AAS Report: Trauma and Memory in Modern Xinjiang

This year’s meeting of the conference of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) was held in Seattle, WA. The weather kindly held all weekend long, and while I’m told that Seattle isn’t usually so sunny, I choose to believe that the harbor view is never obscured by fog.

I organized a panel for this year’s meeting on “Trauma and Memory in Modern Xinjiang.” The word “trauma,” “memory,” “modern,” and “Xinjiang” might set off alarm bells — those are some pretty trendy terms, all lined up in a row! Nevertheless, the topic was one that fell naturally out of current research in the field. Here’s a rundown of the talks:

Eric Schluessel (me): “‘When the World Fell Apart’: the Muslim Uprisings as Personal and Historical Trauma” We took the panel in chronological order, so I started with this piece on the 1860s and after, which also set up some of our common analytical machinery. The basic argument is this: the mass violence that broke out in Xinjiang in 1864 became a limit event in the historical memory of different groups. The subsequent discourses of recovery as they played out in the 1870s and beyond shaped the ways that Muslims and non-Muslims alike reimagined their individual and collective pasts. The dead became martyrs, and “recovering lost parents” became “recovering lost patrimony” — but only certain dead, and certain parents.

Sandrine Catris (Assistant Professor, Augusta University): “The Struggle Against Forgetting 1960s Xinjiang” Sandrine Catris has written the only dissertation I know of on Kashgar in the Cultural Revolution. She had to deal with some exceptional difficulties in approach her sources, which include oral histories and memoirs, many of them censored or polemical. In order to explore these issues, Catris presented the politics of representation two important incidents that have received practically zero treatment in the scholarship: the Red Guard attempt to destroy the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar on August 18, 1966 and the Shihezi Incident of January 26, 1967. In a manner reminiscent of both Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys and Melvyn Goldstein et al.’s The Nyemo Incident, Catris demonstrates the complex ethno-religious politics surrounding these incidents, both at the time and in recollection.

Brian Cwiek (PhD Candidate, Indiana University): “From Nanniwan to Tuntian: Colonizing Historical Consciousness in the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps” Brian usually works on cotton and archaeology in twentieth-century Xinjiang, so he naturally reads a great deal about Xinjiang’s province-within-a-province, the XPCC. The XPCC itself and historians of Xinjiang often represent the organization as continuing the ancient legacy of tuntian, a (never successful) system of military farming. However, Brian argues, this characterization is actually very recent — once upon a time, the people of the XPCC thought of themselves primary as continuing the Communists’ modern agricultural projects. What prompted the change, and when? Ask Brian.

Rahile Dawut (Professor, Xinjiang University): “Revolution and Remembrance: Oral Histories of Sufi Women in Contemporary Xinjiang” I am so glad Prof. Rahile Dawut could join us. She is a global leading scholar of Uyghur anthropology and a mentor to many of us in the field. Her powerful ethnographic work was on display in this talk, which explored the modern experience of women’s Sufi circles who have passed down distinct practices of dhikr (“remembrance”) for generations. These oral histories and their communal maintenance are at the heart of historical memory for untold numbers of Uyghurs — and yet, they have received little treatment in the literature, especially not by Western scholars. (Rachel Harris is of course an outstanding exception!)

Our discussant Rian Thum (Assistant Professor, Loyola University New Orleans), who recently won the Fairbank Prize for his work in historical anthropology, put it well: if you work on Xinjiang, and you aren’t familiar with Sufi practices of memory, then you ought to be. The field tends to focus on two things: policy and identity. If we are serious about painting a more complete picture, or pushing the limits of understanding in ways that are productive both for scholarship and for politics, then we need to have much greater regard for how non-elites experience and imagine their worlds. If we claim to care about “Uyghur” issues, then let’s focus on how most Uyghurs live and build their communities, both practically and discursively.


Edit: As some errors were apparently introduced into the subtitles in the final stages of production, Elise Anderson (who wrote the original subtitles) has temporarily taken the video down in order to restore the correct text. Watch this space.

Years ago, Uyghur author Memtimin Hoshur (b. 1944) wrote a short story called “Sarang.” We might translate the title as “Crazy.” Like many of Memtimin’s stories, “Sarang” is a dark comedy and work of social commentary, and it begins with the conceit that the whole thing was written not by Memtimin himself, but by a manic author named Osman, who also appears as a character in the story.

That story became a movie, which is now available on YouTube, complete with English-language subtitles! If you only watch one Uyghur film, make it “Sarang.” The story is told through scenes of everyday sociability: men playing cards, husbands and wives, people telling jokes and just shooting the shit, getting brought in to the local police station. It’s a good introduction to Uyghur society through one of the greatest works of modern Uyghur literature.

But you don’t need me to convince you. You can watch the whole thing here:

Eastern Turki Goes Digital

I am proud to announce the first ever Eastern Turki-English-Eastern Turki online glossary.*

An old friend and colleague, Niko Kontovas, who is a linguist, polyglot, and Turkic language specialist, turned my digital version of the Raquette glossary of Eastern Turki into a searchable database.

