A White Russian Account of the 1930s: Stepan Smigunov’s “Events in Xinjiang”


The purpose of this post, originally at least, was to share an interesting text on the events of the 1931–34 Muslim uprising in Xinjiang, told from the point of view of a White Russian émigré, Stepan Ivanovich Smigunov (1888–?). In preparing it, though, I looked a bit more closely into Smigunov, and have come to realise that his life story is worth some discussion in its own right. Here, by way of introduction, is what I’ve learned so far about this slightly unusual individual. His account of events in Xinjiang, transcribed from a manuscript in the Russian State Archive in Moscow, follows below. Continue reading

Hybrid Dating in Republican Xinjiang


The history of the calendar in Xinijang is quite complex, not to say confusing, and there are whole periods where establishing a basic chronology can be difficult. Most strikingly, from the sixteenth century onward there was a serious discrepancy in the dating of the Islamic year in the Tarim Basin, with the twelve-year zodiacal cycle falling out of sync with the rest of the Islamic world (as discussed in an article by Hamada Masami, reference below). Even in more recent times, it can be surprisingly hard to pin down the date of events. Take, for example, the 1931 uprising in Hami against the provincial government, which led eventually to the formation of the first East Turkistan Republic. Not an insignificant event, and yet descriptions of it place its outbreak at various points within a three-month timespan: either in February, March, or April 1931. Continue reading

Memories of Tunganistan: Saipulla Mutallip’s Qarangghu Tagh


Last Tuesday evening I was among an audience of around fifty to sixty at Columbia University in New York to see Saipulla Mutallip’s new documentary film, Qarangghu Tagh. Following a Q&A with the director we also watched his short feature, Bogha, which is an adaptation of a story by the Uyghur author Mämtimin Hoshur. Both films are really well made–anyone who has the chance to see either of them should do so. Independent documentaries from Xinjiang are practically unheard of: Qarangghu Tagh may well be the very first of its kind. And it’s not just ground-breaking in that respect: it’s shot in a part of Xinjiang that no-one watching the film is ever likely to be able to visit themselves. I can’t emphasise enough how lucky we are that Saipulla managed to get his camera up the treacherous roads and bring back his impressions of the place for us.

Here’s a trailer for Qarangghu Tagh:

Continue reading

Manchu memorials to the martyrs of Kashgar

David Brophy

At some point soon I hope to write up some notes from my experience looking around for photographs for my forthcoming book. Along the way I came across quite a few interesting bits and pieces, things that won’t make it into the book but seemed worth noting here at least. It turns out that the archive of the Royal Geographical Society in London has an excellent collection of photos from Xinjiang, and particularly from the Ili Valley region (catalogue here). These consist mostly of E. Delmar Morgan‘s photos from his trip in 1880, but include some later shots, which I would tentatively attribute to the British journalist and Labour politician M. Philips Price, who detoured into Xinjiang on his first trip through Russia.

In 1880, E. Delmar Morgan was travelling through Ili in the midst of the negotiations between the Qing and Russian Empires for the restitution of territory occupied by Russia in 1871. His photos depict Ili as a desolate region, showing that it still hadn’t recovered from the violence of the anti-Qing rebellion of the 1860s. One of the towns he visited was Samar, or Zharkent as it’s now known, which lies on the right bank of the Ili river. Samar was originally a Qing garrison town, and was more or less razed to the ground during the rebellion. It ended up in Russian territory after the Treaty of Saint Petersburg in 1881, and is now the centre of the Uyghur community of Kazakhstan.

