Uyghur Ethnic Group – China Ethnic Minorities

Uyghur people mainly live in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and a small number live in Taoyuan and Changde of Hunan Province, Kaifeng and Zhengzhou of Henan Province, and other places. According to the 2021 census, the total Uyghur population was 11,774,538.

Uyghur is a multi-source ethnic group. The main sources are: one is the Huihe people from Mongolian grassland, and the other is indigenous people in the oasis of southern Xinjiang. The two groups converged on a large scale in 840 AD and were fully integrated in the early 16th century. Uyghur people’s mother tongue is the Uyghur language, belonging to the Turkic language family of the Altaic language family, and they widely believe in Islam. “Uyghur” means “united”.

In the long process of historical development, the Uyghur people have created excellent culture with diligence and wisdom, and have unique national customs. The Uyghur ethnic group is an important member of the big family of the Chinese nation.

Apparel of the Uyghur ethnic group

The traditional dress of the Uyghur people is deeply intertwined with both their history as traders along the Silk Road and their devout belief in Islam. In particular, two pieces of clothing have become symbolic of the Uyghur ethnic minority: the chapan and the doppa. The chapan, a variant of the caftan, is a long coat that is worn over the clothes during the winter months. It is typically worn by men and comes in a variety of colors, from muted blues to fiery reds. Intricate patterns are embroidered on the exterior and, instead of buttons, the chapan is bound by a large cloth band around the waist.

The doppa is a square or round skullcap that is worn not only by the Uyghurs but also by the Kazan Tartars, the Uzbeks, and the Tajiks. The cap itself is usually black or white, although other color variants do exist, and it is traditionally embroidered with vibrantly colorful patterns, much like the chapan. Older Uyghur men are known to grow long beards and wear a much taller version of the doppa, which is fringed with fur at the bottom.

While men sport the chapan, women wear exquisitely embroidered long-sleeved dresses that billow out at the waist. Popular embroidery motifs include vines, pomegranates, moons, arabesques, and geometric patterns. Golds, reds, and blacks are the most popular color combinations, although pinks, greens, blues, purples, and even tie-dyes also feature. To complement these luxurious dresses, Uyghur women don plenty of jewelry, including large earrings, bracelets, and necklaces.

Young girls tend to braid their hair in several long plaits, as this is regarded as a symbol of feminine beauty, while married women usually wear two plaited pigtails affixed to the head with a crescent-shaped comb. Although it is still reasonably uncommon, some women will wear the veil in keeping with their Islamic faith. Both men and women wear silk slippers or leather boots, depending on the season and the occasion. From shimmering satins to rich silk threads, the opulence of the Uyghurs’ traditional dress is undeniable!

Festivals of the Uyghur ethnic group

Since the Uyghur people are predominantly Muslim, they mainly observe Islamic festivals and follow the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar that has 12 months and 354 days in each year. Therefore one year in the Islamic calendar is 11 days shorter than in our Gregorian calendar, meaning they have to wait less time between festivals! The two main religious festivals observed by the Uyghur people are known as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

Eid al-Fitr

During the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the Uyghur people observe a religious practice known as Ramadan. Throughout Ramadan, men older than 12 and women older than 9 must fast during daylight hours and can only eat and drink once it is dark (i.e. before sunrise and after sunset). It is practiced during the ninth month because, according to the Quran, this is when Allah bestowed his teachings upon the prophet Mohammed, meaning this is the most sacred month in the Islamic calendar.

Muslims fast during Ramadan to experience starvation and thus empathize with those less fortunate. Once the fasting has ended, they celebrate a festival known as Eid al-Fitr, which takes place on the 1st day of the 10th month. To begin, people get up early in the morning, take a bath, and thoroughly clean their houses and surrounding streets. They then light incense and head to the mosque in their formal clothes, where they will attend a religious service and listen respectfully to the imams giving lectures and sermons.

Once these are completed, they must go to their family’s cemetery and hold activities in honor of their ancestors. The family will then gather together and cook up a grand feast. After a month of fasting, it’s a small wonder that anyone has the patience to prepare food and not just wolf down the raw ingredients! This food will usually be shared with relatives, friends, and neighbors as a sign of goodwill.

