Interrupted Traditions of “Altishahr,” Oasis Towns Ringing the Taklimakan Desert in Xinjiang

In Wall Street Journal’s interview with Rian Thum, author of The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, we learn that a century ago Uyghur in the Altishahr region (lit. “six cities”) traditionally visited shrines where the history of a local Islamic saint was read out loud to visitors.

Question posed by Wall Street Journal is bolded, while Thum’s answer is italicized:

How has this tradition changed?

A lot was lost primarily through Communist policies implemented after the advent of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Prominent in that category are the closure of shrines and the stoppage of local pilgrimages, which is a process that seems to have been pretty complete during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, opened back up in the 1980s, and is now returning to an almost complete closure of pilgrimage networks.

Another element that’s really gone is the manuscript tradition. The written version of all these stories took the form of handwritten books. Printing did not take off in Altishahr until the arrival of the People’s Republic of China. Those manuscripts that preserve these tales in physical form were largely collected, perhaps confiscated — we don’t really know what happened to them — by the Chinese government, probably in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. What used to be a form that was really widely available is now almost completely unavailable.

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