Monday, October 13, 2008

Uyghurs, Chinese Muslims, etc.   posted by Razib @ 10/13/2008 04:55:00 PM

Chinese Muslims, Uyghurs, have been in the news a bit. When I'm listening to them the radio I notice there's some confusion among some presenters as to the difference, if any, between Uyghurs and Chinese Muslims. Last spring I recall Chinese government mouthpieces basically make stuff up out of whole cloth about Tibet without any fluent rebuttal or challenge in the media, so it might be worthwhile to just clarify some issues here.

1) Uyghurs are Muslim

2) Most Muslims in China are not Uyghurs

3) A greater number of Muslims in China are Hui, Chinese dialect speaking Muslims (called Dungan in Central Asia)

4) Uyghurs as we know them today are to a great extent an artificial identity which served specific imperial and bureaucratic interests of the Russian, Chinese and Soviet states

The last is probably a bit confusing to you. In short who occurred in Central Asia in the 19th and the 20th centuries was that nation-empires sliced and diced various tribal and local level identities into discrete ethnicities. The broad substratum of sedentary peoples who spoke Turkic dialects from the Caspian to what is today Western China were traditionally bracketed under the appellation Sart. These peoples were often ruled by descendants of nomadic groups (they were to some extent sedentarized nomads themselves, though admixed with indigenous Indo-European elements), or, dominated by contemporary nomadic populations. The term "Uzbek" originally applied specifically to a ruling elite who conquered the sedentary populations after the decline of Timurlane's lineage in Central Asia. Russian ethnologists simply labeled all Turkic speaking peoples under Uzbek hegemony as Uzbeks; that is how all Turkish speaking peoples within the boundaries of the political borders of Uzbekistan became Uzbek. The Kazakh and Kirghiz populations were given national identities though these were in fact more realistically confederations of different tribes ("hordes") with minimal cross-linkages. The term Uyghur comes from an early medieval ethnic-political group which was hegemonic in the Tarim basin, but Uyghur identity had disappeared in this region with its more thorough Turkicization and Islamicization (the originally Uyghurs were Manichaean, though later they turned Buddhist, and their empre encompassed a far greater expanse than the Tarim Basin). There is a minor ethnic group in Central China which actually derives from the original Uyghurs, and is called by that name as well. By analogy, some Maronite Christians in Lebanon deny that they are Arabs and claim that they are descendants of the Phoenicians. Though this may be true, obviously there is little real cultural continuity between Phoenicians and Maronite Christians who speak Arabic and whose ancestors have likely spoken Arabic for ~1,000 years.

The above is just to make clear that if you scratch under the artificial construction of Uyghur national identity, you basically have Turkish speaking Muslims. In Sons of the Conquerors the author observes that Uyghur dissidents tend to congregate in Istanbul. This emphasizes the Pan-Turkic aspect of Uyghur nationalism, and in fact the Turkish dialect of the Uyghurs is intelligible with the Turkish spoke in Turkey. Just as the French authorities may tell the children of African immigrants about their "ancestors" the Gauls, so Uyghur elites have accepted the glorious past of the Uyghur nation (the early medieval Uyghur Empire was very influential in Chinese politics as foederati). On the other hand, ethnographic surveys suggest that non-elite Uyghurs have little Uyghur nationalist self-conception, and just identify as Muslims. To some extent this parallels what exists in Turkey between a Turkic and European identified secular elite, and non-elite segment which is Islamically oriented.

What gets more complicated when you talk about Chinese Muslims is that the most numerous group are Chinese speaking and physically and culturally resemble the Han majority. These are termed "Hui people," to denote the fact that they are conceived of as a national minority, and not necessarily a religion. That is, many Hui may be secular or atheistic, just as many Han are, but they will nevertheless retain a Hui self-conception. Unlike the Uyghurs the Hui have long been embedded in a Han Chinese cultural milieu. Their religious orientation obviously separates them from the Han, for it is understood that though a Han may be Christian, Buddhist or Daoist, a Han who accepts Islam becomes a Hui. Nevertheless, the Hui have traditionally been part of the Chinese national experience for nearly 1,000 years; the famous Ming admiral Zheng He was from a Hui Muslim background (though the extant evidence suggests he was not particularly orthodox in the way most Muslims would recongize and leaned toward the syncretistic orientation of the Han majority; a tendency which was probably common enough to explain rather widespread evidence of Hui in much of South China assimilating to Han society). This is in stark contrast to the Uyghur, who were generally outside the purview of Chinese cultural influence. Within the last 1,000 years when polities based out of China had power over what is now Xinjiang, those polities were not Chinese (e.g., the Mongol Yuan and the Manchus). Though the Manchu dynasty ruled as Confucian emperors within China proper, in Mongolia, Manchuria, Tibet and Turkic Central Asia they ruled as tribal warlords. By analogy, consider that the British Hanoverian dynasty ruled for nearly a century as kings of Great Britain but were the electors of Hanover, and so subjects for most of that period to the Hapsburg dynasty. In other words, for much of the Manchu period the rule over non-Chinese territories was one of personal fealty, not one of integration into the Chinese bureaucratic state.

