To grasp Xīnjiāng, begin with the region’s two principal groups: the pastoral nomads, north of the Tiān Shān range, and the sedentary oasis dwellers, skirting the Tarim Basin. The original nomads were the Xiongnu, while the earliest known oasis dwellers were an Indo-European group generally referred to as the Tocharians. Over millennia, the ethnicities comprising these two groups have changed; however the groups themselves remained the basis of human civilisation in Xīnjiāng.
Although evidence of Hotanese jade in China indicates that trade must have existed as far back as 7000 years ago, significant mention of the western regions doesn’t appear in the Chinese annals until the Han dynasty.
In the 2nd century BC, in the hope of ending the devastating Xiongnu raids along their borders, the Chinese sought an alliance with the far off Yuezhi. Zhang Qian, the Chinese envoy charged with completing the mission, set out in 138 BC into the hitherto unexplored west. He was immediately taken prisoner and held for 10 years by the Xiongnu, but he did succeed in discovering the northern and southern routes around the Taklamakan Desert and into Central Asia, as well as the exceptional Ferghana horses.
While other goods were imported into China during this time, none took on the importance of the superior Central Asian steeds. By the end of the 2nd century BC, the Han had pushed their borders further west, military garrisons were established along the trade routes and silk flowed out of the empire in return for the ‘Heavenly Horse’.
Along with goods from the west came ideas and languages, and by the 3rd century AD Buddhism had taken root throughout the Tarim Basin. A number of powerful Buddhist city-states arose, chiefly in Hotan, Kuqa and Turpan, leaving behind beautiful artwork that blended Kashmiri, Persian, Indian and even Greek styles.
In the 7th century, the Tang dynasty reasserted the imperial rule that had been lost following the collapse of the Han, and Chinese influence was once again felt in Xīnjiāng.
Records are scant but it’s fairly certain that the sway of the Tang dynasty was never absolute. The Uighurs held quite a bit of control throughout the 8th century, and the An Lushan rebellion (AD 755–63) sapped the imperial strength even more.
It was during Kharakhanid rule in the 10th to 12th centuries that Islam took hold in western Xīnjiāng; the religion didn’t penetrate the eastern areas until the 14th century.
Yīlí (Ili), Hotan and Kashgar fell to the Mongols in 1219 (whose rule was the only period when the Silk Roads were controlled by a single, albeit factious, power), and Timur, coming from the west, sacked Kashgar again in the late 14th century. The area was under the control of Timur’s descendants or various Mongol tribes until the Manchu army marched into Kashgar in 1755.
During the 1860s and 1870s, a series of Muslim uprisings erupted across western China, and after Russian troops were withdrawn from a 10-year occupation of the Yīlí region in 1881, waves of Uighurs, Chinese Muslims (Dungans) and Kazakhs fled into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
In 1865 a Kokandi officer named Yaqub Beg seized Kashgaria, proclaimed an independent Turkestan and made diplomatic contacts with Britain and Russia. A few years later, however, a Manchu army returned, Yaqub Beg committed suicide and Kashgaria was formally incorporated into China’s newly created Xīnjiāng (New Frontier) province. With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Xīnjiāng came under the rule of a succession of warlords, over whom the Kuomintang (KMT; the Nationalist Party) had very little control.
The only real attempt to establish an independent state was in the 1940s, when a Kazakh named Osman led a rebellion of Uighurs, Kazakhs and Mongols. He took control of southwestern Xīnjiāng and established the Eastern Turkestan Republic in January 1945. The KMT, however, convinced the Muslims to abolish their new republic in return for a pledge of real autonomy.
Following the 1949 communist takeover, a Muslim league opposed to Chinese rule formed in Xīnjiāng, but, oddly, a number of its most prominent leaders subsequently died in a plane crash on their way to hold talks in Běijīng. Organised Muslim opposition to Chinese rule collapsed, although the Kazakh Osman continued to fight until he was captured and executed by the communists in early 1951.
Since 1949 China’s main goal has been to keep a lid on ethnic separatism while flooding the region with Han settlers. The Uighurs once comprised 90% of the Xīnjiāng population; today that number has dropped below 50%. China’s Develop the West campaign, launched in 2000, is ongoing. Han Chinese are being enticed to migrate to western provinces by social and economic incentives. Běijīng has funnelled nearly US$100 billion to build infrastructure (as much to exploit vast oil and natural gas reserves as anything) in Xīnjiāng.