Who are the Uyghurs?

A brief history

The Uyghurs are an ethnic group tracing their origins from the Central Asian region. They reside in present-day Xinjiang, China. Many Uyghur communities also live in places surrounding China, such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

The ancestry of the Uyghur tribe can be traced to the Altaic pastoralists called the Tiele. They first appear in written Chinese history in AD 357. Tiele tribal territories had previously been occupied by an ancient Siberian people. The Tiele practiced some agriculture and were primarily metalsmiths due to the abundance of iron ore available nearby.

Circa 300 BC, the Tiele were subjugated by the Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic peoples that lived on the eastern Asian Steppe, and who put them to work manufacturing weapons. After the collapse of the Xiongnu empire they were passed as slave metalsmiths to Rouran and Hepthalite States.


Islam arrived in the tenth century and became dominant in the subsequent centuries. The conversion of the Uyghur people to Islam was not completed until the 17th century.


The Uyghurs have been intimately intertwined with the Chinese for centuries, and their territory was known as ‘Muslim China” or “Hui China”. The Qing dynasty took over the area in a more entrenched manner in the 17th century and reorganized the province as ‘Xinjiang’.