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The Music of China's Nomads

Xinjiang, China's Central Asia
By Anne-Laure Py

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is China’s westernmost province, home to almost 20 million people, including the majority of the country's 1.2 million Kazakhs, and almost 160,000 Kyrgyz.

Xinjiang mixes mountains, deserts and deep basins. Miles from any ocean, this is an arid land of wind and rock carved by glaciers and the movement of tectonic plates; the memory of earth. This is land dependent on mountain waters that nourish grape and melon fields during growing seasons.

Standing between 73˚3 and 96˚30 longitude and 34˚10 and 49˚31 latitude, it has long been a point in the Eurasian land mass where civilizations meet, and cultures collide. Xinjiang scholar Owen Lattimore dubbed the region the “Pivot of Asia.” Today, it is a Chinese Province, comprising one-sixth of China’s overall territory. Xinjiang is bordered to the East by the Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia and Gansu. It also features more than 5,600 kilometers of borders with eight countries including Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.

The region’s incorporation into the Chinese state is relatively new. Although links (cultural, commercial and political) have always existed between the people of this region and the Han Chinese, it was the Manchu-Qing dynasty that brought this area under Beijing’s sway in the late 18th century. The Chinese dubbed the region Xinjiang, or New Frontiers. Today, as host to more than 13 ethnic minorities, many of Turkic descent (Uighur, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks etc.), Xinjiang is a place of Turkic tongues and cultures. And even during the Communist era, it has remained a land of faith and religion, home to 23,000 of China’s 30,000 mosques.

As the rioting that broke out on July 5 underscores, a cultural struggle is playing out in Xinjiang. Local ethnic groups, especially Uighurs, are striving to defend their distinct traits in the face of Beijing’s efforts to promote cultural uniformity. The influx of wealth and economic development brought by the Han Chinese has added an additional layer to the cultural issue. Officials in Beijing insist episodes of unrest in recent years has been the work of Muslim terrorists.