There are numerous ethnic groups in Xinjiang, going beyond the mere logistics of different people living together, they a real big multi-ethnic family.
From the perspective of Xinjiang's evolving community, there are characteristics of amalgamation happening. Over hundreds of years, many ancient civilizations and ethnic groups have disappeared and became distant ancestors. Hence new nations emerged from multiple family roots.
The living environment of the ancient people from this region can provide modern researchers an authentic sample from which to learn how peace and conflict was worked, and how these people developed and eventually died out.
The truth may explain why Xinjiang was such a central part of Asian-European contact, it was here that different ethnic groups, from various regions, and with different lifestyles, came together in harmony, bringing them far-reaching significance.
This process was rightly set down in history.
In the Han Dynasty, there were the Sai (Sak), Rouzhi (or Yueh-chih), Wusun (Usun), Qiang, Xiongnu (Hun) and Han people residing in the region of Xinjiang. During the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties there lived Xianbei, Rouran (Jorjan), Gaoche, Yueban and Tuyuhun people besides the original groups. Furthermore, the Tubos, Uighurs, Khitans and Mongols moved into the region after the Tang Dynasty.
No less than 10 ethnic groups have migrated into the Xinjiang region. However, according to a national enquiry, only 13 of them have been confirmed as original ethnic Xinjiang groups, including the Uygur, Han, Kazak, Hui, Mongol, Kirgiz, Xibe, Manchu, Ozbek, Russian, Daur and Tatar people. Among them, only the Uygur, Han and Kazak groups are over a million people strong, some of the others are less than 10,000 strong. Most of those 13 groups have intricate family roots and transient family histories.
For example, the Kazaks have evolved from an amalgamation of multiple ancient tribes and ethnic groups, including the Sai, Wusun, Xiongnu, Kangju, Alan, Kelie, Naiman, Kipchak, Dulo, Geluolu, Merkiti and Qongirat. There is still a tribe called Wusun living among today's Kazak population.
Also, the emergence, transformation, and development of the Mongols in Xinjiang reflect how the complex multi-ethnic pattern was formed in Xinjiang. The Mongolian people rose up and became strong after Genghis Khan unified the tribes of the Mobei grassland in the early 13th century. After their expedition to the West, every square inch of the land between Mongolia and Italy belonged to them. The protection and administration of affairs in this area was all under the control of Chagatai Khanate and Ögedei Khanate—two of Mongolia's four khanates.
However, because of internal fighting and the acceptance of new conventions, descendants of the dominant Chagatai Khanate group were eventually amalgamated and assimilated into other local ethnic groups. Most of today's Mongolian populations are descended from another three Mongolian tribes —Vilart, Turehot and Chakhar Mongols.
The complexity of Xinjiang's ethnic heritage is also outlined in local legends and historical books. In 105 B.C., Princess Xijun of the Western Han Dynasty was married into the Wusun ethnic group, accompanied by hundreds of servants. Though she missed her homeland very much, she couldn’t change the reality of becoming a Wusun person.
Traditional Uyghur sports-picking up a sheep
The name Kirgiz means “forty girls”. According to The History of Yuan Dynasty, forty Han girls were married to Wusi men and their offspring were named Kirgiz.
Tajik people live in the area of Tashkurgan for generations. According to the historical novel Pilgrimage to the West in the Tang Dynasty, Tashkurgan people are descendants of a Han princess and the Sun God.
In the process of migration and amalgamation, some ancient ethnicities disappeared while other new ones came up.
With continual competition, some nations stayed explored the place and stayed here, while others came and went.
The ethnic diversity of this western region is no doubt hard to imagine. The exact history of some ethnic groups is still unexplained even today.
For example, the Sai people were distributed over a large area and had many sub-groups. Many ethnic kingdoms in the western region, such as the Xiuxun, Juandu, Hujie, Suoche (Yarkhand), Dayuan and Pishan, were actually Sai people. A legend says that King Mu of Zhou Dynasty ever met the West Queen while he made a journey to the western region and the West Queen was also likely a Sai people.
Some ethnic groups even consisted of numerous tribes. Take the Tiele area for example, there were more than 40 tribes residing there, some scholars even go as high as 200. And according to historical records, there were also accounts of different tribes belonging to the same family.
Ancient Turki was not a single group either, but included a lot of tribes who spoke Turki.
However, the conservation of natural law also suits the evolvement of groups. Those groups that developed in Xinjiang did not die out. Some of them left and went far away; some lost their original identity but became remote ancestors of another group; some amalgamated with each other; and some brought forth new groups.
The complicated interplay between different groups meant common things like living habits, languages and customs were mixed.
Because of such complicated intermingling, the customs and cultures of Xinjiang are colourful.
Some groups do not have a long history in Xinjiang, the longest are two or three thousand years, while the shortest are only a couple of hundred years.
They came from everywhere. Han people were from the east, the Uygurs from the Mobei, the Daurs from the northeast, the Russians from Western Europe, and the Ozbeks from the Middle Asia.
The complicated history has also left the current situation that many ethnic groups live on both sides of borders. The Kazaks outside of China live in Kazakhstan; the Kirgiz live in Kyrgyzstan; the Tajiks live in Tajikistan; and the Mongols live in Mongolia.
