Brief History of the Uyghurs

This document was reproduced by permission from the Eastern Turkestan Union in Europe
The addition of Pinyin spellings has been included for standardization.
Early History
The Kanchou (Ganzhou)Uygur Kingdom
The Karakhoja Uygur Kingdom
The Karakhanid Uygur Kingdom
Manchu Invasion
Uygur Civilization
Uygur Script
Uygur Literature
Uygur Economy
Uygur Medicine
Architecture, Art, Music and Printing


The Uighers are the native people of Eastern Turkestan, also known as Xinjiang or Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The latest Chinese census gives the present population of the Uyghers as 7.2 million 1 . There are also 500,000 Uygurs in Western Turkestan mostly known as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan 2 . Almost 75,000 Uygurs have their homes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Europe and the United States 3 .

The Chinese sources indicate that the Uygurs are the direct descendants of the Huns 4 .

The name "Uygur" is mentioned in the chronicles of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.), Wei Dynasty (265-289 A.D.), Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.), and Sung Dynasty (906-960) 5 .

Ancient Greek, Iranian, and Chinese sources placed Uygurs with their tribes, and sub-tribes in the vast area between the west banks of the Yellow River in the east, Eastern Turkestan in the west, and in the Mongolian steppe in the northeast as early as 300 B.C. 6 .

Early History

After 210 B.C., the Uygurs played important roles in the Hun (220 B.C. - 386 A.D.), Tabgach (Toba) (386-554 A.D.), and Kok Turk (552-744 A.D.) empires which were established in Central Asia 6

In 670, 688, 692 A.D., the Uygurs, the Kok Turk and the Shato joined the Tibetan Armies in their military expeditions in capturing the Chinese invasion strongholds in north and northeast Central Asia. 8

After the fall of the Kok-Turk Empire in Central Asia, the Uygurs established their first true state in 744, with the city of Karabalgasun, on the banks of the Orkhun River, as its capital.

The founder of this Uygur state was Kutluk Bilge Kul Khagan (King or Ruler). In 747, he was succeeded by his son Moyunchur, a powerful leader who subdued other Turkic clans, consolidated the monarchy, and extended his rule in the north to Lake Baikal, in the east to Gansu and in the southwest to India. 9

It so happened that just as the Uygurs became united and strong, the Chinese Tang Dynasty under Hsuan-tsung (Xuanzong) (712-756 A.D.) was undergoing a sharp decline. In 751, a Chinese army was disastrously defeated at the battle of Talas River by the Arabs, Tibetans, and the Uygurs. In the same year, a Chinese invasion of the Nan-chao (Nanzhao) to the southeast was thwarted with appalling losses to the Chinese; and a Chinese force under An Lu Shan was defeated by the Khitan (Qidan) in the northeast. These disasters were but the prelude to a much more fearful catastrophe - the rebellion of the former trusted minister An Lu Shan which broke out in 755 A.D.

It was under these circumstances that the Uygurs were invited by Su-tsung (Suzong), the Hsuan-tsung's (Xuanzong) successor, to send armies to help the Chinese. In this event, the Uygur forces played a key role in the recapture of both Chang-An (Chang'an) and Lo-yang (Luoyang) in 757. The Uygurs did not hesitate to exploit the Tang Dynastic debt owed them, by acts of appalling pillage. The Chinese emperor agreed to pay 20,000 rolls of silk as a tribute annually to the Uygurs and granted the Uygur Khagan one of his daughters in marriage. 10 She was the first of three princesses of the Chinese imperial family to become a Uygur khatun (wife) in the period 744-840 A.D. 11

Moyunchur Khagan died in 759 and was succeeded by his son Bugu Khagan. During his reign, the Uygurs reached the apex of their power. They began with China, which engaged in forced trade of Uygur horses for Chinese silk - an exchange which was noted frequently in Chinese sources before 829.

In 762 Bugu Khagan sent to the Middle Kingdom where he helped the Tang Dynasty in the final battles against the rebellion which had racked it for so long.

In 779, Bugu Khagan was killed by his first cousin and chief minister Baga Tarkan. Bugu Khagan's Sogdian allies and advisors had wanted him to take advantage of the death in 779 of Emperor Tai-tsung (Taizong) and the state mourning involved in it, to undertake an invasion of China. Bugu Khagan agreed to do this. His first cousin Baga Tarkan opposed the plan; and when he saw the tide turning against him, murdered Bugu Khagan and set himself on the throne. Baga Tarkan, believed at this stage China could have been conquered by the Uygurs. But he did not believe that Uygurs would be able to preserve their cultural identity if they once conquered China, a vast and populous country even then.

