An Uyghur History of Turn-of-the-Century Chinese Central Asia

“So they turned their faces to the Court of the Creator, their eyes brimming with tears, and wished for the Emperor of China, their cries and pleas growing ever louder.”[1]

When I read this passage, it puzzled me. It was written in a place we now know as Xinjiang, or East Turkestan, a vast and diverse region situated in the northwestern part of China, where the People’s Republic overlaps Central Asia. Its author was someone we would now think of as Uyghur, belonging to the Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim people whose homeland that is.

If you know anything about Xinjiang and the Uyghurs, or read the news regularly, you know that the past decades have been marked by persistent strife between Uyghur people and ethnically Chinese officials and settlers. That conflict has only intensified recently with the Party-state’s new program of surveillance, detention, and reeducation. This targeting of Uyghurs and other Muslim-majority groups would seem to destroy the potential for any positive relationship between the Chinese government and its Muslim citizens.

A century ago, however, that relationship was still very much in flux. The passage above was written circa 1908. It was written in Chaghatay, a Central Asian literary language that we may think of as a direct antecedent to the modern Uyghur language. Its intended audience was not Chinese, but rather people we would now think of as Uyghur. And it came from the pen of Mullah Mūsa b. Mullah ʿĪsa Sayrāmī (1836–1917), who is regarded as one of the greatest Uyghur writers and as a meticulous historian of East Turkestan.

“Mullah Mūsa Sayrāmī wrote this passage in a book, the Tārīkh-i Ḥamīdī,  that chronicles Xinjiang’s tumultuous nineteenth century…If we follow Mullah Mūsa’s line of thinking, we can discover a new dimension of Chinese power and its reception in Central Asia. Mullah Mūsa was a perceptive observer of the Qing empire and of the politics of Eurasia, and in the Tārīkh-i Ḥamīdī, he describes a sea-change in the existing order of the world.”

Mullah Mūsa Sayrāmī wrote this passage in a book, the Tārīkh-i Ḥamīdī,  that chronicles Xinjiang’s tumultuous nineteenth century. In 1864, the China-based Qing empire (1644–1911) lost control of the region in an event commonly referred to as the “Muslim uprisings.” Over the next thirteen years, a number of Islamic states rose and fell. The most famous and successful of these was that established by an officer from the nearby Khanate of Khoqand, Yaʿqūb Beg (1820–1877). Thereafter the Qing armies returned and reconquered the region.

A part of the Tārīkh-i Ḥamīdī manuscript once held in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

Mullah Mūsa’s passage about “wishing for the Emperor of China” refers to the later years of Yaʿqūb Beg’s rule, and it suggests that Muslim people living under an Islamic state nevertheless wished for the return of a foreign, non-Muslim conqueror. Why?

If we follow Mullah Mūsa’s line of thinking, we can discover a new dimension of Chinese power and its reception in Central Asia. Mullah Mūsa was a perceptive observer of the Qing empire and of the politics of Eurasia, and in the Tārīkh-i Ḥamīdī, he describes a sea-change in the existing order of the world. Let us explore one part of that change—the fall and rise of Qing power in Xinjiang—from his perspective. Mullah Mūsa, writing as a Muslim subject of the empire on its peripheries, noticed phenomena that others did not.

Mullah Mūsa Sayrāmī

I have had the pleasure of Mullah Mūsa Sayrāmī’s company for the past seven years or so. When I picked up his book, I had already heard of him—everyone who studies the history of Xinjiang knows Mullah Mūsa and his Tārīkh-i Ḥamīdī, mainly because it is one of the best sources for nineteenth century Xinjiang history. Mullah Mūsa lived through most of the tumultuous events of that period: the fall of Qing power, the Muslim uprisings and competition between warring factions of the 1860s and 1870s, and the restoration of Qing rule in 1877, which was followed by three decades of reconstruction. In that time, he had been a madrasa student, a slave, a tax collector, and, by some accounts, an ascetic and a poet.

Around the year 1900, Mullah Mūsa noticed that the events of the uprisings were fading from communal memory. Accordingly, and supposedly under encouragement from his friends, he undertook a project of recovery:

Now forty years have passed… and the events have passed from the

memories of ordinary people… but none of the witties of our age have

dedicated themselves to outlining the stories of what happened and

writing them down in a history.[2]

Mullah Mūsa’s claim was slightly inaccurate—several others attempted to write chronicles of the Yaʿqūb Beg era. However, none of them matched Mullah Mūsa’s in terms of its critical reflection, diversity of sources, and synthesis of personal memory and written records. Moreover, none had attempted to match the Tārīkh-i Rashīdī of Ḥaydar Dughlat (1499–1551), whom Mullah Mūsa claimed was the last person to undertake a history of the land he called Moghulistan. Mullah Mūsa’s discipline in attempting such a history resonates with academic historians, who appreciate the straightforward chronicle that comprises the bulk of the book.

