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Chinese Culture: The Uighurs

Updated on December 30, 2013

Chinese Culture: The Uighurs

Chinese Culture: The Uighurs
Chinese Culture: The Uighurs

Location and Homeland

The Uighurs live in their own autonomous region of Xinjiang (the largest administrative territory of China) and are mainly concentrated in the oases to the south of the Tianshan Mountains; they are found also in some counties of Hunan Province in South China. The Tianshan Mountains partition Xinjiang into two parts: the south and the north. The former is warm and dry, while the latter is cold with abundant rain and snow. South Xinjiang is characterized by its huge basin (Tarim) and desert (Taklimakan) at the center. Fertilized by rivers, the oases surrounding the basin are the Uighur's land of cotton and fruits. Uighur population amounted to 7.2 millions in 1990.

Chinese Culture: The Uighurs

Chinese Culture: The Uighurs
Chinese Culture: The Uighurs

Historical Overview

The Uighurs are the main body of the population of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. As far back as two thousand years ago, the ancestor of the Uighurs lived in an area close to Lake Baikal, to the north of the People's Republic of Mongolia. After the 5th century, a great number of them moved to Xiyu (present-day Xinjiang), which had been governed by the central government of China since 60 BC. Three centuries later, the Uighurs destroyed a country of nomadic Turks and established a dependency under the command of the Tang Dynasty (618 -907). Chinese culture was widely disseminated and accepted. Abandoning their nomadic life, they gradually settled down about one thousand years ago.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Uighurs were ruled by other nationalities, including the Mongols; troops of Chinese soldiers were sent by the descendants of Genghis Khan to cultivate the land. Thereafter, there were long periods of trouble in the history of Xinjiang. Order was finally established by the Manchu government of the Qing Dynasty (1644 -1911). Great numbers of Mongols and Chinese living there were assimilated into Uighur society during this chaotic period. However, there was no peace and tranquillity until the mid-40s of this century.

Cultural Heritage

The Uighurs are well known for their talent for singing and dancing. "The Twelve Great Songs," (some 340 pieces), is an epic narrative whose performance includes both classical and folkloric song, music and dance. There are dozens of Uighur traditional instruments, including strings, winds and tambourines. The Uighur violin is played on one knee. The long- necked traditional guitar is played with such celerity by the guitarist that his fingers seem to disappear in a blur.

Uighur dance is famous for its spinning. Besides the basic steps, there are skips with raised arms and quickly rotated wrists. Among the large variety of traditional dances, the most popular one is the impromptu solo dance, pas de deux, or group dance in random formations, surrounded by a circle of people who clap and sing in chorus.

Uighur literature include folk tales, fables, jokes, poems and proverbs. Some of them have a long history. For example, a narrative poem entitled "Fortune, Happiness and Wisdom" has been handed down since the 11th century. The "Story of Avanti" has been widely known in China for decades.


A Uighur epic narrates how the queen of Kala Khan gave birth to a son with a blue face and hairy body. His mother breast-fed the infant only once; he then lived on raw meat and wine. He was able to talk right after birth and to walk forty days later. Before long, he had grown up to be a heroic man. He killed a wild animal with a single horn, saving many lives from death. He was called Wugusi. One day, he hunted in the wilds. At night, he saw a beautiful girl after a flash of blue light. They got married. She gave birth to three sons called Sun, Moon and Stars. Wugusi married a second wife who also gave birth to three sons called Heaven, Mountain and Sea. The six sons had a total of twenty-four children who became twenty-four tribes. Wugusi ascended the throne as Khan and united the neighboring nations to form a large country.

According to another myth two trees grew intertwined with a chamber between them. Some members of Uighur tribes were greatly surprised to find five infants in the chamber. Uighur women breast-fed them. Later, the children asked about their parents. When they knew the story, they went into the forest. The trees taught them to become pioneers in a great undertaking. The Uighurs elected the youngest boy to be their Khan; after ascending the throne, he became a very capable ruler. Reference to the title of "Khan" seems to indicate that these myths took shape rather late in history, after the 11th century.

