Skip to main content
Linguistic rights
11 min read

The danger of teaching Uyghur language

According to the UN more than one million Uyghurs are detained in so called re-education camps in the Xinjang province in North Eastern China. Their crime is that they speak the ‘wrong’ language and have the ‘wrong’ beliefs. One who was imprisoned in this camp is the Uyghur writer and language scholar Abduweli Ayup who, in the city of Kasghar, taught Uyghur children about Uyghur culture and history in Uyghur. In 2015 he managed to flee from China to Turkey. Today he is an ICORN writer in Bergen, Norway. For PEN/Opp he relates his hard struggle to be allowed to speak and teach in Uyghur.

Credits Text: Abduweli Ayup November 18 2019

When the Chinese Red Army entered the Uyghur homeland on 13th October 1949, people in Urumqi welcomed them, raising slogans written in Uyghur and wearing their colorful traditional clothes. The Red Army learnt Uyghur, cleaned the streets, swept the yards and helped Uyghurs to do house chores even when it wasn’t necessary. However, since 1958 they have treated the features of Uyghurs culture as the main threat. Therefore, the Uyghur culture was reconstructed; the women were as always the main target and the traditional dress of the Uyghur was changed. They demanded that the Uyghur alphabet changed to Cyrillic. My uncle Isa Emet, a local school head, was imprisoned for 20 years because he disagreed with this policy and claimed that the Uyghurs Alphabet shouldn’t be changed – it would make thousands of Uyghurs illiterate.

In 1956 the Uyghur alphabet was first forced to change into Cyrillic because of the revolutionary friendship between China and the USSR. Then during 1958-1962 it was changed to Sinicized Latin scripture, because of national unity and the broken friendship between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. Uyghur intellectuals who wouldn’t agree with this policy were imprisoned. Most of the Uyghur elite escaped to the Soviet Union in the ten years following the communist occupation. From 1950s to 1960s more than 100,000 Uyghurs and Kazakh escaped to the Turkic republics of the USSR, because of fear of imprisonment and other kinds of oppression.

Under the control of the Red Army, every aspect of Uyghur life should be revolutionized. The Uyghur language should adopt revolutionary Mandarin words, becoming a tool of revolution in the same way as the Han Chinese did. The Chinese government therefore reconstructed the Uyghur language, which is a Turkic language with more than fifteen hundred years of written works. It has been an official language in Xinjiang, which is the largest region in northwest China, officially called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. According to the Chinese constitution Uyghur had the same rights as Mandarin in Xinjiang, it could be used from primary school to university. Uyghur language is more similar to central Asian Turkic languages like Kyrgyz, Kazak and Uzbek. For the first few years Uyghur was welcomed by the Chinese army, it was used to control every part of Uyghur lands and Chinese leaders promised to give autonomous rights, but the autonomy was never given to the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups. Uyghurs never achieved their autonomy in spite of the establishment of the Uyghur autonomous regions at the beginning in October 1st 1955.

The Uyghur language was targeted during the cultural revolution which took place all over China from 1966 to 1976; an anti-culture, anti-modernity, anti-civilization movement, it treated Uyghur as a remain of an old society from the time before communist Red Army occupied the Uyghur homeland. During the cultural revolution, every cultural aspect of Uyghurs was first reconstructed and then classified into two sides: revolutionary and anti-revolutionary. Red symbolized revolutionary aspects and yellow symbolized anti-revolutionary aspects. At that time, the books in Uyghur Arabic script were treated as anti-revolutionary yellow books, these were collected from every Uyghur family and then all burned in front of the mosques. My father kept some yellow books in his secret boxes. When I was young he read in secrete from these books.. He never allowed us to read those yellow books if he wasn’t present. Every night we had to wait for him to come home and read to us from those yellow books.

Since the Communist Red army entered, rifle and pen, words and bulletin are the main means of the Xinjian conflict. Uyghur intellectuals use their words and pens to keep fighting against atrocity. The Uyghur language was treated as an object to revolutionize and revolutionized Chinese words were added. From the publications printed during that time we can see a lot of Chinese red words in Uyghur books and newspapers. According to my study invasive Chinese words in Uyghur Xinjiang Daily on October 1st 1970, reached 62 percent. Not only Han Chinese words increased in the Uyghur language, Han population in Uyghur homeland increased dramatically. The share of Hans in Xinjian increased from 3% in the 1950s to 43 % 30 years later. During the 1980’s Uyghurs became a minority in their own lands. The Uyghurs felt threatened and endangered.

Uyghur language enjoyed a short golden age from 1980 to 2001. However, the Uyghur language became the main target of modernization, where Chinese symbolized modernity and Uyghur symbolized traditional and backward thinking. For reaching the goal of modernization Uyghur orthography keeps changing, just for writing correctly to Chinses and Russian loan words not more than 5% in Uyghur. It changed five times between the 1980’s and the 1990’s. On September 11 2001, the terrorist attack took place that not only changed the world, but also the fate of Uyghur. China used international terrorism as a pretext to label Uyghur organizations in western countries as terrorist groups. In addition, China dramatically changed its ethnic policy against the Uyghur people and their cultural practices. After the international war on terrorism began, Chinese authorities described themselves as the victims of terrorism. It manipulated the international anti-terrorism discourse and tried to convince the world of the existence of a terrorist threat in the Uyghur homeland. Chinese authorities described resentful actions and attacks by the Uyghur against the government in Xinjiang as acts of terrorism. China used the international outcry against terrorism to curb the Uyghur cultural practices, for example the Uyghur language. Uyghur was erased as a teaching language from all university courses.

