A Vanishing History: The History of the Uyghurs

Despite recent attention in international media where, in echoes of the Holocaust, news of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) atrocities against Uyghurs have come to light, the history of the Uyghurs has often been neglected. In a history that is currently being erased by the CCP, we must educate ourselves on Uyghur history before it is too late and Uyghur culture is erased altogether. This article sheds light on the repression of Uyghurs throughout their history, extending our understanding of how today’s acts against Uyghurs came about.

Who are the Uyghurs?

Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group located in Xinjiang, a province in Northwest China. They have a long history settled there, establishing their own language and culture, which has very little in common with the culture of China’s Han ethnic majority, particularly shown through the Uyghur practice of Islam which goes against the atheist CCP. The long history of Uyghur identity in Xinjiang fuels today’s genocide against Uyghurs. Due to the Uyghur’s separate culture from the Han majority, the CCP fails to see the Uyghurs as true citizens of China, perceiving the individual Uyghur identity as disloyal to the Communist Party and a political threat. The CCP uses this to justify genocide against the Uyghurs, with Uyghurs being imprisoned, tortured, sent to work in forced labour camps, and even killed.

Early Uyghur history

The Uyghurs weren’t always repressed; through much of their early history, the Uyghurs enjoyed many freedoms. In 744, Uyghurs established an independent state under the Uyghur Khaganate, through which they were politically dominant in comparison to neighbouring dynasties such as the Tang dynasty in China, shown during the rebellion of An Lushan where the Tang dynasty relied on Uyghur military assistance to remain in power. Following this, the Uyghur Khaganate often made China trade silk and other luxury goods at the expense of the Tang dynasty, increasing the Uyguhrs’ relative power. Despite the collapse of the Uyghur Khaganate in the 9th century, the Uyghurs continued to enjoy freedoms under their successive rulers; for example, the Mongols welcomed Uyghur culture, adopting the Uyghur script for use across the Mongol Empire.

Qing dynasty

Upon the Qing conquest of Xinjiang in 1759, repression against Uyghurs first escalated. The Qing introduced policies to culturally assimilate the Uyghur population, aiming to diminish their power as they saw Uyghurs as a threat to Qing political stability. Xinjiang’s education system was changed to be taught entirely in Mandarin, forcing Uyghurs to adopt Mandarin as their spoken language instead of Uyghur. Furthermore, as Confucianism became the Qing Empire’s dominant ideology, Confucian principles were taught in Xinjiang’s schools instead of Uyghur culture, ensuring the younger generation followed Chinese customs, disconnecting them from their Uyghur heritage. From this point forward, repression of Uyghur culture became commonplace in Xinjiang by subsequent Chinese governments.

1920s-40s, Uyghur nationalism

With the fall of the Qing dynasty and the formation of the Republic of China, repression against Uyghurs declined. Uyghurs gained their first taste of independence since the Uyghur

Khaganate, with the emergence of The First East Turkestan Republic as Xinjiang’s government in 1933. Whilst Sheng Shicai took control of Xinjiang in 1933, taking away complete Uyghur autonomy, Uyghurs were still given freedoms in China. Inspired by Lenin’s anti-imperialism, Sheng took an accommodationist stance towards the Uyghurs in line with Soviet interests, allowing 30,000 Uyghurs to study in Xinjiang’s universities, and inviting representatives of the First East Turkestan Republic into his government. However, with greater freedoms came the escalation of the Uyghur nationalist movement, resulting in the 1937 revolts in Kashgar and Khotan, consequently causing Sheng to U-turn on his tolerance towards Uyghurs. Mimicking Stalin’s Great Purge, Sheng conducted mass executions of Uyghurs across Xinjiang between 1937-1938, eliminating the Uyghur intelligentsia. With Sheng going against Soviet interests, which sought to protect Uyghurs, the Soviets aligned themselves with the Uyghurs, strengthening the Uyghurs’ political position by supplying them with weapons for a revolt in Ghulja in October 1944. Uyghur resistance against the repression they were facing was successful in increasing the Uyghur’s political representation. In November 1944, the Uyghurs made a coalition with the Guomindang, establishing the Second East Turkestan Republic with de facto control over the Ghulja region, reestablishing Uyghur political rule in Xinjiang. Nevertheless, this period of freedom for the Uyghurs failed to last. Whilst many Uyghurs at the time saw the Second East Turkestan Republic as the forerunner for an autonomous Uyghur state, their fate took a turn for the worse upon the seizure of control by the CCP in 1949.


Overall, it is clear that repression against Uyghurs by the Chinese government isn’t a new phenomenon; Uyghurs have been continuously repressed throughout their history. Despite glimpses of autonomy, including during the Uyghur Khaganate, Sheng’s accommodationist policies and the Second ETR, the harsh reality that Uyghurs have lived under for centuries has often been neglected in traditional historical teaching. Since the Qing dynasty, repression against Uyghurs has continued to intensify, and with repression escalating to the recent extreme of genocide, it is important to recognise the history of the Uyghurs, sympathising with their repressive history to encourage activism against today’s genocide.

Written by Abigail Mangion


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Clarke, Michael. The Xinjiang Emergency: Exploring the Causes and Consequences of China’s Mass Detention of Uyghurs. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2022.

Hyer, Eric. “China’s Policy towards Uighur Nationalism.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 26, no. 1 (2006).

Roberts, Sean R. The War on the Uyghurs China’s Campaign against Xinjiang’s Muslims. Manchester Manchester University Press, 2020.

Sinor, Denis. The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.


Figure 1: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-22278037

Figure 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uyghur_Khaganate

Figure 3: https://thediplomat.com/2019/05/taiwan-voices-support-for-uyghurs-in-china/

Cover: https://news.sky.com/story/who-are-the-uighur-people-and-why-do-they-face-oppression-by-china-12033201