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Uyghur Culture



A camel caravan on the road near Tianshan mountain.


Who are the Uyghurs?

The word “Uyghur” refers to both the indigenous people and their language of the current Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. The Uyghurs are the descendents of the Turkic-speaking migrants from Mongolia who founded the Uyghur Empire (744-840 C. E.) located near the present-day Xinjiang region in China. The early Turkic people spoke a language which was distantly related to the Turkish of Turkey, Kazakh and Kyrgyz. These Turkic tribes came into contact with the Chinese as their empire expanded and contracted from dynasty to dynasty. However, since mid-1930s, the Chinese government defined the modern Uyghurs as oasis-dwelling Muslims of Xinjiang’s Tarim Basin.


Life style

Lifestyles of the Uyghur people vary markedly by geographical locations. Therefore, the following lifestyles adopted by the Uyghurs are introduced according to their physical location.



A map of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China.

Xinjiang is divided by the great range of mountains, the Tianshan. The Zhungar basin lies to the north and the Taklamakan Desert and the Tarim Basin to the south and the two regions have significantly different histories and cultural identities. The southern part of Xinjiang is the Uyghur heartland, a mainly rural society which still lives by traditional oasis agriculture with the minimum of outside influence. In the north, with its mountains and grasslands, where Uyghurs have lived alongside Kazakhs and Mongols for centuries, nomadic pastorilism is an important part of the way of life and the influence of the Russian empire has been significant. Situated on the famous “Silk Road”, the ancient trading route which connects China and central Asian countries, the Uyghurs are also fine traders. After the formation of Eastern Turkistan in 847, the Uyghurs finally adopted a sedentary and even urban way of life.


Language and literature

The Uyghur language belongs to the eastern branch of the Turkic family and is most closely related to Uzbek language. It is in fact so close to Uzbek that many native Uyghur speakers take the view that the two languages are virtually identical, if allowance is made for the variation between dialects of the two languages. This linguistic relationship gives Uyghurs a ready means of communication with their counterparts in Central Asia, but not with the Han Chinese population of Xinjiang. Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has introduced Mandarin courses in school and encouraged students whose first language is not Chinese to take the National Chinese Language Standard Test, fluency in Mandarin among Xinjiang Uyghurs is still very poor. There is a serious language barrier between the Uyghur and Han communities, which inevitably results in misunderstanding between the two communities as well as Uyghurs’ perception of a separate identity.


Uyghur script relic.

Early Uyghur literatures were almost all related to religion, especially to Islam. The classic works of Uyghur literature, the Wisdom of Royal Glory by Yusuf Khass Hajib, was written in Kashghar in 1069. A series of dialogues makes up this book, teaching Islamic values to rulers with indirect references to the Qur’an and the hadiths. Besides, during the expeditions of ancient Uyghurs, narrative and epic works were also composed. Mahmud Kashgari's Divani Lugatit Turk, written in the same age as the Wisdom of Royal Glory, is a fine specimen among a plethora of such epics. Divani Lugatit Turk bears knowledge as to the dialects of various Turkic people living at that time. It also gives information about the dialectical differences of these Turkic people, their social upbringings, their customs, as well as the regions they inhabited. The author of this encyclopedic dictionary wandered amidst all of the Turkic peoples and studied all the data collected before he compiled his work. Thus it provides a sound academic basis for future studies of the original Turkic tribes. In fact, Divani Lugatit Turk, is one of the main source for Turkic Studies today.

Traditions---Music and festival

Uyghur music and dance can be characterized by its cheerfulness and exuberance. It is usually fast-paced, expressing a passion for life. Normally the males would play the traditional musical instruments like Dutar, Rawap and Khushtar, while the females would dance joyfully with a lot of body movements. Such vivacity is probably a legacy of the nomadic lifestyle of the Uyghur ancestors.

Traditional Uyghur music and dance.

Uyghur festivals are largely of Islam origin. The most important one is Qurban, Greater Eid, during which families would sacrifice domestic animals to commemorate the sacrifices made by phrophet Ibrahim. The festival lasts for three days and activities like praying at the mosque, horse racing, wrestling and dancing are common ways of celebration. Approximately seventy days before Qurban is the month of Ramadan. During the period, the Uyghur people refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset so as to practice modesty.

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