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  • Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia-China Frontier by David Brophy
  • Carl Déry
Uyghur Nation: Reform and Revolution on the Russia-China Frontier. By david brophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. 368 pp. $39.95 (hardcover).

This book tells the story of a frontier between China and Russia, situated within the lives of a family of people referred to as the Uyghurs. Breaking with the classical interpretation of the birth of the Uyghur Nation in the Soviet ethnic policies of the 1920s, the author explores various historical symbols on which it was constructed, at the crossroad of Chinese, Russian and Ottoman empires, in "the fault line dividing Central Asia" (p. 2). Bringing a story spanning both sides of the Russia–China divide, with an emphasis on transnational and comparative history, the author relies on various types of sources in multiple languages, including rarely seen soviet archives, journals and literary works. Telling a social history of the frontier from the perspective of the "Treaty Ports," it allows him to underline the autonomy of frontier cities, in an area long considered a "buffer zone of ambiguous sovereignty" (p. 6). Rather than following a limited definition of ethnicity, the author explores various economic ties intermingled with interstate relations, trading networks and border-crossing projects, social dynamics and political aspirations among the local elite. Contrary to China's view of its national categories as "entirely self-contained units whose historical and cultural ties do not transgress the boundaries" of the PRC, the author presents the Uyghur nation as a "palimpsest of Islamic, Turkic, and Soviet notions of national history and identity" (p. 274). The book is divided in eight chronological chapters. Chapter 1 (pp. 22–52) proposes a genealogy of identities, exploring competing narratives prior to the twentieth century, and chapter 2 (pp. 53–85) turns to the social and political conditions of the local populations. In chapter 3 (pp. 86–113), the author examines how local interests make theirs some reformist initiatives. Chapter 4 (pp. 114–144), turns to the impact of the Xinhai Revolution and the First World War on the development of a new ethnic consciousness, and chapter 5 (pp. 145–172), is devoted to the impact of the Russian Revolution. Chapter 6 (pp. 173–203) and chapter 7 [End Page 271] (pp. 204–232), deal with the Stalinist theory of a Uyghur Nation and the fluctuating Sino-soviet relations of the 1920s, while chapter 8 (pp. 233–264) brings us to final identification strategies during the Chinese civil war.

Uyghur identity has been constructed on various communal narratives among the population of an area situated at the "meeting point of nomadic and sedentary communities" (p. 22), between the steppe zone and the Oasis of the Tarim Basin. Rooted on Turkic and Islamic traditions, these narratives go back to the sixth century and were influenced by major political events, beginning with the dissolution of the Uyghur State that rose in a no man's land between Tang China and Central Asia, the Mongol conquest and the integration of the local elite in their administration, and the Qing—Junghar rivalry of the seventeenth century, that consolidated socio-economic categories (merchants, peasants, craftsmen), while these occupational classifications later evolved "into ethnic categories" (p. 31). An example of this is seen with the Taranchis (peasants) who became later known as one of the important ethnic groups of the area. In fact, the Qing conquest and administrative practices reinforced the settlement of various groups around Oases and consolidated existing native links. The western frontier of China has long been a crucible of interaction between peoples of various cultural and political backgrounds, where "rival empires [were] competing for the loyalties" (p. 66), and local communities tried to manage this political rivalry to their own advantage. In fact, the Muslim elites benefited greatly from the global interactions around them, while they continued to dominate social and economic networks on both sides of the frontier. For example, in 1871, while the Russians invaded the territory of Ili and the Qing authority was declining, merchants from Andijan emerged as the dominant actors in cross-border trading networks. A similar situation happened in the...


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pp. 271-274
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