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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

"No one can take away who we are"

June 13, 2008

Arfiya Eri, Georgetown University
Columbia East Asia Review
Volume 1, Spring 2008

"This land is our heritage. This land is our home. No one can take
away who we are." These were the words of my former student, a young
Uighur boy living in Urumqi. The statement arose after I suggested a
new discussion topic to the Advanced English class I instructed:
Uighur identity in Xinjiang. As I asked one Uighur girl about her
views on vanishing Uighur culture, she said, "Wo keyi yong zhongwen
huida ma?" (Can I answer in Chinese?) "You're Uighur, aren't you?" I
asked. "Shi" (Yes), she replied -- again in Chinese. "Then, can we
try to communicate in our own language?" As I proposed this new
challenge for her, an expression of subtle fear crept across her
face. "I'm really bad at Uighur," she said. "I've studied in Chinese
schools all my life. I can't speak it."

Since 2002, I have volunteered my summer vacations to teach English
to Uighur students in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang Uighur
Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China (PRC). The region
is the homeland of eight million Uighurs, my parents included. The
aforementioned conversation with my student took place during my
third summer teaching English. By that time, I had observed the
profound effect of the influx Han Chinese and the promotion of
Mandarin-language education programs on Uighur heritage, culture, and language.

China's northwestern borderland, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous
Region, is more than just the nation's largest and most ethnically
diverse province. Xinjiang is unique among the regions of Han
Chinese-dominated mainland China, despite its lose territorial
incorporation into the empire of the Qing dynasty during the late
eighteenth century, and full incorporation into the PRC as an
autonomous region in 1955. This is primarily due to its large Turkic
Muslim population, cultural and historical links to Central Asia, and
geographic remoteness from major Han Chinese cities. The Uighur, a
Turkic people of the Silk Road oases, have inhabited the region for
centuries as the majority among many ethnic groups. In recent years,
however, they are gradually becoming a minority as more and more Han
Chinese migrate to the area to reap the economic benefits of the
PRC's "Develop the West" campaign.[1]

While the migration of Han Chinese to various areas of Xinjiang has
brought more infrastructure, development, and investment to the
region, the emerging Man

Mandarin-oriented job market and extraction of Xinjiang's natural
resources give few benefits of the campaign, if any, to Uighurs.
Income disparities between Han Chinese and Uighurs continue to
increase in the old Silk Road cities of Xinjiang, such as Kashgar and
Ho...............tan. Rapid urbanization of Uru.mqi has also resulted
in the Sinicization of the city and its people; among Uighur
teenagers who have studied in Chinese schools, the inability to read,
write, or speak Uighur is a common phenomenon.

There were several reasons behind my decision to begin teaching
English in Xinjiang. Having visited Urumqi with my parents every year
since childhood, I was interested in interacting with Uighur
teenagers of my own age. Although I already spoke fluent Uighur and
was familiar with Uighur culture, having never actually lived in
Xinjiang, I felt very distant from the region's Uighur population.
English-language training was also becoming popular among the Uighurs
of Urumqi, and they increasingly sought to learn English in order to
survive in the Han Chinese-oriented job market. However, there was a
significant lack of fluent English speakers in Xinjiang.

With these factors in mind, I decided to put my Uighur and English
skills to use during the summer of 2002 while residing at my
relative's house in Ghulja, a northern city near Urumqi. That first
summer, at the age of thirteen, I taught English to middle school
students. The following summer, I stayed at another relative's
apartment. These experiences were very rewarding and turned teaching
into a passion for me. For the next four years, I devoted my summers
to helping Uighur teenagers develop their knowledge of English.

In 2005, my classroom was located on Yan An Street, which allowed me
to observe that the Yan An Street neighborhood[2] was an exception to
the trend toward Sinicization seen in other areas of Urumqi. The
smell of kebabs and naan, the sound of Turkish music, and loud Uighur
conversations from outside often filled the classroom; my students
listened to music from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkey
rather than from other regions of China; the surrounding streets were
filled with newly opened Uighur supermarkets offering customers a
full choice of Halal foodstuffs from Turkey and Central Asia; and the
Uighur atmosphere and newly constructed apartment complexes on Yan An
Street were beginning to attract middle- and upper-class Uighurs and
Turkic Central Asian expatriates[3] to the area. I realized that,
amidst growing Han Chinese influence in Xinjiang, which confronted
Uighurs with serious cultural and social threats to their Turkic
heritage, the survival of Uighur culture was taking an unexpected
course on Yan An Street. In this traditionally Uighur neighborhood,
modern Uighur culture and identity continued to flourish. In fact,
the area was becoming a cultural hotspot influenced primarily by the
Turkic West rather than the Han Chinese East.

My research on the new expression of Uighur identity was thus
informed by these initial observations during my stay in 2005. In the
summer of 2007, I returned to Yan An Street to conduct interviews and
field surveys on the topic of Uighur identity in Urumqi. Through my
research, I observed the many economic and social forces of
globalization currently aiding the survival of Uighur culture. Opened
borders, unrestricted trade, and increased cultural exchange connect
Uighurs to Turkic peoples of the West and offer them new consumption
choices for Turkic products. The growing economic and cultural
interactions between the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the Turkic peoples
of Central Asia are what keep Uighur Turkic identity strong.

