Rumbles on the Rim of China’s Empire

Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

TENSION Official pronouncements hung torn on a shuttered store in Urumqi. More Photos »

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URUMQI, China — Its name alone indicates what the western region of Xinjiang means to the Chinese state: it translates as New Frontier or New Dominion, a place at the margins of empire. For centuries, the rulers of China have sought to control and shape Xinjiang, much as the dry winds of the vast deserts here sculpt the rocks.

A history exhibition in the main museum in this regional capital goes one step further. “Xinjiang has been an inalienable part of the territory of China,” it asserts, implying that Beijing or Xian or some other imperial capital has for time immemorial held sway over this land at the crossroads of Asian civilizations.

But many Uighurs, a Turkic race of Muslims that is the largest ethnic group among the 20 million people of Xinjiang, have their own competing historical narrative. In it, the region is cast as the Uighurs’ homeland, and the ethnic Han, who only began arriving in large numbers after the Communist takeover in 1949, are portrayed as colonizers.

Mechanisms typical of colonial control — the migration of Han, who are China’s dominant race, and government policies that support the spread of Han language, culture and economic power — provided tinder, some scholars say, for the conflagration of the past week in Xinjiang.

The fighting quickly turned into the deadliest outbreak of ethnic violence in China in decades, and has forced Uighurs and Han across the region to question not only their relations with each other, but also the relationship of the Chinese state to the frontier, or, as some would put it, the imperial power to the colony.

The upheaval began with young Uighurs marching last Sunday in this regional capital to protest a case of judicial discrimination. That exploded into clashes with riot police and Uighurs rampaging through the city and killing Han civilians. Then, for at least three days, bands of Han vigilantes roamed Urumqi, attacking and killing Uighurs. The government said at least 184 people were killed and 1,100 injured in the violence, with most of the dead being Han, a statement that Uighurs dispute.

One Uighur university graduate told of hiding in her apartment for most of the last week. “This is Xinjiang,” she said. “This is our homeland. Where are we going to live if we leave this city? Where are we going to go?”

Xinjiang has always been a great melting pot, a former hub on the Silk Road that today has 13 sizeable ethnic minority groups and borders eight countries. The concept of homeland is at the heart of the conflict. Uighurs shy away from openly framing the issue as one of independence and national sovereignty, but they ask: Who is the guest here? And whose culture and way of life should take precedence?

Though many Uighurs claim to be the indigenous people of the region, foreign historians say the Uighurs did not migrate from the Mongolian steppes to what is now Xinjiang until the 10th century. They eventually built tribal societies here, mostly around oasis towns along the southern edge of the large desert depression called the Tarim Basin.

Archaeological finds, especially recent excavations of amazingly well-preserved mummies, show that the first people to live in the region were likely West Eurasians, some of whom seem to have worshipped cows. The oldest of those mummies date back 3,800 years.

“I say the Tarim Basin was one of the last parts of the earth to be occupied,” said Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania who has been a leading scholar on the mummies. “It was bound by mountains. They couldn’t live there until they had certain irrigation technologies.”

The race of first settlers, the Tocharians, herders who spoke an Indo-European language, died out long ago, Mr. Mair said, and there are no descendants to make historical claims on the land.

As for signs of the Chinese empire, the most prominent Chinese gravesites were discovered at a place called Astana, believed to be a former military garrison. The findings there date from the 3rd to the 10th centuries, ending with the Tang Dynasty, when trade along the Silk Road was at its height. But for that period and for centuries afterward, ethnicities, tribes and power centers in the region remained in flux, with no one culture exerting long-term rule.

The Chinese empire did not exercise full political control over the territory in its current shape until the Qing Dynasty, ruled by ethnic Manchus, annexed the region in 1760 and later gave it the name Xinjiang, according to the scholars James A. Millward and Peter C. Perdue.

“By first establishing military and civil administrations and then promoting immigration and agricultural settlements, it went far toward ensuring the continued presence of China-based power in the region,” the two professors wrote in a 2004 volume of essays by 16 scholars, “Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland.”

Mr. Millward wrote in an e-mail message that the emperor Qianlong had conquered Xinjiang because efforts to rule it through Mongolian and Uighur proxies had failed.

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