Is Eastern Turkestan a Chinese Territory?
  • Sun, 08/15/2004 - 12:00

Erkin Alptekin

During an interview with the correspondent of the Beijing Review, Wang Enmao, first secretary of Eastern Turkestan Party Committee, claims that:

"In the early days of liberation, some people suggested we copy the Soviet method of establishing a union of republics in China. But our circumstances are different from those of the Soviet Union, which became a union of republics only after the October Revolution with the gradual merging of 14 republics with Russia. China has been a united state since ancient times. How could it go backwards to a federal system to establish a union of republics?"(1)

It is true that in the early days of the so-called liberation, the people of Eastern Turkestan pleaded that they might be permitted at least to form a federated republic in China. While doing this, they were relying on the promises of the Chinese Communists made before seizing power in China. The Provisional Constitution of the Chinese Worker-Peasant Democratic Republic, approved by the First All-China Congress of Workers and Peasants Deputies in 1931, proclaimed:

"In such regions as Mongolia, Tibet, Sinkiang... the nationalities have the right to determine by themselves whether they want to secede from the Chinese Soviet Republic and form their independent states, or to join the Union..., or to form autonomous regions within the Chinese Soviet Republic."(2)

At the Seventh Congress in 1945, Mao Tsetung, in his report on coalition government, having denounced the Kuomintang's oppressive policies as those of great chauvinism, said that the Communists fully endorse the nationality problem, which was to grant them "self-determination" after the Communist takeover in China.(3)

But after he seized power in China, Mao completely denied his "self-determination" promises.

Faced with this situation, the people of Eastern Turkestan pleaded that they might be permitted at least to form a federated republic. But Mao rejected this request on the following grounds:

"For two thousand years Sinkiang has been an inalienable part of an indivisible China; therefore, there would be no sense in dividing China into federated republics; this is a demand hostile to history and to socialism."(4)

Wang Enmao, the first secretary of Eastern Turkestan Party Committee, is now repeating the same argument. This is not something new. In order to justify their domination of Eastern Turkestan, the Chinese have always claimed that this country was annexed to China two thousand years ago, that the Chinese dwelled in this territory and therefore, Eastern Turkestan is an indivisible part of China.

This distorts the historical facts. If we examine neutral historical sources we come to a completely different conclusion than that given by Chinese sources which are mostly written from a Chinese point of view to protect Chinese interests.

The well-known western scholar and sinologist Prof. Wolfram Eberhard claims that the Chinese sources give one-sided information, so it is necessary to check other sources before coming to a final conclusion concerning the history of China's neighbouring peoples in ancient times. (5)

It is true that in order to control the Silk Road, China staged invasions of Eastern Turkestan in 104 B.C., 59 B.C., 73 A.D., 448 A.D., 657 A.D., and 744 A.D.(6) But the first invasion was thwarted by the peoples of Eastern Turkestan in 86 B.C., the second in 10 B.C., the third in 102 A.D., the fourth in 460 A.D., the fifth in 699 A.D. and the last one in 751 A.D.(7) Thus, over a period of 855 years Eastern Turkestan was invaded six times by the Chinese, and if we add up these six invasions, the total period of Chinese occupation of Eastern Turkestan was only 157 years. It must also be said that during these 157 years China could not establish a complete control over Eastern Turkestan because of continued resistance.(8) Outside of these 157 years of Chinese occupation, Eastern Turkestan remained a free and independent country for 698 years.(9)

After the last defeat of the Chinese by the combined forces of Arabs, Turkic peoples and the Tibetans in 751 A.D., a period of 1,000 years passed until the conquest of Eastern Turkestan by the Manchus, if we discount Mongol rule in Eastern Turkestan(10) Mongol rule cannot be accepted as a Chinese domination of Eastern Turkestan, because the Uighurs, a Turkic people, voluntarily joined the Mongol Empire, maintained their sovereignty, and played an important role throughout the empire's history.(11) On the other hand, during Mongol rule a racial law was adopted, according to which the Chinese were treated as the lowest caste in the empire with no rights whatsoever.(12)

The Manchus, who set up a huge empire in China, invaded Eastern Turkestan in 1759, and dominated it until 1862. During this period the people of Eastern Turkestan revolted 42 times against the Manchu rule with the purpose of regaining their independence.(13) In the last revolt of 1863, the people of Eastern Turkestan were successful in expelling the Manchus from their motherland, and founded an independent state under the leadership of Yakub Beg Badavlat. This state was recognised by the Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia and Great Britain.(14)

In the fear of a Tsarist Russian expansion into Eastern Turkestan, large forces under the overall command of General Zho Zhung Tang attacked Eastern Turkestan in 1876. After this invasion, Eastern Turkestan was given the name Sinkiang, and it was annexed into the Manchu Empire on 18 November 1884.(15) This means, Eastern Turkestan was conquered during the rule of the Manchus. But before conquering Eastern Turkestan they conquered China. The Manchus were foreigners not only to the Eastern Turkestanis but also to the Chinese. When the Manchu rule in China was overthrown, Eastern Turkestan should have become free also. But the Chinese raised claims on Eastern Turkestan, though it had been conquered by their own conquerors.

It must also be said that long before the Chinese invasion took place, in 539 B.C., Eastern Turkestan was invaded by the Iranic peoples; in 330 B.C. by Alexander the Great; and twice in 670 A.D. and 789 A.D. by the Tibetans.(16) Obviously, this means that none of the historic and forgotten invasions constitute a base for territorial claims today. Otherwise, the, Turkic peoples, Tibetans and the Mongols could raise territorial claims on parts of China as well.

