The Uyghur are a Turkic people of Central Asia. Today Uyghurs live primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (also known by its controversial name East Turkistan or Uyghurstan). There are also existing Uyghur communities in Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Germany and Turkey and a smaller one in Taoyuan County of Hunan province in south-central China.


Historically the term "Uyghur" (meaning "united" or "allied") was applied to a group of Turkic-speaking tribes that lived in the Altay Mountains. Along with the Gokturks (Kokturks) the Uyghurs were one of the largest and most enduring Turkic peoples living in Central Asia.

The earliest use of the term "Uyghur" (Weihu) was during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD), in China. At that time the Uyghur were part of the Gaoche, a group of Turkic tribes, which were later called Tiele people (or possibly Turan). This group included tribes such as Syr-Tardush (Xueyantuo), Basmil (Baximi), Oguz (Wuhu), Khazar (Hesan), Alans, Kyrgyz (Hegu), Tuva (Duva) and Yakut (Guligan) from the Lake Baikal Region. The forebears of the Tiele belonged to those of Hun (Xiongnu) descendants. According to Chinese Turkic scholars Ma Changshou and Cen Zhongmian, the Chinese word Tiele originates from the Turkic word "Türkler" (Turks), which is a plural form of "Türk" (Turk) and the Chinese word "Tujue" comes from the Turkic word "Türküt" which is a singular form of Türk. The origin of Gaoche can be traced back to the Dingling peoples c. 200 BC, contemporary with the Chinese Han Dynasty.

The first use of "Uyghur" as reference to a political nation occurred during the interim period between the First and Second Göktürk Kaganates (630-684 AD). After the collapse of the Uyghur Empire in 840 AD, Uyghur refugees resettled to the Tarim Basin, intermarrying with the local people. It is only after this resettlement, that "Uyghur" can be properly used as an ethnic designation.

In modern usage, "Uyghur" refers to settled Turkic urban-dwellers and farmers who follow traditional Central Asian practice, distinguished from nomadic Turkic populations in Central Asia. The Chinese Communists reintroduced the term "Uyghur" to replace the previously used Turki. "Uyghur" is widely credited as having been used by Chinese Communists for the first time in 1921 with the establishment of the Revolutionary Uyghur Union (Inqilawi Uyghur Itipaqi), a Communist nationalist group with intellectual and organizational ties to the Soviet Union.

Uyghurs live mainly in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, where they are the largest ethnic group, together with Han Chinese, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Russians. Thousands of Uyghurs also live in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. "Xinjiang", meaning "New Frontier", is the official Chinese name of the Autonomous Region. Uyghurs still refer to "Xinjiang" as East Turkistan.


Orkhon Uyghur

Uyghur history can be divided into four distinct phases: Pre-Imperial (300 BCE-630 CE), Imperial (630-840 CE), Idiqut (840-1225 CE), and Mongol (1225-1600 CE), with perhaps a fifth modern phase running from the death of the Silk Road in 1600 CE until the present. Uyghur history is the story of an obscure nomadic tribe from the Altai Mountains rising to challenge the Chinese Empire and ultimately becoming the diplomatic arm of the Mongol invasion.

Pre-630 CE

The ancestors of the Uyghur include the nomadic Gaoche people and possibly the Tocharian peoples of the Tarim Basin. Gaoche, meaning ‘High Cart’, was a reference to the distinct high-wheeled, ox-drawn carts used to move yurts. The Gaoche were Altaic nomads who lived in the valleys south of Lake Baikal and around the Yenisei River(Yenisei = Ana Say, or "Mother River" in Turkic). They practiced some minor agriculture and were highly developed metalsmiths due to the abundance of easily available iron ore in the Yenisei. They became vassals of the Huns and provided them with manufactured arms. After the Huns they were passed as vassals to the Rouran and Hepthalite States. In 450 CE the Gaoche planned a revolt against the Rouran that was defeated by the Turk] (another Rouran vassal tribe). This incident marked the beginning of the historic Türk-Tiele animosity that plagued the Göktürk Khanate. When the Göktürk defeated the Rouran/Hepthalite state, they became the new masters of the Tiele (the name "Gaoche" was replaced by "Tiele" in historic records around this time). It was also at this time that the Uyghur tribe was first mentioned in Chinese records as a small tribe of 10,000 yurts in the South Baikal region.

