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The best books on Uyghur Nationalism

recommended by Michael Dillon

Xinjiang in the Twenty-First Century: Islam, Ethnicity and Resistance by Michael Dillon

Xinjiang in the Twenty-First Century: Islam, Ethnicity and Resistance
by Michael Dillon


It's hard to understand what's going on in the Xinjiang region of China and the nationalism of the Uyghurs who live there without reading some history. Here Professor Michael Dillon, a historian at King's College London, suggests books to read on the Uyghurs, focusing in particular on scholars and diplomats whose work gives insight into the period before the Chinese Communist takeover in 1949.

Xinjiang in the Twenty-First Century: Islam, Ethnicity and Resistance by Michael Dillon

Xinjiang in the Twenty-First Century: Islam, Ethnicity and Resistance
by Michael Dillon

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Your first two books are by the same author: Owen Lattimore. What makes him such an important figure in this field?

He was a writer who was respected in the 1930s and 1940s. He was the editor of Pacific Affairs, an influential journal, and he was an influential commentator on Asian affairs. What impresses me is the breadth of his knowledge of Asia, his knowledge of Asian languages, his knowledge of Asian culture, and his ability to relate to people living in the region. However, during the 1950s he suddenly fell foul of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist House Committee on Un-American Activities, as did a number of American China specialists, although he, like many of McCarthy’s other victims, was not a Communist. Unable to find work in the United States, he came over to the UK where he established a Department of Chinese Studies and a Mongolian Studies Centre in Leeds. He was my first teacher of Chinese history and taught the period of history that he had experienced himself without notes, combining analysis and anecdotes which made the China of the 1930s and 1940s come alive.

Tell me about Inner Asian Frontiers of China. I notice it was first published in 1940. Why is it still relevant today?

It hasn’t really been superceded in spite of its age. It was the first serious study in English of the historical relationship between China and Central and Inner Asia, including those parts of Central and Inner Asia which are now considered by the Chinese to be part of China, in other words Tibet, Xinjiang and Mongolia. There had been studies in Russia, but this book really covered the topic from a completely different angle. It was also based both on academic study and Lattimore’s experience in China because he had travelled widely in China, Mongolia and Xinjiang, partly as a result of his job which involved trading between those different parts of China. So it was a combination of academic study and his experience on the ground, a combination that I consider to be extremely important.

What does the book offer people who want to know more about the Uyghurs’ relationship with China?

What it really does is to trace the relationship between what can be broadly called the agricultural societies of China proper and the nomadic steppe societies of Inner Asia. The book looks at them as a totality, in a way that hasn’t since been repeated. Lattimore’s most important contribution is that he demonstrates that the conflicts and problems that exist between China and its Inner Asian frontiers today are nothing new and that they go back at least to the 1930s and in fact much further back than that. He divides his study into two. In the first part he looks at the historical background going right through Chinese history from the earliest periods. Some of the details that he presents may be considered irrelevant today, scholars of different periods will wish to query his interpretations and will want to update the account. The second half of the book focuses on the constituent regions of Inner Asia and analyses them in turn but it is the fact that he deals with the whole region as one that is rather unusual.

Your second book is Lattimore’s Pivot of Asia: Sinkiang* and the Inner Asian Frontiers of China and Russia. What does it add to the first?

Whereas Inner Asian Frontiers examines the whole Inner Asian region from Manchuria right round to Tibet, Pivot of Asia concentrates on the question of Xinjiang which was thought in the 1940s and 1950s to be one of the most significant issues in Asian geopolitics. It’s very interesting that it then lost prominence and people stopped thinking about the region until the 1980s or 1990s. But the question of who really controlled Xinjiang in the 1930s and 1940s occupied the minds of many analysts of Asia. And what Owen Lattimore was able to do then was to assemble a team based in the United States and look at not only the political history of the Xinjiang region, but also its demography, ethnic make-up and the economy. It gives us a clear picture of what Xinjiang was like before the Chinese Communist Party came to take control of it in 1949 and that again reinforces my idea that we shouldn’t look at the current conflict in Xinjiang as a very recent event: it is essential to consider the historical background to begin to understand the reasons behind it.

And what does the book show that the reasons for it are?

Pivot of Asia reveals a complex and divided society in which there were tensions between the different Muslim communities in addition to a distance from, and disdain for, the central government of China by all, including many local Han residents. By 1949 Xinjiang had undergone its own revolutionary changes which included attempts by Uyghurs and Hui Muslims to establish their own administrations. These were only partly successful and this unfinished business was inherited by the CCP in 1949 which attempted to resolve it according to its own principles.

And what was Xinjiang like before 1949?

It was a poor, underdeveloped region, remote from the major centres of power, whether in China or in Central Asia. During the Republican era, which is the period between 1911 and 1949, it was considered to be part of China but as the Republic disintegrated—because of civil war between warlords and the occupation by the Japanese—it gradually became more and more independent, initially under its own warlord governors who were of Han Chinese origin. However, towards the end of the Republican period, the Muslim population, both the Uyghurs and the Hui (the Chinese speaking Muslims) gradually began to play a greater role in local politics. There were two independent regimes, the first in the southern Xinjiang city of Kashgar in the 1930s. This was initially an independent Uyghur government, but it was overthrown by the warlord armies of the Chinese-speaking Hui.