Chinese Culture: The Uighurs

Chinese Culture: The Uighurs
Chinese Culture: The Uighurs

Clothing and Food

The man usually wears a buttonless cotton robe with two color stripes and a belt at the waist. They may put on a dustcoat over the robe. The woman usually wears an overdress with underskirt inside, a black velvet vest covering the top.

The girls plait their hair into braids, usually in odd numbers, as many as forty-one. The braids symbolize that their hair are thick and dense like the trees of the forest.

Almost all Uighur women like to wear earrings, bracelets and necklace. Dressed in their holiday best, they often use makeup and polish their nails. A four-edge small hat, embroidered with multicolored or black-and-white silk threads is the girls'favorite headdress. Both men and women wear boots.

Uighur staple food includes flour, corn and rice. They like a kind of unleavened bread shaped like bagels or pancakes (nang ), made with wheat flour or corn maize flour. A popular dish during the festivals is the "rice taken by hand." Raisins are boiled with sliced onions, carrots, and small cubes of fried beef, then put on soaked rice and boiled again. The ingredients are steamed for twenty minutes, then served. Before eating, one washes hands three times and rubs them dry with handkerchiefs; sitting cross-legged on cushions, people dish out the rice on the plates and then take the rice with their hand. Roast lamb is a delicacy usually reserved for guests. The Uighurs like butter, tea and milk tea. Crusty breads (nang ) with milk tea is their daily breakfast. They take various dishes and staple food for lunch. Dinner is similar to breakfast, although some dishes may be added. People wash hands and gargle before and after each meal.

Other Relevant Information


The Uighurs celebrate the two major holidays of Islam: the Corban Festival and the Lesser Bairam. In addition, they have their own traditional holiday, the Naoluzi Festival. The annual Corban Festival is the grandest of all. Each household fries twisted noodles and kills a sheep or an ox. Everybody dresses up and pays visit to the other members of the community. Tradition has it that the Prophet dreamed that Allah wanted him to kill his own son as a sacrificial victim -a trial of his loyalty. Deeply moved by the Prophet's absolute obedience, Allah sent a black head sheep for substitution. This belief gave rise to a major sacrificial ritual held on the 10th of December by Muslims around the world.

The Lesser Bairam (Festival of Fast-breaking) marks the end of Ramadan. Muslims practice a month of fasting during September (Islamic calendar), which prohibits food and drink in the daytime. At dusk on the 29th day after the Ramadan, if the new moon is visible in the sky, the next day will be the Lesser Bairam. If the moon is not visible, the festival will be postponed until the following day. On the festival day, Muslims, after bathing, go to the mosque to pray, participate in rituals, and meet each other. The Uighurs visit each other and offer fried twisted noodles and various delicious foods to the guests.

The Naoluzi Festival is similar to the Chinese Spring Festival. A variety of sports and recreative activities are held during that month-long festival.


The Uighur language belongs to the Altaic family, Turkic group. There are three dialects. The written language, based on the Arabic characters, has been used since the 11th century. The name Uighur was self-given; it means "to unite" and "to assist."


Most Uighur houses are single-storied, low and small, square in shape and made of adobes. The door often opens to the north. There are no windows in the side walls, but only a skylight window in the ceiling. Grains, fruits and melons are piled up on the flat roof which also serves for drying clothes in the sun and to enjoy the cool evening air. There is a solid platform inside the house, made of adobes, one foot in height; it is used both for sitting and for sleeping. One also finds a fireplace, used to cook food and to keep the house warm, and a niche for daily necessities. Tapestry is often hung on the wall as decoration. Almost every household has a courtyard, where one grows flowers, fruit trees and grapes; these form a kind of lattice ceiling of bright colors and offer coolness on warm summer days. Both the courtyard and the house are usually very clean. Some Uighurs have a house for summer and a house for winter.

In the past, transport was done with camels and donkeys. Nowadays, these are replaced by bicycles and motorcycles. Highways radiate in all directions from the cities; some roads cross wide expanses of desert. Travel by train and by air is not uncommon.