The Uyghur participated in a coalition of Tiele under the leadership of the Syr-Tardush tribe, who allied with the Chinese Sui Empire in 603 to defeat Tardu Khan and win their independence. This alliance existed with varying degrees of autonomy from 603 until 630 when the Göktürk Khanate was decisively defeated by the Emperor Tang Taizong. During this time the Uyghur occupied second position in the alliance after the Syr-Tardush. In the interregnum between the first and second Göktürk Khanates (630-683), the Uyghur toppled the Syr-Tardush and declared their independence. When a second Göktürk Khanate was established during the reign of Empress Wu, the Uyghurs, together with other nomadic Turkic tribes, participated in the Gokturk empire. The empire declined following Bilge Khan’s death in 734. After a series of revolts coordinated with their Chinese allies, the Uyghur emerged as the leaders of a new coalition force called the "Toquz Oghuz". In 744 the Uyghur, together with other related subject tribes (the Basmil and Qarluq), defeated the Göktürk Khanate and founded the Uyghur Empire at Mount Otuken, which lasted for about 100 years.

745 CE-840 CE

Properly called the On- Uyghur (ten Uyghurs) and Toquz-Oghuz (nine tribes) Orkhon Khanate, the Uyghur Empire stretched from the Caspian Sea] to Manchuria and lasted from 745 to 840 CE. It was administered from the imperial capital Ordu Baliq, the first city built in Mongolia. During the imperial phase "Uyghur" came to mean any citizen of the Uyghur Empire, and not just a member of the Uyghur tribe. After the An Shi Rebellion, the Uyghur Empire considered conquering the Tang Empire,] but chose instead to use an exploitative trade policy to drain off the wealth of China without actually destroying it. In return, they policed the borders and quelled internal rebellions. Large numbers of Sogdian refugees came to Ordu Baliq to escape the Islamic Jihad in their homeland. It was from them the Uyghur were converted from Buddhism to Manichaeanism. The Uyghurs thus inherited the legacy of Sogdian Culture.

In 840, following a famine and a civil war, the Uyghur Empire was overrun by the Kyrgyz, another Turkic people. The result was that the majority of tribal groups formerly under the umbrella of the Uyghurs migrated to what is now northwestern China, especially the modern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Modern Uyghur

840 CE-1600 CE

The Uyghur refugees who fled southwest and west following the collapse of the Uyghur Empire established states in three areas: Gansu, present day Xinjiang, and the Valley of Chu River in the West Tian Shan (Tengri-Tag) Mountains.

Those who fled west, together with other Turkic tribal groups living in Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin, established the Beshbalik-Turpan-Kucha state in the Tarim Basin, Turfan Depression, and Dzungaria. In the process, they merged with the local populations of Tocharians (or Tokharians, whose language was Indo-European). It is probable that genetically and culturally, modern Uyghurs descended from the nomadic Turkic tribes and the Indo-European-speaking groups who preceded them in the Tarim Basin oasis-cities, as well as Uyghurs from Mongolia . Today one can still see Uyghurs with light-colored skin and hair. Modern studies have found that modern Uyghur populations represent an admixture of eastern and western Eurasian mtDNA and Y chromosome lineages. It is at this time "Uyghur" can be used as an ethnic designation.

Yugor The eastern-most of the three Uyghur states was the Ganzhou Kingdom (870- 1036 CE), with its capital near present-day Zhangye in the Gansu province of China. There, the Uyghur converted from Manicheism to Lamaism (Tibetan and Mongol Buddhism). Unlike other Turkic peoples further west, they did not later convert to Islam. Their descendants are now known as Yugurs (or Yogir, Yugor, and Sary Uyghurs, literally meaning "yellow Uyghurs" referring to their yellow hair) and are distinct from modern Uyghurs. In 1028-1036 CE the Yugors were defeated in a bloody war and forcibly absorbed into the Tangut kingdom.

