East Turkistan, the Uyghur homeland, is referred to as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by the Chinese regime. Xinjiang means new territory and is a colonialist title that we do not use. We prefer to use the historic and geographic name. As we speak, in addition to the mounting crimes occurring there due to China’s genocidal policies and digital authoritarianism, the Chinese regime is literally exterminating the Uyghurs.
East Turkistan has a rich history and diverse geography. It has grand deserts, magnificent mountains, and beautiful rivers, grasslands, and forests.
The Manchu Invasion
The independent Uyghur Kingdom in East Turkistan — the Seyyid Kingdom, also known as Yarkent Kingdom — was invaded by the Manchu rulers of China in 1759 who annexed East Turkistan into their empire. The Manchus ruled East Turkistan as a military colony from 1759 to 1862. During this period, the Uyghurs and other peoples of East Turkistan valiantly opposed the foreign rule in their land. They revolted 42 times against Manchu rule with the purpose of regaining their independence. The Manchu were finally expelled in 1864 and Uyghurs established Yetteshahar State. However, the independence was short-lived, Manchus invaded East Turkistan again in 1876. After eight years of bloody war, the Manchu Empire formally annexed East Turkistan into its territories and renamed it “Xinjiang” (meaning “New Territory”) on November 18, 1884.
Chinese Rule in East Turkistan
After the Chinese Nationalists overthrew the Manchu Empire in 1911, East Turkistan fell under the rule of warlords of Chinese ethnicity who came to dominate provincial administration in the later years of the Manchu Empire. The Chinese central government had little control over East Turkistan during this period. The Uyghurs, who wanted to free themselves from foreign domination, staged numerous uprisings against Chinese rule. Twice (in 1933 and in 1944) succeeded in setting up an independent East Turkistan Republic (ETR). However, these independent republics were overthrown by the military intervention and political intrigue of the Soviet Union.
In October of 1949, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops marched into East Turkistan, effectively ending the East Turkistan Republic. The Chinese communists established the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the territory of East Turkistan.
The Chinese communist reign in East Turkistan can be considered the darkest chapter in the history of the Uyghurs and East Turkistan. Under the current conditions, the very existence of the Uyghur nation is under threat. Despite all the brutal and destructive campaigns by the Chinese government against their identity and existence, the Uyghurs and other indigenous peoples of East Turkistan refuse to be subjugated by China and keep carrying the torch of resistance against Chinese occupation, handed down to them by their ancestors.
Since Mao’s occupation of East Turkistan on 1949, the government has tried relentlessly to destroy Uyghur culture and religion. Uyghurs have been persecuted under the label of “Nationalists”, “Counter revolutionaries” and “Separatists.” Following 9-11 tragedy, Communist authorities rebranded the effort as a “War on Terrorism.” Today the people of East Turkistan have become the victims of Xi Jinping’s signature project, “One Belt, One Road” initiative. The entire region is branded. Punishment is cultural and collective. Over three million people are in detention without being charged, or with false and illegal charges. Counties, districts, and neighborhoods are filling quotas. China has characterized all political resistance as “Islamic terrorism,” and on that pretext developed a surveillance state built on DNA collection, ubiquitous cameras, facial-recognition software & GPS tracking devices on vehicles.
Rushan Abbas of Campaign for Uyghurs says:
Since April 2017, millions of Uyghurs have been rounded up by Chinese authorities and sent to large modern-day concentration camps. A document quoted the party secretary Chen Quango on detention centers stating the camps should “teach like a school, be managed like the military and be defended like a prison” and “must first break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.” These chilling words stated in an internal document, reported by the media, only touch on Beijing’s harsh policies towards the Uyghurs.
The entire region is branded. Punishment is cultural and collective. More than 3 million people in detention are charged with no crime. Counties, districts, and neighborhoods are filling quotas. China has characterized all political resistance as “Islamic terrorism,” and on that pretext developed a surveillance state built on DNA collection, ubiquitous cameras, facial-recognition software, police checkpoints on every corner, GPS tracking devices on vehicles, and QR codes on every home.
East Turkistan is the homeland of the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs and other Central Asian peoples such as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars, and Tajiks.
According to the latest Chinese census of 2010, the current population of East Turkistan is 21.81 million, including 8.75 million ethnic Han Chinese (40,1%), who illegally settled in East Turkistan after 1949 (the ethnic Han Chinese numbered 200,000 in 1949). The Uyghurs make up at least 12 million of the population. However, Uyghur sources put the real population of Uyghurs around 20 million.
Throughout history, independent states established by the ancestors of the Uyghurs and other indigenous peoples thrived and prospered in the lands of East Turkistan. Situated along a section of the legendary Silk Road, Uyghurs played an important role in cultural exchanges between East and West and developed a unique culture and civilization of their own.
In their early history, the Uyghurs, like most of the other Turkic peoples of Central Asia, believed in Shamanism, Manichaeism, and Buddhism. Starting from the 1st century AD and until the arrival of Islam, East Turkistan became one of the great centers of Buddhist civilization.
