This post was co-authored by Sean Swanick, Librarian for Middle East, North Africa, and Islamic Studies, Luo Zhou, Chinese Studies Librarian, and Ernest Zitser, Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies.
Many people in the West have heard about the sad fate of the Uyghurs, the Turkic-Muslim minority group that is being systematically persecuted by the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China. However, very few people know the backstory of this slowly unfolding genocide. And fewer still have access to relevant research materials, especially ones published in Uyghur (ئۇيغۇرچە), a Turkic language written primarily in a Perso-Arabic script (though Cyrillic and Latin scripts are also used by Uyghurs who reside in the countries of former Soviet Central Asia).
The reason for this information gap is the colonialist past of the area of the world inhabited by the Uyghurs, who live on territories that stretch across the boundaries of different countries, primarily along the ancient Silk Road leading from China to Central Asia, and then heading west to the Middle East and Europe, and south to India and South Asia. For millennia, this region has been the epicenter of a global struggle between different colonial empires (most recently Russia/USSR, Britain, and China). And the Uyghurs have been among their primary victims. Since it is the victors who tend to write history, and to do so in their own language, it is not surprising that works in Uyghur are rarely represented in the library collections of imperial metropoles.
In order to redress this imbalance, and to contribute to the global effort to de-colonize the library collections of former (and current) imperial powers, the librarians of Duke’s International and Area Studies Department have been collaborating on acquiring materials about this part of the world in general, and the Uyghurs in particular. This blog post is about one recent example of such cross-regional collaboration: the joint purchase of a rare*, early 20th-century Uyghur language book by Luo Zhou, Chinese Studies Librarian and Sean Swanick, Librarian for Middle East, North Africa, and Islamic studies.
This new library acquisition is a 111-page Uyghur-language manual called A Sequel to the ABC Books (ا ب کتسبى نينک تدريچى ايكنجى جز / a-b kita:bïnïղ tεdri:ʤi ikinʤi ʤůzε). It was published in 1922 by the Printing Office of the Swedish Mission in Kashgar, a city situated in what is today known as China’s Xianjiang Province. As the title page indicates, the book is the “Second Part” of a primer first published in 1920 by the Missionary Press, which operated between 1901 and 1938. As one would expect, the main focus of the Missionary Press was to disseminate translations of the Bible in an effort to convert Kashgaris and, more broadly, all the people of the region (including the Uyghurs) to Christianity. In order to accomplish this task, the Missionary Board in Stockholm sent a printing press and related printing equipment to Kashgar soon after the Swedes arrived in town, in 1894. The print shop contained the necessary equipment along with metal-type in Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin.
Although the Swedish Missionary Press was the first printing press in Kashgar, A Sequel to the ABC Books was itself part of a long tradition of Turkic-language instruction in the region. In fact, one of the earliest such manuals, a comprehensive dictionary of the Turkic languages known as Compendium of the Languages of the Turks (Dīwān Lughāt al-Turk), was written as far back as the 11th century by Mahmud ibn Husayn ibn Muhammed al-Kashgari, an influential Kara-Khanid scholar and lexicographer from Kashgar. As in other parts of the Muslim world, most instruction was conducted on a one-on-one basis, between a religious teacher and a cohort of young pupils, such as those pictured in this black-and-white photograph of a “Kashgar School.”
This photograph comes from the early 20th-century album of Lt. Col. Sir Percy Sykes (1867-1945), illustrating the British officer’s travels through “Chinese Turkestan, the Russian Pamirs, and Osh,” between April and November 1915. Sykes’ photo album was acquired last year by Duke University Libraries to complement its growing collection of Uyghur materials, including a few language manuals. Now Sykes’ photos of the city of Kashgar and its school serve as a primary source for understanding the historical context, and for visualizing the possible original users of the recently purchased copy of A Sequel to the ABC Books. Such cross-referencing is not only the product of thoughtful collection development and description. It is also a concrete example of the way that the intervention of area studies librarians can help contemporary researchers read the imperial archive against the grain and, thereby, restore the humanity of marginalized indigenous groups who have been, or like the Uyghurs, are in danger of being erased from the historical record.
*As far as we know, the only other existing copy of A Sequel to the ABC Books is held in the Gunnar Jarring Central Eurasia Collection and has been digitized by the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, Turkey.
- Byler, Darren. Terror capitalism: Uyghur dispossession and masculinity in a Chinese city (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022).
- Byler, Darren, Ivan Franceschini, Nicholas Loubere, and Andrea Pitzer. Xinjiang year zero (Canberra, ACT, Australia : Australian National University Press, ).
- Gunaratna, Rohan, Arabinda Acharya, and Wang Pengxin. Ethnic identity and national conflict in China (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
- Hasanli, Jamil. Soviet policy in Xinjiang: Stalin and the National Movement in Eastern Turkistan (Lanham: Lexington Books, ).
- Wang, Yao. The story of Xinjiang revealed through old maps (1759-1912), translated by Lewis James Wright (Los Angeles: Bridge21 Publications, LLC, 2021).
- The voice of Turkistan (Ankara [Turkey]: Mehmet Emin Buğra, 1956-)
- Uyghur Human Rights Web Archive, Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation (2001-)
- Uyghur Diaspora Video Project, Forced Migration Online (Oxford University, 2006-)