Chinese Studies Uyghurs
David O'Brien
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0187


The Uyghur (alternatively spelled Uighur) are the largest and titular ethnic group living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a vast area in northwestern China of over 1.6 million sq. km. According to the 2010 census Uyghurs make up 45.21 percent of the population of Xinjiang, numbering 8,345,622 people. The Han, the largest ethnic group in China, make up 40.58 percent in the region with 7,489,919. A Turkic-speaking largely Muslim ethnic group, the Uyghurs traditionally inhabited a series of oases around the Taklamakan desert. Their complex origin is evidenced by a rich cultural history that can be traced back to various groups that emerged across the steppes of Mongolia and Central Asia. Uyghur communities are also found in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, with significant diaspora groups in Australia, the United States, Germany, and Turkey. In the first half of the 20th century, Uyghurs briefly declared two short-lived East Turkestan Republics in 1933 and again in 1944, but the region was brought under the complete control of the Chinese state after the Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949. Within China they are considered one of the fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minority groups, who, along with the Han who constitute 92 percent of the population, make up the Chinese nation or Zhonghua Minzu 中华民族. However, for many Uyghurs the name “Xinjiang,” which literally translates as “New Territory,” indicates that their homeland is a colony of China, and they prefer the term “East Turkestan.” Nevertheless, many scholars use Xinjiang as a natural term even when they are critical of the position of the Communist Party. In this article both terms are used. In the early years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Uyghurs numbered about 80 percent of the population of Xinjiang, but large-scale government-sponsored migration has seen the number of Han in the region rise to almost the same as that of the Uyghur. This has led to an increase in ethnic tensions often caused by competition for scarce resources and a perception that the ruling Communist Party favors the Han. In 2009, a major outbreak of violence in the capital Ürümchi saw hundreds die and many more imprisoned. The years 2013 and 2014 were also crucial turning points with deadly attacks on passengers in train stations in Kunming and Yunnan, bombings in Ürümchi, and a suicide attack in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, all blamed on Uyghur terrorists. Since then the Chinese government has introduced a harsh regime of security clampdowns and mass surveillance, which has significantly increased from 2017 and which, by some accounts, has seen over one million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities imprisoned without trial in “reeducation” camps. The Chinese government insist these camps form part of an education and vocational training program designed to improve the lives of Uyghurs and root out “wrong thinking.” Many Uyghurs believe it is part of a long-term project of assimilation of Uyghur identity and culture.

General Overview

In recent years scholarly interest in the Uyghurs has increased especially as reports of conflict and ethnic tensions have continued to emerge. Within China scholarship on ethnic groups in general, and Uyghurs and Tibetans in particular, is highly sensitive and most of what is publicly available adheres closely to the government line (see Official Chinese Narratives). Research by Uyghur scholars is even more sensitive as evidenced by the authors of some of the works contained in this annotated bibliography having been imprisoned in recent years. For this reason much of the scholarship contained here has been written by those working outside of China. Understanding who the Uyghurs are and how their identity came to be as we know it today involves an exploration of a complex history of states and tribes, some of which passed in quick succession over the past thousand years—Qarluq, Qarakhanid, Qara Khitay, Mongol, Chaghatayid, Moghulistan, and Yarkand, as Millward 2007 shows. The ethnonym “Uyghur” has had vastly different meanings throughout its history. It was first used to refer to a Turkic steppe, nomadic, shamanistic, and Manichaean society in northwestern Mongolia (744–840 CE). The region’s place along what is now called the Ancient Silk Road is central to the emergence of the modern Uyghur identity. Bellér-Hann 2008 demonstrates how the movement of goods but also ideas, religions, and ideologies greatly influenced the development of Uighur culture and tradition, the legacy of which can still be seen today in the traditions central to Uyghur community life. Situated the crossroads of Eurasia, the region has been fought over by great powers for whom its borders would define empires, as discussed in Brophy 2016. In more recent times another movement of people, the migration of Han into the region, has led to an increase in ethnic tensions and outbreaks of ethnic violence, details of which can be found in Bovingdon 2010, Starr 2004, and Hayes and Clarke 2015. Brox and Bellér-Hann 2014 shows how this development in itself has had an enormous impact not just on the lives of Uyghurs, but also on Uyghur identity more broadly. Ercilasun and Ercilasun 2018 notes how the Uyghur are situated not solely within the borders of the modern Chinese state; rather, they possess a cross-border and international identity. As outlined in Clarke 2018 (cited under Geopolitics and Security), events in the region today have significant implications not just for those who live there but for Central Asia more broadly and beyond.

