A Review: The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History

Thum, Rian

The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History

Harvard University Press, 2014

336 pages. ISBN: 978-0-674598553

A Secret History


“Xinjiang,” the area of Central Asia in China where many Uyghurs (Turkic Muslims) reside, always causes tensions between the Chinese government and its native dwellers. In the eyes of the Chinese government, Xinjiang is essentially one of the five autonomous regions, embodying China’s territorial completeness and nationalist solidarity. This geographic name, however, represents a watershed point in Uyghur’s psyche en route to Chinese conquest and colonization. Not only do they contest the official Chinese rhetoric of its legitimate rule over Xinjiang because of a shared history, Uyghurs also find this geographic name alienating, merely a symbol of illegitimate, cruel outsider domination.

The Sacred Route of Uyghur History anchors its entrance to this polemics over this geographic name, taking a ground-breaking, but overlooked reading of Uyghur history, in the course of the 20th century. It explores the region as the pre-modern, indeterminate oasis of Altishahr, the Uyghur for “six cities,” and searches for a Uyghur identity within the popular Uyghur historical practice of internal pilgrimage and the textual culture of Uyghur manuscripts without trapping into the post-colonial notion of an imagined community enclosed in the nation-state system. The interplay of the texts and the places allows Uyghurs not only to study their past, but also to express their past. Sacred Route challenges placing a nation’s identity in a binary power struggle. This regional Uyghur identity is neither a reaction to the Chinese government’s subjugation nor a simple artefact of resistance, but a reflection of a unique culture system, in which the popular masses, actively and consciously, engage with their common past.

Therefore, Sacred Route is also a cornerstone in the history of the study of history. Uyghurs, in Thum’s narratives, are the creators of their history and not merely the recipients of the delineated history based on scholarly written texts. This is a history shaped by mass participation, rather than elitist didactics; a history transmitted in sacred place rather than social institutions; and a history transcended the gap between written and oral modes of historical practice. Thum thus draws the reader’s attention not only to the content of his narratives of Uyghur history, but also how this history is transmitted, registered and assimilated into the Uyghur identity.

To tell his story, Thum opens his narrative with the chapter “The Historical Canon,” introducing tazkirah (an Arabic term for ‘memory’), the manifestation of textual negotiation of popular local history, to the reader. Thum discovers that Uyghurs had a rooted tradition of “our history” where the individual past infused into a collective body of history that was shared by everyone in the community and transmitted through Altishahr manuscripts. From a local desire for Islamic heroic depictions in the 18th century to an accommodation of foreign historical literature in the 19th and the 20th centuries, Uyghurs transformed the history of foreign societies and integrated it into their own indigeneity.

Thum explains two different mechanisms of the transmission and integration of this potpourri of histories. The first one relied on oral performances and public readings at local shrines, and words of mouths re-telling various narratives, that symbolized a profound connection between historical tales, literatures and physical places. The second one turned this form of unwritten text into written words in manuscript form, tazkirah. Such intersections of manuscript technology with socially and geographically embedded performances, usually at the shrines, lied at the heart of Uyghur notions of the past which also included “originally intentional and undisguised inventions” of tales and heroic depictions. Thum chooses an adventurous path broadening history’s traditional definition, taking various elements of tazkirah into consideration, such as proses and poetries, pilgrimage manuals, monographs, and encyclopaedias. At the same time, Thum argues that oral performances could not divorce from these tazkirahs—reading texts aloud from manuscripts at the shrines completed a solitary experience of Uyghur history. These tazkirahs, embedded with paramount social values, thus became grounded in the hands of a wide community, and transcended into an important form of cultural capital.

What is impressive with Thum’s research is that he sees manuscripts as not only a medium of contents, but also physical objects for textual negotiation of the past, created and transmitted in culturally specific ways. Such a manuscript tradition mobilized people’s literal, visual, oral and aural senses. On the one hand, the author of the tazkirah possessed control over the written text. On the other hand, this written text, conveyed by a reciter and disseminated to a broader community, also involved people’s participation in creating historical meanings within the texts, giving them a shared authority over the text. Literate readers could record their own experiences in the margins, whereas non-literate people could re-shape the meaning of the text through hearing and re-telling. As a result, the history embodied in these tazkirahs was more dynamic and accessible, consisting of not standardized lineage of one’s past, but an evolving and progressive identity. Tazkirahs became an important site of textual negotiation of Uyghur past and solidarity. Thum also juxtaposes the accessibility, adaptability, and flexibility of collective manuscript traditions to the exclusivity, rigidity, and stability of authorship in the post-printing era, criticizing a monopolization of people’s history in the hands of scholarly elites.