In 2003, Uyghur intellectuals began to talk openly about keeping the Uyghur language in higher education and public situations. An article was published in Xinjiang culture, the most popular Uyghur language monthly, regarding the incorrectness of the present Chinese language policy implemented in 2001. Dr. Abdurup Polat Taklimakani, a professor based in Beijing wrote this article where he criticized the Chinese language policy in the Uyghur homeland. He called it illegal and impractical, and stressed that the policy not only further increased ethnic tension already made worse after the hard strike policy, but also irritated the people who practice their culture peacefully. He said it would create resentment against the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party and it would be harmful for ethnic harmony promoted by the government.

In 2005, Memtimin Elayr, a website administrator and IT engineer started an online campaign to protect and recover the legal rights of the Uyghur language as issued by constitution and autonomous law. He and some other young Uyghur scholars wrote a petition and asked Uyghur intellectuals and government officials in Xinjiang and other provinces to sign it. He presented the petition with more than a thousand signatures to the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous regional authority. However, Elyar was arrested and sentenced to twelve years. His other friends were also arrested and sentenced. The Chinese government treated that campaign as an organized separatist movement, due to this accusation more than ten intellectuals were arrested. After 2016 the government targeted the intellectuals who signed the petition but weren’t arrested at the time. All of the scholars who signed this petition were arrested. Dr. Perhat Tursun, Prof. Abdubesir Shukuri, Kuresh Tahir, Prof. Kamil Tursun, Qurban Mamut, Dr. Ablet Abdureshit, Dr. Nurmuhemmet Omer were among them.

In September 2011, another campaign started to protect the legal rights of Uyghur and preserve it as a teaching language in education. At that time I promoted and stressed the importance of a mother language in my online writings and lectures. I had started my mother language movement through opening the first mother language kindergarten in Kashgar. After that my mother language movement became so popular online that 500,000 people visited the online campaign.

In September 2012, me and my friends Dilyar Obulqasim and Memetsidiq decided to start a new mother language kindergarten in Urumqi, unfortunately, the application was rejected by the authorities. Dilyar Obulqasim kept writing applications, and informed us of what pressures the government applied both directly and indirectly. After five months of campaigning, we succeeded. The Urumchi educational department invited us to talk if we stopped the online campaign. We agreed to talk but refused to stop the campaign until we had the permission to open mother language kindergartens in Urumchi and some other cities.

In February 21, 2013, Dilyar and me held a conference in Kashgar. At the conference we celebrated the international mother language day and declared the victory we had achieved after the talk with the Urumchi municipality. We were applauded for having gained permission to open the mother language kindergarten in Urumchi. During the conference, we discussed how to make people aware of the importance of protecting a mother tongue. At the conclusion speech of the conference, I emphasized the idea that Uyghurs have the right to pursue their constitutional rights, among them linguistic rights.

Unfortunately, we encountered another obstacle. We couldn’t find a suitable facility to operate from. Every place we chose to rent the owner would agree one day and then withdraw the next due to public security.

In March 19, 2013, we decided to start a joint campaign with Mongol, Kazakh and Kyrgyz intellectuals, because those ethnic languages are also in danger. We decided to have a conference about the protection of ethnic languages in Xinjiang within the framework of the Chinse constitution, in order to protect the mother language movement and give it a legal base. We declared our slogan to be “Chinese constitution will protect ethnic languages, then it is your turn to protect them”. For the conference, we invited Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Mongol scholars working for the Chinese government to discuss how to protect ethnic languages in Xinjiang, within the Chinese constitution and ethnic language protection.

Our slogan for the Mother language kindergarten and mother language preservation movement: “Chinese constitution promised to protect our ethnic languages, can we protect it by constitution?”. The slogan was popular in every city in Xinjiang, maybe people thought it was a safe slogan, I think it was the last chance we had.

On August 19 2013, the Chinese security police arrested three of us: Memetsidiq Abdureshit, Dilyar Obulqasim and me. I was interrogated about my secret missions which some invisible organization in the US had ordered me to carry out among the Uyghurs. The police authorities believed that my vision was to separate Xinjiang from China through the mother language movement like Bangladeshi students did in the 1970s, when their country was separated from Pakistan. The mother language movement in Bangladesh changed into an independence movement. They tried really hard to make me accept that my vision was not about protecting endangered Uyghur, but instead the separation from China. They tortured me from the beginning to force me to admit that my real goal was separatism, seeing it as a chance to use my influence among the Uyghur people who were following me. They forced me to admit that I had planned to organize an event like that of July 5th 2009. They told me that the owner of the website Bagdax met with the US ambassador in Beijing, and that Bagdax was my platform to promote separatism. They said that the mother language movement was dangerous because Bangladesh got their independence through a mother language protecting movement. They tried to make me confess that I had tried to organize an independence movement. They tried for 15 months to make me admit to that, but I never did.

I stayed in four detention camps in Kashgar and Urumchi for 15 months without seeing sunshine, receiving medicine, showering, eating hygienic food or being treated as a human being. Even though I stayed there for so long; I never accepted their accusations of separatism. I was not a separatist and I am not interested into politics at all.

Like what you read?

Take action for freedom of expression and donate to PEN/Opp. Our work depends upon funding and donors. Every contribution, big or small, is valuable for us.

Donate on Patreon
More ways to get involved

Search