This changed during the 19th century, and especially the 20th. A more direct attempt at rule of Xinjiang naturally led to resistance and rebellion. One of the more interesting ways that the Chinese central government attempted to integrate Xinjiang into the state was to use Hui, Chinese speaking Muslims, as proxies against Turkic Muslims. Though Hui groups in China proper revolted during the 19th century, in Central Asia they have often been seen to be tools of Chinese political and cultural hegemony. A disproportionate number of the Chinese settlers in Xinjiang, and merchants who trade in the former Soviet republicans of Central Asia, are Hui. While in China proper the Hui are a separate and distinct ethnic group with peculiar folkways (in many areas of China they are the only minority of appreciable numbers), in Turkic Central Asia their Chinese cultural characteristics become much more salient to both themselves and to other Muslims. Though with the rise of mass communication the religious Hui have become generally conventional Muslims, it is notable that during Islamic reformist revolts the Hui used Daoist motifs to motivate mass risings because that was the most efficient way to communicate to a Chinese speaking population with a Chinese sense of cultural history despite their religious distinctiveness.

All this is to clarify the point that anti-Chinese feeling in Xinjiang intersects with both religious and ethnic differences, and the existence of the Hui as a group whose relation to the Han majority is highly conditional on circumstances complicates the picture. Though the Hui are often at tension with the Han majorities among whom they live there is an established modus vivendi, facilitated in large part by the fact that linguistically and physically the Hui are no different than the Han (some Hui show evidence of their non-Chinese origins in their features, but these exemplars are actually outliers). The Han Chinese push into Xinjiang on the other hand brings to mind a different dynamic, while the Hui are Jews among gentiles, the Uyghurs are like the Sioux being encircled by homesteaders. Though Xinjiang has been under political rule of a China based government since the 18th century, for most of that period it was operationally indirect enough so that it had little effect on the average Uyghur peasant in the oases. Local Turkic elites served as intermediaries and proxies for the Manchu political elite, just as in China proper the Confucian bureaucracy administered the country under the direction of a non-Chinese military elite.

At this point numbers are hard to come by, but it is assumed that Han Chinese are probably a majority of the population of Xinjiang. But, an important point must be made that Xinjiang as a cultural-administrative unit is a creation of the Chinese government. During the 18th century the northern half of the province, Dzungharia, was populated predominantly by Buddhist Mongolian peoples. During a series of wars these regions were ethnically cleaned and Muslim Kazakhs and Uyghurs entered into this vacuum. It is in this region that the city of Urumqi is situated, and where most Han in Xinjiang reside. Until recently the heartland of the Uyghurs, the string of oases and cities around the Tarim Basin were spared large scale immigration by the Han (in part for reasons of lack of transportation). But with the completion of railroads all the way to Kashgar that isolation is ended and there are reports that the number of Han Chinese is now increasing. Naturally this will result in more ethnic conflict. Unlike in Tibet proper the elevation in Xinjiang is not so extreme as to make it physiologically uncomfortable for outsiders. On the other hand, like Alaska Xinjiang is strongly geared toward a resource extraction economy at this point, and it seems plausible that if the Chinese rate of growth decreases to a point which chokes demand somewhat then the net flow of settlement might reverse. But I suspect that that will only occur a generation from now when the development of China starts to approach a more stationary state.

Until then, it seems likely that the cities of the Tarim Basin where Uyghurs remain a majority, albeit a progressively marginalized majority, will be loci for conflict. Religion is often a very good way to mobilize, motivate and coalesce group identity, so it seems likely that the banner of Islamic resistance will come to the fore in future decades. But, it is important to remember that the Uyghurs are not the most numerous Muslim group in China, the Hui are, and the ultimate root of the conflict is probably less to do with religious differences as it does with the fact that the ethnic groups of China proper, the Han and the Hui, seem likely to dispossess the Turkic Muslim groups of Xinjiang in their own lands in the coming years.

Note: Numerical note. The Chinese census suggests that about 50% of the population of the traditionally Muslim nationalities in China are Hui, that is, Chinese speaking Muslims. 40% are Uyghur, with the balance being taken up mostly by other Central Asian groups. I say traditionally Muslim nationalities because it seems likely that a large percentage of the Hui are not religious believers, just as a large percentage of Han are not religious believers. Since they are tabulated as an ethnic group this is irrelevant to their identity as Hui. Now, consider if a subset of Hui become involved in radical transnational Islam which attempts to subborn the Chinese state; the fact that Hui identity is both ethnic and religious will come to the fore. Whatever issues that an atheist Hui might have as a perceived ethnic minority in Han China, it seems implausible that they would align themselves with the Islamic world over their identification with China, in particular since many of these Hui have abandoned Islamic ritual prescriptions in the compromises necessary to live in an urban milieu (think the orthodox Jews from Poland who arrived to America's shores to work in the textile factories and what not). In contrast, the non-Hui Muslims are far less well integrated into Chinese culture and are ill equipped to piggy-back upon the rise of the Chinese economy. Additionally, anecdotally I've read reports which suggest that the Uyghurs are generally practicing Muslims, to a far greater extent than the Turks of the former Soviet republics. So a "buy in" to some abstract pie-in-the-sky Caliphate seems much more plausible from that sector.

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