Eid al-Adha

The term “Eid al-Adha” means “sacrifice and self-devotion” in Arabic, so it is unsurprisingly also known as the Feast of Sacrifice, and the Festival of Fidelity and Filial Piety. It is a four-day festival that begins on the 10th day of the 12th month according to the Islamic calendar and revolves around the sacrifice of an animal, usually an ox, which people will divide into three portions. The first portion of meat is given to family members, the second is gifted to relatives, friends, and neighbors, and the final portion will be used as alms to help the poor. The older family members boil the meat and inform the children that, after they have finished eating, they must bury the bones underground and cover them with yellow earth instead of giving them to dogs.

They traditionally sacrifice animals during this festival in homage to the ancient prophet Ibrahim. According to the Quran, Allah spoke to Ibrahim and ordered him to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Ibrahim sharpened his knife and approached his son, but relented and begged his son to leave. However, Ishmael told his father that, if it was the will of Allah, then he must be sacrificed.

Ishmael lay down in acceptance of his death and Ibrahim felt tears stream down his cheeks as he placed the knife on his son’s throat. At that moment, Allah stopped Ibrahim and provided him with a “greater sacrifice” than Ishmael, although it is never explicitly mentioned what this sacrifice was. This festival honors both Ibrahim’s devotion to Allah and Ishmael’s filial piety in obeying his father without hesitation.

During the festival, most families will host a gathering and share a feast of beef, mutton, fruit, fried cakes, and other delicious dishes with their relatives, friends, neighbors, and sometimes local imams. This feast will be followed by vibrant performances of folk songs and dance, such as the Twelve Muqam or the Sanam Dance.

Religions of the Uyghur ethnic group

Throughout their long and illustrious history, the Uyghur people have adopted numerous religions, including shamanism, Tengrism, Manichaeism, and Buddhism. However, by the 17th century, the vast majority of Uyghurs had converted to Islam. This means that they pray in mosques, follow priests known as imams, and worship the holy book known as the Quran. They rank as the second largest Muslim group in China, directly after the Hui people. That being said, Uyghurs and Hui people rarely worship in the same mosques.

Nowadays, the majority of Uyghur people follow the Sunni branch of Islam, although there are existing conflicts between those who subscribe to the mystical tradition of Sufism and those who do not. Generally speaking, Uyghurs living in the southern regions of Xinjiang, particularly surrounding the city of Kashgar, are much more conservative. In these regions, women will most likely wear the full veil, which is uncommon in other parts of Xinjiang. In less conservative areas, many people will still drink alcohol, will not object to women working, and will allow young women to wear Western clothes.

In rural parts of Xinjiang, many shamanistic and animistic traditions endure. These traditions appear to have intertwined with Islam, as shamans will chant passages of the Quran to heal the sick and people will wear amulets inscribed with Arabic script to ward off evil spirits. In Gansu province, there is a small pocket of people known as the Yugurs or “Yellow Uyghurs” who still practice Tibetan Buddhism. It is thought that they share a common ancestry with the Uyghur people, although they are a distinctly different ethnic group.

Performance of the Uyghur ethnic group

The Uyghur people are renowned throughout China for their excellent dancing skills, particularly in a type of performance art known as the Twelve Muqam. This classical epic is comprised of 340 folk songs and dances that are separated into twelve parts called Rak, Čäbbiyat, Segah, Čahargah, Pänjigah, Özhal, Äjäm, Uššaq, Bayat, Nava, Mušavräk, and Iraq. If you were to play them all back-to-back in full, it would take an average of 24 hours to complete! In 2005, UNESCO designated this incredible folk art as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Historically speaking, the precursor to the muqam was a type of music called the “Great Western Region Melody”, which originated from Central Asia and appeared in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). It became particularly popular during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when it was developed as an art form and greatly enjoyed at court. The Uyghur people masterminded several local muqam systems and named them after oasis towns in Xinjiang, including Dolan, Ili, Kumul, and Turpan. Many of these regional varieties of muqam still exist and are widely popular today. However, arguably the most magnificent of these systems is the Twelve Muqam. They represent a body of folk art and dance that was edited and systemized during the 1950s by celebrated performers such as Turdi Akhun and Omar Akhun.

