Literary history in Central Asia is a politicised field, and this latest contribution is no exception. Part of a nationwide series of literary histories of minority peoples, it comes personally endorsed by Isma’il Tiliwaldi, chairman of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Government, and “Honorary Chairman (päkhriy mudir)” of the Editorial Committee. Remaining members of the Committee are scholars from the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, although we are given no indication as to who actually wrote the text. Altogether this work comprises four volumes, with the last volume made up of two parts. Volume one is devoted to “Classical Uighur Literature.” It begins with an introduction to ethnic origins of the Uighurs, including a section on Uighur myths and legends (largely drawn from later sources, e.g. Rashid al-Din), through to ancient (qädimqi) Uighur and Qarakhanid literature. Volume two is entitled “The Formation and Flowering of Uighur Literature in the Chaghatay Period,” and covers Uighur texts from the Yuan period, early and late Chaghatay literature, and literature of the eighteenth century. Volume three deals with the literature of the nineteenth century and of the Republican period. The final volume covers contemporary literature, prose and poetry, from the 1950s through to the 1980s.
It hardly needs repeating that a definition of “Uighur literature” that spans so much temporal and geographical space is problematic, and many of the inclusions here could be queried. Those familiar with the genre will not be surprised, though, and the element of co-optation here is tempered slightly by a franker-than-usual acknowledgement of the mixed ethnic origins of the contemporary Uighurs (1, p. 13). Certain aspects of the organisation are puzzling, including the decision to subsume Khwarezmian texts (Qisas al-anbiya, Muhabbat-nama) under Chaghatay, bringing forward the beginning of “Chaghatay” literature into the fourteenth century. The problems of a political system of periodisation are shown up in the case of writers such as Ähmäd Ziya’i and Abdurehim Ötkür, whose careers span the Republic-PRC divide. Like its predecessors, this history consists primarily of a catalogue of authors, each accorded roughly the same weight, apart from a handful of superstars such as ‘Ali Shir Nawa’i and Abdukhaliq Uighur. Some philological information is given, including references to texts republished either individually or in the journal Bulaq. In many cases, however, textological issues are skimmed over, and biographical information asserted on the basis of limited internal evidence. The imperative to expand the corpus of Uighur literature results in inordinate space being given to inconsequential figures, some with as little as one or two surviving poems to their name, with insufficient attention devoted to the most important writers and their works.
Despite these drawbacks, certain features are worthy of note. A lengthy digression on the influence of Sufism on Islamic literature at the end of volume two is welcome, as is the much greater attention devoted to the Late Qing-Republican (yeqinqi zaman), and PRC (bügünki zaman) periods. Here the question of exclusion and inclusion takes on particular interest, since this is the first attempt to produce a canonical account of twentieth-century Uighur literature. Notable among those missing are Muhämmäd Imin Bughra, whose Shärqiy Türkistan Tarikhi is the first attempt at a comprehensive history of Xinjiang. Among modern writers written out of the picture is Abduwäli Äli, whose fictionalised account of Ya‘qub Beg’s rebellion was banned. For those that have survived, a certain amount of flexibility with the truth is sometimes necessary for them to meet the necessary ideological criteria. The poet Nimshehit is a case in point. In 1933, we are told, he was wounded in “the struggle of the Kashghar people against tyrannical government, division of the motherland, and internal disturbance (vol. 4, p. 76)”—a deceptive formulation which conceals that fact that he was fighting on the side of the first Eastern Turkistan Republic, with the goal of independence from Chinese rule. Contemporary literature is divided into three periods: 1949-1966, which is described as a vibrant period. This is followed by the Cultural Revolution, from 1966-76 (the authors note that criticism of writers began as early as 1962-3). Little literature of value was produced in this period, and much was lost, although we are assured that writers never lost faith in the Party. The third, “new,” period, begins in 1976 and continues up to this date—a “golden” age of Uighur literature, in which new genres have flourished, in particular historical novel. As much as one may cringe at the tone of this work, it will prove an important reference point for anyone interested in Uighur literature and its politics.