Silk Road People: The Uyghurs of China

Swirling patterns, strumming music, scents of melded spices and steaming naan bread...
Uyghur celebrations are an assault on your senses and an inspiration to your heart.

LEARN ABOUT THE UYGHURS

Uyghur, also spelled Uighur, Uygur, or Uigur

Chinese: 维吾尔族

Uyghur: ئۇيغۇر

Uyghurs number between 10 and 15 million in China.

Most Uyghurs live in Xinjiang province, northwest China. Small groups also live in cities throughout China. Outside China, Uyghur communities can be found in central Asia and in the Middle East.

Uyghur is related to Turkish and is written in Arabic script. Many Uyghurs are not fluent in Mandarin Chinese, the national language of China. This can make it difficult for them to find good jobs.

Today’s Uyghurs are most likely descended from several different Turkic groups who lived in parts of Central Asia, Xinjiang and Mongolia. Uyghur followed a mixture of religions, including Christianity and Buddhism, until they gradually converted to Islam between the 14th and 17th Centuries.

Traditionally, Uyghurs have been farmers and traders. They are skillful entrepreneurs, and often prefer to set up their own small businesses rather than work for others. Many Uyghurs who speak good Chinese work in civil service.

Uyghur is a culture with vibrant traditions. Music, dancing, rich literature, food and hospitality are all integral parts of Uyghur culture. Uyghurs place a high premium on relationships, especially with family and friends.

Uyghurs maintain a deep commitment to their Islamic customs and to their family. Many Uyghur live in underdeveloped rural areas, which makes finding a good job to provide for their family difficult. The Uyghur language, cultural and religious festivals, and even daily habits are quite different from the majority Han Chinese people. It is a real challenge for the two communities to understand each other.

Stories from the Silk Road

The Best is Yet to Come

Hi, I’m Ehmet, and I must be the happiest young man in China. The results for the biggest exam of my life have just come back, and… I’ve been accepted to a major university in central China. I can’t believe it! All my dreams are coming true. My parents have worked long hours and done [...]

Dancing Dreams

The room spins and spins. Clapping hands, splashes of color on bright dresses, the light tones of the dutar strumming faster and faster. Our whole family is dancing and laughing. It's a local festival, and we are so happy, celebrating together. I haven’t been happy like that in a long time. My parents divorced when [...]

Crazy for Languages

I sit in front of the mirror in my university dormitory, stretching my lips and sticking out my teeth. “Tenn-goh. Ben-tay. Seen-koh. Awn-yos.” There is giggling behind me, and nervous whispers. Then a voice shoots out in Mandarin, “你疯了吗?” Are you crazy? I turn around quickly to reassure my anxious dorm-mates. I’m not crazy, I’m [...]

Sad Eyes

Sophia always sits in the same seat by the window, with her hot tea and her sad eyes. She comes to my café once every month or two to sit quietly for a few hours, watching her son toddle around the tables, and the people passing her by outside. To the others who see her [...]

Bridges Made of Bread

Uyghur, Han, Hui, Kazak: everyone loves Naan bread. It’s crunchy and fragrant, with a chewy center. I bake it in the traditional way, as I should, in an open air wood-burning oven. My small shop is on the edge of the business district. When the naan is ready, customers from all around come flocking. At [...]

Everyone is staring at me

I stand silently, eyes lowered and biting my lip. Everyone is staring at me, waiting for me to speak. My mouth is dry. It feels like it has a whole desert inside. I’m twelve years old. I shouldn’t be afraid to introduce myself to my new school class. But, as I stand alone in front [...]