Karakhoja The central of the three Uyghur states was the Karakhoja kingdom (created during 856-866 CE), also called the "Idiqut" (" Holy Wealth, Glory ") state, and was based around the cities of Turfan (winter capital), Beshbalik (summer capital), Kumul, and Kucha. A Buddhist state, with state-sponsored Buddhism and Manichaeism, it can be considered the epicentre of Uyghur culture. The Idiquts (title of the Karakhoja rulers) ruled independently until 1209, when they submitted to the Mongols under Genghis Khan and, as vassal rulers, existed until 1335.

Kara-Khanids, or The Karahans (Great Khans Dynasty), was the westernmost of the three Uyghur states. The Karahans (Karakhanliks) originated from Uyghur tribes settled in the Chu River Valley after 840 and ruled between 940-1212 in Turkistan and Maveraünnehir. They converted to Islam in 934 under the rule of Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan (920-956) and, after taking power over Qarluks in 940, built a federation with Muslim institutions. Together with the Samanids of Samarkand, they considered themselves the defenders of Islam against the Buddhist Uyghur Idiqut and the Buddhist Scythian-Tocharian kingdom of Khotan. The first capital of the Karahans was established in the city of Balasagun in the Chu River Valley and later was moved to Kashgar.

The reign of the Karahans is especially significant from the point of view of Turkic culture and art history. It is during this period that mosques, schools, bridges, and caravansaries were constructed in the cities. Kashgar, Bukhara and Samarkand became centers of learning. During this period, Turkish literature developed. Among the most important works of the period is Kutadgu Biig (translated as "The Knowledge That Gives Happiness"), written by Yusuf Balasaghuni between the years 1069-1070.

Both the Idiqut and the Kara-Khanid states eventually submitted to the KaraKhitans. After the rise of the Seljuk Turks in Iran, the Kara-Khanids became nominal vassals of the Seljuks as well. Later they would serve the dual-suzerainty of the Kara-Khitans to the north and the Seljuks to the south. Finally all three states became vassals to Genghis Khan in 1209.

Most inhabitants of the Besh Balik and Turfan regions did not convert to Islam until the 15th century expansion of the Yarkand Khanate, a Turko-Mongol successor state based in western Tarim. Before converting to Islam, Uyghurs were Manichaeans, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, or Nestorian Christians.

Post-1600 CE

The Manchus, nomads from present-day northeast China, vastly expanded the Qing empire, which they founded in 1644, to include much of Mongolia, East Turkistan, and Tibet. The Manchus invaded East Turkistan in 1759 and dominated it until 1864. During this period the Uyghurs revolted 42 times against Manchu rule with the purpose of regaining their independence. In the revolt of 1864, the Uyghurs were successful in expelling the Manchus from East Turkistan, and founded an independent Kashgaria kingdom under the leadership of Yakub Beg. This kingdom was recognized by the Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia, and Great Britain.

Large Manchu forces under the overall command of General Zuo Zhong Tang attacked East Turkestan in 1876. Fearing Tsarist expansion into East Turkestan, Great Britain supported the Manchu invasion forces through loans by British banks. After this invasion, East Turkestan was renamed "Xinjiang" or "Sinkiang", which means "New Dominion" or "New Territory", and it was annexed by the Manchu empire on November 18, 1884.

In 1911, the Nationalist Chinese, under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, overthrew Manchu rule and established a republic. Official recognition of the Uyghurs came under the rule of Sheng Shicai who deviated from the official Kuomintang five races of China stance in favor of a Stalinist policy of delineating fourteen distinct ethnic nationalities in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs staged several uprisings against Nationalist Chinese rule. Twice, in 1933 and 1944, the Uyghurs were successful in setting up an independent Islamic Eastern Turkestan Republic. These independent Islamic Republics were subsequently overthrown by the Nationalist Chinese with the military assistance and political support of the Soviet Union, which opposed the Uyghur independence movement throughout this period. In 1949, the Nationalist Chinese were defeated by the Chinese communists and East Turkestan was annexed by the People’s Republic of China.