Perhaps Mullah Mūsa was able to accomplish such a feat because he was himself somewhat of an outsider. Because he lived in a town that was part of the Uyghur homeland, and because he wrote in a form of Chaghatay that is very close to Modern Uyghur, we tend to think of Mullah Mūsa as an Uyghur. Yet, by his own account, he and the other people of Sayrām were merely exiles in a strange land. Many years before, the armies of the Zunghar Khanate had attacked the old city of Sayrām in what is now Kazakhstan. The Zunghars took hundreds of the city’s residents and transported them to their capital in the Ili Valley in Northern Xinjiang. In the 1750s, when the Qing finally defeated the Zunghars after a century of conflict, Mullah Mūsa’s ancestors escaped and attempted to return home. However, the Qing forces stopped them: “It is too dangerous,” they were reportedly told, “wait until things calm down, then we’ll give you passage.” The exiles of old Sayrām wandered for some years from home to temporary home until settling in a place where no one would dislodge them. They named it Sayrām after their lost homeland.

The gate to the mosque that housed the shariah court in Kucha, near Sayrami’s hometown. However, as it can be seen above the gate, it was rebuilt 1347-1351/1928-1932. Photo courtesy of the author.

Mullah Mūsa could trace his ancestry back to old Sayrām, and then further still to the revered early Islamic figure ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib.ʿAlid descent was a point of pride for him, as well as a way of further differentiating himself from other people of Sayrām. It also served as a demonstration of his skepticism and scholarly acumen: the world was full of false genealogical claims, he wrote, but a skilled historian could discern truth from fact. The royal chronicles that formed part of Sayrāmī’s source material tended to fabricate genealogies for the descendants of Chinggis [Genghis] Khan that tied them to the early history of Islam, asserting for example that Chinggis Khan was a descendant of ʿAlī. However, Sayrāmī was a bit of an iconoclast: he tore this claim down through theology and textual evidence. He then criticized another world-conqueror whose descendants had become great Muslim rulers, Temür (Tamerlane, 1336–1405), for his massacres of Muslim people. When Sayrāmī compared Yaʿqūb Beg to Temür, it was not a compliment, but a prediction of Yaʿqūb Beg’s hubristic downfall.

It was natural for Mullah Mūsa to be critical of power. When the Muslim uprisings broke out, he had just recently finished his madrasa education in Kucha. He followed his former teacher, who joined what turned out to be the wrong faction. Mullah Mūsa escaped capture once, but he soon found himself dodging soldiers in the desert. He made it back to Sayrām only to find it permanently changed—he could never go home. Along the way, Sayrāmī was imprisoned and enslaved by Yaʿqūb Beg’s armies. However, when his education became apparent, he was made a tax collector.

The position gave Mullah Mūsa an insider’s view of how Yaʿqūb Beg’s Islamic state worked on the ground. Yaʿqūb Beg’s power was distributed to a congeries of followers from Ferghana and East Turkestan alike. Some of these were honorable—others, utterly corrupt. Mullah Mūsa compares two as an example. Yūnus Jān Shighawul, the Khoqandi governor of Yarkand, was according to Mullah Mūsa an honorable man with fine qualities that even the Chinese conquerors could appreciate. On one occasion, Yūnus Jān refused to betray Yaʿqūb Beg to the Chinese, and yet they offered him safe passage home in reward for his fidelity. In neighboring Khotan, however, Yaʿqūb Beg had placed a “local” in charge. The governor of Khotan was the crafty and bloodthirsty Niyāz Beg, who in Sayrāmī’s account lived a life of luxury and excess on the broken backs of his people. He had served the Qing before, then several masters in between, and when the Chinese armies advanced, according to this story, he did betray Yaʿqūb Beg. Nevertheless, no ruler would accept his treachery, nor would the people under his rule. Niyāz Beg tried and failed to flee to India, and he ultimately died by his own hand in 1878.

Regardless of whether such a story coincides with the actual events, Mullah Mūsa’s comparison offers insight into his conception of power and justice: one’s superficial commitment to Islam is independent of one’s concrete actions to protect the shariah. Both Yūnus Jān and Niyāz Beg were Muslims, yet they differed drastically in their treatment of the common people. Therefore, one’s life ended in tragedy, the other in honorable exile.

Mullah Mūsa further argues that the same contrast could emerge over time as an Islamic state failed to follow its values. He writes of how the exactions of the Yaʿqūb Beg government grew increasingly severe. Mullah Mūsa presents a joke:

During the first year of Yaʿqūb Beg’s reign, a tired man went and sat

among his fellows. They asked him why he groaned. He told them, “It’s

six months or a year now since ‘Islam’ arrived. Can we stand

fourteen years of ‘Islam?!’ Because it’s lasting so long, I’m exhausted!”[3]

How peculiar that a Muslim should tell a story complaining about “Islam!” Of course, Mullah Mūsa does not mean the religion itself, which had been known in the region for nearly a millennium. Rather, he points ironically to how Yaʿqūb Beg’s reign was popularly called “the time of Islam” or simply “Islam.” This despite the fact that the Islamic government’s officials were committing the sins of the old Qing bureaucrats whose over-taxation had sparked the 1864 uprisings.

