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.

Some, though maybe not all of this confusion has to do with the multiple dating systems in use during the Republican period: the Chinese Republican (with either lunar or Gregorian months, roughly 1-2 months apart), the Islamic (Hijri), and the Western Gregorian. Particularly when we only have a numerical month and day (e.g. the 5th day of the 7th month) to go on, it can be hard to know what exactly our source is referring to.

For the last few days I’ve been studying some letters from 1930s Xinjiang, which have helped me to work through these difficulties, so I thought it worth a research note. Helpfully, some of these documents give the date in both Islamic and Chinese versions. Take this one, for example (I’ve had to cut and paste two lines of text into one):

Double 2 Double 1

Mingūyniŋ yigirmä birinči yili on ikkinči ay ramżān-i šarīfniŋ on ikkisi küni

Here we have:

  • A Chinese date: The 12th month of the 21st year of the Chinese Republic
  • An Islamic date: The 12th day of Ramadan

Note that each date is incomplete: you need to combine the information from both to work out the day on which this particular letter was written. I wouldn’t call this “hybrid,” but maybe “complementary” dating? Now, the Chinese date could be referring to either the Gregorian or lunar month – both were in use during the Chinese Republic. If the former, we’re talking about December 1932. If the latter, it means the lunar month spanning December 27, 1932 and January 25, 1933. Was there a 12th of Ramadan that fell within either of these two windows? Yes there was. The first day of Ramadan (1351 AH) was December 29, 1932, making the 12th of Ramadan the 9th of January. So, from this we can conclude that the Republican date here must be the lunar 12th month, not the Gregorian December.

In this case there’s enough information to remove all ambiguity. What I’ve found more puzzling are dates like this, which simply combine a Hijri year with a numerical month:


The 12th month of AH 1351: what’s that?

My tendency up to this point has been to assume that dating systems come as complete packages; that is to say, you can’t mix and match. We’d find it odd, I think, if someone were to write a letter today and date it to August 7, 1437 AH, instead of August 7, 2016. So, if the year is given in terms of the Islamic year, I’ve been inclined to treat the month as an Islamic month too. The twelfth month of the Islamic calendar is Zu’l-Ḥijja, and Zu’l-Ḥijja 1351 corresponds to the period between March 28 and April 25, 1933.

That can’t be right though. This particular letter was part of a bundle of letters sent to Mongolia from Hami, by the leaders of the rebellion. By March-April 1933, the people who signed the letter were no longer in Hami, and events had well and truly moved on from what they describe in it. So, this must be a Chinese date, and given my analysis above, it’s almost certain to be the lunar month (again, corresponding to 27/12/1932 – 25/1/1933). Without going into more detail, I’m confident that this is a better fit for the historical context.

So, a hybrid Hijri-Chinese dating system was in use in Republican Xinjiang, at least in this eastern part of the province. Here’s a second example of this style of dating, which involves a slight mea culpa. A few years ago I published a letter from the leaders of the Hami rebellion to the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, which I came across in the Comintern archive in Moscow. It’s dated as follows:

Qumul Rebels

The 25th day of the 11th month of the 50th year

The 50th year is AH 1350 (1931-32), so when editing this letter I read the whole thing as Islamic, giving April 2, 1932 (actually, and this is really embarrassing, for some unknown reason I wrote “March.”). Anyway, I now know that that is much too late for this letter. Reading the month and day as a Chinese lunar date gives a much more appropriate date for it: January 2, 1932. I should’ve picked this up at the time – the Comintern file contains an accompanying Russian translation dated to February 21, 1932, meaning that there’s simply no way that the letter could’ve been written in April. So, for contributing to the confusion around the dating of events in Republican Xinjiang, mea maxima culpa.

Note that this date is almost the mirror image of the first date discussed above. There, the large information (year and month) was given in Chinese terms, where the small information (month and date) was Islamic. Here the big information is Islamic, with the details in Chinese. I don’t know if it’s significant, but the first letter is from a Dungan leader (Ma Shiming 馬石明), while these two come from Khoja Niyaz Haji’s Uyghur camp.

All this leads me to a couple of practical conclusions about reading Islamic documents from Republican Xinjiang: First, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, Chinese months should probably be read as lunar months. Secondly, and more interestingly, the dating format: Islamic year + Chinese lunar month (and day) was evidently common, and standard enough to be employed in quasi-official correspondence among Uyghurs. So, when handling such texts, even if the year is given according to the Islamic calendar, numerical days and months should most likely be read according to the Chinese lunar calendar.

Obviously there’s a larger point here about the combination of Chinese and Islamic dating systems, but it’s hard to know exactly how much to read into it. The Uyghur letters avoid using the Republican year, and it’s hard to argue that the use of Chinese months in any way reflects recognition of the legitimacy of the Chinese Republic. Given that the leaders of this uprising were people connected in some way to the institutions of the Hami wang, I’d imagine that they would’ve grown up with familiarity with the Qing dating system. From that point of view, this hybrid system might more reasonably be seen as a part of the Qing legacy in eastern Xinjiang.

I should also add a small proviso – I don’t think we can be entirely sure that the “Chinese” months here were *exactly* the same as the official lunar months in Republican China. That’s a question that these letters don’t shed any light on, though, so I’ll have to leave it to one side for the time being.


Brophy, David. “The Qumul Rebels’ Appeal to Outer Mongolia.” Turcica 42 (2010): 329-341.

Hamada Masami. “Rupture ou continuité: le calendrier des Douze Animaux chez les musulmans turcophones du Turkestan oriental.” In Mélanges offerts à Louis Bazin, par ses disciple, collègues et amis, edited by J.-L. Bacqué-Grammont, and R. Dor, 285-291. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1992.

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