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Situation of Uyghur Writers in China


Image copyright Sulu.artco, used with permission of the owner

Past – dark ages

Uyghurs are the traditional land owners of East Turkistan (aka Xinjiang, China). They are physically and spiritually tied to the land for many thousand years. Uyghur language is the spiritual, cultural and academic tool for the Uyghur people. Situated in the heart of Central Asia, Uyghurs developed simple yet passionate way of life and it has found its expression in Uyghur literature. Uyghurs consider themselves as a unity with their land. They travelled through the sand dunes of Taklamakan desert, dwelled on the Altay, Tengri, and Pamir mountains, called the pasture lands home and gradually have created rich, beautiful and unique culture of their own. Uyghur literature is one of the best expressions of their culture.

Unfortunately, since the Chinese invasion into East Turkistan in 1955, Uyghurs have been living like a wounded tiger who is captured in a cage. Atheistic communist ideology was an ideological shock to Muslim Uyghurs. Uyghur writers did not know how to react to the idea of there is no Supernatural Deity in the world, but the manmade Chinese Communist Party (CCP) should be the one who owns and controls all in their land. Uyghur writers couldn’t express their feelings towards the disappearing reality of their language, culture, family, and most importantly, their free and passionate souls.

To Uyghurs, the totalitarian nature of the communist party was completely foreign, extremely surreal and unbelievably ridiculous.

Uyghurs love expressing their feelings and reflections albeit daily life tragedy became the main theme in Uyghur writers’ works. Among 15 million Uyghurs, around 3000 Uyghur writers articulated their personal and collective suffering and resilience.

Longing for the oppression free future is portrayed as waiting for spring and the tyrannical years under the Chinese rule are depicted as the long, harsh winters. Despite of being awfully wise and cautious with the way they express, Uyghur writers have always been the targeted group of persecution as there is no freedom of expression in China. Uyghur writers are persecuted because they are a potential existential threat to the CCP’s rule. In the eyes of CCP, Uyghur writers aren’t be trusted; they should be watched, controlled and when necessary to be punished. For this reason, many Uyghur writers preferred to work for and with the Chinese government and utilized their pen for the Chinese propaganda. The Xinjiang Writer’s Union is one of the main government organizations that accepts formal members. The number of Uyghur writers in the Union was 626 in 2016 although many writers do not belong to any  such organizations. The Uyghur writers used to publish their work on Uyghur magazines and journals in Uyghur language. Genres included story and poetry (80%), fiction (15%), non-fiction, academic paper, screen play and religious texts (5%). However, as Uyghurs are seen as second class citizens of China, Uyghur writers are treated as inferior beings and their literary works never became part of Chinese mainstream literature. 

Present – darker age

Since 2017, the persecution against the Uyghur writers has gotten more intensified. Uyghur writers are forcefully detained at the concentration and prison camps. Even the most loyal CCP members were no exception from the punishment. Azat Sultan, a communist party member, an academic writer, and the former Chairman of the Xinjiang Writer’s Union, has been incarcerated at the camp in 2018.

Almost all of the influential Uyghur writers could not escape from the cruelty of fate. Many of them are still suffering at the camps as many are imprisoned. Some of the Uyghur writers have passed away shortly after being released from the camps as some committed suicide to avoid the detention. Among them are Perhat Tursun, a poet and novelist who understood the Uyghur trauma and published deep insights of its impact on the psyche of Uyghurs, was detained and sentenced for 13 years imprisonment. Haji Mirzahid Kerimi, a prominent Uyghur writer, was sentenced to 11 years in 2018. Memtimin Hoshur, a famous Uyghur writer, a master of black humour to reveal the aggression of Chinese colonial rule to control all aspects of Uyghur life in vain, was sent to the concentration camp. Qurban Mamut, the former editor-in-chief of the XinJiang Cultural Journal, is being incarcerated in horrible camps since 2018. Adil Tuniyaz, a Uyghur poet whose poems are well resonated with the majority of Uyghurs, and his wife Nezire Muhammad Salih, an independent writer, were detained at the camps since 2018. Ibrahim Alp Tekin, a famous Uyghur essayist, and Tahir Talip, a prominent Uyghur poet whose poetry has always provided veiled perspectives with sarcasm on the colonial nature of Uyghur life, were sent to concentration camps in 2018. Halida Israil, a well- known Uyghur writer who depicted the intrigues of human freedom in an age of ruthless power, was detained at the notorious concentration camps in 2018. Muhammad Salih, a religious writer/scholar who translated the Qur’an into Uyghur, and father of Nezire Muhammad Salih had been taken to the camp and died shortly after his release in 2019. Nurmuhammad Tohti, a famous novelist also passed away in 2019 after he was forcefully locked up at the camp. Qeyser Qiyum, a former editor at the ‘Literary Translation’ committed self-suicide before he got detained in 2018 by throwing himself from the 8th floor at his workplace.

The Uyghur writes who are ‘free’ from the camps and prison sentences are hardly free from CCP’s brain-washing education. They are sent to inner land China to get educated on ‘how to tell a better China story’.

Future – darkest age

The future of Uyghur writers is doomed in China. Majority of the Uyghur writers will disappear either as a result of the camp, imprisonment and execution or their work in Uyghur language will disappear because of the CCP’s cultural genocide policy towards Uyghurs.

I hope PEN will raise more awareness on the Uyghur writers’ situation in China and urge the international community to release the writers from the camps and prisons.

Fatimah Abdulghafur Seyyah is a writer, poet, and author of the poetry collection “The Mystery Land (Uyghur Edition)”. Born in the beautiful and ancient city of Kashgar, she is currently based in Sydney, Australia, where she is an accredited Uyghur-English interpreter, researcher and PhD candidate in Geophysics. She is the founder and director of the Seyyah Coding Academy

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