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Home » Silk Road Facts » Ethnic Groups & Religions on the Silk Road

Ethnic Groups & Religions on the Silk Road

There are more than 15 local ethnic groups settel down for a long history and other over 30 ethnic minorities scatter over there along the Silk Road China. The ethnic minorities believe in Islam, Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism), Buddhism, Christianity, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Shamanism and more religions.

Islam is the most inflential religion around the region. More than 11.3 million population of the Uighurs, the Kazakhs, the Hui people, the Kirgiz, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Tartars, the Sala people, Dongxian and Baoan and more tribes are Muslims. The second largest religion is the Tibetan Lamaism. The branches of Chinese Islamic Association, The Islamic Koran college and Chinese Buddhist Association are major relegious organization in the region.


The Uygur People
Population:
The largest ethnic group of 8,823,500 in 2003, 45.62 percent of the Xinjiang's population.

Living Areas:
the Uighurs mostly live in Hotan, Kashi and Aksu areas, south of the Tianshan Mountains, Xinjiang.
 
Language:
The Uygur language belongs to the Turkic branch of the Altaic language family with written form based on Arabic script.

Economy:
Traditionally, the Uygurs live on farming, with some engaging in commercial businesses, animal husbandry and handicraft.

Diet:
Wheat flour and rice are traditional staple foods. Favorite foods include milk tea, pita bread and stuffed buns.

Holidays:
The major Uygur holidays are Corban, Rosun and Noluzi.

Residences:
Uygurs' homes are commonly wooden-framed adobe bungalows, but some better-off families build their own houses with a porch and carved or painted ornaments.

Costume:
Traditional gowns worn by Uygur men are called Qiapan. Women wear primary colored dresses with embroidered skull caps. Nowadays, they tend to wear Western-style clothes.

Religion:
The Uygurs used to practice different religions, including Shamanism, Manichaeism, Nestorianism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. They started to convert to Islam in the early 10th century.
 
Marriage:
Monogamy is the norm among Uygurs. Conventionally, meticulous arrangements had to be made by the bride and groom's parents – matchmaking, proposal, betrothal gift negotiation, betrothal ceremony, a religious ceremony and the wedding itself. Ceremonies would be grand events lasting for three days. Both the bride and groom's families give dinner parties during the wedding, and guests would present gifts to the newly-weds.

History:
The word "Uygur" itself means "unity" or "alliance," describing the ethnic group's formation. Their origins can be traced back to the 3rd century BC. Nomads calling themselves Dingling used to live on the steppe by Lake Baikal. In the 5th century the tribe was called Tiele. An alliance was formed between them and other nomadic tribes against Turkic invasions in the 7th century, and the name Uighur (now spelled Uygur) began to be used.
 
In 840, however, the Turkic Kirghiz conquered the Uighur Khanate. A majority of the Uighurs then moved westwards into the Western Region. There, nomadism began to give way to settled farming. The Uighurs mixed with native Yutian, Shule and Guizi people who lived on the rim of the Tarim Basin, as well as Han settlers who migrated to the region during the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220). This group later intermingled with Tibetan, Khitan and Mongolian tribes as well. By the early 13th century, the Uygur ethnic group had taken its present shape.
 
Culture:
The Uygurs have a long and rich cultural tradition. Among writings passed down are the Turkic Dictionary and Kutadolu Bilq (Blessings and Wisdom).

The serial epic Twelve Mukams is well-known, as are a variety of dances and diverse musical instruments. Sports include "ran off with a sheep," swing and wrestling. Maixilaipu is another popular form of entertainment combining music, narration and poetry.


The Kazakhs
Population:
Kazak population was recorded as 1,352,100 in the 2003 census, 6.99 percent of the region's total.

Living Areas:
The Kazak people mainly live in Ili, Tacheng, Altay, Barkol, Jichang and Urumqi on the northern the Tianshan Mountains Xinjiang.  

Language:
The Kazak language belongs to the Turkic branch of the Altaic family of languages. Its written form is based on the Arabic alphabet.

Religion:
The Kazaks are Muslims.

Residence:
Most pastoral Kazaks live in movable yurts.

Economy:
Most Kazaks live on animal husbandry. They also engage in food crop farming.

Holidays:
Major Kazak holidays include Corban, Nawuruz and Id El-Fitr. They number years in a system using 12 astral animals. Nawuruz is a celebration of the lunar New Year. Herding families celebrate it with a feast of roast mutton, cheese nuggets and cooked barley and maize.

History:
The Kazaks' ancestors can be traced back to several nomadic tribes from different times – the Wusun people between the 3rd century BC and the early AD 1st century, the Turkomans and Geluolus between the 6th and 10th centuries, and the Naiman, Kelie and Kipchak tribes in the 12th and 13th centuries. The name "Kazak" first appeared in the 15th century, and in the late 16th century the Kazaks organized themselves into three tribal leagues called the Major, Medium and Minor Yuzi.

