Sinkiang, Uygur Autonomous Region of

Sinkiang, Uygur Autonomous Region of

▪ autonomous region, China
Uygur also spelled  Uighur,  Chinese (Wade-Giles)  Hsin-chiang Wei-wu-erh Tzu-chih-ch'ü,  (Pinyin)  Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu,  

      autonomous region occupying the northwestern corner of China. It is bordered by Mongolia to the northeast, Russia to the north, Kazakhstan to the northwest, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the west, Afghanistan and the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir to the southwest, the Tibet Autonomous Region to the southeast, and the Chinese provinces of Tsinghai and Kansu to the east. China's largest political unit, it covers about 617,800 square miles (1,600,000 square kilometres). The capital is at Wu-lu-mu-ch'i (Urumchi (Ürümqi)).

      Known to the Chinese as Hsi-yü (Western Regions) for centuries, the area became Sinkiang (“New Borders”) upon its annexation under the Ch'ing (Manchu) dynasty in the 18th century. Westerners long called it Chinese Turkistan to distinguish it from Russian Turkistan. Sinkiang is an area of lonely, rugged mountains and vast desert basins. Its indigenous population of agriculturalists and pastoralists inhabit oases strung out along the mountain foothills or wander the arid plains in search of pasturage. Since the establishment of firm Chinese control in 1949, serious efforts have been made to integrate the regional economy into that of the nation. Despite the great increase in the Han (Chinese) population, the ethnic groups are officially encouraged to develop their own cultures.

Physical and human geography

The land
      Sinkiang can be divided into five physiographic regions: the Northern Highlands, the Dzungarian Basin, the Tien Shan (“Celestial Mountains”), the Tarim Basin, and the Kunlun Mountains. These regions run roughly from east to west, the high mountains alternating with large, lower basins.

      In the north the Northern Highlands extend in a semicircle along the Mongolian border. The major range in this area is the Altai Mountains, with average heights of approximately 4,500 feet (1,400 metres) above sea level. The slopes of the Altai Mountains on the Chinese (western) side are relatively gentle, with numerous rolling and dome-shaped hills.

      The triangular-shaped Dzungarian Basin (Junggar Basin), or Dzungaria, with an area of some 270,000 square miles (700,000 square kilometres), is bordered by the Altai Mountains on the northeast, the Tien Shan on the south, and the A-la-t'ao Mountains on the northwest. The basin is open on both the east and west. It contains a ring of oases at the foot of the enclosing mountains and a steppe and desert belt in the centre of the depression.

      The Tien Shan occupies nearly one-fourth of the area of Sinkiang. The mountains stretch into the region from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan and run eastward from the border for about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres). They are highest in the west and taper off slightly to the east. The highest peaks are Mount Han-t'eng-ko-li (Khan Tängiri Peak), which rises to an elevation of 22,949 feet (6,995 metres), and Mount Sheng-li (Russian Pik Pobedy (Victory Peak)), which attains 24,406 feet (7,439 metres). They are found in a cluster of mountains, from which ridges extend southwestward along the boundary between China and Kyrgyzstan. The Tien Shan is perpetually covered by snow, and numerous long glaciers descend its slopes from extensive snowfields.

      The Tarim Basin is surrounded by the Tien Shan to the north, the Pamir Mountains to the west, and the Kunlun Mountains to the south. It occupies about half of Sinkiang, extending 850 miles from west to east and about 350 miles from north to south. The basin consists of a central desert, alluvial fans at the foot of the mountains, and isolated oases. The desert—the Takla Makan (Takla Makan Desert)—covers an area of more than 105,000 square miles and is absolutely barren. The core of the basin has an elevation ranging from about 4,000 feet above sea level in the west to about 2,500 feet in the east. The Turfan Depression at the eastern end of the Takla Makan, however, is 505 feet below sea level.

      The Kunlun Mountains form the northern rampart of the Plateau of Tibet. With elevations up to 24,000 feet, the central part of the range forms an almost impenetrable barrier to movement from north to south. There are passes on the west and east such as the Karakoram in Jammu and Kashmir and the K'u-erh-kan in Sinkiang. In the east the A-erh-chin Mountains (Altun Mountains) turn northeast and eventually merge with the Tsou-lang-nan Mountains in southern Kansu Province, China.

