The Uighurs, China's Embattled Muslim Minority, Are Still Seeking an Identity

Xinjiang's largest minority group still exists uneasily within the Chinese state—and there's little Beijing can do about it.
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Ethnic Uighur customers select goats at a fair on a street in Aksu, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. (William Hong)

In the winter of 2009, I was spending my weekends in the northeast Chinese city of Tangshan, and eating most of my food from the far-western province of Xinjiang. Like many minorities, the Uighur, the native people of Xinjiang, have made their chief impact on mainstream culture through cuisine. I have always favored their ubiquitous restaurants when traveling.

But there was something unfamiliar about the place I usually ate at in Tangshan; the waiters were young children. Two solemn little girls of about eight, wearing Muslim headscarves, would take my order and relay it to the kitchen, occasionally joined by their plump-cheeked older brother.

Putting the kids out front echoed the Chinese depiction of ethnic minorities, regularly represented—as in the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies—as children. It created a familiar, comfortable world for the majority Han clientele, especially since the kids, unlike their parents, spoke fluent Mandarin. When the back door opened, I sometimes got a glimpse of another world; a cluster of Uighur men and one woman smoking, cooking, and joking in their own language, entirely isolated from the diners.

After we had gotten on familiar terms—I let them play on my laptop—I asked the girls when they started working as waitresses. “In July,” they said. It wasn’t surprising that the restaurant might have wanted a friendlier face at that point. That was the time that a Uighur mob had tried to murder one of my friends.

When the back door opened, I sometimes got a glimpse of another world; a cluster of Uighur men and one woman smoking, cooking, and joking in their own language, entirely isolated from the diners.

I had met “Bruce” Li by chance on the Beijing subway in 2007. I was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a Swedish flag, and he greeted me with “God kvell,” then switched to English after my confused “Huh?” A scrawny, smiley Southerner, he had just finished his Master’s degree in linguistics and spoke four foreign languages even though he had never been overseas. We became friends; his careful, sympathetic interest in the world, books, and other cultures was a pleasure. He was leaving Beijing that fall for a Ph.D. at Xinjiang University in the provincial capital of Urumqi.

Language, like so much else, is contentious in Xinjiang, where many Uighur grow up learning, at best, rudimentary Mandarin (putonghua), China’s official language. For most Chinese citizens, mastery of Mandarin is a priority. Local “dialects” are discouraged in the media and in education, and heavy accents turn many employers off.

Yet the language policy of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) was surprisingly flexible from the start when it came to the ethnic minorities, giving minority tongues equal status as official languages in their own region, establishing minority-language schools, and encouraging Han cadres sent to the border regions to learn the local languages. Chinese bank notes throughout the country are written in five different scripts, including Uighur.

Among the Uighur, however, the policy has created two distinct groups: the minkaohan, minorities educated in Mandarin, and the minkaomin, educated in their own language. Minkaomin education is not taken seriously by non-Uighur employers, and not speaking Mandarin shuts minkaomin graduates out of jobs. In turn, they often resent minkaohan students as opportunistic and unfaithful to their own heritage. Li was interested in what language, Mandarin or Uighur, minkaohan used when they met each other, especially with a third-party present.

Beyond his work, he developed a passion for the landscape and the culture. We talked over e-mail, and he wrote me lyrical descriptions of driving to dunes and mountains, of being hosted at Uighur banquets, and of the flight of birds in clear skies. While most students at the university stuck with their own, he deliberately lived outside the school in a Uighur area, with three Uighur roommates.

He became trusted enough that “people were always showing me maps of East Turkestan and saying ‘Look, this is our country.’” Maps are another bitter topic in Xinjiang, since they are almost always published exclusively in Chinese, despite the region’s bilingualism, and the name “East Turkestan” is a rallying point for Uighur nationalism.

Use of the term without qualification—as in “the so-called East Turkestan”—is highly risky. By displaying the maps, mostly copies of pre-P.R.C. Western or Russian documents, Li’s friends were re-asserting their national identity even as they invited him into their circle. It was a simple message: Our country was here before your people were.

On July 5, 2009, Li was shopping with other students in the Grand Bazaar, one of the city’s main tourist attractions. A Polish girl with him received a phone call from a Uighur friend, who told her there was trouble brewing in the city center. They went to see the protest, which had taken an ugly turn. There were shouts, banners, and no sign of the police. As they watched, people began overturning cars, and they decided to split up and head home rather than risk serious trouble.

Li forced the escape window at the back open, and ran, still holding his watermelon. Some of the Uighur ran after him, holding knives. He threw the watermelon at them and kept running into the alleys.

Li was on the bus by himself, balancing a watermelon on his lap, when a crowd of young Uighur men, many of them waving knives, blocked the vehicle’s way. He raised his phone to take pictures and his seatmate, an older Han man, grabbed it from his hand, hissing, “Don’t aggravate them!” The mob began rocking the bus from side to side, the passengers, mostly Han, screaming. The bus toppled. Several men dragged the driver out, and, as Li told me a few months later over dinner in Beijing, “cut off his head.” (“Jesus fucking Christ!” I said loudly, startling the people at the next table.)

Li forced the escape window at the back open, and ran, still holding his watermelon. Some of the Uighur ran after him, holding knives. He threw the watermelon at them and kept running into the alleys. Eventually he found a group of other non-Uighur and took refuge in a hotel, where the staff sent them up to the 19th floor, shut down the elevators, and barricaded the staircases.

He could hear shouts from below, chants of “Kill the Han, smash the Hui [another Islamic minority in China], drive the Mongols out.” I heard similar versions of the chant later from other witnesses. Although sometimes the order of other groups was switched up, or the verb changed (“Cut the Kazakhs!”), the first clause was always the same. He stopped looking out of the window once the gunfire started, sporadic bursts in the night after the People’s Armed Police, China’s paramilitary force, entered the city.

The next day, police escorted him back to the university, where the students would be locked in, guards outside, for another week. On the way, he saw dozens of bodies strewn about the streets. “There were children,” he told me, shivering, “and a pregnant woman, with her stomach cut up. You know how I used to want to be a foreign correspondent? I don’t know how they can stand it, to go to places and see things like that. They must have very hard hearts.”

On the first night after the riot, he and the other non-Uighur students seriously expected to be attacked again. They barricaded the dorm and carried sticks and knives. “One of my Uighur friends gave me his knife,” he said drily. In the next few days, they watched with black amusement reports on Chinese television about how ethnic unity had been restored to Urumqi, and the mutual love between Han and Uighur could not be destroyed by terrorism. “They were boasting about how the bus system had been reopened—but the people on it were all plainclothes policemen.”

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James Palmer is an editor for the English edition of The Global Times, and writes on modern Chinese history and society for Aeon Magazine.

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