China // The Northwest //

The Uyghur

The Uyghur are the easternmost branch of the extended family of Turkic peoples who inhabit most of Central Asia. Around nine million Uyghurs live in Xinjiang with another 300,000 in Kazakhstan. Despite centuries of domination by China and some racial mingling along the way, the Uyghur remain culturally distinct from the Han Chinese, and many Uyghurs look decidedly un-Chinese – stockily built, bearded, with brown hair and round eyes. Although originally Buddhists, the Uyghur have been Muslim for at least a thousand years and Islam remains the focus of their identity in the face of relentless Han penetration.

As the Uyghurs are for the most part unable to speak fluent Chinese and therefore unable to attend university or find well-paid work, their prospects for self-improvement within China are generally bleak. It is also true that many Han Chinese look down on the Uyghurs as unsophisticated ruffians, and are wary of their supposedly short tempers and love of knives. Perhaps as a consequence of this, Uyghurs seem at times to extend their mistrust of Han Chinese to all foreigners, tourists included. Nevertheless, gestures such as drinking tea with them, or trying a few words of their language, will help to break down the barriers, and invitations to Uyghur homes frequently follow.