The conversion to Islam began when contacts between Uyghurs and Muslims started at the beginning of the 9th century. During the reign of the Karahanidin kings, the Islamization of Uyghur society accelerated. Kashgar, the capital of the Karahadin Kingdom, quickly became one of the major learning centers of Islam. The arts, sciences, music, and literature flourished as Islamic religious institutions nurtured the pursuit of an advanced culture. In this period, hundreds of world-renowned Uyghur scholars emerged. Thousands of valuable books were written. Among these works, the Uyghur scholar Yusup Has Hajip’s book, Kutadku Bilig (The knowledge for Happiness, 1069-1070), and Mahmud Kashgar’s Divan-i Lugat-it Turk (a dictionary of Turk language) are most influential.
East Turkistan covers an area of 1.82 million square kilometers, which is twice as large as the Republic of Turkey or four times as large as the American state of California. More than 43 percent of this area is covered by deserts and another 40 percent is covered by mountain ranges.
This huge land is characterized mainly by two basins bounded by three mountain ranges. The two basins are the Tarim Basin in the south, which measures 530,000 square kilometers, and the Junggar Basin in the north, which covers an area of 304,200 square kilometers. The Tarim Basin contains one of the largest deserts in the world — the Taklamakan desert. The Junggar basin contains the Kurbantunggut desert.
Tengritagh mountain range crosses the central part of East Turkistan, dividing the country into south and north. Within East Turkistan, the Tengritagh mountain range is 1,700 kilometers long and 250-300 kilometers wide. Altay mountain range in the north forms the border of East Turkistan with Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Its section within East Turkistan is 400 kilometers long. The Kunlun mountain in the south forms the border between East Turkistan and Tibet.
The most important rivers are the Tarim River (2,137 km long), traversing almost the whole length of the southern part of East Turkistan and emptying into the desert. The Ili River flows west to Kazakhstan and into Lake Balqash. The Irtish River flows northwest out of East Turkistan and into the Arctic Ocean. The Karashaar River flows east from central Tengritagh into Lake Baghrash.
Uyghur, formerly known as Eastern Turki, is a Turkic language spoken in East Turkistan mainly by the Uyghur ethnic group. It has around 20 million speakers in East Turkistan and is also spoken by roughly one million people in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and by Uyghur communities in Afghanistan, Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Mongolia, Noway, Netherlands, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Egypt.
Like many other Turkic languages, Uyghur displays vowel harmony and agglutination, lacks noun classes or grammatical gender, and is a left-branching language with Subject Object Verb word order.
The Uyghur language belongs to the Uyghuric or Southeastern group of the Turkic language family, which is controversially a branch of the Altaic language family. The languages most closely related to it include Uzbek, Ili Turki, and Aini. Some linguists consider the Turkic languages to be part of the larger Altaic language family, but others believe there is not enough evidence to support this claim.
Early linguistic scholarly studies of Uyghur include Julius Klaproth’s 1812 Dissertation on language and script of the Uighurs which was disputed by Isaak Jakob Schmidt. In this period, Klaproth correctly asserted that Uyghur was a Turkic language, while Schmidt believed that Uyghur should be classified as a Tangut language.
Old Uyghur or Old Turkic is an ancient form of Turkic used from the 7th to the 13th centuries in Mongolia and the Uyghurstan/East Turkistan region, in particular in the Orkhon inscriptions and Turpan texts. It is the direct ancestor of the Southeastern Turkic, or Uyghur-Chaghatai, family of languages, including the modern Uyghur and Uzbek languages. By contrast, Yugur, although in geographic proximity, is more closely related to the northeastern Turkic languages in Siberia.
During the 11th century, a scholar of the Turkic languages, Mahmud al-Kashgari (Memhud Qeshqeri) from Kashgar in modern-day Xinjiang, published the first Turkic language dictionary and description of the geographic distribution of many Turkic languages with his “Compendium of the Turkic Dialects” (Divān-ul Lughat-ul Turk).
Old Uyghur, through the influence of Perso-Arabic after the 13th century, developed into the Chagatai language, a literary language used all across Central Asia until the early 20th century. After Chaghatai fell into extinction, the standard versions of Uyghur and Uzbek were developed from dialects in the Chaghatai-speaking region, showing abundant Chaghatai influence. The Uyghur language today shows considerable Persian influence as a result of Chaghatai, including numerous Persian loanwords. Modern Uyghur uses the Urumchi dialect in Xinjiang as its standard, while a similar Ili dialect is used in the former Soviet Union. Russian sources cite the central dialect of Ghulja (Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture) as the pronunciation norm for modern Standard Uyghur. The similar pronunciation of Zhetysu and Fergana Uyghurs is considered standard for Uyghurs living in the Central Asian countries.
Toward the end of the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th century, scientific and archaeological expeditions to the region of East Turkistan’s Silk Road discovered numerous cave temples, monastery ruins, wall paintings, as well as valuable miniatures, books, and documents. Explorers from Europe, America, and even Japan were amazed by the art treasures found there, and soon their reports caught the attention of an interested public around the world. These relics of the Uyghur culture constitute today’s major collections in the museums of Berlin, London, Paris, Tokyo, St. Petersburg, and New Delhi. The manuscripts and documents discovered in East Turkistan reveal the very high degree of civilization attained by the Uyghurs. This Uyghur power, prestige, and civilization, which dominated Central Asia for over a thousand years, went into a steep decline after the Manchu invasion of their homeland.