This corruption at the lower levels of government mirrored increasing tyranny at the top: Yaʿqūb Beg’s wrath, Sayrāmī wrote, grew greater with time. One day, as his soldiers struggled to combat the advancing Qing armies, he flew into a rage and brutally murdered a faithful companion. On returning to his throne room, Yaʿqūb Beg requested a cup of cold tea to still his nerves. He raised the cup to his lips, took a drink, cried out, turned pale, and fell to the floor. A few feverish days later, Yaʿqūb Beg was dead, and in January 1878, the Qing declared final victory.

(This image of Yaʿqūb Beg in the Tārīkh-i Ḥamīdī contrasts starkly with that which the ruler presented to foreign travelers—that of a simple agent of the faith living as a righteous ascetic.)

We now know that Yaʿqūb Beg probably died of a cerebral hemorrhage.[4] For Sayrāmī, however, the manner of his death was a natural conclusion to a tragic narrative arc. Mullah Mūsa speaks of a contest between Yaʿqūb Beg’s intelligence and strategic skill on the one hand and an “inborn nature” on the other. Over the course of Yaʿqūb Beg’s conquests, the violence that he inflicted on his enemies corrupted his heart, as he not only forced his enemies to submit in battle, but starved and massacred common people and drove them into slavery.

“As readers of the Tārīkh-i Ḥamīdī we must be mindful that Sayrāmī’s carefully selected anecdotes aim for a moral conclusion—that Yaʿqūb Beg was all but destined to fall due to his moral failings. “

As readers of the Tārīkh-i Ḥamīdī we must be mindful that Sayrāmī’s carefully selected anecdotes aim for a moral conclusion—that Yaʿqūb Beg was all but destined to fall due to his moral failings. Historians have tended to approach the work as a straightforward chronicle, a source of empirical data, emphasizing its evidentiary value. However, we must also read it as a text with an argument to make about power and justice.

In short, Mullah Mūsa was critical not only of two of the great historical world-conquerors, Chinggis Khan and Amir Temür, but of Yaʿqūb Beg’s Islamic state, which had disappointed the hopes of local Muslims for a just Islamic rule. Given these criticisms, whom did Mullah Mūsa deem a legitimate ruler over Muslims?

The Ill-Starred Emperor

Mullah Mūsa uses astrology as part of his explanation for the fall and rise of Qing and Islamic power in the mid-nineteenth century. Amir Temür, as was widely known, was born under a “fortunate conjunction,” and so rose to great heights of power. In contrast, Mullah Mūsa shows us, the emperor reigning in China in 1864 at the outbreak of the Muslim uprisings was born under an unlucky star. One consequence of that ill fate was the profusion of corruption among the emperor’s officials, leading to the many internal conflicts and foreign invasions that plagued the Qing in the mid-nineteenth century, from the Taiping civil war (1850–1864) to the Opium Wars (1839–1842, 1856–1860). As the emperor’s star fell, Yaʿqūb Beg’s rose, and Islam was reestablished in East Turkestan.

Tombs fading into dust at a shrine complex and cemetery in Opal, near Kashgar. Photo courtesy of the author.

In time, the emperor realized the reason for his misfortune and that of China. His astrologers advised him to fake his death and pass the throne to his more fortunate cousin, who became the Guangxu emperor (reigned 1875–1908). Later, the falling star and unjust rule of Yaʿqūb Beg, once a great hope for the people of East Turkestan, gave way to the justice of Guangxu, and in 1877 the Chinese armies rolled swiftly across the land.

In this framework of fate and astrological influence, what, then, was justice, and where did it come from? For Sayrāmī, justice mainly centered around the protection of the Muslim people and preservation of the shariah, regardless of the ruler’s religious background. Sayrāmī speaks often of the special relationship between the common people and the ruler. Fundamentally, that is where his concern seems to lie: with the welfare of ordinary human beings suffering the privations of war or enjoying peace under a wise ruler.

Indeed, Mullah Mūsa describes how the old emperor had investigated the smallest report of embezzlement in the Xinjiang government with assiduousness and justice. That justice, distributed through firm and correct application of written laws, had preserved the separateness and integrity of the Muslim community. For this reason, Mullah Mūsa writes, the people had “wished for the Emperor of China.”

