The Lost White Civilization of China

By Razib Khan | November 19, 2008 1:24 am

The Dead Tell a Tale China Doesn’t Care to Listen To:

An exhibit on the first floor of the museum here gives the government’s unambiguous take on the history of this border region: “Xinjiang has been an inalienable part of the territory of China,” says one prominent sign.
But walk upstairs to the second floor, and the ancient corpses on display seem to tell a different story.
One called the Loulan Beauty lies on her back with her shoulder-length hair matted down, her lips pursed in death, her high cheekbones and long nose the most obvious signs that she is not what one thinks of as Chinese.


Like many headlines this is one really isn’t accurate, both the Chinese government and the indigenous Uighurs are playing games with history. The modern Uighurs, a Turkic speaking Muslim population which resides around the oases of the Tarim basis, are a recent hybrid population genetically. By recent, I mean within the last 2-3,000 years. The ethnogenesis of the Uighers (more properly, East Turks) was a process whereby groups expanding from greater Mongolia culturally assimilated the indigenous Indo-European speaking people of the oases in the years before 1000 AD. It was part of the broader migration of Turks west from the trans-Siberian borderlands north of China. These peoples were not from the west, rather, they were from the north and east, and genetically were closer to the Han peoples of China proper. This is why the Uighurs exhibit affinity to both the populations of eastern and western Eurasia. If the Han overwhelmed the Uighur culturally and assimilated them genetically, they would be recapitulating the process which resulted in the emergence of the Uighurs of!
Granted, if blood is the proper measure, then the Uighurs do have primal claims, or at least a half-measure. But as Muslim Turkic speakers they have little cultural continuity with the Buddhist Indo-European speaking Tocharians. Finally, I think it is obvious that Uighur nationalism is not the only reason people are interested in Tocharians; rather, the reality that the western fringes of China were populated by peoples of European appearance taps into the old Victorian fascination with the idea of exotic lost white races, simultaneously kin and alien.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: History
  • EB

    Isn’t the whole world an unalienable part of China, according to the Chinese government? This is getting ridiculous.
    If a landclaim contains the word ‘unalienable’, basically says ‘don’t care if it’s ours, we want it and we going to act like the obnoxious male genitals we are’. And it’s not an exclusive Chinese modus operandi either.

  • http://internationalpoliticsramblings.blogspot.com Victor Tremblay

    I pretty much agree with all your points.
    I just want to add a few quotes I wrote down when I visited the museum of Urumqi in 2006. They show how the Chinese play with history to make their point.
    This was the last part of the introduction of the museum in the main hall:
    [The museum was built] for the purpose to show contribution the people of all nationalities in Xinjiang have made for safeguarding the reunification of the motherland, for enriching the motherland’s cultural treasure-house, and to make the masses of audiences receive the education in patriotism”
    Another one:
    “During the Tang dynasty, many nationalities lived in concentrated communities within the territory of Xinjiang, there were Han, Turk, Huihu, Tibetan, Xiajias etc. The people of all nationalities lived in harmony, learned from each other and founded chinese’s nation long history and magnificient culture with the people all over the motherland together”
    The last one is funny if you know the history of the region:
    “In 1884, Qing dynasty built Xinjiangas a province formally, and set up prefectures and counties. Liu Jintang was the first governor of the province. Dihua (nowadays Urumqi) was the provincial capital. A series of measures had been adopted to strengthen the rule, and to develop production, which had consolidated the multi-nationality country further.”
    The Chinese crushed Yakub Beg’s turkish rebellion in 1878, who had formed an independent state for more than 15 years. Repression and violent consolidation of power followed under Chinese rule. But this is the only mention in the whole museum of this period of history. No words on rebellion, no words on an independent state, no words on violence, just “A series of measures had been adopted to strengthen the rule”.

  • Wade Nichols

    Where’s David Salo when you need him?
    He’s an expert on the Tocharian language, and served as consultant to the Lord of the Rings films in devising the various elven and dwarven languages.
    Anyone friend of a friend of him?

  • Robert Jase

    I say give China back to the descendents of H. erectus.

  • pconroy

    I just hope that the Chinese don’t destroy more of the Mummies before they can be studied properly – i.e. by non Chinese scientists.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Isn’t the whole world an unalienable part of China, according to the Chinese government? This is getting ridiculous.
    they usually claim the whole manchu empire.