At this stage, the site is only a few days old, and it is very much in beta. Currently, the dataset only includes the Raquette glossary, so it’s really just a searchable dictionary of colloquial Turkic from turn-of-the-century Kashgaria. In the future, however, we intend to include a tool for submitting new entries, which should make it easy to add data from the Eastern Turki and Chaghatay glossaries produced by de Courteille and others over a century ago. Given the extent of the textual record, and the increasing availability of digital copies of written materials, it will be possible in future to add a great deal of data to the corpus.

This has been a dream of mine for some time: to make the historical languages of Central Asia easier to access, easier to learn, easier to use for study and scholarship. I’ve struggled at times with finding the appropriate tools, and I’m very grateful to Niko for putting his skills to use and making the database happen. We will maintain and expand this as long as possible.

* With the exception of the entries in this database.

Glossary of Eastern Turki

When I was first learning Chaghatay in 2008, I found the lack of a Chaghatay-English dictionary somewhat frustrating. My Russian wasn’t good enough, and neither were my German or French, to use the existing resources, so my classmates and I used the old Redhouse Ottoman-English dictionary and made constant reference to Steingass’ Persian. It was very time-consuming. Fortunately, Modern Uyghur is very close to Chaghatay in nearly every way, much more so than Uzbek, so we never got lost on the basics of grammar, we only drowned in the sea of advanced vocab. Nevertheless, I vowed that someday I would teach Chaghatay, and that when I did, I would give my students something to help them through the early stages of the process.

Years later, a friend working in the Swedish Mission Society archives in Stockholm gave me a partial copy of Gustav Raquette’s 1912-1914 three-volume textbook for Eastern Turki. It was an honest-to-goodness textbook — in English! — for late-model Chaghatay as written and spoken around Kashgar ca. 1910, right in the middle of my research period. Somehow this had never come up before. Later, the third volume popped up — a scan of Raquette’s pre-publication draft of a glossary. This, I decided in my idle moments, had to be made useful to students. In about six weeks of free minutes here and there, I had typed it up.

Here is the Raquette Glossary 2015. I have taken Raquette’s obscure old system of narrow phonetic transcription and replaced it with the one-to-one transliteration system for Chaghatay/Eastern Turki that I favored in Mā Tīṭayniŋ wāqiʿasi. I’ve also noted where Raquette gives a definition I find strange or historically interesting and have supplemented the glossary where it seemed really necessary. Search it, use it, and if you have suggestions, email me.

In the long term, I want to add entries from Pavet de Courteille’s dictionary and other long-since-out-of-copyright sources, since it’s plain that the Raquette glossary isn’t complete enough for the purposes of an active researcher. Watch this space, too, for drafts of my introductory reader for Eastern Turki. Let’s make Central Asian history more accessible. Let’s produce tools to help students prepare themselves to work with these sources without having to learn several years of Russian and a modern language.


Here is the first post on the new website of Eric T. Schluessel, historian of China, Xinjiang, miscommunication, and confusion.

Why Tokhta?

I have spent most of the past few years immersed in the local archives of Xinjiang in the late Qing and the early Republic (1877-1933), both in Chinese and in Turki (pre-modern Uyghur). I have come to a conclusion: the majority of men at the time were named either Tokhta or Rozi.

Tokhta (or Tokhti) is written توخته or توختی in Turki, or some variation on 托乎大 in Chinese, while Rozi (or Roza) is روزی 肉則. The next most common name seems to be Baqi (باقی 八亥). Turki, or course, (or Turkic Muslims, or Uyghurs, if you prefer) did not have surnames at that time, so men in these documents are usually only identified by their given name. Tokhta is everywhere — and in my mind, Tokhta has come to represent the Turkic Muslim Everyman circa 1900.

This blog is for Tokhta, and so in part is the work I do. It’s also for Rahila, the beggar who died one night in front of a mosque in Yengisar, and for the unnamed “Woman,” raised by Turki, who went before the Turpan magistrate and said she wanted to be Chinese. It’s part of an engagement with the great silences in history and an attempt to write subaltern history in western China.

My dissertation, “The Muslim Emperor of China,” is the first thoroughgoing treatment of colonial-like processes in the region in the late Qing and early Republic. For a very long time, I refused to use the word “colonial,” given its overly broad definition and highly politicized connotation, but years of empirical research have pushed me to engage in the comparison. I still would not say, “Xinjiang was a colony,” because it’s not precisely true, and because typological statements are not sufficient conclusions, only aids to posing genuinely interesting questions. At the same time, postcolonial engagement both with the problems of historical research and with changes in Muslim historical and geographical consciousness during this period are fruitful both methodologically and analytically.

Over the next several months, I will document some of my progress here. This page will also serve as a portal for the resources that my research produces, incidentally or intentionally, and for teaching materials I’ve developed. It’s transparently a site for self-promotion, but if you’d like to keep up, please do.