After the death of Baga Tarkan in 789 and specially after that of his successor, Kulug Bilge Khagan in 790, Uygur power and prestige declined

In 795, the rule of the Uygur state passed to another clan. Under this new clan the Uygurs became more and more steeped in religion, which softened them and planted seeds of advanced culture which characterized the Uygurs of later ages.

The most important ruler of this clan was Kutluk Bilge Khagan, whose successful military exploits, both before and during his reign, are reported in the Karabalgasun inscriptions. 12 He did not succeed , however, in restoring the Uygur empire to its former power.

With Kutluk Bilge Khagan's death in 805, the forces of disintegration of the Uygur state gathered momentum. War broke out abroad with the powerful Kyrgyz neighbors to the north; while at home, court intrigue eroded the power of the royal family; rebellions broke out, and, to add to everything, a bad season and severe winter in 839 killed much of the livestock upon which the Uygur economy was so dependent. In 840, the Kyrgyz, invited by a rebel chief, attacked the tottering state, killed the Khagan, and took the capital.

This first part of Uygur political history shows the Uygurs as the protectors of the Chinese empire for almost a century. On the other hand, the relationship was not really a friendly one. There was abiding resentment on the Chinese side. The reason was that the Middle Kingdom was obliged to be protected by a "barbarian" people. The Uygurs, for their part, never gave the Chinese the respect which the latter would have liked. 13

After the fall of the first Uygur empire, a group of Uygurs emigrated to the west banks of the Yellow River in Kansu (Gansu); a second group emigrated via Yetti Su to the Southern part of Khan Tengri or Tianshan in Eastern Turkestan; the third and the largest group emigrated to the northern part of Khan Tengri where their ancestors are still living. 14

The Kanchou (Ganzhou) Uygur Kingdom

The Kanchou (Ganzhou) Uygur Kingdom, which was established in today's Kansu province of China, in 850, never became a major power, but the Chinese had great respect for it as seen from the Chinese court praise Kanchou (Ganzhou) Uygur King when an Uygur and a Tibetan ambassador visited the Chinese capital in 911. 15 . Nevertheless, this kingdom was absorbed in 1228 by the Tankuts who established a state in the area known as Western Hsia.

Several thousand of these Uygurs still live in the Kansu (Gansu) area under the name yellow Uygurs or Yugurs, preserving their old Uygur mother tongue and their ancient Yellow sect of Lamaist Buddhism.

The Karakhoja Uygur Kingdom

The Uygurs living in the northern part of Khan Tengri (Tianshan Mountains) in Eastern Turkestan established the Karakhoja Uygur Kingdom (Qocho) near the present day city of Turfan (Turpan), in 846. 16 The Chinese recognized this kingdom and sent Wang Yen (Yan) De in 981 to Karakhoja as their ambassador 17 . Wang Yen (Yan) De stayed in Karakhoja for three years.

The Karakhanid Uygur Kingdom

The Uygurs living in the southern part of Khan Tengri, established the Karakhanid Uygur Kingdom in 840 with the support of other Turkic clans like the Karluks, Turgish and the Basmils, with Kashgar as its capital. 18

In 934, during the rule of Satuk Bughra Khan, the Karakhanids embraced Islam 19 . Thus, in the territory of Eastern Turkestan two Uygur kingdoms were set up: the Karakhanid, who were Muslims, and the Karakhojas, who were Buddhists.

In 1397 this Islamic and Buddhist Uygur Kingdoms merged into one state and maintained their independence until 1759. 20

Manchu Invasion

The Manchus who set up a huge empire in China, invaded the Uygur Kingdom of Eastern Turkestan in 1759 and dominated it until 1862. During this period the Uygurs revolted 42 times against the Manchu rule with the purpose of regaining their independence. 21 In the last revolt of 1863, the Uygurs were successful in expelling the Manchus from their motherland, and founded an independent kingdom in 1864. The kingdom was recognized by the Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia, and Great Britain. 22 But for fear of Tsarist expansion into Eastern Turkestan, Great Britain persuaded the Manchu court to conquer Eastern Turkestan. The money for the Manchu invasion was granted by the British Banks. 23

Large forces under the overall command of General Zho Zhung Tang (Tso Tsung-t'ang / Zui Zongtang), attacked Eastern Turkestan in 1876. After this invasion, Eastern Turkestan was given the name Xinjiang which means "new territory" or "New Dominion" and it was annexed into the territory of the Manchu empire on November 18,1884. 24

In 1911, the Nationalist Chinese, overthrew Manchu rule and established a republic.