While passing through, Morgan snapped a couple of interesting grave steles, commemorating Qing soldiers (known as bannermen because they were organised into “banners”) who lost their lives during Jahangir Khoja‘s assault on Kashgar in 1826. Both of these bannermen belonged to the Manchu-speaking Sibe, a people who hail from from the north of Manchuria. The transplantation of the Sibe to the Ili valley took place in the 1760s, meaning that these men were probably third or fourth generation migrants. So, the steles commemorate Manchurian colonists, who fought and died to defend Qing-held Kashgar from Muslim rebels, and were buried in what’s now south-east Kazakhstan. They’re an interesting reminder of the scope of Qing imperium, from a part of the world where most such reminders have long been erased. Continue reading

Seymour Hersh turns Uyghur refugees into “would-be fighters”

David Brophy

Seymour Hersh’s latest piece on Syria seems to contain quite a few questionable claims, but I was most curious about what he says about the two “rat lines” funnelling Uyghur jihadists from Xinjiang into Syria via Turkey, one running through Southeast Asia, the other through Central Asia. Among other pieces of evidence that he provides for this claim, Hersh writes that: “IHS-Jane’s Defence Weekly estimated in October that as many as five thousand Uighur would-be fighters have arrived in Turkey since 2013, with perhaps two thousand moving on to Syria.”

Even by the standards of punditry on the Xinjiang – Syria connection, this figure of five thousand struck me as high. And what is a “would-be fighter” anyway? How do you distinguish a “would-be fighter” from the rest of the “wouldn’t-be fighters” among the Uyghurs living in Turkey? Apparently the border between Turkey and Syria isn’t particularly hard to get across. If they “would be” fighters, what’s stopping them?

I have an institutional subscription to all of the IHS-Jane’s publications, including Defence Weekly, so I scoured their website for Hersh’s source, but couldn’t find anything that fit the bill. When I posted a query about this to colleagues in the Xinjiang field, a contact of Victor Mair helpfully turned up this piece by IHS-Jane’s analyst Anthony Davis, which was published in the Bangkok Post on October 27, titled “How China’s Uighur abuse fuels terrorism.” Of course I can’t be 100% sure about this identification, but it’s a much better fit for Hersh’s description than anything on the IHS-Jane’s website itself. It’s the right month, right organisation, and it also gives a figure of 5,000 Uyghurs arriving in Turkey since 2013. I think it’s highly likely that this is the piece that Hersh is referring to. Notably, though, it does not, as Hersh does, characterise these Uyghurs as “would-be fighters”. Davis writes:

The flip-side for Beijing in pre-empting the threat of domestic terrorism is stemming the flow of Uighur migrants fleeing the suffocating lock-down imposed by the security forces in Xinjiang. Once a trickle through the Central Asian -stans, by last year the exodus became a flood through Southeast Asia. Numbers are imprecise but conservative estimates put Uighur refugee arrivals in Turkey over the past two years at 5,000-6,000 with more on the road.

It couldn’t be clearer: this 5,000 is an estimate of the number of Uyghur refugees to have reached Turkey in recent years, a figure that the author directly links to Chinese repression in Xinjiang. Yet in Hersh’s hands, these Uyghur refugees have all become “would-be fighters” travelling the “rat line” to Syria. It’s a crude distortion that entirely parrots the Chinese position that every Uyghur who tries to flee the PRC is on their way to the jihad in the Middle East. If the London Review of Books, or anyone else, can point me to an IHS-Jane’s source that actually talks about “five thousand Uighur would-be fighters” in Turkey, I’ll happily stand corrected. Otherwise they really should do something about this slur against Uyghur refugees that they’ve just published.

The source for Hersh’s claim for two thousand Uyghur fighters already in Syria also seems to be Davis, who estimates the total number of Uyghurs in Syria to be “over 1,000 and possibly 2,000.” Note, though, that this is just a guess on Davis’s part, and involves extrapolating from reports such as this video from Lebanese satellite TV, which is a collage of footage of various Central Asian groups in Syria, all presented as evidence of Turkey’s policy of colonising Syria with families of Uyghur refugees. It’s a dodgy clip that probably wouldn’t have drawn much interest, had it not been translated and publicised by the pro-Israel media outfit MEMRI. If there’s any more convincing evidence for this migration of Uyghurs into Syria, I’m not aware of it.