Thum’s narrative of Uyghur history, however, does not end with the written tazkirah. He sees the physicality of places symbiotic with the aforementioned site of textual negotiation, incorporating Uyghur internal pilgrimage to different local shrines of Altishahr into this collective history. Not only did these shrines, saints’ tombs, provide Uyghur pilgrims with a “physical and geographical link to the past,” they also rendered the narrative of their history some legitimacy and sacred authenticity. Thum argues that these shrines became no longer static, merely being venerated by pilgrims, who, however, activated the historical potential of the shrine which hitherto gave the reciprocity of sacredness to them.

In the meantime, such internal pilgrimage brought the convergence of tazkirahs from different parts of Altishahr and disseminated the information across geographic and social boundaries, resembling the Uyghur tradition of “our history,” which linked each pilgrim’s personal life history to the history of the saint, where a sense of the past could be shared across people, and inter-oasis groups of all backgrounds. Thum, thus, indicates that this transcendence of place shifted the focus of history in Altishahr from the places to the saints, circumventing the barrier of localized education along lines of class and profession, and formulating a system of shared identity bounded by the “network of the tazkirah, pilgrim and shrines, the original aspect of the tales, the record and display of participation in the historical tradition.”

Thum then proposes that while veneration at local shrines reinforced regional oasis identities within different group, this internal mobility by networks of pilgrimage and collections of tazkirah anthologies also promoted the imagination of Uyghurs in other oases sharing the same past, creating an alternative form of imagined community that was “more complex and self-conscious than ethnicity but less homogenous than the nation.” This system of networks therefore supported a type of imagined community peculiar to Altishahr’s own geographical, historiographical, and political contexts, where chronology and genealogy were replaced by geography and shared memory of saints as the foundation of Altishahri knowledge.

Unlike many historians who approach Uyghurs in Xinjiang from the perspective of a bipolar power struggle, in which Uyghurs have been severely oppressed, lack of political representation, economic power, and cultural solidarity, Thum proposes that the Uyghur reaction to the Chinese regime was only a contest to the official rhetoric of nationalism which had impeded Uyghur tazkirah-shrine tradition and regional oasis identity. Such an outcry escalated when the Chinese regime started to suppress the tazkirah-shrine tradition. The government banned internal pilgrimages and religious practices, converted mosques and shrines into secular administrative buildings, and confiscated manuscripts in 60s and 70s, peaking during Cultural Revolution.

This decline in popular Uyghur historical practices was accompanied with the arrival of printing technology in the region, fixating history between the lines of the written text, such as the newspaper. Nationalist history, instead of regional popular history, was discussed, which again became monopolized by central elites, leaving mass participation out of the picture. The Altishahr history rewritten by the state was no longer an embodiment of Uyghur identity, but entangled with the matter of politics and used to underpin the legitimacy of the regime—the oases disappeared as a frame for the organization of history in the face of nationalism.

What is the future of this tazkirah-shrine tradition? Can Uyghurs restore their regional oasis identity through the connection of their history to the place? These are hard questions to answer. Instead of using the familiar notion of imagined community and nationalism, Rian Thum brings readers back to the older ways of knowing and belonging. He predicts a downcast in Uyghur textual traditions in the face of the state’s monopolizing and archiving of Uyghur manuscripts. He criticizes the detriments of modern printing and preservation culture to the unique author-reader relationship in Altishahr. He is also disappointed with the present one-dimensional study of the past based on the same set of texts written by previous historians.

The Sacred Routes, nevertheless, is a narrative of people’s history. Nile Green, director of the UCLA Program on Central Asia, calls this book a “humanist project,” which shows us an overlooked and secret history of a people and “expands our sense of how humans can and do interact with the past.”


LA Review of the books: http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/xinjiang-stories-nile-green-rian-thum-sacred-routes-uyghur-history


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