Silk Road People: The Kazaks of China

Kazak horsemen make the highland meadows their home, roaming with
their herds and their yurts, season by season, in rhythm with the land.


Kazaks, also called Kazakhs in Kazakhstan

Arabic script: قازاقتار  

Chinese: 哈萨克族

Cyrillic: Қазақтар

There are over 1.5 million Kazaks in China.

In China, Kazaks mostly live in Xinjiang province in the north-west of the country.

Outside China, 12.5 million Kazakhs live in Kazakhstan and other central Asian countries, and over 100,000 live in western Mongolia.

Kazaks in China generally speak Kazak as their native language.

However, Chinese has become their language of education, so their Kazak reading level can be quite low.

Kazak is written in Arabic script in China, but in Cyrillic script in Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

Kazak herders have always lived in the mountains of central Asia, where they traditionally raise sheep, cattle, camels and horses.

Herders live in yurts, which are large felt tents with a frame made of lightweight wood.

The Kazak people have been influenced by different religions at different times, including Shamanism and Nestorian Christianity. Although today’s Kazaks generally identify themselves as Muslim, Shamanistic and occult practices are still fairly common.

Traditionally, Kazaks are nomadic herders. Urban Kazaks often work as small business owners, as translators for central Asian traders, or as laborers.

It can be a struggle for Kazaks to adapt to the sedentary lifestyle of cities. Alcoholism is fairly common.

Oral heritage is important to Kazaks. They generally memorise their father’s family tree to seven generations, and know which of the three main “hordes” their tribe belongs to.

They celebrate many festivals, including Nawriz, the Central Asian New Year which falls around the 21st of March. This is a time when they visit friends and family, and eat special foods such as Naren, a lamb or horsemeat dish with flat pasta, topped with onions.

The Kazaks’ finely-made textiles are often embroidered with symmetrical wave, leaf and horn designs, which signify both power and life.

Many Kazaks live in the city, but return often to their family home in the mountains or the foothills for extended visits.

They love active pursuits, such as horse racing and wrestling competitions. Dancing, music and poetry-writing are also prized skills among the Kazaks.

An “akin” is a highly respected member of Kazak society who is able compose, and sing on the spot, poetry filled with riddles and word plays while playing the dombra (a traditional stringed instrument). Akins usually perform in captivating contests against a single opponent.