      The drainage pattern of Sinkiang is unique to China. The only stream whose waters reach the sea is the O-erh-ch'i-ssu, which rises in north-central Sinkiang, crosses into Kazakhstan, and joins the Irtysh that (in Russia) flows into the Ob, which then empties into the Arctic Ocean. Other streams in Sinkiang issue from the mountains and disappear into inland deserts or salt lakes. The principal river of the region, the Tarim (Tarim River), is fed by largely intermittent streams that rise in the Kunlun Mountains and the Tien Shan. It flows generally eastward across the Tarim Basin , becoming intermittent in its lower reaches.

      Remote from the ocean and enclosed by high mountains, Sinkiang is cut off from marine climatic influences. It therefore has a continental dry climate. The Tien Shan separates the dry south from the slightly less arid north, so the northern slopes of the Tien Shan are more humid than those on the south.

      Rainfall is not only scanty but it also fluctuates widely from year to year. Average January temperatures in the Tarim Basin are about 20° F (−7° C), compared with 5° F (−15° C) in many parts of the Dzungarian Basin. In the summer, average temperatures north of the Tien Shan are lower than they are south of the mountains. In the Dzungarian Basin, July averages vary from 70° F (21° C) in the north to 75° F (24° C) in the south. In the Tarim Basin, July temperatures average about 80° F (27° C). The hottest part of Sinkiang is the Turfan Depression, where a maximum of 118° F (48° C) and a July mean of 90° F (32° C) have been recorded.

Plant and animal life
      Because of the great expanses of desert, the plant life of much of Sinkiang is monotonous. There are pine forests in the Tien Shan and tugrak woods in many places on the edge of the Takla Makan Desert. Apart from these trees, the most common are varieties of poplar and willow. In the Tien Shan and other mountains there is a great assortment of wild plants and flowers, many of which have never been classified.

      Animal life is of greater interest, and big-game hunting is an attraction of the Tien Shan. The mountains are inhabited by antelopes, ibex (wild goats), wapiti (elks), various wild sheep, leopards, wolves, bears, lynx, and marmots. There are wild horses in the north, wild camels, and wild yaks (large, long-haired oxen) and wild asses on the Tibetan frontier. Birdlife is concentrated in wetter areas. The few varieties of fish are mostly of the carp family. Snakes are not numerous and appear to be harmless; scorpions and centipedes, however, abound. During the summer, horseflies, mosquitoes, flies, and midges are thick in the woods. A great variety of butterflies are seen in the mountains.

Settlement patterns
      There are many differences in rural settlement patterns in the north and the south. Oasis agriculture in the Tarim Basin occupies a large part of the population, and only a small percentage are engaged in animal husbandry. North of the Tien Shan the grasslands support many of the inhabitants, who are pastoralists.

      There are five major cities in the province. Wu-lu-mu-ch'i, the regional capital, was once an agricultural centre for the Dzungarian Basin; it has undergone considerable industrial and commercial development. K'o-la-ma-i ( Karamay), also in the Dzungarian Basin, was developed in the late 1950s as a centre of the petroleum industry. Shih-ho-tzu (Shihezi), near the southern edge of the Dzungarian Basin, is a significant agricultural-processing centre. I-ning ( Kuldja), located in the upper I-li River valley near Kazakhstan, is an administrative town with a growing food-processing industry. Kashgar, the largest city of the Tarim Basin, is an ancient centre for the manufacture of handicrafts such as textiles, rugs, and tanned leather.

The people
      Sinkiang is inhabited by more than 40 different ethnic groups, of which the largest are the Uighur and the Han (Chinese). Other groups include the Mongolians and Khalkha, Hui (Chinese Muslims), Kazaks, Uzbeks, Tungusic-speaking Manchu and Sibos, Tajiks, Tatars, Russians, and Tahurs.

      The Han migration altered the pattern of population distribution and ethnic composition of Sinkiang. In 1953 about three-fourths of the population lived south of the mountains in the Tarim Basin. The Han influx was directed mainly to the Dzungarian Basin because of its resource potential. The Kazaks (Kazakh), the third largest minority group in the region, are nomadic herdsmen in the steppes of the Dzungarian Basin; they are especially concentrated in the upper I-li valley.