  • pconroy

    I wonder what would happen if Russia decided to claim Xinjiang, for the Motherland, due to the presence of European Mummies there…
    They might want to “liberate” the Uyghurs and help them exact the vast reserves of oil and gas found in the province…

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    russia doesn’t have a power projection advantage in that direction. also, han are probably a majority in xinjiang now….

  • Mark Houston

    During the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Qing Empire, with money from British Banks, were encouraged by the British Government to invade and annex the territory of Turkmenistan as a means of halting expansion of the Russian Empire. Of course, contrary to popular Chinese belief, the Qing were Manchu (Jurchen Tartars), not Chinese, and as such when the Manchus invaded and annexed the land of the Ming Empire (1368 – 1644), China ceased to exist. The 13th Century English/European name for the people who made porcelain was “The Chinnese,” where chinne is arabic for porcelain. And of course the Arabs were the largest trading partner with China, delivering porcelain and silk to Europe through the Malaka sea route. This is the greatest farce about Chinese history. Basically, its all make up, to give the impression, China is 6,000 years old, the so called oldest living civilisation. What a load of crap. The Manchu were just so eager to earn all them Big Bucks from the British, they made several campaigns to conquer the people of the Central Stepps, which ended in the slaughter of, quite possibly, several hundred thousand people. Over 300 years the Manchu Government (acting as British Mercenaries), through war, annexed many parts of central Asia into the Ching Empire. Internal turmoil largely halted Chinese expansion in the nineteenth century as the Little Ice Age, caused repeated wild weather and collapse of agricultural output, which eventually ended in civil war and collapse of the empire in 1911. In 1867 Yakub Beg (an Uzbec and leader of the Kashgaria Kingdom) led a rebellion that saw Xinjiang regain its independence as the Taiping and Nian Rebellions in the heartland of the Ching Empire prevented the Manchu from reasserting their control. Instead the Russians expanded, annexing the Chu and Ili Valleys and the city of Kuldja from the Ching Empire. After Yakub Beg’s death at Korla in 1877 his state collapsed as the area was reconquered by the Manchu. After lengthy negotiations Kuldja (the Ili Valley) was returned to Peking by Russia in 1884.
    Even today, the present government, which calls itself “China,” in the English Language, calles itself the “Central Empire” (The Centre of the World), in the Chinese Language (中国 – Zhongguo). In truth, there have only been two periods in China’s history, when China has existed, during the Ming Empire (when the trade in blue porcelain first started), and after the fall of the Ching Empire (after 1911), and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. If I was asked the two most famous aspects of Chinese history, I would say: 1 – Burning Books, and 2 – Making up history.

  • Shnugi

    @Mark Houston, you seem to have forgotten all the dynasties before the Ming. China exists because the people and the culture continue to exist, even under non-Han dynasties. Also the Qing never invaded Turkmenistan, which is not East Turkestan.

  • Jing

    Speaking of making up history, Mr. Houston seems to be spinning a few yarns of his own.
    1) The Qing empire expanded into central Asia at the behest of British banks!
    2) Chinese popular belief that Qing dynasty was Han not Manchu!

  • Don

    Mark Houston, your historical knowledge is abysmal seeing that you claim that China “ceased to exist” during Qing dynasty. China may have been a Han-only empire formerly, but as it went near the modern era, the term “Chinese” was redefined as citizens of the Middle Kingdom, NOT the Han ethnic majority. Considering that the Manchus considered themselves Chinese (does not equal considering themselves of Han ethnicity), and the Chinese Empire adopted the Western concept of nation-state, defining it as the nation of CHINA (not Manchuria). It was during Qing dynasty that China became a nation in the sense of modern legal Western standard of nationhood. All the diverse ethnicities thus came under the nationality of Chinese.
    And get your facts straight and stop making up claims. Who is saying that China is the oldest civilization in the world or its history is 6000 years old? China is one of the four oldest civilizations, yes, but it is the youngest of the four. The Mesopotamian civilization (Sumerians) was the oldest, Egypt second, Indus Valley civilization third, and China fourth. Chinese civilization started with the advent of Xia dynasty, c. 23th century BCE. That’s at least 4000+ years.
    About the name of China. Imperial China began with the founding of Qin dynasty in 221 BCE when all warring states were unified and brought under one ruler. As Qin was spelled something like Ch’in at the time, that’s how the West derived the name China. Your “The 13th Century English/European name for the people who made porcelain was ‘The Chinnese,’” claim is complete rubbish.
    “In truth, there have only been two periods in China’s history, when China has existed, during the Ming Empire (when the trade in blue porcelain first started).” This is a complete nonsensical argument. By your contention, nations begin to exist when they are given Western names?

