Research on Xinjiang in general, on Uighurs in particular, tends to enjoy a significant position in Central Eurasian studies. Living today on both sides of the Tianshan Range, standing at the crossroads of Turkic, Iranian, Chinese and Russian cultures, experiencing various forms of Islam, colonialism and Socialism, the Uighurs provide a highly complex — therefore exciting — case for study. Through twelve contributions, this well-organised volume, while examining different aspects of this complexity, maintains a consistent analysis on the paradoxical identity of the Uighur defined as “in-between-ness”.
Only two articles deal with history and historiography. In her gently iconoclastic article “‘Us and Them’ in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Xinjiang” (pp. 15-29), Laura J. Newby demonstrates that, contrary to the common views on Uighurs as an eternally fragmented people, made of scattered “oasis identities” entirely created by socialist ethnic policies, specific periods of history — namely the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — show the emergence in the Tarim Basin of, certainly not a nation, but a group consciousness. Ablet Kamalov’s article “The Uyghurs as a Part of Central Asian Communality: Soviet Historiography on the Uyghurs” (pp. 31-45) details the construction of modern Uighur ethnic identity by the Soviet power in the early 1920’s. Usually reduced to the resolution of the Conference held in Tashkent in 1921, this construction appears as a more complex process involving Uighur nationalist theories originated from Russian then Soviet historiography (see names like A. N. Bernstham, T. Rakhimov, A. A. Khakimbaev).
The next two chapters regard Uighur music. Under the curiously broad title “Cultural Politics and the Pragmatics of Resistance: Reflexive Discourses on Culture and History” (pp. 49-68), Nathan Light describes briefly some micro-resistance tactics by three muqamchis against the official presentation of the Twelve Muqam. With “Situating the Twelve Muqam: Between the Arab World and the Tang Court” (pp. 69-88), Rachel Harris provides a clear and well-informed analysis of the authentic On Ikki Muqam. The author argues that the Uighur system of twelve modes (other kinds of muqam existing in Xinjiang are mentioned) is a synthesis of “local musical traditions and practices across Central Asia, from Khorezm to Qumul to Kashmir”, including many elements from Sufism, and almost nothing from the Han Chinese tradition. In passing, it might be useful to add that the Central Asian muqam terminology is not only Arabic but largely Persian. Michael Friederich considers the “Uyghur Literary Representations of Xinjiang Realities” (pp. 89-107): Based on late-twentieth-century poetry (several samples are quoted and translated), the paper examines successively three aspects: the depiction of Uighur life; literary sources (Islamic and Turko-Persian, but also European through Tatar); and the literary orientation toward the West (Central Asia and Europe) which became more difficult after the 1960s. Just a detail: it is not right to assert that “in summer 2004 not one single public bookstore remained in [Tashkent]” (note 41). In “Hybrid Name Culture in Xinjiang: Problems Surrounding Uyghur Name/Surname Practices and their Reform” (pp. 109-127), Äsäd Sulayman, after explaining the multiple (notably Western) origins and the complex evolution of Uighur names/surnames, lists every problem related to them (no legal principle, no standardised orthography, no inconsistent transliterations in Chinese) and introduces the onomastic reform project launched by the Uighur Surnames Research Group.
The third section of the book focuses on Socio-Cultural Practices, religious in particular. By “Situating Uyghur Life Cycle Rituals between China and Central Asia” (pp. 131-147), Ildikó Bellér-Hann, seeking for “common features shared by diverse social settings”, shows that, despite their differences, the Islamic veneration of the dead (näzir-chiraq) among the Uighur, and other life cycle rituals, share some analogies with the Chinese ancestor cult, and other Han traditions. From this perspective, the case of traditional medicine (quoted in the article) definitely deserves further research. To be noted also: here the impressive combination of fieldwork data and written sources (manuscript as well as published material) proves to be particularly fruitful. In her article “Shrine Pilgrimage and Sustainable Tourism among the Uyghurs: Central Asian Ritual Traditions in the Context of China’s Development Policies” (pp. 149-163), Rahilä Dawut conducts a clear and thorough discussion on the recent promotion of Xinjiang Muslim holy places and pilgrimages as touristic attractions. The author shows the conflicting interests between the state (suspicious toward any religious activities), tourism companies (eager to exploit shrines as commercial resources) and local communities (who try to preserve their religious and cultural practices). The conclusion proposes some reasonable solution to reconcile these contradictions. Edmund Waite, in “The Emergence of Muslim Reformism in Contemporary Xinjiang: Implications for the Uyghurs’ Positioning between a Central Asian and Chinese Context” (pp. 165-181), aims “to analyse the reformist challenge to local religious practices in the oasis of [Kashghar]”. After a brief historical outline, the author, relying on several fieldworks, recounts the emergence of Muslim Reformism through, in particular, the activities of the Hanbali cleric Ablimät Damolla from the 1980’s till 1997; he eventually focuses on one of the main targets of reformists, that is the commemoration of the dead (näzir).
The last section, untitled “Negotiation of Multiple and Hybrid Uyghur Identities”, is composed of three chapters. The first one by M. Cristina Cesàro, “Polo, Läghmän, So Säy: Situating Uyghur Food between Central Asia and China” (pp. 185-202), describes in detail certain Uighur food traditions as a combination of Central Asian (even Turko-Persian) and Chinese culinary cultures: beyond the well-known case of the hand-pulled noodles (läghmän/lamian), worth-mentioning are the recent ganpan (from the Chinese ganfan), so säy (from chaocai), and liang säy (from liangcai). The second chapter by Sean R. Roberts, “‘The Dawn of the East’: A Portrait of a Uyghur Community between China and Kazakhstan” (pp. 203-217), is devoted to the Uighurs of the Zaria Vostoka neighbourhood in Almaty in the 1990s, more precisely to their identity negotiation through community practices (soccer field opening, celebration of the Qurban, Zhigit Beshi election). The last chapter by Joanne Smith Finley, “‘Ethnic Anomaly’ or Modern Uyghur Survivor?, A Case Study of the Minkaohan Hybrid Identity in Xinjiang” (pp. 219-237), studies a minority inside the minority: Uighurs educated in Chinese language. Using varied disciplinary perspectives, the author portrays a minkaohan woman (so-named Räwiä) who embodies the difficulties of this socio-cultural paradox, that is the dilution of Uighur culture, and the ambivalence of her ethnic identity.