China’s tormented Uyghurs: A backward glance

More than eight centuries have passed since Kubilay Khan approved of a response to a proposal by France’s king, Philip IV, that Christians and Mongols should join forces to drive the Muslims out of Palestine and defeat their forces in Egypt. The letter began: “We agree to your proposition,” and it went on to declare: “If, by the authority of heaven, We conquer these people, We shall give you Jerusalem.” 

It was a pivotal point in history. The year was 1289. Delivery of the letter was entrusted to Rabban [Master] Bar Sauma, a Chinese Nestorian Christian and a member of a once-powerful Central Asian people called the Uyghurs, many of whom served in the administration of the Mongol empire and whose script the Mongols had adopted. 

It took a year before the emissaries reached the court of King Philip, in Paris, where the Uyghur leader handed a letter written in the Uyghur script to the French king. Philip, having other battles closer to home, regretted that he could not join in the military campaign, but loaded Bar Sauma with gifts and assigned a nobleman and a crossbowman to accompany the Mongols on their more than 5,000-mile return. A visit to King Edward I, of England, in his Duchy of Gascony, yielded similar results.

The Christian rulers’ preoccupation with problems of governance at home left the way open for the spread of Islam throughout the Mongol Empire. From Persia, the new faith spread north into Russia, west to Turkestan — and, by the early 15th century, to the Uyghurs’ homeland: today’s troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in northwest China, whose Uyghur population is about 11 million.

The Uyghurs, who speak a Turkic language, are physically distinct from the Han Chinese: they are generally taller and have strong noses; many have blue eyes, and brown or reddish hair. DNA testing has recently shown that they are a mixture of Caucasian and East Asian. It has also shown that the first settlers in Xinjiang represented a branch of a prehistoric Celtic population which, from a region north of the Caucasus, migrated in different directions — one to the west and north, ending up in Ireland, the other to the south and east, finding its way across the Asian steppe and over the mountains into northwest China. 

We know that these nomadic Indo-Europeans had settled in the Xinjiang region by at least 2000 BCE, thanks to the almost perfect preservation in the desert sands of mummies clad in plaid twills, among them the 4000-year-old, woolen-capped, blanket-wrapped, auburn-haired “Beauty of Loulan,” encased in the museum of the region’s capital, Ürümqi, now a Han-occupied city and the center of a horrific experiment in the industrial-scale production of deracinated Mandarin-speaking drones. 

The program may remind Americans of the late 19th-century establishment of Indian boarding schools designed “to kill the Indian to save the child” by compelling them to learn English and convert to Christianity. But with their million-man internment camps, the Chinese have taken “re-education” to an incomparable level of brutality.

The subhead of a Sept. 7 Pacific Standard article sets the conflict in a more contemporary context: “China has used the U.S.’s Global War on Terror as a pretext to further repress the embattled Muslim minority.”


For readers interested in the early history of the Uyghurs, Swan recommends “The Mummies of Ürümqi,” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, one of the world’s leading experts in ancient fabrics. In the interest of full disclosure, following his retirement from CJR, Jon worked for a year as a “polisher” for the Xinhua News Agency in Beijing, and he and his wife were among a small group of Spanish, French and American Xinhua colleagues who were taken on a tour, led by a Xinhua official and an assistant, of Silk Road sites and museums.


Jon Swan is a poet, journalist and former senior editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. His poems and several articles may be found at www.jonswanpoems.com. Several years ago, after living in the Berkshires for 40 years, he and his wife moved to Yarmouth, Maine.