Although the Twelve Muqam are grouped, they each differ in musical style, dance choreography, and type of instruments used. Some are performed solo, while others are group pieces. Each muqam begins with a long free rhythm introduction, which is followed by characteristic rhythmic patterns that gradually increase in speed. The overall structure can be separated into three parts: the naghma, the dastan, and the mashrap. This can be further subdivided into smaller pieces known as täzä, nuskha, small säliqä, jula, sänäm, large säliqä, päshru, and täkit.

The content of the pieces ranges from folk ballads right through to poems written by classical Uyghur poets, giving a broad spectrum of Uyghur history and culture. In keeping with this local aesthetic, many of the dance moves are based on everyday tasks or scenes, such as flower picking, carrying the bowl on the head, and imitation of various animals. When it comes to musical accompaniment, there are over 62 types of instruments used by the Uyghur people, including a type of long-necked lute, called the dutar, a sheep skin tambourine with small iron rings attached to the rim known as the dap, and a smaller stringed instrument called a rawap.

The Twelve Muqam are commonly performed at a traditional type of Uyghur gathering known as a meshrep. This is an all-male event that is held within the courtyard of a participant’s family home. Traditionally they were only held on special occasions, such as the harvest, wedding days, and coming-of-age ceremonies. Each meshrep consists of a leader, who is typically the elder, a disciplinarian, and a group of 30 or so younger men. They all sit on a carpet together in sequence according to seniority. The women and children of the host’s family are not permitted to join in, and are instead relegated to the task of serving the guests food. Talk about getting the raw end of the deal!

Meshreps are primarily male bonding events, where the men will play muqam melodies, perform whirling circular dances, sing songs, act out comedic skits, and recite lectures from religious leaders. However, there is a darker side to this noble pastime. A substantial portion of the meshrep is sometimes dedicated to scolding the attendees for their moral transgressions, such as the drinking of alcohol or the taking of a second wife. Generally speaking, however, the meshrep is a time for entertainment and, in some parts of Xinjiang, they can last the whole night!

On other special occasions, such as weddings, parties, or festivals, the Sanam Dance is usually performed. This popular folk dance has a lively musical accompaniment and is characterized by an increase in pace, starting slowly and gradually becoming faster. The style of dance varies from region to region, and dancers may even improvise during the festivities. After all, it never hurts to get a little lost in the music!

Traditional diet of the Uyghur ethnic group

Uyghur traditional diet meal is mainly pasta. They like beef and mutton, but vegetables are relatively less eaten. There are many kinds of staple foods; the most common ones are steamed bread, grabbed rice, ramen, etc.

Steamed bread, called Nang in Chinese, made of wheat or corn flour, is roasted in a special fire pit. It is a round cake of different shapes, sizes and thicknesses.

Grab rice is called “Po Luo” in the Uyghur language, is stewed with rice, mutton, and lamb oil. Carrots can also be added to provide a spectacular taste to the meal.

Customs and taboos of the Uyghur ethnic group

Uyghur people should put their right hand on their chest when they meet elderly people or friends. Men shake hands when they meet men, while women hug each other when they meet women, and stick their faces right to each other. They all greet each other with “Salam”. Finally, they touch their knees and bow to say goodbye. The younger people should give gifts to elders; nowadays they usually shake hands instead.

Uyghur people do not call other people’s names directly. In addition, they are not allowed to call each other’s names directly between the elders and younger members, and between the elders and younger members of the teachers and apprentices.

Relationship between Hui and Uyghur Ethnic Group

The Hui and Uyghur ethnic groups believe in Islam. Therefore, there are some similarities in diet, traditional festivals and taboos.

From the perspective of ethnicity, Uyghurs are close to the white race, while Hui people are almost the same as Han people.

The Hui people have a long history. Their ancestors belong to different nationalities in Central Asia and West Asia, and they have been dispersed for a long time, so they can’t form their own national language. For the convenience of life and frequent use, Chinese is the main language of the Hui people. On the premise of abiding by the Islamic doctrine, the Hui people have made great contributions to Chinese cuisine and improved many Muslim cuisines, such as various kinds of fried cakes and pastries, which are very common.

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