“The question of Xinjiang…was thought in the 1940s and 1950s to be one of the most significant issues in Asian geopolitics”

There was a second, more influential, independent government in the 1940s, this time in the north of Xinjiang in the city that the Uyghurs call Ghulja and the Chinese call Yining. This was promoted as a multi-ethnic republic but in fact it was dominated by Uyghurs: the Hui Muslims who in any case do not have such an important presence in that part of Xinjiang didn’t play a great part in it. So even at this point, in the 1940s before the Chinese Communist Party came to take over that region, the ethnic tensions and political complexity were already apparent.

So why do you think the problems in Xinjiang moved off the radar in 1949?

It did as far as Westerners were concerned. From 1949 onwards the West was initially concerned with what they thought of as the Sino-Soviet bloc. Following the Second World War and in the early phase of the Cold War, it was assumed that there was an unbreakable alliance between the Soviet Union and China. Western analysts were concentrating on what Moscow said and what China said and the area in between—Central and Inner Asia—was inaccessible to foreign observers including journalists and academics. Very little was known about what was going on in those regions. Xinjiang was subject to the policies of China in the same way that the Turkic-speaking Muslim regions on the other side of the border in the Soviet Union were subject to the dictates of Moscow. The West was only interested in the general policies that Moscow and Beijing were articulating. Gradually, as the relations between Moscow and Beijing deteriorated, analysts began to look at the dispute between the two, but the smaller regions in between were still ignored, largely because there was no access to these regions and very little reliable information on what was happening there.

Let’s look at Gunnar Jarring’s Return to Kashgar.

Gunnar Jarring again is someone who had experience in Xinjiang and the surrounding area from 1929 onwards. He was an internationally respected Swedish diplomat who held ambassadorial posts all around the world, including a key appointment at the United Nations. However, at the same time he carried on with his scholarship in what we would today call Uyghur studies, although the word Uyghur was not used very much in those days. His book, Return to Kashgar, is not particularly well-known but it is interesting because it contrasts a visit he made in 1978 with his time in the region in the 1920s and it gives some idea of both the continuity and change in Kashgar society. Kashgar is the town in the southwest of Xinjiang which is in many ways the most important centre of Uyghur culture and religion. It has a Muslim history which goes back certainly to the 15th and 16th century and probably further back than that. So Gunnar Jarring’s studies of that area are very important. What struck me about the book is that, although he was trying to emphasise the changes that had taken place between the 1920s and 1970s, many things actually seemed to be surprisingly similar.

Such as?

The bazaars, the way people dressed, the type of housing they favoured, their attachment to Islam and the importance they attached to Uyghur and Muslim culture. The significance of the book is that it also serves as an introduction to the much wider body of work that Gunnar Jarring produced. He carried out a great many literary and linguistic studies and translated many folk tales and other stories and documents from what we would call today the Uyghur language, but which at the time was known as Turki, and made these available to English speakers. This vast body of work included a dictionary of the Uyghur language and a pioneering study of the place names of Xinjiang. So in addition to his distinguished diplomatic career he was a scholar of immense standing.

Your fourth book is Andrew Forbes’s Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia: A Political History of Republican Sinkiang 1911-1949. Critics say it’s of relevance not only to the history of twentieth-century China, but also to the politics of Islamic reassertion in Central Asia. Is that why you’ve picked it out?

Yes, it was a very important study. I think there’s a pattern emerging here because Andrew Forbes was also at Leeds University. This book was published in 1986 and it was really, following Lattimore, the first attempt to try and write a political history of the Republican period (1911 to 1949) in Xinjiang from a historian’s point of view rather than as a historical geography or an area study. He used the materials that were available at that time in the British National Archives. He was attempting to analyse the complexities of not only the different ethnic groups but also all the different political factions. That period can certainly be characterised as a period of Islamic resurgence—as indeed can the unrest of the 1990s which was the precursor of the riots of July 2009. However, Forbes’s book is not solely focused on Islam, but analyses the resurgence of a form of Turkic nationalism in Xinjiang at a time when there was much debate about the rise of Pan-Turkism—the theory that all of the Turkish-speaking societies, from Turkey through Central Asia to Xinjiang, were likely to emerge in a political alliance. What Andrew Forbes talks about is the fact that Islam is part of this Pan-Turkism, this Turkish resurgence. The administrations that emerged from the political turmoil of that period in Xinjiang were Republican but also to a large extent religious and the people who came to power in these regimes insisted that they had certain Islamic characteristics.

Your final book is S. Frederick Starr’s Xinjiang: China ‘s Muslim Borderland. Does that echo some of those themes?

I picked this because it is a modern and fairly comprehensive study of Xinjiang and because, in many ways, it echoes the work that Lattimore did in the 1950s by getting together a group of people in a workshop and providing them with the kind of resources that only the United States can manage. There are a dozen or so authors. Between them, they have looked at the same kind of issues that Lattimore examined in the 1950s and their work brings the story up to the present day. Different sections of the book consider topics as diverse as the economy, demography, education, the current state of Islam and the presence of the military in Xinjiang. Many books on Xinjiang have appeared over the last 10 years and this is one of the more substantial of them.

* Editor’s note: ‘Sinkiang’ is an alternative spelling for Xinjiang region, dating from the era before pinyin became the standard romanisation system for Chinese names. The Chinese characters are 新疆, meaning ‘new territory’. 

August 3, 2009

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Michael Dillon

Michael Dillon

Michael Dillon is a professor at King's College London, and a specialist in the history, politics and society of China. He was founding Director of the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Durham. At the time of this interview in 2009 he was a Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Michael Dillon

Michael Dillon

Michael Dillon is a professor at King's College London, and a specialist in the history, politics and society of China. He was founding Director of the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Durham. At the time of this interview in 2009 he was a Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.