  • Bellér-Hann, Ildikó. Community Matters in Xinjiang, 1880–1949: Towards a Historical Anthropology of the Uyghur. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004166752.i-477

    A rich and detailed examination of Uyghur life in pre-Communist China drawing on a wealth of primary sources. Beller-Hann demonstrates how ideas of tradition, community, and culture from this period have played a significant role in the construction of contemporary Uyghur identity.

  • Bovingdon, Gardner. The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    This work explores why, despite the claims of the Communist Party of China that harmony and brotherhood exists between the different ethnic groups in Xinjiang/East Turkestan, for most of the existence of the People’s Republic of China a majority of Uyghurs have resisted Chinese rule in the region. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, Bovingdon explores why many Uighurs feel alienated from China.

  • Brophy, David. Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia-China Frontier. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674970441

    Brophy’s book explores how a declining Qing dynasty and a rising Russia impacted the people who lived in the border regions of both empires. Through an analysis of a broad range of sources he shows how large numbers of Muslims living in Xinjiang/East Turkestan migrated to Russian territory, where they came into contact with political and intellectual currents among Russia’s Muslims that greatly impacted the forging of a modern Uyghur identity.

  • Brox, Trine, and Ildikó Bellér-Hann, eds. On the Fringes of the Harmonious Society: Tibetans and Uyghurs in Socialist China. Copenhagen: Nias, 2014.

    This edited volume explores the “carrot-and-stick” approach of rapid economic development and harsh security clampdowns that China has adopted in its two largest autonomous regions in recent years. It shows how, despite the huge investment in and engagement with both regions, many Uyghurs and Tibetans remain deeply suspicious of Beijing.

  • Ercilasun, Güljanat Kurmangaliyeva, and Konuralp Ercilasun. The Uygur Community: Diaspora, Identity and Geopolitics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-52297-9

    The Uyghur diaspora is increasingly visible and influential but also complex and disparate. This work explores the history and complexity of this diaspora through an exploration of identity politics, the position of Uighurs in Central Asia, the relationship between diaspora groups with Beijing, and the impact of the Ürümchi riots of 2009 on Turkish-Chinese relations, among other themes.

  • Hayes, Anna, and Michael Clarke, eds. Inside Xinjiang: Space, Place and Power in China’s Muslim Far Northwest. London: Routledge, 2015.

    This edited volume explores the social, political, and economic terrains of Xinjiang/East Turkestan through an exploration of the lived experience of the people who live there. While multidisciplinary in approach, it is particularly focused on how political power and control impact on ideas of space and place.

  • Millward, James A. Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

    A comprehensive history of Xinjiang/East Turkestan stretching from the ancient past to today. Millward demonstrates how the region has always been a major crossroads of trade, ideas, and religion and how Uyghur identity has been shaped by these movements. A work of broad appeal to both specialists and those new to the topic.

  • Starr, S. Frederick, ed. Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderlands. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004.

    A wide-ranging, multidisciplinary edited volume that explores the many complexities of Xinjiang/East Turkestan. Examining the region’s history, its ethnic and natural geography, and economic, military, and international relations, among other themes, it is a hugely useful resource to gain a broad understanding of the region. The book was severely criticized by the Chinese government; thirteen of the volume’s authors were banned from China following its publication.

  • Schluessel, Eric. Land of Strangers: The Civilizing Project in Qing Central Asia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.7312/schl19754

    This work explores how the Qing dynasty gained control over the region it would rename as Xinjiang. In so doing its shows how Confucian ideas of “civilization” were used to legitimize the colonial project. Schluessel demonstrates that instead of assimilation, divisions between communities only deepened, resulting in a profound estrangement that continues to this day.

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