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Introduction to the Uyghur People

One of the Largest Ethnic Minorities in China

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Introduction to the Uyghur People

Uyghur children sit in a mosque in Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

China Photos/Getty Images
The Uyghur people are a central Asian ethnic group with a population of 8.4 million in 2005. They are located mainly in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China and are one of China's largest ethnic minorities.

There are also Uyghurs in neighboring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Uzbekistan. Many Uyghurs also live in Turkey.

The Uyghur (also spelled Uighur or Uigur) language is a Turkic language very similar to Turkish. The term Uyghur means "united" or "allied" and is synonymous with the Turkish name "Tokuz-Oguz", which means "nine tribes".

Ancient Tribes:

In ancient times, the region was populated by nomadic tribes. During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) the Chinese documented fighting with the Xiongnu tribe who originated from current-day Mongolia. The two groups struggled for years over the region with the Chinese finally winning in 60 B.C.

Subsequent Chinese dynasties documented relations with the Uyghurs. During a period of decline in the late Tang Dynasty, in the 700s, the Chinese appealed to the Uyghurs for military aid which the Chinese paid for in trade and marriages between Chinese nobility and Uyghur leaders. At this time, the Uyghur empire was at its military height, but that empire would decline by the mid 800s.

Conversion to Islam:

Uyghurs began converting from Buddhism and shamanism to Islam in the 900s. There is still a group of them who maintained their Buddhist beliefs, they are known as the "Yellow Uyghurs" or Yugurs.

During the Qing Dynasty, which was the last dynasty of China and was led by the Manchus, Chinese forces invaded the region and named it Xinjiang in 1884.

After the birth of the Chinese Republic in 1911, the Uyghurs staged several uprisings against the Chinese establishing an Eastern Turkestan Republic in 1933 and 1944. These republics were then overthrown by the Soviet Union.

Under the People's Republic of China:

The region came under Chinese Communist control after the Chinese civil war. Tensions between the two groups remained and several Uyghur uprisings have taken place.

Most recently, Uyghur protesters have used more violent forms of terrorism to make their views known, including bus bombings. This has led China to respond with harsh crackdowns on the population, calling such incidents acts of terrorism. China has said that hundreds of Uyghurs have been trained by the Al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan.

Uyghur groups have criticized China for manufacturing a connection between the global war on terror and the Uyghur fight for independence. Many also criticize China for religious repression and Chinese economic policies that have led to an influx of Han Chinese to the region in the last 20 years.

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