It is a historical fact that pre-historic dynasties like the Shang (1450-1050 B.C.) Chou (1050-247 B.C.) and Chin (247-206 B.C.) were founded by non-Chinese peoples such as protoTurk, proto-Tibetan and proto-Mongol peoples.(17) This means that in ancient times, China was ruled by non-Chinese peoples for 1203 years.

In the Middle Ages, that is between 220 A.D. and 1280 a total of 1060 years China was ruled for 740 years by Turkic, Mongol and Tungusic, peoples.(18) During this period the Chinese were able to rule their own country for 540 years, but were unable to control the whole of the Chinese territory because of wars with non-Chinese peoples, as well as interior rebellions and court intrigues.(19)

In more recent times, that is between 1280 and 1911--which is a total of 631 years--the Chinese were able to rule their own country for only 276 years.(20) In this period, the non-Chinese peoples ruled China for 355 years.(21)

Only during the reign of the Han dynasty(206 B.C.--220 A.D.) were the Chinese able to rule themselves; but they were constantly threatened by the Hsing-nu or the Hun, against whom the Chinese erected the Great Wall. With this Great Wall, for the first time in history the boundaries were marked between the Chinese--the settled people--and the non-Chinese --the nomadic people.(22) The Great Wall is the best proof that Eastern Turkestan was always outside Chinese territory. One of the western gates of the Great Wall is named Yu Min Guang. This gate faces Eastern Turkestan. Eastern Turkestan is famous for its precious stone, Jade. In the New China Atlas, which was published in 1939 in Shanghai, it is clearly indicated that during the Ch'in Dynasty (256 B.C.--206 B.C.), during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.--220 A.D.) and during the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D.--907 A.D.) the Jade gate was accepted by the Chinese as their westernmost border.(23)

Thus over a period of 3361 year of Chinese history, the Chinese ruled their own country for only 1242, and for the remaining period of 2119 years China was ruled by non-Chinese peoples such as the Turkics, Tibetans, Mongols and the Manchus.

The ancient Chinese emperors regarded themselves as the "sons of heaven." Thus, all countries in the world were Chinese "sovereignties". Under these circumstances, no "boundaries existed" for the Chinese.(24) The later Chinese rulers could not disengage themselves from this view.

One of the first Chinese traveler, Fa Hsien, who visited the cities of Turfan, Karashehir, Kucha, Hoten and Charkalik in 399 A.D., writes in his memoirs that during his trip to Eastern Turkestan he met no Chinese. (25) Another traveler, Hsuan Chang, who followed the same route in 629 A.D. confirms Fa Hsein's words, and writes in his memoirs that during his trip to Eastern Turkestan he met only three Chinese monks.(26) This suggests that until the conquest of Eastern Turkestan by the Manchu rulers of China in 1759, there were no Chinese settlement in the country. Even if there had been Chinese settlements, this should not have justified territorial claims on Eastern Turkestan. Today there are millions of Chinese living in the United States, Europe and South East Asian countries. Does that mean that these countries belong to China?

Pan Ku, the great historian of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.--220 A.D.) writes the following:

"As for clothing, costume, food and language, the barbarians are entirely different from the Middle Kingdom... Mountains, valleys and the great desert separate them from us, This barrier which lies between the interior and the alien was made by heaven and earth. Therefore, the sage rulers considered them as beasts and neither established contact with them nor subjugated them... the land is impossible to cultivate and the people are impossible to rule as subjects. Therefore, they are always to be considered as outsiders and never as citizens... Our administration and teaching have never reached their people..."(27)

Not only do these words prove that during the Han Dynasty, Eastern Turkestan was not under Chinese "administration", but the people of Eastern Turkestan was always regarded as "outsiders", not as "citizens" and the Chinese "teaching" never reached them.

China should not justify their possession of this land by distorting historical fact.


1. Beijing Review, December 17, 1984.

2. East Turkic Review, No 4, Munich 1960, p. 94.

3. Mao Zedong, Selected Works, Moscow 1953, p. 549-555.

4. Narinbayev, Kommunizm Tugi, August 1, 1974,

5. Wofram Eberhard, Cinin Simali Komsulari, Ankara 1942, p. 2.

6. Ibid, History of China, Ankara 1947, p. 93-109; 0wen Lattimore, Pivor of Asia, Boston 1950, p. 45-46; Jack Chen, The Sinkiang Story, London 1977, p. 21, 23; M.E. Bugra, Dogu Turkistan Hurriyet Davasi ve Cin Siyaseti, Istanbul 1955, p. 24.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid,

10. Ibid.

11. von Gabain, Das Leben im Uighurischen Konigreich von Qoco, Wiesbaden 1973, p. 19.

12. Wolfram Eberhard, Ibid. p. 259-270; Henry Schwarz, China's Development Experience. New York 1916 p. 196.

13. M.E. Bupra, Ibid.

14. IY, Alptekin, Dogu Turkistan Davasi, Istanbul 1973, p. 126-128.

15. Owen Lattimore, Ibid, p. 50.

16. von Gabain, Ibid, p. 20.

17. Wolfram Eberhard, Ibid,ip. 31, 33, 78.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid, p. 257-258.

21. Ibid.

22. Owen Lattimore, Studies in Frontier History, London 1962, p. 59.

23. Chinas New Atlas, Shanghai 1939 p. 51; also see Herman Albert Historical and Commercial AtIas of China, Harvard University Press, 1935.

24. Wolfram Eberhard, Ibid, p. 41.

25. von Gabain, Ibid, p. 20; I. Musabay-P. Turfani, Turk Dunyasi El Kitabi, Istanbul 1976, p. 1226; Herman Albert, Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Pan Ku, "The Account of Hsing-nu," Han-shu, 91, sect. 2 p. 32 a-b.