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Most of you should be aware, by now, of the protests against ethnic discrimination and religious intolerance that are currently going on in Urumqi, the capital city of the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

My question is: what, if any, reprocussions does this have on the cultural heritage of the area? specifically, the ongoing demolition of the Old City of Kashgar (seen on the map below)?

Image taken from the Washingtonpost.com

Image taken from the Washingtonpost.com

First, a little background: For the past three days, violence has beeen erupting between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs, who area Turkic ethnic group and practice Islam, but who have inhabited the Xinjiang area for millenia.

The clashes have been over, primarily, the increasing marginalization felt by the Uighurs at the hand of the Han Chinese. They (the Uighurs) feel that they have been suppressed and overruled in what they consider to be their own territory by the Han Chinese who are ethnically different, do not practice their religion, do no speak Uighur language, and deny them access to fair competition in education and business.

Until recent years, the province of Xinjiang was only lightly inhabited by Han Chinese because of its arid climate and desert terrain (the feared Taklamakan Desert of Central Asian fame makes up the heart of this province) and its distance from major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai. For the most part, this area was left to the Uighur population to inhabit as they have been for centuries (hence: Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region). However, in the last couple of decades, more and more Han Chinese have settled in the region, mostly on govt. incentives (sort of the way Tibet has been settled by Han Chinese who were bussed in from Sichuan). It seems as though here is another veiled attempt at suppression through ethnic majority, something that has become somewhat of China’s M.O. for dealing with ethnic minorities in their border regions (Tibet being a case-in-point).

But what reprocussions might this ethnic clash have on the area besides a political and media nightmare? Well, if you recall the contents of several previous posts on this blog, as well as THIS news article, you’ll remember that the ancient city of Kashgar is located in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Now, the demolition of the majority of Kashgar’s Old City, the historic district in the very centre of the modern city of Kashgar where most of the historic and archaeological remains of Islamic and Uighur culture are situated, has been going on for months (and has been years in the making), and until the recent violence, it has all but been forgotten by western media. I do not believe, however, that the two incidents are unrelated.

It may very well be that part of what fuels the anger felt by the Uighurs towards the Han Chinese includes the demolition of Kashgar’s Old City. To them, the destruction of Old Kashgar might have been the last straw in a slow and drawn-out silent extermination of their culture. A straw that may have served to incite anger in those who feel wronged by the Han Chinese and the Chinese government.

Unfortunately, it may very well be too late for what remains of Kashgar’s Old Town (as supposedly, 85% of the historic district has already been destroyed), but does the recent uproar from the Uighur community against complete ethnic integration and assimilation mean that more historic districts are soon to be torn down? Will the protests only serve to expedite the controlled destruction of cultural heritage in the Xinjiang area? The current progression of events in Xinjiang, especially Wang Lequan’s hardline policies towards the suppression of potential Uighur seperatists, do not make me hopeful that something like the protection of archaeological heritage will rank high on anyone’s list.

It is unfortunate that in many cases, especially in countries where totalitarianism reigns supreme, that archaeological and cultural patrimony fall victim to political whims. The legacy of Central Asia, an area of the world where whispered political struggles have been played out silently for centuries, has been savagely compromised at the hands of changing political regimes. It is unfortunate that such a rich historical and archaeological cache is slowly being destroyed without much of a chance for salvage.

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