Diet:
Kazak herdspeople live off their animals. They make a variety of dairy foods, such as butter, cheese, dried cream and yogurt. Mutton is cooked on the bone to be held while eating. Pita bread, deep fried dough cake and rice cooked with sliced mutton are daily staples. Kazaks traditionally treat guests with the best food they have, even the meat of their best colt.
 
Culture:
The Kazaks have a distinctive cultural and artistic legacy, with roaming ballad singers and families gathering to sing and dance in herdspeople's camps. The value of herding skills is reflected in traditional sports like horseracing, horseback wrestling, competing for a "sheep" (a sheepskin chased on horseback) and "girl-chasing-boy."
 
Costume:
In winter, Kazak men wear sheepskin or fur caps, jackets and pants. Their jackets and the bottoms of their pant legs are ornamented with embroidered patterns. Their caps are made of warm fox fur and their cattle-hide belts have decorative buckles. Kazak women wear colorful dresses, shawls and flower-patterned scarves. Girls decorate their hats with owl feathers. The patterns on married women's veils are different from those of unmarried women.
 
Marriage:
Monogamy is standard, although some polygamy can be found historically. A marriage has to go through matchmaking, engagement, betrothal gift offering, bridal shower and a grand wedding. All these occasions are accompanied by love songs and blessings for the couple.
 

The Hui People
Population:
Approximately 9,820,000 in 2003

Living Areas:
Hui Musims mostly live in Ningxia, Xinjiang Jichang and Yanshi, Qinghai, Gansu, Inner Mongol and Shaanxi Province.
 
Language:
The Huis speak Mandarin Chinese and write in Chinese characters, although a number of Arabic and Persian words have remained in daily speech.

Economy:
The Huis live mainly on food crop farming. Some are also craftspeople or businesspeople.

Culture:  
The Huis boast a rich heritage of folklore and narrative poems. Their folk songs include the popular "Flowers," "Ditty" and "Banquet Song."

Holidays:  
Rosun is the major Hui festival of the year and Corban the second most important.

Religion:  
The Huis are Muslims, and divide themselves into two sects – the "Majors" and the "Minors."

Costumes:  
Compared to other ethnic groups in Xinjiang, the Huis dress themselves plainly. Men typically wear a small white skullcap, white shirt and black vest. Women wear veils or white caps. Many like to wear jewelry.

Marriage:   
The Huis practice monogamy.

Residence:  
Traditionally, Huis live in wooden-framed adobe bungalows. Most of these south-facing buildings have one door, two windows, and a flat or lean-to roof. But many now live in apartment buildings with modern facilities.

Diet:  
Wheat flour is the Hui's traditional staple food. They make all sorts of dishes out of it, such as hand-stretched noodles, flakes, steamed buns, soup, deep-fried bread.

History:  
The Hui's ancestors can be traced back to Islamic soldiers and artisans who lived in central and western Asia. Their influx was a result of Genghis Khan's western expedition during the 13th century. These people, called "Huihui" by the Mongolians, were recruited as scouts for the army. In 1273, Khan ordered them to be grouped into local garrison communities to guard the border while reclaiming wasteland and farming. The region known today as Xinjiang was a principal area where they were stationed, and during Mongolian rule they settled across the region in Jichang, Fukang, Jimsar, Kashi, Hotan and Ili River Valley. In the second half of the mid-18th century, many Huis moved to Xinjiang from elsewhere in China. The main body of the present Hui ethnic group in the region formed during this period.


The Kirgizs
Living Areas:
Most of the Kirgiz people in Xinjiang live in the Kizilsu Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture; others are scattered on both sides of the Tianshan Mountains. Another group of tens of thousands live in Fuyu County of Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China.

Population:  
In Xinjiang, the Kirgiz population is around 173,700, 0.90 percent of the regional total.

Language:  
The Kirgiz language belongs to the Turkic branch of the Altaic language family. The Kirgizs speak two different dialects - Southern and Northern. Their written language is based on Arabic script.

Holidays:  
Conventionally, the Kirgizs celebrate Corban, Rosun and Noruz.

Religion:  
Islam is the primary religious belief of the Kirgizs, although some in Emin County, Tacheng observe Lamaism or Shamanism.

Costume:  
Kirgiz men traditionally wear white felt hats, high horse riding boots and long chapan gowns. The typical garment for women includes a Western-style dress and colorful vest.

Marriage:  
Monogamy is practiced among the Kirgizs. Marriage is prohibited between blood relations within five to seven generations. At the engagement ceremony the bridegroom's family presents nine gifts to the bride's, since nine is considered an auspicious number, often of domestic animals. Weddings are often grand occasions.

