Xinjiang’s contribution to East-West cultural exchanges

By ZHU YI / 07-04-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A pottery artifact unearthed at the Yotkan site in Hotan, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Photo: Ren Guanhong/CSST

In mid-June, the International Forum on “The History and Future of Xinjiang, China” took place in Kashgar, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Scholars from China and abroad gathered to discuss topics including Xinjiang archaeology and its pluralistic integration into the Chinese nation, Xinjiang history and the “harmony in diversity” of Chinese culture, the Silk Road in Xiyu [Western Regions] and East-West civilizational exchanges, as well as Xinjiang’s development and Chinese modernization.

Historical continuity

According to Han Jianye, a professor from the School of History at Renmin University of China, Xinjiang was a prominent contributor to early East-West cultural exchanges and mutual learning, injecting vitality into the formation and evolution of Eastern and Western civilizations. Archaeological findings reveal that around 5,000 years ago, wheat from West Asia and crops from north China were already present in Xinjiang. About 4,000 years ago, the painted pottery culture from the upper reaches of the Yellow River had spread to eastern Xinjiang. By around 3,500 years ago, this painted pottery culture had become widespread across both northern and southern regions of the Tianshan Mountains, indicating that Xinjiang had become an integral part of the early Chinese cultural sphere.

In the view of Mirzokhid Rakhimov, head of the Department of Contemporary History and International Studies at the Institute of History at the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences, Central Asia and China have been pivotal hubs of economic, trade, cultural, and intellectual exchanges between Asia and Europe for centuries, constituting major nodes of the Silk Road. In the process, Xinjiang has played a key role in the historical and modern relations between China and Central Asia, serving as a unique bridge of civilizational communication. To this day, modern China and Central Asian countries, as participants in constructing the history of contemporary civilizations, are still closely linked to global development. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) exemplifies such cross-regional and global partnerships, showcasing harmony in diversity and joint development.

According to Mohsen Mohamed Negm-eldin, dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University in Egypt, the Silk Road was one of the earliest commercial routes connecting the Eastern and Western worlds. Despite the very long distance between the starting point of the Silk Road in China and its end point in Egypt, the relationship between the two countries is considered to be one of the most ideal relations since ancient times, rooted in shared civilizational traits over centuries.

False reports

Pan Yue, director of the National Ethnic Affairs Commission, pointed out that a baseless narrative exists within the international community that inaccurately separates Xinjiang culture from Chinese culture, even portraying them as oppositional. This narrative describes the relationship between Xinjiang culture and Chinese culture as one of “assimilation” of the former by the latter, which reflects a profound ignorance of Chinese history. In this context, greater efforts are necessary to fully explore and effectively utilize the historical facts of interactions among various ethnic groups in Xinjiang, archaeological findings, and cultural relics to clarify that Xinjiang has always been an indivisible part of China and a multi-ethnic inhabited area since ancient times. The various ethnic groups within Xinjiang are integral members of the Chinese nation, connected by blood and sharing a common destiny.

Colin Mackerras, an honorary professor at Griffith University in Australia and a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, believes that Xinjiang is now witnessing an era of unprecedented prosperity and has a promising future ahead. Through the BRI, economic growth, and modernization, Xinjiang is entering another period of great prosperity.

Barry Sautman, an emeritus professor from the Division of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a distinguished professor at Tsinghua University, refuted the false reports of certain Western media on Xinjiang with factual data. In 2023, nearly 3 million rural laborers in Xinjiang relocated to cities for employment, accounting for nearly a quarter of Xinjiang’s rural population, effectively eliminating the phenomenon of zero-employment households. By contrast, by 2022, 8.3% of the workforces of 23 EU countries were still in low-density employment. Concerning the usage of ethnic languages, a recent survey shows that 99% of Uyghurs in southern Xinjiang and 94% of Uyghurs in northern Xinjiang are proficient in Uyghur. By comparison, many ethnic minorities in developed Western countries no longer speak their ethnic languages. For instance, among the more than 400,000 Native Americans in the United States, only about 2,000 can still speak their native languages.

The forum was co-hosted by Minzu University of China, Peking University, and Kashgar University, and co-organized by Xinjiang University and Xinjiang Normal University.