that they used Chinese to write, but the local language to read. Later it would all gradually Turkicize.

Wang Lixiong: Ah, that then explains how Jiaohe and Gaochang weren’t founded by Han Chinese, the Chinese texts excavated there actually were created and used by local barbarians…

Kahar: Correct. When the Qu clan migrated from Lanzhou they used Chinese characters but maintained a number of their own cultural characteristics. That being said, how much can they really have said to have “Sinicized”? We don’t know, because during the North and South dynasties, the Sinicization of the north was a process that continued over the course of several centuries.

After the Three Kingdoms, very few Han remained in northern China, and the Xianbei began to shift southwards towards the central plains of China, leading to the Sixteen States period, converting to Buddhism and the use of Chinese characters. Buddhism furthered their Sinicization and caused many tribes to abandon their own language. We don’t know what language they originally spoke, most likely it was similar to the Tuoba language. Tuoba belongs to the Altaic Turkic languages.


[1]:^ A note on how I’ve translated 回鹘: this may be a cause for confusion, particularly for our readers who are less familiar with Xinjiang history. These Chinese characters can simply be transliterated as Huihu, or they can be rendered as Uyghur, and both would be correct since these are the both words used to refer to the Uyghur Khanate, a political entity that existed in the 8th and 9th centuries. Nevertheless, I believe that in this interview to render it purely as “Huihu” would be to neglect the important ties with modern day Uyghurs being discussed, and to render it simply as “Uyghur” would cause a confusing overlap between references to the historical entity and references to Uyghurs of today. Therefore, the awkward convention I’ve decided to go with is the Huihu Uyghur (Khanate).

[2]:^ Another potential source of confusion: in Mandarin, both the broader concept of “Turkic” [peoples] and a specific Central Asian polity that existed from the 6th to 8th century, the Göktürks, are referred to with the characters 突厥, Tujue. These terms are very much related, and the Turkic peoples of history and today can be considered to have derived their ethonym from the Göktürks and their predecessors in a sense similar to how today’s “Han” collectively derive their ethonym from the Han Dynasty. Nevertheless, in Mandarin discussions it can get confusing separating references to “Turkic-ness” in general and the Göktürk Khanate. Here, I’ve translated direct references to the historical entity as “Göktürk.” There’s a bit of editorial liberty being taken here by doing so.

[3]:^ Barat is referring to the roughly fifteen thousand “Yugur” people that reside today in Gansu province. These Yugurs, also known in many Western texts as the “Yellow Uyghurs,” are the descendants of the Uyghurs who fled southeast after the fall of the Uyghur Khanate to the Kyrgyz. They’ve retained both their Turkic language, which has diverged from the Uyghur language in Xinjiang over the past millennium, and their Buddhist beliefs.

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Comments 4

  1. Kaiser wrote:

    Wow, thanks for this translation! You’ve clearly put a ton of work into this. Looking forward to the next parts.

    Posted 27 Jul 2010 at 11:48 am
  2. Tom wrote:

    Great stuff!!!! More please

    Posted 07 Aug 2010 at 4:46 pm
  3. Uyghur wrote:

    Great, where is the rest?

    Posted 13 Aug 2010 at 6:11 am
  4. Bruce wrote:

    Many thanks for the translation work, and the fact that you have put this on your site which is accessible to those of us in China. I do not have a VPN and do not know how to use proxies, etc., to get around the Great Firewall of China.

    A question: Is there a book available in English, French or Chinese that gives a comprehensive and factual account of the history of the Turkic peoples of Xinjiang?

    Posted 23 Aug 2010 at 5:51 am

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