  • pconroy

    Don,
    To describe a person living in modern China as “Chinese”, would be the same as describing someone who lived in the British Empire as “British”. However most “British” people didn’t consider themselves British, and I wonder do “Chinese” people consider themselves Chinese first or actually Han, Hakka, Contonese, Fujianese first? Anyone I’ve met from China, would be the latter?!

  • pconroy

    Shnugi,
    I think what Mark is getting at is that you wouldn’t say that Garibaldi – who reunited all the Italian states – had reunited the Roman Empire, as time had passed, dynasties had changed and culture had evolved between the original Roman Empire and the modern Italian state.
    I say this even though the Germans claimed to have recreated the Roman Empire in Medieval times, when they had conquered a large area of Central Europe and Northern Italy.

  • shnugi

    That logic doesn’t apply in China’s case, because the time difference is much smaller. For China, the gap between the Song Dynasty and the Ming dynasty was less than a hundred years. Garibaldi reunited Italy 1300 years after the fall of the Western Empire. It’s hardly a valid comparison.

  • Don

    pconroy,
    Right now, all ethnic minorities in China are legally Chinese citizens, and they do get Chinese passports (though it may be harder to). It’s not a matter of whether they considered themselves such or not.
    Of course Chinese people consider themselves Chinese in conjunction with their ethnicities or home provinces. Han and Hakka are ethnicities, whereas Cantonese or Fujianese are people of those provinces. Once a Chinese identifies the other person as from China, he or she will ask what ethnicity (if not Han), and then home province/city, what not.

