Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang

James A. Millward

Hurst and Company 2007
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
Xinjiang only seems to make the news when Uyghur-Han relations deteriorate to the point of violence, but the region is one of the crossroads of the world, with a fascinating geography and history. In Eurasian Crossroads Millward traces this from prehistory, through struggles between Chinese and Turks and Arabs, Islamisation, and incorporation into China — as the province of Xinjiang, as a frontier region facing Russia, and as a key part of China's engagement with Central Asia and the world.

The modern province consists of the Tarim Basin, Dzungaria, the Turfan Basin, and the headwaters of the Yili, bounded by mountain ranges including the Kunlun, the Karakoram and Pamir, the Tianshan and the Altai. Millward emphasises geography and ecology throughout Eurasian Crossroads, exploring the importance of deserts, trade routes and oases, agriculture and water, and other long-term environmental and economic structures and constraints. One geopolitical theme which recurs is Chinese empires extending into the Tarim basin and Dzungaria to interrupt links with steppe confederations to the northeast.

The early history of the region involved the Tokharians, Xiongnu and Han, and then a struggle between the Tibetans and the Tang over the Tarim basin, which also involved the Arabs. This is complex and sometimes hard to follow, but Millward's account here is more succinct and easier to follow than Beckwith's in The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia. The 9th to 16th centuries saw more intermittent and limited Chinese influence and a to-ing and fro-ing of Sogdians, Uyghurs, Qarakhanids, Qara Khitay, Mongols, Chagatayids, and other groups, along with the spread of Islam.

The Qing conquest saw the creation of "Xinjiang" and its integration into China as a province rather than, as earlier, a direct "fief" of the empire. Educational reforms had limited success, but peace brought population growth. Other key trends were the movement of Uyghur from the southwest throughout Xinjiang, Sufi proselytisation, and the rise of the Naqshbandiyya order.

The Qing recovery of Xinjiang following the rebellions of 1864 and the emirate of Ya'qub Beg, was "the last imperial campaign of a dying empire". The early 20th century saw complex struggles between warlords, Soviet Russia, the Guomindang, the Chinese Communist Party, and two brief-lived "East Turkestan Republics" whose status remains disputed.

As part of the People's Republic of China, Xinjiang faced central government policies to minorities and Islam that fluctuated between assimilationist and non-assimilationist. One unusual feature was the settling in Xinjiang of demobilised soldiers, coordinated by a quasi-military Bingtuan answering directly to the party and Beijing. The Cultural Revolution brought political chaos and took the economy to the point of collapse, but was followed by a period of reform and a return to more accommodating minority policies.

Developments since 1990 have seen Xinjiang opening up to the broader world, along with the rest of China, and its Central Asian connections become more important. Key trends have been increasing Han migration, an emphasis on development, and increasing concerns about water, though hydrological engineering has been preferred over accepting constraints on development. Millward concludes with a survey of Uyghur dissent and separatism, and brief biographical accounts of Xinjiang's richest woman, richest man, and the famous tightrope walker Adil Hoshur.

Eurasian Crossroads does an outstanding job presenting a complex and involved history. It conveys the intricacies of interactions between multiple political forces, in the context of longer-term processes and constraints. And all this is done so as to be accessible to non-specialists.

January 2010

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%T Eurasian Crossroads
%S A History of Xinjiang
%A Millward, James A.
%I Hurst and Company
%D 2007
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 1850658188
%P 440pp