My field research focused on examining consumer culture in relation
to Uighur cultural identity in the vicinity of Yan An Street and two
conncted streets, Shanshihanza and Dongkoruk. Through field surveys,
I examined various aspects of Uighur consumer culture, including
music, foodstuffs, daily goods, and real estate, and observed that
the Yan An Street neighborhood's vibrant Uighur consumer culture is
what attracts Urumqi's Turkic minority groups to the area. Many
Uighur supermarket chains such as Arman and Ihlas are present on the
main avenues, offering Turkish pastries, frozen Uighur foodstuffs,
and even Halal "cup Uighur noodles," all of which are difficult to
find in Chinese markets.

My research also included interviews of Yan An Street music store
owners, many of whom stated that Uzbek music was the most popular
among local Uighurs, followed by Uighur music from Kazakhstan and
Turkish music. Both local consumers and sellers attributed the
popularity of Uzbek music to its closeness to Uighur music, as well
as Uzbek's linguistic similarity to Uighur.[4] This popularity is on
full display in the large selection of CDs and VCDs of Uzbek singers
available in the music stores. While this reflects the strong
influence of Central Asian music in Uighur entertainment culture, the
trend is tempered by the growing popularity among young people of
Uighur performers singing in Mandarin to Uighur-style music. These
singers symbolize the current social expectation for young Uighurs to
be fluent in Mandarin and also proud to be Uighur.

A real estate agent I interviewed specified that there are two areas
of real estate within the capital city of Urumqi: the "ethnic area"
and the "Han area." Many residents of the "ethnic area," or what the
locals call the milli area, listed its live music, lively crowds, and
cosmopolitan nature -- aspects seen as undesirable just a few years
ago -- as the biggest reasons why they had moved to the neighborhood.
The real estate agent also attributed Yan An Street's draw among
Uighurs and Central Asian merchants to its well-established Uighur
consumer culture, the high ratio of minority residents, and the
area's proximity to schools with large Uighur student and faculty
populations, including Xinjiang University. The growing popularity of
the area and an overall rise in real estate prices across Urumqi has
resulted in a tripling of Yan An Street's real estate during the
period from 2003 to 2007.

At the same time, the greater presence of Central Asian expatriates
on Yan An Street has made Russian -- following Uighur and Mandarin --
a major language of the neighborhood.[5] This is exemplified on the
faces of the numerous signs written in Uighur, Mandarin, and Russian.
Thus, the presence of Russian- and Turkic-speaking Central Asian
merchants has contributed to both the Uighur and Turkic character of
the area as a whole.

Overall, my field surveys allowed me to view the neighborhood of
Shanshihanza, Dongkoruk, and Yan An Street -- an area with which I
was already well acquainted -- from a fresh perspective. My research
suggests that, despite the growing influence of Han Chinese culture,
the economic and social forces of globalization have empowered the
Uighurs of Urumqi with new ways to express and preserve their Turkic
identity. Additionally, the evolving economic and cultural
interdependencies between the Uighurs of Xinjiang and Turkic peoples
to the West have shifted efforts to preserve Uighur identity away
from political and violent means toward cultural and economic means.
It is my sincere hope that this growing regional interaction will
continue to foster understanding, respect, and communication between
all the ethnic groups converging in Xinjiang: Central Asian, Uighur,
and Han Chinese alike.

---------------
Notes:

1. The "Develop the West" (Xibu da kaifa) campaign began in 2000 and
aims to decrease the income and development disparities between large
Chinese cities of the East and less-industrialized cities of the
West. The campaign has developed infrastructure, encouraged
investment, and contributed to Xinjiang's flourishing trade. The
expanding job market and incentives given to migrants to Xinjiang
have spurred rapid migration of Han Chinese to the minority-dominated
province. Despite success in many areas, the ongoing campaign has
partially excluded ethnic minorities from the development and
investment loop, increasing the income disparity between Han Chinese
and the region's ethnic minorities.
2. The area on and around the three connected streets of
Shanshihanza, Dongkoruk (Chinese: Er Dao Qiao) and Yan An Street
compose a neighborhood with a distinctly Uighur atmosphere unique to
this area of Urumqi today.
3. The term "Turkic Central Asian expatriates" refers to merchants
hailing from Central Asian republics (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan,
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) and the Turkic Caucuses
(Azerbaijan) that were part of the USSR until 1991. Aside from
Tajikistan, all of these nations are considered Turkic, sharing the
same ethnic origin and identity. The Uighurs of Xinjiang share ethnic
roots with the Turkic people of Central Asia and the Caucusus. These
ethnic roots are one cause of the ethnic division between Han Chinese
and Uighurs that exists in Xinjiang today.
4. The Turkic language group is a Ural-Altaic language group that
encompasses many native tongues of the Turkic people. Many of these
languages are similar, and some can be mutually intelligible. Uighur
and Uzbek, or Kazakh and Kyrgyz, for example, are often generalized
as very similar and mutually intelligible.
5. Many people, if not all, from Central Asian Republics and Caucuses
speak Russian (a non-Turkic language) due to its previous inclusion
in the USSR.
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