  • Mark Houston

    TO: Shnugi, Jing and Don. I don’t have time right now to dig into my library to present the actual historical papers on the subject of British Banks paying the Manchu to invade the East Turkestan region, but have placed below a short snip from wikipedia on the subject. The caption I believe, will settle the matter. The actual link to the wikipedia page can be found at:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uyghur_people. Give me some time, and I will post more, with historical references. Regarding the words – CHINA, and Chin, I am very sorry, but there are no Han to Ming Empire records, nor European records, that have a written Chinese character, or romanic word, which is pronounced CHINA or CHINESE. Nor are there any ancient maps or books (European or so called Chinese, which use the word/character “CHINESE”). Forget the Mongol Empire (1206 – 1368) as we can all agree that Gengis Khan most definitely, did not consider himself, or his Empire, to be Chinese. In fact all empires preceding the Ming Empire, which held control of the territory presently called China, were famous for burning, and therefore removing from living memory, the history of previous Empires. Even Chin Shi Huang, burnt all books, other than books on agriculture and medicine, so that history started from the Chin Empire Period. Chin certainly did not consider himself to be a descendant of the Xia or Shang, although imperial descendants, from these dead empires, were treated with much respect, and in some ways a sign of class. With regard to the Manchu and their annexation of the Ming Empire territory, the simple fact that those dam Jurchen Tartars (who were more, ethnically, White Russians than Mongolian) divided Beijing into two districts (North and South), with the Manchu living in the north and the conquered Minganese living in the south, is a perfect example of the simple fact that the Manchu considered their blood to be ethnically pure, which should not be mixed with the blood of southern peasants (all them rice farmers). Sorry boys/girls, but it is you guys that need to get your history straight. By the way, I’ve lived in Hong Kong and China for 43 years.
    The Manchus, semi-nomads from present-day northeast China, vastly expanded the Qing empire, which they founded in 1644, to include much of Mongolia, East Turkistan, and Tibet. The Manchus invaded East Turkistan in 1759 and dominated it until 1864. During this period, the Uyghurs revolted 42 times against Qing Dynasty rulers. In the revolt of 1864, the Uyghurs were successful in expelling the Qing Dynasty officials from East Turkistan, and founded an independent Kashgaria kingdom, called Yettishar (English: “country of seven cities”). Under the leadership of Yakub Beg, it included Kashgar, Yarkand, Hotan, Aksu, Kucha, Korla and Turfan). The kingdom was recognized by the Ottoman Empire (1873), Tsarist Russia (1872), and Great Britain (1874), which established a mission in the capital, Kashgar.
    Large Qing Dynasty forces under the overall command of General Zuo Zongtang attacked East Turkestan in 1876. Fearing Tsarist expansion into East Turkestan, Great Britain supported the Manchu invasion forces through loans by British banks (mostly through Boston Bank, located in Hong Kong). After this invasion, East Turkestan was renamed “Xinjiang” or “Sinkiang”, which means “New Dominion” or “New Territory”, and it was annexed by the Manchu empire on November 18, 1884.
    Throughout the Qing Dynasty, the sedentary Turkic inhabitants of the oases around the Tarim speaking Qarluq/Old Uyghur-Chagatay dialects were still largely known as Taranchi, Sart, ruled by their Moghul rulers of Khojijan or Chagatay lineages. Other parts of the Islamic World still knew this area as Moghulistan or as the eastern part of Turkestan.
    Before being renamed “New Territory” by Zuo Zongtang, this eastern part of Turkestan was more often known to the Qing Chinese as Hui Jiang, or “The Frontier of the Huis”. Qarluq Turkic speaking Taranchi and Sart are often known as “Chantou Hui” (Turban-wearing Hui), for their headgears distinctive from those of the Chinese-speaking Hui. It was based on this designation of Hui, that Sart-Taranchi participants of the Czarist Central Asian Islamic modernist movement, the Jadid Movement, concluded that the modernized ethnonym of the Sart-Taranchi of Moghulistan should be Uyghur, because the names Hui and Uyghur are cognates. It was from outside of Qing Domain, well within the Czarist controlled parts of Central Asia, that Sart-Taranchi, Uzbek and Russian scholars first propagated the use of the modern ethnonym Uyghur. To illustrate the artificiality of the distinctions between the modern Uzbek and Uyghur nationality, one only needs to look at General Saipidin Eziz, the first governor of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. General Saipidin was born to a Kashgar Sart merchant family with Andijan roots. Technically, one with Andijan roots would be classified as Uzbek as many Xinjiang people with connections in Uzbekistan, and speaking Turkic dialects local to Uzbekistan, continue to be classified as “Uzbeks in Xinjiang”. However, since Kashgar Sarts and Andijan Sarts are hardly different culturally from each other, Saipidin grew up to identify himself primarily with his hometown Kashgar, and has always been identified as an Uyghur. The Uzbek culture does derive largely from the Sart culture common to most of Turkestan during the Karakhanid and Chagatay eras. However the Uzbek Khanate which did not rule Xinjiang, but only Uzbekistan in early modern times, had its ruling culture derived from the true Uzbeks, a Kypchak horde similar to the Kazakhs and Karakalpaks. The modern Uzbek nation did absorb something from this Kypchak ruling culture which can be discerned from the doppas worn by the Uzbeks and Uyghurs. The Uyghurs usually wear the square doppas whereas the Uzbeks usually wear the round doppas in similar make as the Kazakh and Kazan Tatar doppas.

  • Mark Houston

    Thought everyone would be interested in these two stories:
    1. In the January 2006 issue of Bingdian, professor Yuan Weishi of Zhongshan University published an essay titled Modernisation and History Textbooks, criticizing the official theme of government issued middle schools history textbooks, claiming that they contain a large number of distortions of historical facts. Professor Yuan said: “The public, especially the students, have the right to find out the true historical facts. It seems the Chinese are still lying about Chinese history.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuan_Weishi
    2. If the Manchu are Chinese, how come the Chinese in the recent past, considered the Manchu as foreigners:
    New York Times (November 5, 1911)
    DRIVING THE MANCHUS OUT OF CHINA AFTER 250 YEARS; How a Single Family of Savages Conquered the Greatest, Richest and Most Civilized Empire in Asia, and Did It While the Conquered Were Almost Unaware of the Attack.
    http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9507EEDF1E31E233A25756C0A9679D946096D6CF

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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