Despite variances of time and population, typical characteristics are easy to spot: the Uygurs live in oases and the Kazaks on the grassland; the Xibes live in the valley while the Tajik on the plateau and the Kirgiz in the mountains. The Uygur people are good at dancing and the Kazaks are good at singing; the Tajik people are good at playing the hawk flute, and Kirgiz girls are good at playing the harmonica. Likewise, the Uygurs wear little hats with flowers on them, the Hui People wear white caps, the Kirgiz people wear terais, Tartar people wear caps in black and white, and Kazak girls always wear hats with a feather on them.
It might be their oasis life that brought forth the Uygurs’ optimism. Perhaps the vast grassland cultivated the Kazaks’ humour. Maybe the Tajiks adore the sun because the highland is so near to the sky. These typical characteristics make them easy to tell apart.
Language is an essential component in forming a united nation of various peoples, and Xinjiang has a great variety of languages and writings.
In ancient times, different peoples spread around different areas of Xinjiang, therefore many languages coexisted. Sometimes, to communicate in the same area people had to use several languages, since there were several ethnic groups living together and endless groups of businessmen would force people living in Xinjiang to learn and use more languages. Faxian, a Chinese Buddhist monk who passed the southern Xinjiang to India to bring Buddhist scriptures back 1600 years ago, found “there were different ethnic languages in different oases of Xinjiang.”
In the history of Xinjiang, there used to be tens of languages and written systems. In terms of languages, there were Chinese, Sanskrit, Saka, Sogdian, Uighur, Persian, Parthian, Arabic, Mongolian, Tangut language and Tibetan etc. In terms of written systems, there are Chinese characters, Bramhi script, Sogdian script, Uighur script, Manichaen Script, Syriac, Arabic, Tangut writing and Basiba language etc. Various materials were used for writing, including wood slips, barks, Pattra leaves, leather, paper and silk, which have all been discovered in Xinjiang.
In terms of language family, besides the Altaic languages, there were also Han-Tibetan languages and Indo-European languages.
Many ancient languages and written systems are not used any longer and for some, even no people can understand them today. They have become dead and mysterious languages.
However, the mixed usage of languages still continues today. The thirteen native ethnic groups living in Xinjiang are using altogether ten languages today, including Chinese, Mongolian, Russian, Uygur, Kazak, Kirgiz, Tajik, and Xibe languages etc.
Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is one of the five ethnic minority autonomous regions. According to China’s policies for ethnic minorities, the usage of minority languages is respected and protected in local autonomous regions of Xinjiang. There are usually several official languages used in education, radio and TV broadcasting, and newspapers and magazines.
Since the co-existence of different languages has a long history, people living in Xinjiang have long attached due importance to translation. The translation industry was well-developed in Xinjiang’s history, and the translators had made great contribution to the cultural exchanges between the West and the East. Also they compiled many dictionaries for translation.
The tradition and talent in languages have been carried forward by today’s ethnic groups in Xinjiang. They attach great importance to learn not only different ethnic minority languages there, but also languages of other countries, such as English, Russian and Japanese. Many Xinjiang people can communicate fluently in several languages. This is not only the demand of ethnic groups' development but also reflects Xinjiang people’s open-mindedness and cosmopolitan nature. Since people live together, many everyday language words are more often not results of deliberate pursuit and formal education, but acquired in everyday life, entertainment, business and various social activities.
The coexistence of languages makes it quite common to borrow words from each other. Not only do minority languages borrow a large number of words from Chinese, but also the Chinese borrows a lot from these minority vocabularies.
For example, in Modern Chinese Dictionary we can find at least ten ethnic minority words from Xinjiang, such as Ah-hong (imam), nang (crusty pancakes), qiapan (long gown), kan-er jin (karez), kantuman (an old Xinjiang farming implement), musilin (Muslim), and gu-er-bang jie (Corban Festival). When we express some unique things of Xinjiang, we can’t avoid using loan terms like ziran (cumin), naren (a special food eaten by hand, which mix smashed cooked mutton, onion and acidophilus milk, poured gippo on), badanmu (almond), wusiman (a kind of grass plant), Muqam (a Uygur melody type), Mohe tobacco and rewapu (a plucked string musical instrument). And for a large number of words mixed in everyday vocabulary, people from various ethnic groups in Xinjiang can all understand their meanings, such as ekexi (good), jordaxi (comrade), wusita (the master), piyazi (onion), balang (boy), yang-gang-zi (wife), bai-ka-er (useless people), salang (a fool or maniac), kadak (trouble), haimaisi (all) and piqiake (dagger) etc.
Although using different languages, communication is not as difficult as we might imagine. Many Xinjiang people are bilingual, and there are also some able to speak three or four languages. In these people's minds, languages transformation is not difficult at all.
Ancient Sogdian people and today’s Xibe people are both important media which played a very important role in cultural exchange. They could speak multiple languages and had a well-developed educational system. Although the disappeared Sogdians never established a powerful state, they nonetheless dominated trade activities in the Silk Road for a long time and were the teachers of the nomads in central Asia. The Sogdians not only conducted much translation work, and spread out much religious ideology, but also took their advanced culture to the peoples around them. As for today's Xibe people, even though they don't enjoy a large population, they are well-educated and have many elites in every walk of life. Every Xibe person is a language master. Besides their native language, they can also use Chinese, Uygur and Kazak languages to communicate easily.
This unique phenomenon of languages is a vivid reflection of a harmonious multi-ethnic family.