The Skeletons

“That reminds me,” Mullah Mūsa writes, “of a story.” In a telling allusion, he makes clear another facet of his perception of the early and late Qing governments:

“Once upon a time, three ascetics were wandering. Their eyes fell upon some dried up old skeletons lying by the roadside. “What kind of animal could those skeletons belong to?” they wondered. “Let’s find out!” They prayed. The wind blew stronger. The skeletons knit back together. They prayed again, and muscle and veins reappeared on the skeletons. They prayed one more time, and life returned to them. And what should stumble back to life but a great lion and a fearsome tiger! Both had died of hunger, and so the lion and the tiger saw the ascetics and ate them up. In the end, these Chinese for whom the common people had prayed were just like these fearsome cats that had returned to life.”[5]

Be careful what you wish for, Mullah Mūsa warns. This imagery was especially salient as the bones of the Muslim uprisings and the subsequent years of war littered the landscape of East Turkestan long after the violence ended.[6] Bones were dangerous reminders of a conflict still fresh in people’s minds.

Mullah Mūsa here criticizes the government of the late Qing era just as he praised its earlier incarnation. The two periods were radically different: before 1864, the Qing empire had governed Xinjiang indirectly, treating it as a distinct territory in which Islamic law and native rule were largely preserved. In Sayrāmī’s account, that period was worthy of nostalgia—to extend his metaphor, perhaps the Qing had once been a powerful but well-fed tiger.

The Qing army that reconquered Xinjiang had different ideas. The new regime after 1877 sought to reestablish the region as a province and bring it into the administrative and judicial system of China proper. The old emperor had let Muslims be Muslims. In contrast, the new regime wished to assimilate Muslims into their particular ideology of Confucianism. They saw cultural transformation as a prerequisite for political stability and for the permanent attachment of this region to the Chinese cultural sphere. Here was the hungry, undead tiger—the Qing returned, but in a different and more dangerous form. This aggressive version of the Qing desired to eliminate Islam.

The regional government never did manage to assimilate the Muslims of East Turkestan, although their plans had deep ramifications for local social structure. To Sayrāmī, the emperor grew distant once again, and the hopes of the people of his homeland faded.

“This perspective from a pessimistic Muslim intellectual on the periphery, a man who wrote not from the top of society but from its exhausted stratum of petty officials, runs counter to most scholarship on the history of Xinjiang.”

This perspective from a pessimistic Muslim intellectual on the periphery, a man who wrote not from the top of society but from its exhausted stratum of petty officials, runs counter to most scholarship on the history of Xinjiang. Historians have tended to rely on accounts in Chinese, which was a minority language in the region, written by members of the small group of ethnically Chinese political leaders, who stood at a great distance from life on the ground. Mullah Mūsa was no Uyghur nationalist, nor an “Islamic extremist,” as the current Chinese government has labeled him. Nor was he a lover of the Qing state. Rather, Mullah Mūsa used the intellectual tools at his disposal to present an original argument about power, Chinese and Islamic alike.

Thanks to a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mullah Mūsa Sayrāmī’s writing will soon be available in English for the first time. Today, Uyghur voices about their own past are sorely needed because the discourse around Xinjiang is dominated by those outside of the region, whether the Chinese Party-state or foreign media. Translating Sayrāmī is an effort to amplify his voice, as well as those of scholars from the region who have worked to write Uyghur history from Uyghur sources. Many of those scholars have now disappeared, and those of us beyond the reach of the security state have the responsibility to respect and continue their work. May Mullah Mūsa’s skeptical spirit guide us.

Eric Schluessel is Assistant Professor of Chinese History and Politics at the University of Montana. He has authored several articles on East Turkestan (Xinjiang) past and present, as well as a new textbook for the Chaghatay language. Prof. Schluessel received his PhD in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard University, an MA in Central Eurasian Studies from Indiana University, and an MA in Linguistics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. He is a graduate of Connecticut College. While a recent Mellon Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study and current holder of a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, Prof. Schluessel is working to deepen our understanding of East Turkestan’s past as ordinary people experienced it.

Works Cited:

Hodong Kim, Holy War in China: The Muslim Rebellion and State in Chinese Central Asia, 1864–1877(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

“Beijing MS”: Mullah Mūsa b. Mullah ʿĪsāSayrāmī,Tārīkh-i Ḥamīdī, Beijing manuscript, reproduced in Miao Pusheng, ed., Xibei shaoshu minzu wenzi wenxian(Beijing: Xianzhuang shuju, 2006).

[1]Tārīkh-i Hamīdī, Beijing MS, 322.

[2]Tārīkh-i Hamīdī, Beijing manuscript, 6–7.

[3]Tārīkh-i Ḥamīdī, Beijing manuscript, 258.

[4]Kim, Holy War in China, 168.

[5]Tārīkh-i Ḥamīdī, Beijing manuscript, 258–59.

[6]I explore the politics of human remains in the post-1877 era in a book manuscript currently under review.