The photographs in Sir Percy Molesworth Sykes’ recently-acquired 1915 album capture a pivotal moment in what was then known as Chinese Turkestan (modern-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China). China’s Qing dynasty had collapsed only a few years earlier. It was an era of warlords, weak central government and competing external influences as Ottoman Turks, Russians, Han Chinese, the British and the region’s Muslim ethnic groups jockeyed for power in a complex geopolitical landscape. Lieutenant Colonel Sykes was dispatched to temporarily assume the role of Consular-General in Kashgar. He was stepping in for Sir George Macartney, a relation to the statesman of the same name who led the first British diplomatic mission to China in 1793. Sykes was accompanied by his sister Ella Constance Sykes, a prolific travel writer who may also have taken some of the photographs which appear in the album.
This Dungan general sits framed by banners in Chinese which prominently display his surname, Ma, along with information about his regiment.
In a region where history is intertwined with political legitimacy, the preservation and documentation of these photographs and others like them have an important role to play. Today as Muslim minorities in Xinjiang suffer under government-sanctioned suppression of their religious freedom and identity, Percy Sykes’ album affords us a further opportunity to study, appreciate, and critically engage with the rich heritage of the native peoples of this region.
To see the full digitized collection, check out the Duke Libraries’ Digital Repository. More information about the photographs can also be found in the collection guide. The album is available for viewing in the Rubenstein Library reading room.
Forbes, Andrew D. W. Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia: a political history of Republican Sinkiang 1911-1949. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Sykes, Percy and Ella. Through Deserts and Oases of Central Asia. London: Macmillan and Co., 1920.
Williams, Victoria. Weird Sports and Wacky Games Around the World: From Buzkashi to Zorbing. ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2015. Proquest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/duke/detail.action?docID=2007444.