In the past, the Uighurs believed in Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Nestorian Christianity. Starting with the 11th century, they gradually shifted their beliefs to Islam. Islam in Xinjiang came from Central Asia through the famous Silk Road land route.

Probably a remnant of their ancient beliefs, the Uighurs traditionally regarded the eagle as a god. They believed that the eagle could see and then peck at the ghost who had made someone sick. If a family member got sick, they placed a falcon in the room and let it clutch and peck at the patient who was wrapped in a quilt from top to toe.


The absence of natural resources and of an industrial infrastructure explains the very low income of the Uighurs, which must be compensated in part by the goods produced directly by the household. More and more Uighurs engaging in trade or in professional venues leave their homeland to work in other provinces of China. Often, after some time, they return, benefiting their communities by their wealth and expertise.


The Uighurs are mainly engaged in gardening and cotton growing. Their apples, pears, figs, pomegranates, honey peaches, walnuts, almonds, and especially Hami melons, are renowned at home and abroad. The superb skill of the Uighurs in cotton growing has been widely introduced to other provinces of China. The Uighurs are reputed for their know-how as traders. Since ancient times, Uighur caravans penetrated deep into the Mongolian grasslands and into the countries of Central Asia and thus played an important role in developing the famous Silk Road. Because of internal conflicts and difficult relations with the Central Government, Uighur trade declined from the beginning of the 20th century. However, in recent decades, there has been a rapid growth of Uighur domestic and external commerce. Uighurs are now very active in the restaurant, groceries and clothing businesses not only in Xinjiang, but in many provinces, and have commercial ties with the Islamic countries of Central and West Asia. The trade along the Western Chinese border is very active.


There are thirteen universities and colleges, and 2300 middle (junior and senior) schools in Uighur districts. 95% of children enrol in school when they reach school age. A large number of Uighur scientists and technologists work in various fields of specialization. Generally, the Uighurs strongly support the education of their children.


Meeting after a long separation, Uighur friends often embrace each other. Meeting at ordinary times, they bow slightly or shake hands. The Uighurs are fond of bustle and excitement, and love to sing and dance. Accompanied by songs and music, their dance on festival is so lively and entertaining that everybody feels an impulse to dance together. Participants on those occasions may amount to hundreds. The Uighurs are hospitable. Guests are received with roast lamb and milk tea.


The Uighur family usually celebrates the birth of a child. The Uighurs have a special reverence for the wolf. They speak of "giving birth to a wolf," if a son was born. The mother-to-be lies on a mat of wolf fur. The ankle bone of a wolf is attached to the infant's neck or hung over its cradle in the hope that the baby will be free from evil and grow to be a brave man.

Funeral rites follow Islamic regulations. For instance, the body should be cleansed with water, wrapped with white cloth, then buried underground three days after death. After the funeral, a limited number of sacrificial rites will be performed.


The Uighur family is monogamous. Sons and daughters leave their parents after wedding. Within the family, the man dominates everything the position of the women is rather low. The name of the child follows the patrilineal line: as in the West (but different from Chinese custom), the personal name comes first and the family (paternal) name comes second. If the child is a boy, when he grows to be a man and gets married, his name will be the latter half of his child's name.


The Uighurs are skilled in crafts. Hotan jade sculpture is a fine art. Ingisa (Yengisar) knives are famous for their sharpness and precious stones incrustations. Uighur carpets, tapestries, silk embroidered hats, copper teapots and traditional music instruments are much sought after not only by the Uighurs, but by foreigners.


In addition to singing and dancing, movies and television are the most popular entertainment of the Uighurs. Most Uighur districts have their own film studio. A number of local musical and theatre groups are supported by the Uighurs.


Ball games like basketball and volleyball are very popular. As a spectator sport, rope walking is the Uighurs favorite. A pole reaching 120 feet in height is erected on the ground. A 260 feet- long rope is connected to the top of the pole on one of its ends and hooked solidly in the earth on the other. Holding a rod horizontally, the athlete climbs up on the rope and perform jumping, rolling, cross-leg sitting and other breathtaking movements.

Chinese Culture: The Uighurs

Chinese Culture: The Uighurs
Chinese Culture: The Uighurs

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