      There are two major language groups besides Chinese in the region. The Mongolians speak languages of the Mongolian branch of the Altaic (Altaic languages) group, and the Uighur, Kazaks, and Uzbeks speak the Turkic branch of the Altaic group. The Tajiks, however, belong to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European (Indo-European languages) language group. Mongolian (Mongol language), Uighur (Uighur language), and Kazak (Kazak language) are written languages in everyday use; Mongolian has its own script, while Uighur and Kazak are written in the Arabic script.

      The largest Muslim groups in China are the Uighur and the Hui. The Kazaks and Tajiks also follow Islām, while the Mongolians are adherents of Buddhism.

The economy
      Because of the dry climate, most of the cultivated land in Sinkiang depends entirely on irrigation. The various nationalities in the region have had rich experience in water conservancy techniques, of which the wells of the qanāt system in the Turfan and Ha-mi depressions are a fine example. Since the 1950s, these have been greatly supplemented with canals and reservoirs, and the amount of arable land has almost tripled.

      Sinkiang is self-sufficient in food grains. About half of the total crop area produces winter and spring wheat. Corn (maize), another important crop, is grown more in the south than in the north. Rice, kaoliang (a variety of grain sorghum), and millet are also produced in large quantities. Significant crops of long-staple cotton are produced in the Turfan Depression and the greater Tarim Basin, and cotton has become an important cash crop. Sinkiang is one of China's main fruit-producing regions; its sweet Ha-mi melons, seedless Turfan grapes, and I-li apples are well known. Sugar beets support a small sugar-refining industry. Livestock raising has been given renewed attention, particularly north of the Tien Shan.

      Mineral resources include deposits of lead, zinc, and copper, as well as molybdenum and tungsten (used in strengthening steel), although none of these are of industrial significance. Gold is produced from placer and lode deposits on the southern slopes of the Altai Mountains. Sinkiang's only product of national significance is petroleum. Since the first well was developed at K'o-la-ma-i in 1955, nearly 20 fields have been developed. A major new field was discovered in the area in 1983, after which exploration for petroleum was begun in the Tarim Basin.

      Sinkiang's heavy industry includes an iron and steel works and a cement factory at Wu-lu-mu-ch'i and a farm-tool plant at Kashgar. Industries processing agricultural and animal products have been established near the sources of raw materials and include several textile mills and a beet sugar mill.

      A system of roads encircles the Tarim Basin along the foothills of the surrounding mountain ranges, and roads run along the northern foothills of the Tien Shan in the Dzungarian Basin. The two basins are connected by a road that crosses the Tien Shan near Wu-lu-mu-ch'i. There are roads leading to Kazakhstan in the north through passes in the Dzungarian Basin and to Tajikistan in the south through a pass near Kashgar, which was the historic gateway of the silk trade between Asia and Europe. The region is also connected by road to the Chinese provinces of Kansu and Tsinghai in the southeast.

      A railway crosses Sinkiang from Kansu Province through Ha-mi, Wu-lu-mu-ch'i, and the Dzungarian Gate (a pass through the Pamir Mountains), connecting with the railway system of Kazakhstan. The northern and southern sectors of the province have also been linked by a railway constructed across the Tien Shan.

Administration and social conditions
      The administrative structure of Sinkiang reflects the policies of recognition of ethnic minorities and self-administration, in which local leaders are appointed to governmental positions. The Uighur Autonomous Region of Sinkiang is divided on the subprovincial level into three types of administrative units. There are three municipalities (shih) under direct regional administration, five autonomous prefectures (tzu-chih-chou), and seven prefectures (ti-ch'ü). The region is further subdivided into counties (hsien) and autonomous counties (tzu-chih-hsien).