The Uygurs, who also wanted to free themselves from foreign domination, staged several uprisings against the nationalist Chinese rule during this period. Twice, in 1933 and 1944, the Uygurs were successful in setting up an independent Eastern Turkestan Republic. 25 But these independent republics were overthrown by the military intervention and political intrigues of the Soviet Union. It was in fact the Soviet Union that proved deterrent to the Uygur independence movement during this period.

In 1949 Nationalist Chinese were defeated by the Chinese Communists. After that, Uygurs fell under Chinese Communist rule.

Uygur Civilization

At the end of the 19th and the first few decades of the 20th century, scientific and archaeological expeditions to the region along the Silk Road in Eastern Turkestan led to the discovery of numerous Uygur cave temples, monastery ruins, wall paintings, statues, frescoes, valuable manuscripts, documents and books. Members of the expedition from Great Britain, Sweden, Russia, Germany, France, Japan, and the United States were amazed by the treasure they found there, and soon detailed reports captured the attention on an interested public around the world. The relics of these rich Uygur cultural remnants brought back by Sven Hedin of Sweden, Aurel Stein of Great Britain, Gruen Wedel and Albert von Lecoq from Germany, Paul Pelliot of France, Langdon Warner of the United States, and Count Ottani from Japan can be seen in the Museums of Berlin, London, Paris, Tokyo, Leningrad and even in the Museum of Central Asian Antiquities in New Delhi 26 . The manuscripts, documents and the books discovered in Eastern Turkestan proved that the Uygurs had a very high degree of civilization. 27

Uygur Script

Throughout the centuries, the Uygurs used three kinds of scripts. When they were confederated with the Kok Turks in the 6th and 7th centuries, they used the Orkhun script, which was actually a Kok Turk invention 28 . Later, the Uygurs dropped this script and adopted their own script which became known as the Uygur script 29 . This script was used for almost 800 years not only by the Uygurs, but also by other Turkic peoples, the Mongols, and by the Manchus in the early stage of their rule in China 30 . As the Mongols did not have their own written language, the Uygur script was adopted by Chengiz(Genghis) Khan's Empire, for all sorts of correspondence. 31 . Guyuk Khan's (1246-1248) letter to the Pope of that time was written in Uygur script 32 . The Uygurs were also instrumental in shaping Mongol administration, which was formidable by any standards. They manned Mongol chanceries and, probably because of their knowledge of languages, were often charged with visiting foreigners. Both Plano Carpini and Rubruck mention them. The Uygurs also emerged as teachers of the royal family, governors in China, ambassadors in Rome, today's Istanbul, and Bagdat, scholars in Tebriz and officers in the army 33 . After embracing Islam, the Uygurs adopted the Arabic script, but common usage of the Arabic script came only in the 11th century.

Uygur Literature

The first Uygur literary works were mostly translations of Buddhist and Manicheist religious books. Besides, during the expeditions some narrative, poetic, and epic works were also discovered. Some of these books have been translated into German, English, Russian, and Turkish 34 . After embracing Islam, Uygurs continued to preserve their culture dominance in Central Asia.

In this period hundreds of Uygur scholars, well known to the world, emerged. Hundreds of valuable books were written. One hundred and thirty of these important works were discovered later 35 . Among these works Uygur scholar Yusuf Has Hajip's book Kutatku Bilik , Mahmud Kashgari's Divani Lugatit Turk , Ahmet Yukneki's Atabetul Hakayik , are very famous. Yusuf Has Hajip's Kutatku Bilik , was written in 1069-1070. It is a unique example of a work that explains social, cultural, and political lives of the Uygurs during this period. Mahmud Kashgari's Divani Lugatit Turk , which was also written in this age, bears knowledge as to the dialects of various Turkic people living at that time. It also gives information about the dialectical differences, their social upbringings, their customs, as well as the regions they inhabited. the author of this encyclopedic dictionary wandered amidst all of the Turkic peoples before he compiled his work, studied all the data and thus provided a sound academic basis. Divani Lugatit Turk , is one of the main source for Turkic Studies today.


Prior to Islam, like most of the Turkic peoples in Central Asia, the Uygurs believed in religions like Shamanism, Manicheism and Buddhism. Buddhism entered Eastern Turkestan at the beginning of our era 35 . It quickly spread among Turkic peoples, but it was the Uygurs who founded Buddhism in Central Asia. The ruins of the famous monasteries known as Ming Oy or Thousand Buddhas built by the Uygurs can still be seen in the cities of Kucha, Turfan(Turpan), and Tunhuang(Dunhuang), where Kanchou (Ganzhou) Uygurs or the Yellow Uygurs still live.