The relics of the Uyghur culture constitute major collections in the museums of Berlin, London, Paris, Tokyo, St. Petersburg, and New Delhi. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scientific and archaeological expeditions to the region of Eastern Turkestan’s Silk Road discovered numerous cave temples, monastery ruins, and wall paintings, as well as valuable miniatures, books, and documents. Explorers from Europe, America, and even Japan were amazed by the art treasures found there, and soon their reports caught the attention of an interested public around the world. The manuscripts and documents discovered inXinjiang (Eastern Turkestan) reveal the very high degree of civilization attained by the Uyghurs. This Uyghur power, prestige, and civilization, which dominated Central Asia for over a thousand years, went into a steep decline after the Manchu invasion of their homeland.

Currently, Turkic and Islamic cultural elements are dominant in the Tarim Basin, which reflects a thousand years of Turkic rule in the region and resulted in the replacement of previous religious traditions.

Both Uyghur and Han locals live by the unofficial "Xinjiang time", two hours removed from the official Beijing time. Businesses and government offices have modified hours to compensate (e.g. opening at 10 am and closing at 8 pm).


Most of the early Uyghur literary works were translations of Buddhist and Manichean religious texts, but there were also narrative, poetic, and epic works. Some of these have been translated into German, English, Russian, and Turkish. After embracing Islam, world-renowned Uyghur scholars emerged, and Uyghur literature flourished. Among hundreds of important works surviving from that era are Qutatqu Bilik (Beneficial Lore) by Yusuf Balasaguni Perhaps the most famous and well loved pieces of modern Uyghur literature are Abdurehim Otkur’s Iz, Oyghanghan Zimin, Zordun Sabir’s Anayurt and Ziya Samedi’s (former minister of culture in Sinkiang Government in 50’s) novels Mayimkhan and Mystery of the years.

Holy Books

Aside from the Quran, Sufi verse, and a host of exegetical and legal texts of the Islamic tradition, all of which have long been the main religious texts in the Arabic, Persian, Chaghatai, and Uyghur languages, fragments of Buddhist and Christian texts were also found in Turpan dating from a very early time. In the beginning of the 1900’s a Turkish Christian Johannes Avetaranian translated the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament into Uyghur. After he left Xinjiang, Swedish Christians revised and updated the text many times, as well as completed the whole Old Testament. George Hunter in Urumqi, a Scottish Christian also translated some portions of the Scripture. Also many other text’s about Jesus were translated. A complete modern revision of the Christians’ holy books is in progress.


The Uyghurs had an extensive knowledge of medicine and medical practice. Chinese Song Dynasty (906-960) sources indicate that a Uyghur physician named Nanto traveled to China and brought with him many kinds of medicine unknown to the Chinese. There were 103 different herbs for use in Uyghur medicine recorded in a medical compendium by Li Shizhen (1518-1593), a Chinese medical authority. Some scholars believe that acupuncture was originally a Uyghur discovery, not a Chinese discovery.

Today, traditional Uyghur medicine can still be found at street stands. Similar to other traditional medicine, diagnosis is usually made through checking the pulse, symptoms, and disease history, and then the pharmacist pounds up different dried herbs, making personalized medicines according to the prescription. Modern Uyghur medical hospitals adopted the Western medical system and apply advanced Western pharmaceutical technologies to purify and produce traditional medicines that are effective for a few chronic and rare diseases.


Uyghurs have over 62 different kinds of musical instruments; most Uyghur homes have a dutar. The 12 Muqams is perhaps the Uyghurs’ most well known music. Uyghur music has close ties with Persian music.


Throughout the centuries, the Uyghurs have used the following scripts:
1. Confederated with the Göktürks in the 6th and 7th centuries, they used the Orkhon script.
2. In the 5th century, they adopted Sogdian italic script which became known as the Uyghur script. This script was used for almost 800 years, not only by the Uyghurs, but also by other Turkic peoples, by the Mongols, and by the Manchus in the early stage of their rule in China.
3. After embracing Islam in the 10th century, the Uyghurs adopted the Arabic alphabet, and its use became common in the 11th century.
4. During a short period of time (1969-1987), Uyghurs in China used a Latin script (yengi yazik).
5. Today the Uyghurs of the former Soviet Union use Cyrillic, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang (Eastern Turkestan) use a modified Arabic script, and the Uyghurs of Turkey use the Latin alphabet.