Silk Road People: The Kyrgyz of China

Lowlands in the winter, mountains in the summer: whether you're looking at their farming traditions, their dramatic poetry or their sports, China's Kyrgyz are constantly on the move.


Kyrgyz, also known as Kirgiz, Kirghiz

Chinese: 柯尔克孜族

Cyrilli‎c: Кыргыздар

Arabic script:  قىرغىز

There are between 187,000 and 200,000 Kyrgyz in China

Kyrgyz class

Kyrgyz mostly live in the Kizil-Suu district in the south west of Xinjiang Province (in the far north-west of China). They also live in some areas in northern Xinjiang and Heilongjiang.

Outside China, they live in Turkey, Mongolia, Russia, and the other countries along the the Pamir mountain range, such as Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

The Kyrgyz language is closely related to Kazak. They belong to the same small branch of the Turkic language family. Kyrgyz is also similar to Uyghur, Uzbek and Tatar.

Most Chinese Kyrgyz can speak Mandarin Chinese, Kazak or Uyghur as well as their own native language.

Kyrgyz kids

Many people believe the name “Kyrgyz” means “unconquerable, cannot be exterminated”. Several myths describe the early origins of the Kyrgyz. One popular one is that the name comes from a princess who was attended by forty maidservants.

According to historical documents, the early ancestors of the Kyrgyz lived in Siberia and had fair complexion and blue eyes. They defeated the Uyghur Khanagate in 840 AD to take control of much of north-west China as well as parts of present-day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

As the Mongol Yuan dynasty expanded in the 13th century, the Kyrgyz migrated to the south, making their home in the Tian Shan and Pamir mountains of western Xinjiang and central Asia.

The Kyrgyz are traditionally farmers and semi-nomadic herders. They tend to live in mud brick houses for much of the year, travelling to high pasturelands during the summer, when they live in felt tents.

Many of China’s Kyrgyz still farm and herd, although nomadic living is becoming rarer. The Kizil-Suu district where many Chinese Kyrgyz live is rich in coal and oil, so mining and steelworks are also important employment centers.

Kyrgyz farmer

Singing, dancing and ballad-singing are very important at Kyrgyz festivals, as well as intensive physical sports such as wrestling, horse racing, tug-of-war, and a horse riding sport that involves competing over a headless sheep.

“The Epic of Manas” is a poetic foundation-stone of Kyrgyz culture. Those who can recite all 500,000 lines are known as Manaschis, and they are sought after for entertainment at festivals (although they usually only perform sections of the epic at a time!). They chant in a melodious style without musical accompaniment.

Kyrgyz elders group

Although the Kyrgyz are Muslims, they retain much of their previous shamanism. Charms and talismans are common and people often pray to mountains, rivers and the sun, practices which are forbidden in formal Islam. Kyrgyz female shamans usually play an important role in weddings, funerals and other community events.

Kyrgyz food usually involves mutton, yoghurt and honey. Manti are mutton dumplings, botkho (known as beshbarmak in Kyrgyzstan) combines wide noodles with horsemeat or mutton, and kumiz is fermented mare’s milk. If you were a special guest in a Kyrgyz home, you might be served Olobo, made from sheep’s lungs marinated in milk and spices.