The Uygur king Kul Bilge Khagan (678-712) ordered a Budddist monastery to be built in the city of Bay in Eastern Turkestan 36 . In the city of Kucha, there were more than 50 Buddhist temples, libraries and welfare programs for the support of the poor 37 . In the city of Hoten, there were 14 large monasteries without counting the smaller ones. 38

When Uygur king Bugu Khagan traveled to China in 762, he met some Manicheist priests. They succeeded in converting him to their religion and four of these priests returned with him to Karabalgasun. Shortly after, Bugu Khagan imposed Manicheism as the state religion 39 . This was a political step rather than a religious one. He hoped that by adopting this characteristically Sogdian religion to direct the future of his people away from the cultural influence of the Chinese who were also Buddhists 40

The Uygurs embraced Islam in 934, during the reign of Satuk Bughra Khan. He was the first Turkic ruler who embraced Islam in Central Asia. At this time, instead of temples, mosques were built. Almost 300 mosques were built only in the city of Kashgar 41 . Among them, most famous are the Azna Mosque, built in the 12th century, Idgah (Id Kah) Mosque built in the 15h century, and Appak Khoja Mosque, built in the 18th century. In the city of Kashgar alone there were 18 big Madrasas (mosque schools), and up to two-thousand students enrolled in these schools in any given year. these schools were one of the important facilities not only for teaching the Uygur children reading, writing, and subjects Islamic in nature, but also such familiar subjects as mantik (logic), arithmatik (arithmetic), hendese (geometry), hai'a (ethics), astronomiye (astronomy), tibb (medicine), and falaha (agriculture). The Mesudi Library built in the 15th century, had a collection of almost 200,000 books. 42

Uygur Economy

The Uygurs adopted a sedentary life style earlier that the other Turkic peoples. Thus, the Uygurs knew how to cultivate land as early as 2nd century A.D. The Uygurs were engaged in a much more advanced agriculture by the 7th century. They raised wheat, maize, corn millet, potatoes, sesame, sugarbeet, peanuts, peaches, grapes, melons and cotton. The fields were irrigated with water brought from far distances by the "kariz" (water canals) built by the Uygurs. These "kariz" are still in use today around the city of Turfan(Turpan) today.

Cotton was one of the principle local products of commercial value. Cotton and products manufactured from cotton contributed to the prosperity of the region.

Another product of commercial value was carpets. The cities of Hoten, Kashgar, and Turfan(Turpan) were carpet manufacturing centers.

Uygur Medicine

The Uygurs had an extensive knowledge of medicine and medical practice. Sung (Song) Dynasty (906-960) sources indicate that an Uygur physician, Nanto, traveled to China, and brought with him many kinds of medicine not known to the Chinese 43 . There are 103 different herbs for use in Uygur medicine recorded in a medical compendium completed by Li Shizen (1518-1593), a chinese medical authority. The Tartar scholar Rashit Rahmeti Arat has written two valuable books in German entitled Zur Heilkunde der Uighuren (Medical Practices of the Uygurs) , in 1930 and 1932, relying on Uygur documents discovered in Eastern Turkestan. In his book, Arat gives important information on Uygur medicine and medical treatment. Among other documents he studied he found a very important sketch of a man with an explanation of acupuncture. Relying on this document, some western scholars claim that acupuncture was not a Chinese, but a Central Asian invention and the Uygurs perfected the method 44 .

Traditional Uygur medicine, which can be traced back for more than 2,700 years through written records, is still very popular in Eastern Turkestan today.

Architecture, Art, Music and Printing

In the fields such as architecture, art, music and printing the Uygurs were also advanced.

Scholars, archaeologists and Chinese envoys who traveled through Eastern Turkestan have often expressed their high estimation of the level of the Uygur civilization.

For instance, Wang Yen(Yan) De, who served as Chinese ambassador to the Karakhoja Uygur Kingdom between the years 981-984, wrote the following in his memoirs:
"I was impressed with the extensive civilization I have found in the Uygur Kingdom. The beauty of the temples, monasteries, wall paintings, statues, towers, gardens, housings and the palaces built throughout the kingdom cannot be described. The Uygurs are very skilled in handicrafts made from gold and silver, vases and potteries. Some say that God has infused this talent into these people only." 45

Albert Gruenwedel:
"Turfan(Turpan) is without doubt a forgotten Asian city of extraordinary interest. The size of it is remarkable: the inner, holy city, consisting only of temples and palace, measures 7,400 feet at the widest point of the still extant walls. Hundreds of terraced temples and grandiose vaulted edifices cover an extensive area of lane." 46

Fredinnad de Sassure:
"Those who preserved the language and written culture of Central Asia were the Uygurs." 47

