Nabijan Tursun is a Uyghur historian who has published numerous books and articles on the history of East Turkestan in the twentieth century, including several in English in international journals and collaborative volumes. He is also editor-in-chief of the Uyghur service of Radio Free Asia. The present article was published in November 2020 in the 16th issue of the International Journal of Uyghur Studies, a Turkish, English and Uyghur-language academic review. It begins with a historical synthesis of the first half of the twentieth century in East Turkestan, from the fall of the Qing imperial dynasty to the communist takeover of 1949. Among the various processes taking place during this period, the author highlights the fact that the Chinese nationalists did not succeed in controlling the territory formerly ruled by the Qing. He mentions as examples Mongolia’s declaration of independence and the first uprising in the East Turkestan city of Qumul in 1912, before a synthesis of the developments in the region between 1912 and 1949. This overview begins with the rule of the Chinese nationalist warlords Yang Zengxin and Jin Shuren, introduced as ‘feudal lords’ (derebey), until 1931. It continues with the second uprising of Qumul in 1931, and its propagation to the region, leading to the foundation of the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan on 12th November 1933 in the districts of Kashgar, Aqsu and Khotan. A year later, the Chinese general Sheng Shicai took control of Ürümchi with Soviet military support: for Nabijan Tursun, Stalin was afraid of the impact that the Kashgar Republic could exert on Soviet Central Asia and helped establish a Chinese power under Moscow’s control. The overview goes on with the uprising of Ghulja on 7th November 1944 and the proclamation of the Republic of East Turkestan less than a week later. With Soviet military support this time, this republic, under command of ‘Ali-Khan Töre, created its own army, with the districts of Ili, Altay and Tarbaghatay, north of the Tian Shan, as its territorial basis. After the Sino-Soviet Treaty of August 1945, Moscow pressed Ghulja to negotiate with Nanking but the ‘indigenous Turkic Muslim peoples’ (yerli müslüman türk halklar) made arrangements with the Guomindang and continued to rule during five years until the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in November 1949. The overview is concluded by an evocation of the Soviet execution of key figures of the Ghulja Republic such as Ahmad-Jan Qasimi and Is’haq Beg Mununov, and of the role of the committee of delegates sent by the Kremlin to Beijing to recognise communist rule. Tursun still underlines the historical significance of the two republics for the ‘Turkic world’ in general, for Central Asia and China, as well as in the grand strategy of the USSR, the USA, the UK, Japan and Turkey.
The article argues that, yet, historians have resorted to sources in the languages of international powers: English, Russian, Turkish, Chinese or Japanese. In contrast, Uyghur sources have been almost ignored despite their importance in terms of objectivity, stresses Tursun, who divides them into four types: official documents of the East Turkestan republics; the press; documents left by protagonists; and literary works dealing with the history and memory of the 1930s and 1940s. The author then evokes the ideological framework imposed by the Communist Party, for which the republics’ struggle against the Guomindang was ‘a revolt, part of the Chinese democratic revolution’. He recalls the collections of historical materials on the 1930s and 1940s organised by Beijing in Xinjiang during the 1950s, followed by the leaden blanket of the Cultural Revolution – before China’s growing interest, in the 1980s, in the production of its own history of East Turkestan, illustrated by the ‘Three Districts Uprising Historical Writing Management Group’ which, led by Fu Wen, published five books between 1994 and 1999, all translated in Uyghur. These and other works, insists Tursun, deny the existence of independentist movements, stressing the antifeudal and anti-imperialist dimension of the two republics. Despite this ideological framework, the study points out lasting differences between Uyghur and Chinese approaches to issues such as the revolutionary dimension of these movements, the profile of their leaders, the questions of ‘Pan-Turkism’ and ‘Pan-Islamism’, and of Soviet support. The article’s last parts propose an overview of ‘Western’ publications (including Japan, Taiwan, Central Asia, Russia and Turkey), in which Tursun deplores the absence of Uyghur sources. Conversely, he regrets the effects of nationalism on works published in Central Asia, notably on the idealisation of such figureheads as Osman Batur and ‘Ali-Khan Töre, who had strong ties with Kazakhstan and with Uzbekistan, respectively. The conclusion is an exhortation of international scholars to make a better use of primary sources accessible to them in such countries as Kazakhstan, Japan, Russia, Sweden and the UK. Obvious reasons explain the absence of Uyghur sources in many ‘Western’ works: documents on the East Turkestan Republics are mostly kept confidential by the Chinese government; moreover, they have rarely been translated from Uyghur, while very few specialists of the field are proficient in this language; then, few interest is shown by both Chinese and international scholars in collections of oral history in the countries where the protagonists of the two republics were established. Tursun mentions the ‘Western’ historians of Chinese origin David Wang, Wang Ke and Wang Dajun as examples of this neglect, and of an excessive insistence on the decisive role of the USSR. As for Uyghur research, he shows their different visions according to their residence in China or abroad. He highlights, too, the effects of 9/11 and of the current ‘war on terror’ on the divergent interpretations of the Uyghur issue: while for Beijing it is now connected with terrorism (notably in the counter-terrorism agreements signed by China with Central Asian countries), and ‘Ali-Khan Töre introduced as a great ancestor to present-day Uyghur terrorism, the international community continues to ignore the experiences of Uyghur sovereignty in the 1930s and 1940s.
Indeed, this article addresses a major problem in the historiography of regions marked by colonial situations, namely a frequent lack of interest in local documentation. In doing so, however, Tursun neglects major contributions of the past decade that make extensive use of Uyghur materials: suffice to mention here Studies on Xinjiang Historical Sources in 17th-20th centuries, edited by James A. Millward, Yasushi Shinmen and Jun Sugawara (2010); The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, by Rian Thum (2014); Struggle by the Pen: The Uyghur Discourse of Nation and National Interest, c. 1900-1949, by Ondřej Klimeš (2015); Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia-China Frontier, by David Brophy (2016); and Kashgar Revisited: Uyghur Studies in Memory of Ambassador Gunnar Jarring, edited by Ildikó Bellér-Hann, Birgit N. Schlyter and Jun Sugawara (2017), to name only important works in English. Moreover, if his study provides an overview of Uyghur sources, including official documents and memoirs written by protagonists and observers, the identification of these sources is made sometimes difficult by the author’s editorial choices: a large number of them are incompletely mentioned, within the text, and their title is most of the time translated into Turkish without mention of the original. The reader faces the same problem with the names of historical figures and their varying transcriptions: those of Chinese officials appear sometimes in pinyin, sometimes in Turkish or Uyghur transcriptions. Another problem is the author’s inclusion into the ‘Western world’ of all research outside China (pp. 252-5), which confuses his points – when he addresses the absence of Uyghur sources in ‘Western academia’, or criticises ideological biases in works published in the former USSR. One can also regret the mention in passing of research in Japan, ignoring the works of pioneer scholars such as Masami Hamada and of the team of the Toyo Bunko Research Department, who began in the 1980s already to publish analyses of twentieth-century Uyghur sources. In short, if Nabijan Tursun’s article provides a useful overview of Uyghur sources on the Kashgar and Ghulja Republics and of their appraisals by Uyghur, Chinese and other historians, nevertheless, their erratic referencing and the neglect of significant works published during the 2010s limits the scope of his contribution. This said, his criticism of the PRC’s linking of East Turkestan to an ‘international Uyghur terrorist threat’ echoes Sean Roberts’ study entitled The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority (2020), which dismantles the PRC’s counterterrorist narrative through the analysis of Uyghur sources: his insistence on the latter’s significance sounds more actual than ever.