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Turkestan's Early History

On the map of Central Asia, not many years ago, it was all Turkestan. Now it is Russian Turkestan and Chinese Turkestan. East Turkestan was not considered a part of any of the eighteen provinces constituting China proper, but the administration of all public affairs was directly in the hands of men named in Peking.

The history of Chinese Turkestan presents the difficulty that until mediaeval times it filled but a small part on the stage of Asia. On the other hand, it lay on the highway of the nations, and migrations from the Far East to the West, which have so deeply influenced the history of mankind, generally traversed the Tarim basin, the country to the south being almost impracticable, and the country to the north presenting a longer and a more difficult line of advance.

The story of Turkestan is the story of one inroad after another, ever with reversion to China. But Chinese claims that this region had been an integral part of Chinese territory since 160 BC are without foundation. The earliest recorded connection of China with what is now the province of Chinese Turkestan is the progress of Mon Wang, one of the emperors of the Chow Dynasty, to a province in the vicinity of the Kuen Lun mountains which may be identified with Khotan. This tour is alleged to have taken place about 1000 B.c., but is possibly legendary.

The curtain rises on Turkestan about 200 BC. Khotan is known in the Chinese records at about that date. In 177 BC these records set forth the expulsion of Khotanese and Kashgaris from their homes due to the incoming, from North-east Mongolia, of swarms of Yue-che, of Mongol or Tartan race, who sought new homes vi et armis. Those whose vines and fig-trees they coveted were a people far advanced beyond the Yue-che in all the civil arts. The attack of the Yue-che was not that of a ravaging army led by a Jenghiz Khan or a Tamerlane, having his seat of power already fixed, and now merely hungry for dominion. It seems to have been the effort of a displaced people to find new homes. They were unaccustomed to fixed agriculture with all the niceties of a tangled irrigation works: wholesale slaughter or expulsion would then have left them without toilers for the ditches and the fields, whose fruits they might take as landlords.

Under Kanishka, the most celebrated ruler of the Yue-chi, the tribe regained Kashgar about AD 125. About the same time that the Prince of Kashgar recognized the paramountcy of the Yue-chi the Uighur tribes in the Turfan and Hami districts revolted from China, and for five centuries Chinese control over the entire province was lost. It was here that the Chinese came into close contact with Buddhism, which had come over the snowy mountains to call men's minds away from this sorrowful world of desire. Shortly after China had received the words of peace, all intercourse with Turkestan was much disturbed by the violence of the times - the Mongols intruding themselves between China and her distant province.

A new epoch opened with the establishment of the Tang dynasty in China early in the seventh century, and during the reign of its founder the invasions of the Northern Turks made him in the first instance seek the help of the Western Turks. The Chinese dynasty, however, rapidly became strong, and the year 630 not only marked the downfall of the Western but also the subjugation of the Northern Turks, and China once again found herself in a position to recover her lost western provinces.

About the year 640 AD, the administration of Turkestan was again firmly in the hands of the Chinese officials, only to be disturbed by marauding bands of Tibetans; whether from the western Ladak country, relatively near, or from the Lhasa country, relatively far, seems not to be known. The center of Tibetan power was in the East, but the newly conquered Ladak country may have served as the base of operations and recruiting depot for this dash against Kashgaria. This probably meant nothing more than the killing of some thousands and the maiming of some other thousands of field-workers and shopkeepers - a too frequent occurrence in the world's history to cause any shudders when separated from us by thirteen centuries and seven thousand miles.

The Chinese soon drove out the Tibetans (whose leaders, it seems, were but a few generations down from Western China) and next had to contend with the Mohammedan power which had established itself, at the beginning of the eighth century, in all the Samarcand region, west of Kashgaria. The Chinese bond seems to have been strong enough in 716 A.D. to permit a troubled Emperor to call upon Kashgaria-and even far Bokhara-for troops to aid in the overthrow of a mighty rebel against the throne. At this period Chinese Turkestan was known as the " Four Garrisons," the reference being to the forces stationed at Kucha, Khotan, Karashahr and Kashgar, because Chinese power was based on this quadrilateral. Not that it remained unchallenged ; for the Tibetans seized the province in 670 and retained possession of it until 692, when the Chinese reoccupied it in force.

There followed other rude attacks from Tibetans, who for a time threw themselves across Western China, cutting communication with Turkestan. Again a vigorous ruler was born into the Imperial throne or a vigorous usurper chanced to seize it; whereupon the annoying Tibetans were hurled back to their lonely seats. Based on their garrison in Chinese Turkestan, the Chinese mainly devoted their energies to preventing the Tibetans from stretching out their hands to the Arabs through Gilgit and Yasin, in which districts the Celestials built forts.

The Uighurs, whose ancestors claimed descent from the Huns, originally lived in north-west Mongolia and, when they were expelled by the Hakas from their homeland, two of their sections founded states in the eastern Tian Shan. A third section broke the power of the Tibetans about 860 and became the masters of Kashgar, although Khotan remained independent for some years. The rulers of this section of the Uighurs - known also as the Karluks or Karakhani - were termed the Ilak Khans, and the part they played on the stage of Central Asia was important. The career of these Uighurs was chequered, as in 840 Karakoram, their capital, was captured by the Kirghiz and their Paramount Chief was killed. This led to the dispersal of the tribe but not to its downfall, as Bishbaligh, the modern Urumchi, was occupied about this period and remained one of their chief centres for many centuries.

The Uighurs held sway under the designation of the Arslan or "Lion" Khans for many generations, and in the notices of the various embassies exchanged with China there is evidence that a comparatively high stage of civilization was reached in the country. Indeed their culture influenced Central Asia more than that of any other race, the script of the Mongols being adopted from the Uighurs, who in their turn had learnt it from the Manichaeans, or perhaps from the Nestorians.

A little later, another Mongol people, invading from the north, grasped the sheep-prey which was the desire of many wolves. These were the Hoi-he or Hu-he, doubtless only another branch of that puzzling, widespread family, whose kaleidoscopic marches and countermarches across Asia have given to historians a fine juggling exercise with shifting names - Mongols, Tartars, Hueng-nu, Yue-che, Uigurs, Tanguts, Ephthalites, Tu-Kiu, Hoi-He, Kirghiz, Kalmuk. For Uighur nationalists today, lineal descent from the Uighur Kingdom of seventh century Mongolia is accepted as fact, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:30:05 ZULU