Albert von Lecoq:
"The Uygur language and script contributed to the enrichment of civilizations of the other peoples in Central Asia. Compared to the Europeans of that time, the Uygurs were far more advanced. Documents discovered in Eastern Turkestan prove that an Uigur 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 Uygur civilization of that time." 48

Lazlo Rasonyi:
"The Uygurs knew how to print books centuries before Guetenberg invented his press." 49

Wolfram Eberhard:
"In Middle Ages, the Chinese poetry, literature, theater, music and painting were greatly influenced by the Uygurs." 50

Russian scholar Pantusov writes that the Uygurs manufactured their own musical instruments; they had 62 different kinds of musical instruments and in every Uygur home there used to be an instrument called a "dutar". 51

This Uygur power, prestige and civilization which dominated Central Asia for more than a thousand years went into a steep decline after the Manchu invasion of Eastern Turkestan, and during the rule of the Nationalist and specially during the rule of the Communist Chinese.

Notes to "Brief History of the Uyghers"

1. Beijing Review, 24.12.1990
2. Kommunizim Tugi, 12.1.1989, Almaty
3. Estimates of the Eastern Turkestan Refugee Committee in Istanbul.
4. I. Kafesoglu, Turk Dunyasi El Kitabi, Ankara, 1976, p. 725.
5. Jack Cheng, Sinkiang Story, New York, 1977, p. 96.
6. Riza Nur, Turk Tarihi, Istanbul 1972, p. 57; Kommunizim Tugi,13.12.1973; Kafesoglu, Ibid. p. 706-707, A. Caferoglu, Eski Turk Sozlugu, Istanbul 1968, p. 8.
7. Lazlo Rasonyi, Tarihte Turkuk, Ankara 1971, pp. 105, 107.
8. H.E. Richardson, Tibet and Its History, London 1962, p. 29.
9. Collin Mackarras, The Uighur Empire, Canberra 1968, p. 6
10. Ibid., p. 7.
11. Ibid., p. 11.
12. Ibid., p. 7.
13. Ibid., p.9.
14. Kafesoglu, op. cit., p. 726.
15. Ibid., p. 727.
16. Riza Nur, op. cit., p. 358.
17. Von Gabain, Das Leben in uighurischen Koenigreich von Qoco, Wiesbaden 1973, p. 19.
18. Riza Nur, op. cit., p. 348.
19. M.E. Bugra, Dogu Turkistan, Tarihi, Istanbul 1952, p. 12.
20. Fan Wen Lan, A Short History of China, Shanghai 1947, p. 279.
21. M.E. Bugra, Chinese Policy, Istanbul 1954, p. 25
22. I.Y Alptekin, Dogu Turkistan Davasi, Istanbul 1973, pp. 126, 127, 128
23. Owen Lattimore, Pivot of Asia, Boston 1950, p. 32
24. Ibid., p. 50.
25. I.Y Alptekin, op. cit., pp. 154, 175
26. Owen Lattimore, op. cit., p. 223.
27. Albert von Lecoq, Turan, Berlin 1918, p. 452
28. Emel Esin, Islamiyetten Onceki Turk Tarihi, Istanbul 1978, p. 117
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid.
31. Lazlo Rasonyi, op. cit., p 112
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. Bradford D. Kelleher, Along the Ancient Silk Road, New York 1982.
35. Gevin Hambley, Central Asia, New York 1969. p. 35
36. Ismet Parmaksiz, Genel Tarih, Ankara 1976, p. 33
37. Denis Sinor, Inner Asia, Bloomington 1969, p. 330
38. Peter Hopkirk, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, London, 1980, p. 25
39. Collin Mackarras, op. cit., p. 7
40. Ibid, p. 8
41. S.M. Kashgarli, Akademi Mecmuasi, Istanbul, Oct. 1985, No. 4
42. Al Abudi, Shark-ul Vasta, 12.8.1983
43. Shuyl Unver, Uygurlarda Tababet, Istanbul 1936. pp. 4,5,6.
44. Yakup Bugra, Tercuman, 6.6.1984
45. Bahaeddin Ogel, Turk Kulturunun Gelisme Caglari, Istanbul 1988, p. 206
46. Along the Ancient Silk Routes: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York April 3 - June 20, 1982.
47. Caferoglu, op. cit. p. 1
48. Suheyl Unver, op. cit., pp. 4-6
49. Lazlo Rasonyi,, op. cit., pp. 105-107.
50. Wolfram Eberhard, Cin Tarihi, Istanbul 1947, p. 116.
51. G. Sadvakasov, Uygur Edebiyatining Kiska Tarihi, Almaty, 1983, p. 7.

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Last updated 06/09/98