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Eurasian Crossroads—A Book Review

Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, Revised and Updated by James A. Millward, Columbia University Press, 2021, 520 pages. ISBN: 9780231204552 (paperback), ISBN: 9780231204545 (hardcover), ISBN: 9780231555593 (ebook). All three editions available from Columbia University Press.

The Xinjiang region was not an integrated political unit with its current boundaries until the eighteenth century. Before then, control of the territory was usually divided among many local oasis rulers or warring empires; parts of Xinjiang were often ruled together with lands in what are now the Central Asian Republics, and parts by China or Tibet. Nevertheless, there is a geographic, cultural and geopolitical coherence to the region that makes writing its history over the very long term a reasonable thing to attempt.” (p.4)

Writing a comprehensive history of Xinjiang is precisely what James A. Millward has attempted and accomplished in this revised and updated version of Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang. For those desiring to understand the current simmering cauldron on the northwestern border of China, Millward’s book provides a detailed, but panoramic, picture of this ancient, but still very robust, Turkic civilization and its homeland.

Xinjiang comprises one-sixth of the ground surface of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), yet is so very different from most of the rest of that country. The PRC is 92% Han Chinese and the people of Xinjiang did not speak the Han’s Mandarin Chinese as a second language until the mid-1900s. Linguists speculate that Bronze Age migrants who settled in the region were an Indo-European people who spoke Tokharian, a language offshoot from the inhabitants of the Russian steppes north of the Black Sea (p. 12). Likewise, a study of mummies found in the Xinjiang region—so well-preserved in the arid conditions—reveals a very diverse population as early as the second millennium BCE (p. 17). Much later, a Mongol-Turkic people led by khans (equivalent to kings) ruled from the 12th to the 18th century, followed by rule of the Manchu Qing until the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912. This Mongol-Turkic heritage explains why Uyghurs selling beef kabobs on the streets of China’s major cities look less Chinese than Russian or European with their aquiline noses and full beards.

Such details support Millward’s choice of title for his work—the territory is a veritable “crossroads” that has been run over and ruled by many different tribal groups through the centuries: Uyghurs, Mongols under the Liao and Yuan Dynasties, Manchus under the Qing Dynasty, and most recently, the Han under the People’s Republic. Crossroads, indeed!

How does this relate to the current turmoil on the PRC’s northwestern border? Millward gives the complete history of the region to clarify current issues. When the Qara Khitay (people of the Western Liao dynasty) fled west before the advancing Jurchens (the second Jin Dynasty), they gathered many tribes—including the Uyghurs—into their confederacy (p. 55). The area that they eventually ruled today encompasses Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and the southern part of Kazakhstan. Under the Qara Khitay, these many tribes or vassal states were very independent as long as they paid taxes and tribute when requested; they maintained their own social institutions and even their own armies.

Among these tribes, the Uyghurs were one of the more highly developed nations and, consequently, under the Mongols, held high positions at the Mongol court. A Uyghur, named Tatar Tongga, introduced the use of official seals, or chops as they are now called, as well as the Uyghur scripts. This script was adopted for the Mongolian language and remains in use in Inner Mongolia. (p. 63) The Uyghurs of today are very proud of their cultural heritage and accomplishments and maintain their posture as fiercely independent warriors; they chafe at the dominance of the more aristocratic and bookish Chinese.

The territory of Xinjiang historically consisted of two distinct regions: Zunghar in the north and the Tarim Basin south of the Tianshan Mountains. In 1884, they were joined and renamed Xinjiang—meaning new frontier—after the Manchus of the Qing dynasty conquered both peoples, and Xinjiang was designated a Chinese province at that time. After the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, control of the territories fluctuated. The East Turkistan Republic was declared in 1933 and remained in existence until 1949 when the Peoples Liberation Army marched in.

 Today the Uyghurs are experiencing much worse than dominance from the PRC. Millward’s final chapter is entitled Colonialism, Assimilation, and Ethnocide, ending with the section “Institutionalized Ethnocide: Surveillance, Mass Internment, Demographic Suppression, and Forced Labor.” He describes the atrocities inflicted on the Uyghur people as they have been herded from their homes and grazing lands into camps where the women have endured brutalization and the men have disappeared.

Millward ends his book with a statement of his opinion on where China is headed:

The most successful policies implemented by Xinjiang’s rulers, whether the Qing, the Guomindang or the Chinese Communist Party, were likewise balancing acts: they recognized the distinctive nature of the people and environment in Xinjiang and attempted to balance that against the centralizing momentum of their imperial and national projects. Over the first two decades of the twenty-first century, however, as the Chinese Communist Party has grown more assertive abroad and more jealously defensive of its power at home, it has forgotten those lessons. It waves a new Han-centric construct of Chineseness as a banner in efforts to advertise the PRC as a global brand, while wielding that same construct as a cudgel against Uygurs, Kazakhs, Tibetans, Mongols, Muslims, Christians, Hong Kongers and other peoples different in their language, religion, culture or appearance from the Northern Han, Mandarin-speaking norm… The CCP has turned its back on its own home-grown pluralistic institutions… to chase a monochrome dream of the nation reminiscent of nineteenth century nativist European models…. A common nationalistic response to any criticism of CCP policies… takes the form of an assertion that Xinjiang ‘belongs to China.’ But truculent declarations of ownership do not justify discrimination, brutality, or aggression. Rather they only highlight the colonial attitudes and anxieties underlying the Party’s policies… a ruler may use an arsenal of technologies to terrorize a vast territory, but when he confuses harmony with uniformity, he will be weak, and his country small in the eyes of the world. (p. 402–404)

Our thanks to Columbia University Press for providing a copy of Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, Revised and Updated by James A. Millward for this review.

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Image credit: Photo by Zongnan Bao on Unsplash.

BJ Arthur

BJ Arthur (pseudonym) has lived in China for many years and was in Beijing in June 1989.View Full Bio

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