Portraits of Uyghurs

In the middle of the desert landscapes of Taklamakan, in the south-western part of China, the province of Xinjiang is the least populated province whereas it covers close to a sixth of the country's territory. Having resisted during centuries the Chinese domination, Xinjiang, or Old Turkestan, fell under the Chinese Han domination in 1949. From then, its population is mainly Uyghur and Turkish-speaking.

Muslim above all, the Uyghur people have a strong religious identity which, in particular, enabled them to preserve a strong difference towards the Chinese invader. Indeed, the Uyghur Empire of Mongolia knew a brilliant civilization, until its absorption by the Mongolian Empire in the XIIIth century.

Uyghur muslim women of the old Kashgar, Xinjiang, China

During their history, the Uyghurs successively adopted shamanism, Manicheism, Buddhism and the Nestorianism before finally converting to Islam when the Arab conquerors beat the Chinese in year 751 BC., thus opening the way to the Islamization of the entire Central Asia.

Young family in Turpan, Xinjiang, China   Young family in Turpan, Xinjiang, China

Under the influence of the religions which they adopted, the Uyghurs used successively, and sometimes in a competing way, a great number of written forms (turco-runic, brahmi, tokharien, soghdien) before developing their own graphic system.

Uyghur couple - Turpan, Taklamakan - China  

The arrival of Islam was a great change because it was accompanied by the absorption of the Uyghur areas in the immense Turco-Mongolian and Muslim Empire. Thus, the descendants of Genghis Khan progressively replaced their writing by a Arabo-Persan alphabet, still used nowadays.

If their writing, their language and their religion mark a real difference with the culture of Chinese Han, the Uyghurs also differ from their aspect, so characteristic of Central Asia's people. A matt skin, eyes representing a whole pallet of colors, from black to deep blue, features pointing out to the Mongolian, Turkish or Uzbek origins of these men and these women.

For a few years, China has integrated the proper identity of these remote people, although they represent only nine million inhabitants - a trifle for this immense country. Thus, the Uyghurs are now part of the fifty six ethnic minority groups having been recognized in an official way by the People's Republic of China.

  Elderly Uighur farmers, Turpan - China

This statute allows them a few privileges in a country where their difference is very often repressed. Thus, Uyghur families escape the "single child policy" and their language is recognized as the second official language in Xinjiang.

Young girls in Uygur China   Old laughing women in Turpan - Muslim Xinjiang, China

The integration of the Uyghur people and their culture in the People's Republic of China, however, seems quite illusory. The presence of natural resources in Chinese Xinjiang, and its proximity with countries known as sensitive, strongly encouraged the government to accelerate the sinicization of this area. Million of Han thus came to settle in this new Chinese eldorado, monopolizing the higher responsibility jobs.

In response to this true will to assimilate the Uyghur people into the Chinese culture, an independent party was born in the early 1990.

Asserting more freedom, but especially the recognition of their true identity, this movement was severely repressed by the power authorities in place.

  Old cattle farmer in Kashgar's animal market - China

The events of September 11, 2001, were the perfect occasion for the Chinese government to justify true reprisals: they declared the "Uyghur freedom fighters" as dangerous terrorists linked to Al Quaida because of their Muslim origins and their proximity with Pakistan… However, the terrible repression which followed did not calm down the anger. The Uyghur population continues today to proudly maintain their identity and their culture, even though they become a minority on their own land.

Stockherdlers in Kashgar - Xinjiang, China   Old Uyghur and son in the market, Kashgar - Xinjiang, China.
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