Partha Desikan

Uighurs of Xinchiang in western china were in the news recently. Here is an account of their enviable cultural past from a book published seventeen years ago, as reproduced in apopular website.

Toward the end of the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th, scientific

and archaeological expeditions to the region of Eastern Turkestan's Silk Road discovered numerous cave temples, monastery ruins, 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 were capturing attention of an interested public around the world. These relics of the Uighur culture constitute today major collections in the museums of Berlin, London, Paris, Tokyo, Leningrad (St-Petersburg) and the Museum of Central Asian Antiquities in New Delhi. The manuscripts and documents discovered in Eastern Turkestan reveal very high degree of civilization attained by the Uighurs.


Throughout the centuries the Uighurs used the following scripts

1. Confederated with the Kok Turks in the 6th and 7th centuries, they used the Orkhon script, which was developed from the Sogdian alphabet.

2. In the 5th century they adopted Sogdian italic script which became known as the Uighur script. This script was used for almost 800 years not only by the Uighurs, but also by other Turkic peoples, the Mongols, and by the Manchus in the early stage of their rule in China. 

3. After embracing Islam in the 10th century the Uighurs adopted the Arabic alphabet, and its use became common in the 11th century.  

4. The Uighurs of the former Soviet Union use Cyrillic. 

5. The Uighurs of Eastern Turkestan use the Arabic and Latin alphabets and the Uighurs of Turkey use the Latin alphabet.

Most of the early Uighur literary works were represented by translations of Buddhist and Manichean religious texts, but there were also narrative, poetic and epic works. Some of these were translated into German, English, Russian and Turkish.

After embracing Islam the Uighurs continued to preserve their cultural dominance in Central Asia. World-renowned Uighur scholars emerged, and Uighur literature flourished. Among hundreds of important works surviving from that era are "Qutatqu Bilik" by Yüsüp Has Hajip (1069-70), Mähmut Qäşqäri's "Divan-i Lugat-it Türk", and Ähmät Yüknäki's "Atabetul Hakayik".

The Uighurs had an extensive knowledge of medicine and medical practice. Chinese Sung Dynasty (906-960) sources indicate that a Uighur physician Nanto traveled to China and brought with him many kinds of medicine not known to the Chinese. There are 103 different herbs for use in the Uighur medicine recorded in a medical compendium by Li Shizhen (1518-1593), a Chinese medical authority. Tartar scholar, professor Rashid Rahmeti Arat in Zur Heilkunde der Uighuren (Medical Practices of the Uighurs) published in 1930 and 1932, in Berlin, discussed the Uighur medicine. Relying on a sketch of a man with an explanation of acupuncture, he and some Western scholars suspect that acupuncture was not a Chinese, but a Uighur discovery.

The Uighurs were also advanced in fields such as architecture, art, music and printing. Western scholars who have studied Uighur history, culture and civilization have often expressed a high regard for the cultural level of the Uighurs. For instance, according to Ferdinand Sassure, "Those who preserved the language and written culture in Central Asia were the Uighurs". Albert von Lecoq wrote, "The Uighur language and script contributed to the enrichment of civilizations of the other peoples in Central Asia. Compared to the Europeans of that time the Uighurs were far more advanced. Documents discovered in Eastern Turkestan prove that a Uighur farmer could write down a contract, using legal terminology. How many European farmers could have done that at that period? This shows the extent of Uighur civilization of that time". Prof. Dr. Laszlo Rasonyi wrote, "the Uighurs knew how to print books centuries before Gutenberg invented his press". In the judgment of Prof. Dr. Wolfram Eberhard, "in the Middle Ages, Chinese poetry, literature, theatre, music and painting were greatly influenced by the Uighurs".

Chinese envoys such as Hsuan Chang, Wang Yen De and Chang Chun who traveled through Eastern Turkestan within the seventh to the thirteenth centuries reported that they were impressed by the high degree of the Uighur power, prestige and culture they encountered there.

Wang Yen De, who served as an ambassador to the Qarakhoja Uighur Kingdom between the years 981 and 984, wrote in his memoirs: "I was impressed with the extensive civilization I found in the Uighur Kingdom. The beauty of the temples, monasteries, wall paintings, statues, towers, gardens, houses and the palaces built throughout the kingdom cannot be described. The Uighurs are very skilled in handicrafts of gold and silver, vases and potteries. Some say God has infused this talent into this people only".

This Uighur power, prestige, and culture dominated Central Asia for more than 1000 years went into a steep decline after the Manchu invasion in Eastern Turkestan in 1759, and under the rule of the Nationalist and especially the Communist Chinese.


Source: Eastern Turkestan Information, Volume 1, No.2, July 1991

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