Residence:  
Kirgiz herdspeople commonly live in yurts, while farmers live in wooden-framed adobe bungalow houses.

Economy:
Animal husbandry is the Kirgizs' primary means of livelihood, but those who have settled on plains also engage in farming.

Diet:  
Beef, mutton and dairy products are the traditional staple foods of the Kirgizs, with wheat foods as subsidiary. Tea with milk and salt is a favorite beverage.

Culture:  
The Kirgizs have a long cultural tradition in which singing and dancing play a central role. The well-known Manas is one of the three greatest ethnic minority epics of China. Many Kirgiz women are deft embroiderers and knitters who make elegant tapestries.

History:
They call themselves "Kirgizs" but are recorded under many Mandarin Chinese names in historical documents.The forefathers of the Kirgizs were nomadic tribes living on the steppe along the Yenisey River in the 3rd century BC, subjects of the Huns. Some Kirgiz tribes later moved to the Tianshan Mountain area. They were ruled by Turkic peoples, including the Uighurs. By the mid-7th century, Kirgiz tribes were subjects of the Turkic Khanate. In 648, the Kirgiz chief presented himself before the royal court of the Tang Dynasty to form an alliance. The latter set up a military station in Kirgiz territory, helping the Kirgizs defeat the Uighur Khanate and found the Kirgiz Khanate in 840. During the 10th and the mid-18th centuries, however, the Kirgizs fell again under the rule of the Kala Khanate, Liao, Western Liao, Chahetai Khanate and its successors. As the Western Liao moved their capital westwards and Genghis Khan launched his western expedition in the 13th century, the Kirgiz tribes that had remained in the Yenisey River Valley followed the trend southwestward into Xinjiang. They became subjects of the Dzungarians in the mid-17th century. After the Qing Dynasty crushed the Dzungarian rebellions, part of the Kirgiz Blut tribes moved back to the Seven-River Basin. In this long process of migrations, the Kirgizs intermingled with other tribes and developed a distinct ethnic entity.
 

The Tajiks
Living Areas:  
The majority of Tajik people inhabit the Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County in the northwest extreme of Chinese territory. These are "Selekur (highland) Tajiks." They have fair skin, blonde or brown hair and blue or grey eyes, and have lived in central Asia since antiquity.
 
Population:
The 2003 census counted 40,900 Tajiks in Xinjiang, 0.21 percent of the region's population.
 
Language:
The Tajiks have an oral language with no written form. The Tajik tongue belongs to the Iranian group of the Indo-European family of languages. Most Tajiks in Taxkorgan speak the Selekur dialect, others the Wahan dialect. Around 60 percent also speak the Uygur language.
 
History:  
The word "Tajik" means "crown" in their language. The traditional explanation is that they live on the "crown" – the highest mountain ranges.

According to Tajik custom, they are descended from eagles. Beautiful legends of the "princess' castle," "eagle dance," "eagle flute" and dap (drum) are still passed on today. The present Taxkorgan area has had numerous names. In 1913, it became a county under the jurisdiction of Kashi Prefecture. The local people's government was founded in 1950. On September 17, 1954, the current autonomous government replaced it.
 
Economy:  
Farming and animal husbandry are the two key sources of income for Tajiks. They also go hunting and engage in other subsidiary production. Horticulture, for example, is common among those in Datong township.
 
Diet:  
The Tajiks have beef, mutton, dairy products and pita bread as traditional staple foods.
 
Culture:  
Tajik musical instruments include a three-holed "eagle flute," rawap, brazkom and dap. The eagle dance is a favorite.
 
Holidays:  
The Tajiks celebrate Corban, Shogonbahar, as well as Water Drawing, Sewing and Lantern festivals.
 
Religion:  
The Tajiks' ancestors were Zoroastrians, but in the late 11th century they started to convert to Islam, which remains the dominant religion.
 
Costume:  
Typically, Tajik men wear gowns called qiapan, tied up with a long cloth band around waist. Qiapans are matched by embroidered skull caps. Women like brightly-colored dresses and embroidered kuleta caps.
 
Marriage:  
The Tajiks practice monogamy. Their wedding ceremonies last for three days, where people sing and dance to music played with eagle flutes and daps. The new weds' married life is considered to start on the third day, when the senior host lifts the bride's veil.
 
Residence:  
Tajik homes, langelis, are wood-stone or wood-adobe structured bungalows. Without any windows, such buildings have wood built skylights instead. A typical langeli has five supporting pillars inside.


The Tibetan People
Population:
They number 5.4 million.

Living Areas:
The Tibetan people are an ethnic group that is native to Tibet.  Significant Tibetan minorities also live in Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, as well as India, Nepal, and Bhutan.