      Before World War II the educational system was minimal. Since 1949, educational facilities have been broadened and the literacy rate is better than the national average. Institutions of higher learning, concentrated in Wu-lu-mu-ch'i, include the Sinkiang University; the Sinkiang “August First” Institute of Agriculture, which offers a course on water conservation; the Sinkiang Institute of Minorities, which offers courses in art, Chinese language and literature, history, and science; the Sinkiang Medical College; and the Sinkiang Institute of Languages, which offers instruction in several Western languages and literatures. Standard education is supplemented by instruction broadcast over radio and television. The provincial library and museum are also in Wu-lu-mu-ch'i.

Cultural life
      The indigenous peoples of Sinkiang exhibit their own cultures. The dominant Uighur are sedentary farmers whose social organization is centred upon the village. Many of the important Uighur cultural forms are rooted in Islām. Spoken Uighur predominates despite the popularization of Chinese. Islām itself has revived since the antireligious onslaught of the Cultural Revolution during the 1960s and '70s, and there are now numerous mosques and a new training academy for clergy. The Uighur performing arts tradition emphasizes ancient songs and dances accompanied by traditional instrumental groups. Professional troupes, first organized in the 1950s, are dominated by Uighur balladeers and dancers, although administrative duties are often performed by Han troupe members.

      The Kazaks (Kazakh) are pastoralists related to the people of Kazakhstan. They migrate seasonally in search of pasturage and live in dome-shaped, portable tents known as yurts (yurt). Livestock includes sheep, goats, and some cattle; horses are kept for prestige. The basic social unit is the extended family; political organization extends through a hierarchy of chiefs. Although there is a concept of national origin, the chiefs are seldom united.

      Like the Kazaks, the Mongolians (Mongol) are pastoralists who live in yurts, but their society is more firmly organized. The basic social unit is the nuclear family. There is an established political hierarchy of groups, the smallest of which is a group of several households known as a bag. The average person, or free nomad (arat), owes allegiance to nobles (taiji) and princes (noyan or wang). National power, however, is fragmented.

Chiao-Min Hsieh Victor C. Falkenheim

      Far to the northwest of the heartland of Chinese civilization, the Sinkiang region was thinly populated by herdsmen and oasis farmers organized into small kingdoms and tribal alliances. Southern Sinkiang came under the loose control of the Western Han dynasty in about 100 BC, when an extension of the Great Wall was built 300 miles west of the present Kansu-Sinkiang border. The Han capital of Ch'ang-an, near modern Sian in Shensi Province, came into contact with the Roman Empire over a trade route that passed through a series of oasis settlements south of the Tien Shan. Known as the Silk Road, this route carried Chinese silk to the Roman world in exchange for precious metals, glassware, and woolen cloth.

      With the decline of Han power in the 3rd century AD, the area passed under the control of local Uighur leaders. The resurgence of Imperial power during the T'ang (Tang dynasty) period (618–907) increased Chinese influence in the region, though many elements of western Asian culture were transmitted along the trade routes. The subsequent decrease of T'ang power resulted in an increase in Arab influence, and Islām gained many converts. The Turkic language came to be spoken in the oases, while Mongolian remained the language of the steppes.

      Sinkiang was again incorporated into the Chinese empire when it was conquered by the Mongol leader Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The Ch'ing (Qing dynasty), or Manchu, dynasty (1644–1911/12) successfully asserted control over the Sinkiang region, defeating the resistance of stubborn tribes in the north and sending loyal Muslims from Kansu to settle in the oases of northern Sinkiang in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1884 the Ch'ing government created a new Sinkiang province.

      After the revolution of 1911–12 Yang Tseng-hsin, a Han commander of native Turkic troops, seized control of Sinkiang and was later appointed governor by the Peking government. He maintained control until his assassination in 1928, which was followed by a series of rulers and shifting allegiances. After the Communist victory in 1949, the central government implemented moderate policies toward the local minorities, and Sinkiang was established as an autonomous region in 1955. Radical policies established elsewhere in China during the Great Leap Forward (1958–60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) were also implemented in Sinkiang, however. This resulted in a mass exodus of Kazak people in 1962 into Kazakhstan (which then was part of the Soviet Union), massive political instability, and heightened ethnic tensions.

      After the Cultural Revolution, political and economic policies were moderated, leading to widespread improvement in the livelihood of farmers and pastoralists and to relative stability and economic growth.

Victor C. Falkenheim

* * *

Universalium. 2010.

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