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  • China's Last Nomads: The History and Culture of China's Kazaks
  • Larry N. Shyu (bio)
Linda Benson and Ingvar Svanberg. China's Last Nomads: The History and Culture of China's Kazaks. Armonk and London: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. xiii, 251 pp. Hardcover $63.95, ISBN 1-56324-781-X. Paperback $24.95, ISBN 1-56324-782-8.

China's Last Nomads is the latest addition to the publications by Linda Benson and Ingvar Svanberg on the history and modern development of the Kazak people in China. While Benson's research focus has been on Xinjiang's Moslem minorities, Svanberg's interest is concentrated more on the history and culture of the people of Kazak nationality, be they in Kazakstan, China, or elsewhere. This new work represents the convergence of their research interests, and represents a further fruition of their collaboration.1

The overwhelming majority of the Kazaks in China reside in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. While Xinjiang may not be as "hot" as Tibet in terms of Western media attention and popular cultural and religious interests, this huge "frontier province" in China is politically and strategically more important to China as well as to her Central Asian neighbors. Large-scale Han Chinese immigration in the last fifty years has greatly altered the demographic picture of Xinjiang, and yet nearly 60 percent of Xinjiang's population consists of "minorities," with Uyghurs constituting the single largest group of close to eight million out of a total population of seventeen million in the region. The Kazaks are the second largest minority nationality in Xinjiang, presently numbering about 1.2 million. They also constitute the largest Kazak community outside the newly independent Republic of Kazakstan.

Although the name Kazak only became a formal designation, by the Soviet Union, in the 1920s, this Turkic nomadic people had roamed the vast land from Mongolia through Xinjiang to Central Asia for centuries, and most of them had converted to Islam. The expansion of the Manchu and Russian empires from opposite directions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the incorporation of the areas inhabited by the Kazaks. In the twentieth century, the successor states of the two empires created new international borders to divide the Kazaks permanently into national minorities of Russia and China, respectively. In their struggle to maintain their tradition, lifestyle, and identity as a distinct minority, the Kazaks often found themselves at odds with the policies and agenda of the state, and this could lead to repression from the central government.

The authors' goal in this book is to examine the experience of Kazaks as a minority people in the multiethnic region of Xinjiang, China, with a focus on the twentieth century. The drastic changes in their experience have included their separation from the Kazaks in the USSR, their status under the rule of Chinese [End Page 378] Communism, their increasing interactions with Han Chinese immigrants, and, more recently, the return to private family ownership of herds as part of China's economic reform policies.

The authors' stated goals are largely fulfilled in this book. After a general introduction to the physical and cultural setting of the land settled by the Kazaks in China and a brief history of the Kazak people down to the twentieth century, the next four chapters are devoted to detailed accounts of the Kazak experience in Xinjiang in this century. The authors were able to draw on a wide range of primary and secondary source material, supplemented by a series of personal interviews with Kazak émigrés. The accounts provided are informative and balanced. To this reviewer, the most interesting descriptions in the book are about the early stages of the Chinese Communist takeover of northern Xinjiang and the later transformation of the Kazak prefectures and counties under PRC rule.

The authors reveal in this study that the "peaceful liberation" of Xinjiang in 1949 by the People's Liberation Army, so widely proclaimed by Chinese Communist sources, was not really all that peaceful. At least some Kazak leaders like Osman Batur had offered active resistance, and it took the new regime several years to suppress the "counterrevolutionaries" and establish order in the region...


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pp. 378-380
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