Clearly there are some Uyghurs fighting in Syria, but we need better evidence than this before we start throwing around figures in the thousands. And we shouldn’t, as Hersh has done, turn the presence of Uyghurs in Syria into a pretext to tar all refugees from Xinjiang as “would-be” jihadists. As The Kebab and Camel has already said: the “rat line” is actually the Uyghurs’ lifeline, taking them to the one country in the world that is willing to immediately provide them with asylum and resettlement. When Western journalists like Hersh force the evidence into a frame that entirely backs up China’s repressive anti-terror crackdown, they’re only helping to ensure that more Uyghurs will feel the need to find an escape route to Turkey in the years ahead. 

Xinjiang in the Archive of the Tsarist Foreign Ministry


I’m posting here some information on files in AVPRI (Arkhiv vneshnei politiki rossiiskoi imperii), the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire, that relate to Xinjiang. AVPRI can be a slow place to work, so these notes might assist those planning a trip, or maybe inspire someone to do so. I made this list on a visit to the archive in 2012, just before AVPRI shut its doors for renovations. Recent reports have these renovations continuing into 2016, but hopefully it won’t be too long before it’s up and running again. Most of the files come from two sections of the archive, the Kitaiskii stol, literally the “China desk”, and the Mission to Beijing. Apart from these two subdivisions, I’ve also listed a few items at the end from the archives of specific consulates in Xinjiang (unfortunately these collections are rather thin) and the personal files of tsarist diplomats. Inevitably the selection will reflect my own interests to some extent, so this shouldn’t be thought of as an exhaustive list of things on Xinjiang in AVPRI.  Continue reading

Three passages on the last days of Ma Yuanzhang

Translated by Anthony Garnaut

The Jahriyya Sufi order (Zheherenye menhuan 哲赫忍耶门宦), often referred to by outsiders as the New Sect (xin jiao 新教) was an object of fascination for many metropolitan Chinese and foreign visitors to northwest China in the early twentieth century. In the 1990s, the Beijing-based Muslim novelist and essayist Zhang Chengzhi wrote a historical novel titled The History of the Soul (Xinling shi 心灵史). This drew upon a rich oral and written tradition of remembering the lives of the Jahriyya shaykhs. Mawlana Siddiq Allah Ma Yuanzhang 马元章 was the leading shaykh of the Jahriyya tradition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Continue reading

Sinoturcica Re-relaunched

It’s been a long time since anything new was posted here, but Sinoturcica has a new look (again), and a new post (see below). I don’t want to promise too much, but hopefully this is the start of at least a steady trickle of posts. This is now basically the website of David Brophy, historian at the University of Sydney, but I’ll be happy to take contributions from anyone else with an interest in this field.

Introduction to the Swedish National Archives (Riksarkivet)

By Eric Schluessel

Researchers working on Xinjiang can face significant difficulty in gathering source material, especially when it comes time to visit the archives. Some young foreign scholars have seen success in the Xinjiang Regional Archives in Urumqi, but all of the other facilities in the region are difficult to access even for Chinese researchers. So, we have to get creative. Fortunately, Sweden is home to some of the world’s richest and by far the most accessible archives of materials specifically on Xinjiang. These are the East Turkestan Collection and the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden collections, both housed at the National Archives in Stockholm, and the Jarring Collection at Lund University. This introduction focuses on the two branches of the National Archives in Stockholm, while a further essay will discuss Lund. Continue reading

Licensed to kill Osman


osmanbaturFrom whichever angle he is viewed, the Xinjiang Kazakh leader Osman Batur (1899-1951) is a larger than life figure. For Kazakhs, particularly those who fled China in the 1940s and formed a diaspora community in Turkey, he is without doubt a national hero. To those Western anti-Communists who had dealings with him, there was no more noble a savage. From the Chinese point of view, though, he is something quite different: a bandit, who epitomised the perilous situation in Xinjiang on the eve of liberation, when opportunist local chiefs were on the verge of selling out to the imperialists led by the US. Osman’s show trial and execution in Ürümchi in 1951 thus provided a rousing climax to the CCP’s early “bandit suppression” campaigns in Xinjiang, an event celebrated in PRC historiography as much as in literature (e.g. Wang Yuhu’s recently re-released Xinjiang pingpan jishi 新疆平叛纪事). Continue reading