Languages:
Tibetans speak the Tibetic languages, many varieties of which are mutually unintelligible. They belong to the Sino-Tibetan languages. The Tibetan language encompasses many dialects. Khampas have several Khams language dialects which may be unintelligible to Amdowas, and the Lhasa dialect may be unintelligible to both of those groups

History:
The traditional, or mythological, explanation of the Tibetan people's origin is that they are the descendants of the monkey Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa and rock ogress Ma Drag Sinmo. Most Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, though some observe the indigenous Bon religion. Tibetan Buddhism influences Tibetan art, drama, and architecture, while the harsh geography of Tibet has produced an adaptive culture of Tibetan medicine and cuisine.

Religion:
Most Tibetans generally observe Tibetan Buddhism or a collection of native traditions known as Bon (also absorbed into mainstream Tibetan Buddhism). There is a minority Tibetan Muslim population. There is also a small Tibetan Christian population in the eastern Tibet and northwestern Yunnan of China.

Legend said that the 28th king of Tibet, Thothori Nyantsen, dreamed of a sacred treasure falling from heaven, which contained a Buddhist sutra, mantras, and religious objects. However, because the Tibetan script had not been invented, the text could not be translated in writing and no one initially knew what was written in it. Buddhism did not take root in Tibet until the reign of Songtsan Gampo, who married two Buddhist princesses, Bhrikuti of Nepal and Wencheng of China. It then gained popularity when Padmasambhava visited Tibet at the invitation of the 38th Tibetan king, Trisong Deutson.Today, one can see Tibetans placing Mani stones prominently in public places. Tibetan lamas, both Buddhist and Bon, play a major role in the lives of the Tibetan people, conducting religious ceremonies and taking care of the monasteries. Pilgrims plant prayer flags over sacred grounds as a symbol of good luck.

The prayer wheel is a means of simulating chant of a mantra by physically revolving the object several times in a clockwise direction. It is widely seen among Tibetan people. In order not to desecrate religious artifacts such as Stupas, mani stones, and Gompas, Tibetan Buddhists walk around them in a clockwise direction, although the reverse direction is true for Bön. Tibetan Buddhists chant the prayer "Om mani padme hum", while the practitioners of Bön chant "Om matri muye sale du".

Culture:
Tibetan wearing the typical hat operating a quern to grinding fried barley. The perpendicular handle of such rotary handmills works as a crank. Tibet is rich in culture. Tibetan festivals such as Losar, Shoton, Linka (festival), and the Bathing Festival are deeply rooted in indigenous religion and also contain foreign influences. Each person takes part in the Bathing Festival three times: at birth, at marriage, and at death. It is traditionally believed that people should not bathe casually, but only on the most important occasions.

Medicine
Tibetan medicine is one of the oldest forms in the world. It utilizes up to two thousand types of plants, forty animal species, and fifty minerals. One of the key figures in its development was the renowned 8th century physician Yutok Yonten Gonpo, who produced the Four Medical Tantras integrating material from the medical traditions of Persia, India and China. The tantras contained a total of 156 chapters in the form of Thangkas, which tell about the archaic Tibetan medicine and the essences of medicines in other places.

Yutok Yonten Gonpo's descendant, Yuthok Sarma Yonten Gonpo, further consolidated the tradition by adding eighteen medical works. One of his books includes paintings depicting the resetting of a broken bone. In addition, he compiled a set of anatomical pictures of internal organs.

Cuisine
The Cuisine of Tibet reflects the rich heritage of the country and people's adaptation to high altitude and religious culinary restrictions. The most important crop is barley. Dough made from barley flour, called tsampa, is the staple food of Tibet. This is either rolled into noodles or made into steamed dumplings called momos. Meat dishes are likely to be yak, goat, or mutton, often dried, or cooked into a spicy stew with potatoes. Mustard seed is cultivated in Tibet, and therefore features heavily in its cuisine. Yak yogurt, butter and cheese are frequently eaten, and well-prepared yogurt is considered something of a prestige item.

Clothing:
Tibetan warrior in chainmail enforced by mirror plate
Most Tibetans wear their hair long, although in recent times due to Chinese influence, some men do crop their hair short. The women plait their hair into two queues, the girls into a single queue. Because of Tibet's cold weather, the men and women wear long thick dresses (chuba). The men wear a shorter version with pants underneath. The style of the clothing varies between regions. Nomads often wear thick sheepskin versions.

Marriage customs
Polyandry is practiced in parts of Tibet. A typical arrangement is where a woman may marry male siblings. This is usually done to avoid division of property and provide financial security. However, monogamy is more common throughout Tibet. Marriages are sometimes arranged by the parents, if the son or daughter has not picked their own partner by a certain age.

 

 

 

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