Who Are the Uighurs?

Young Uighur woman in Kashgar
A young Uighur woman in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province. Keren Su / Getty Images

The Uighurs are a Turkic Central Asian people, now living primarily in the western Chinese province of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (which many Uighurs prefer to call East Turkestan).  They are closely related to other Central Asian groups including the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Turkmen.  DNA studies show that they are genetically mixed people of East Asian and Caucasian blood, and may be related to the Tocharians.

Traditionally, the Uighurs have had a strained relationship with the ethnic-Han Chinese majority in China.  For example, when the Abbasid Caliphate attacked Tang China at the Battle of Talas River in 751 A.D., Uighur troops joined the Arab army.

In addition to ethnic tensions, the Uighurs and Han Chinese have religious differences.  Most Han are officially atheist, in accordance with Communist doctrine, but also follow traditional Chinese ancestor-worship, Confucian philosophies, Taoism and/or Buddhism.  Almost all Uighurs today, in contrast, are Sunni Muslims.  Interestingly, early records suggest that the Uighurs were Manichaeans who converted to Buddhism around the 1100s.  Gradually, between the 1400s and 1600s, the Uighurs converted once more to Islam as Mongol converts introduced the faith into Uighur lands.

The Uighurs are among the most settled of the Turkic peoples, traditionally.  They have been sedentary farmers, townspeople, and merchants for centuries, in contrast to their pastoralist cousins to the west.

The heartland of the Uighurs' territory is the Tarim Basin, now part of western China.

Uighur History in Brief:

It was the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 - 534 CE) who first made written note of their Uighur neighbors during the Southern and Northern Dynasties era.  The Wei themselves were not Han Chinese, but were ethnic Xianbei (Mongols).

 In the 1500 years and more since that time, relations between the Uighurs and their various neighbors have waxed and waned considerably.

The height of Uighur power came between the 8th and 12th centuries, when the Uighur Empire (also called the Uighur Khaganate) controlled much of Inner and Outer Mongolia, as well as what is now Xinjiang. Along with the rest of Central Asia, the Uighurs were conquered by Genghis Khan and were added to the Mongol Empire.  After the Great Khan's death in 1227, Uighur lands became part of Chagatai Khan's domain, and remained part of the Chagatayid Khanate for several centuries.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, many Uighurs came under the dominion of the Dzungar Khanate, the last great nomadic empire of Central Asia.  It was ruled by ethnic Oirats, a western division of the Mongols.

In modern times, it has been the Chinese who seek to control Uighur lands and people.  After the 1949 Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Han Chinese assertion of control over Xinjiang. Chinese Uighurs have been fighting in a low-level separatist struggle ever since. Taking advantage of anti-Muslim feeling in the wider world during the early 21st century, the central government of China designated several Uighur separatist groups as "terrorist organizations."  

Periodically, unrest breaks out in Xinjiang, followed by bloody government crackdowns directed by Beijing.  As with the Tibetans to the south, Uighurs have also faced an influx of ethnic Han Chinese onto their lands, and fear being outnumbered in their own supposedly "autonomous" region.

Today, in addition to the Chinese Uighurs, smaller Uighur populations also live in KazakhstanKyrgyzstanTurkey, and Uzbekistan.

Pronunciation: "WEE-ghur" or "OOEE-ghur"

Alternate Spellings: Uigur, Uyghur, Uygur

Example:  "The Uighur Empire at its height stretched from Manchuria in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west."