East Turkestan, also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, lies in the very heart of Asia. Situated along the fabled ancient Silk Road, it has been a prominent centre of commerce for more than 2000 years. The land of East Turkestan gave birth to many great civilizations and at various points of history it has been a cradle of scholarship, culture and power.
The current territorial size of East Turkestan is 1.82 million square kilometres. The neighbouring Chinese province annexed part of the territory as a result of the Chinese communist invasion of 1949.
East Turkestan borders with China and Mongolia to the east, Russia to the north, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to the west, and Tibet to the south.
East Turkestan has a rich history and a diverse geography. It has grand deserts, magnificent mountains, and beautiful rivers, grasslands and forests.
East Turkestan is the homeland of the Turkic speaking Uyghurs and other Central Asian peoples such as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars and Tajiks.
According to latest Chinese census in 2010, the current population of East Turkestan is 21.81 million including 8.75 million ethnic Han Chinese (40,1%) illegal settled in East Turkestan after 1949 (the ethnic Han Chinese numbered 200,000 in 1949). The Uyghurs make up around 10.2 million Uyghurs (according to the 2000 census; the numbers for 2010 have not been published yet) and constitute still the majority of East Turkestan. However, the population shifts more and more in favor of the Han Chinese and make the Uyghurs strangers in their own land. However, Uyghur sources put the real population of Uyghurs around 20 million.
East Turkestan is located beyond the logical boundary of China, the Great Wall. Historically and culturally, East Turkestan is part of Central Asia, not of China. The people of East Turkestan are not Chinese; they are Turks of Central Asia.
Records show that the Uyghurs have a history of more than 4000 years in East Turkestan.
Throughout the history, independent states established by the ancestors of Uyghurs and other indigenous people thrived and prospered in the lands of East Turkestan. Situated along a section of the legendary Silk Road, Uyghurs played an important role in cultural exchanges between the East and West and developed a unique culture and civilization of their own.
In the early history, the Uyghurs, like most of the other Turkic peoples of Central Asia, believed in Shamanism, Manichesim and Buddhism. Starting from 1St century A.D and until the arrival of Islam, East Turkestan became one the great centers of Buddhist civilization.
Contacts between Uyghurs and Muslims started at the beginning of 9th century and conversion to Islam began. During the reign of Karahanidin kings, the Islamization of Uyghur society accelerated. Kashgar, the capital of Karahadin Kingdom, quickly became one of the major learning centers of Islam. Art, sciences, music and literature flourished as Islamic religious institutions nurtured the pursuit of an advanced culture. In this period, hundreds of world-renowned Uyghur scholars emerged. Thousands of valuable books were written. Among these works, the Uyghur scholar Yusup Has Hajip’s book, Kutadku Bilig (The knowledge for Happiness, 1069-1070) and Mahmud Kashgar’s Divan-I Lugat-it Turk (a dictionary of Turk language) are most influential.
The Manchu Invasion
The independent Uyghur Kingdom in East Turkistan—the Seyyid Kingdom, also known as Yarkent kingdom, was invaded by Manchu rulers of China in 1759 and the East Turkistan was annexed to the Manchu Empire. The Manchus ruled East Turkistan as a military colony from 1759 to 1862. During this period, the Uyghurs and other people in East Turkistan valiantly opposed the foreign rule in their land. They revolted 42 times against Manchu rule with the purpose of regaining their independence. The Manchu were finally expelled in 1864 and Uyghurs established Yetteshahar State. However, the independence was short lived, Manchus invaded the East Turkistan again in 1876. After eight years of bloody war, the Manchu empire formally annexed East Turkistan into its territories and renamed it “Xinjiang” (meaning “New Territory”) on November 18, 1884.
Chinese Rule in East Turkestan
After Chinese Nationalists overthrew the Manchu Empire in 1911, East Turkestan fell under the rule of warlords of Chinese ethnicity who came to dominate provincial administration in the later years of Manchu Empire. The Chinese central government had little control over East Turkestan at this period. The Uyghurs, who wanted to free themselves from foreign domination, staged numerous uprisings against Chinese rule, and twice (once in 1933 and 1944) succeeded in setting up an independent East Turkestan Republic (ETR). However, these independent republics were overthrown by the military intervention and political intrigue of the Soviet Union.
In October of 1949, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops marched into East Turkestan, effectively ending the ETR. The Chinese communists organized Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the territory of East Turkestan.
The Chinese communist reign in East Turkestan can be considered the darkest chapters in the history of Uyghurs and East Turkestan. Under the current conditions, the very existence of Uyghur nation is under threat. The Chinese communist government has been carrying out a vicious campaign against Uyghurs and other indigenous people of East Turkestan in order to permanently annex the lands of East Turkestan.
Despite all the brutal and destructive campaigns by the Chinese government against the identity and existence, the Uyghurs and other indigenous people of East Turkestan refuse to be subjugated by China and are carrying on resistance torch, handed down to them by their ancestors, against Chinese occupation.