The Uyghur Discourse

Reviewed by: henrykszad

Reviewed item: 

Struggle by the Pen: The Uyghur Discourse of Nation and National Interest, C.1900-1949

Recent events in Xinjiang have generated a great deal of analysis and commentary. In particular, reports of violence have opened up the region to the attention of activists, journalists, academics and officials not familiar with the constituent people of Xinjiang. Most of the discussion centers on the causes of the violence and on the extent of overseas influences or internal drivers for propelling the unrest.

At such times, it is important to look to research offering a lucid, nuanced and historical appraisal of contestation in Xinjiang, especially in regard to the expression of national interests among the Turkic Muslims living in the region. Ondřej Klimeš has provided such a book. The author’s work describes the course of a debate on nation among early 20th century thinkers in Xinjiang contemporary observers would be prudent to read. Furthermore, Klimeš has offered a rare kind of book in the field, in that it studies the ideas of individuals and not just the policies of institutions. At its core this is a humanistic work.

Struggle by the Pen is drawn from the author’s PhD research and charts the evolution of intellectual discourse on communal interests in Xinjiang during the late Qing and Republican China (1880-1949). His analysis delineates the period under review into four phases to which he attributes developments on how Turkic Muslims articulated ideas on nation. The text begins with the coalescence of a regional community during the late Qing (1880-1912) with shared “language, culture, history, mythology, political tradition, relics, memory of the past, sense of solidarity, and a number of traits common to the indigenous settled Turkic Muslims of Yettishahr”. The author notes that this formed an important framework through which latter interests were expressed. The 1910s–1920s phase is demonstrated as a time when Turkic Muslims absorbed ideas of modern nationalism in settings such as the Soviet Union, Turkey and China and applied their observations to Xinjiang through the development of publishing, social organizations and education.

Klimeš highlights the 1930s as the politicization phase of this emerging national movement that converted national characterization into nationalism. The founding of the first East Turkestan Republic in 1933 is held up as a manifestation of this conversion of national interest into administrative governance. However, the decade also witnessed the dismantling of an ‘East Turkestani’ identity by Sheng Shicai’s Soviet-inspired nationalities policy that promoted the classification of Turkic Muslims into Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz, among others. The author then shows how competing ideas on communal identity were ideologically influenced in the 1940s. Intellectuals writing at this time in Republican (Kuomintang) controlled China situated Turkic Muslims within the broader nation and pressed for equality under a genuine autonomy. Whereas, texts originating in the second East Turkestan Republic (1944-9) emphasized how “it was not nations or nationalities, but people [reviewer’s italics] who were in strife for their communal interests of liberation, equality and democracy”.

The author acknowledges the typology to be fluid and that some ideas were not just restricted to the phase ascribed to them. Furthermore, social penetration of intellectual articulation of communal interests is difficult to measure and may have varied within the region. This fluidity is borne out as the reader notices recurring themes in the work of Turkic Muslim intellectuals throughout the period researched: national awakening, education, religion and the role of the state in modernization are regularly discussed.

Klimeš, a member of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, is well placed to undertake this research given his fluency in Uyghur and Mandarin. His selection of texts includes the poems, articles and books written by noted public intellectuals such as Memtili Tewpiq and Muhemmed Imin Bughra, as well as the content of periodicals throughout the era. The titles of these periodicals alone (for example Free TurkestanVoice of Chinese Turkestan and Revolutionary East Turkestan), as the author points out, tell a rich story in the evolution in intellectual discourse on nationality. This ‘content perspective’ the author adopts is also framed as a ‘Uyghurological perspective’ to understanding ‘the ethnic boundary of the early modern Uyghur community’.

Struggle by the Pen comes at a rich period in scholarship on nationalism in Xinjiang and on the writing of Turkic Muslim intellectuals. The publication of David Brophy’s book Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia-China Frontier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), and Eric Schluessel’s Thinking Beyond Harmony: The ‘Nation’ and Language in Uyghur Social Thought(Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2014), are two examples of research using primary source material. Furthermore, the volume should be considered in the context of the 2007 edited volume Situating the Uyghurs Between China and Central Asia(Aldershot: Ashgate), which examines Xinjiang’s role as an interlocutor between the Sinic and Turkic civilizations. Klimeš expands on this concept by capturing the ideological influences deriving from China and the Soviet Union on Turkic Muslim intellectual thought and its interpretation in the local context.

While Struggle by the Pen ends its analysis at the beginning of Chinese Communist Party administration in Xinjiang, nation building in the region since 1949 has been ongoing. As a result, the intellectual debates of the early twentieth century still resonate into the present. The Chinese state’s adherence to the classification of ethnicities defined in the early years of the People’s Republic of China and to regional autonomy competes with ideas put forward within China and overseas. Chinese scholar Ma Rong’s espousal to remove the system of autonomy and ethnic classification contrasts with statements made by Uyghur exiles expressing aspirations for self-determination in Xinjiang/East Turkestan. At a 2014 conference in Washington DC, a presentation by an independent Uyghur scholar based in Australia on Uyghur intellectual history post-1949 provoked discussion over the complicit role Uyghur thinkers in China have had in maintaining a state vision of their identity. However, many observers have noted how jailed Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti did not contest Chinese political control over Xinjiang, but merely sought a genuine form of autonomy.

These conflicting ideas on nation in modern Xinjiang are mirrored in the period Klimeš discusses, a contestation he describes as the ‘dynamics of discord’; with tensions between secularism and religiosity and ideological rancor between Kuomintang and East Turkestan Republic intellectuals the most prominent in his narrative. However, Klimeš also talks of the ‘dynamics of accord’ wherein despite such disagreement, shared traits and heritage meant all believed they worked toward the ‘political emancipation’ of their people. The interaction of these dynamics he terms as ‘fragmented nationalism’.

In Struggle by the Pen, Klimeš alludes to Owen Lattimore’s description of Xinjiang as the ‘Pivot of Asia’. With plans to create Xinjiang as the key domestic conduit for China’s ambitious, if still nascent, Silk Road Economic Belt, the region appears earmarked to assume a new take on that role. The prospect of what Chinese academic Wang Jisi calls China’s ‘March West’ may have a profound effect on the continuing debate over nation in Xinjiang given the probable growth of Han Chinese migration into the region. If this should occur, then the book produced by Klimeš will not only be important in tracing the historical roots of the nation debate in Xinjiang, but also critical in voicing an indigenous tradition of intellectual thought over national interest.