An Ancient Culture, Bulldozed Away

The government, citing danger and overcrowding, began moving Uighur families out of Kashgar's labyrinthine old city.
The government, citing danger and overcrowding, began moving Uighur families out of Kashgar's labyrinthine old city. (By Maureen Fan -- The Washington Post)
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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

KASHGAR, China -- For hundreds of years, Uighur shopkeepers have been selling bread and firewood along the edges of Kashgar's old town to families whose ancestors bought their traditional mud-brick homes with gold coin and handed them down through the generations.

Now, this labyrinth of ancient courtyard homes and narrow, winding streets is endangered by the latest government plan to modernize a way of life that officials consider dangerous and backward.

Left behind are piles of brick and rubble, houses without roofs and hurt feelings. It is the most recent fault line to develop between Chinese rulers and Xinjiang province's majority ethnic Uighur population, a Turkic-speaking people who have long chafed under Beijing's rule and who worry that their culture is slowly disappearing.

Like Tibetans, Uighurs resent the influx of Han Chinese immigrants who dominate government and economic positions and have pushed for more autonomy and economic opportunity. Some Uighurs have waged an occasionally violent campaign calling for independence. Beijing has cracked down hard during periods of unrest and its tough line against suspected separatists has made many Uighurs reluctant to speak on the record about their objections to government policy.

Here in China's westernmost city, a $448 million plan to move about 50,000 residents out of the old city and into modern apartment buildings kicked off last month with the first 100 families transitioning into government housing. Officials say some houses are too far away from fire hydrants and that the old city is dangerously overcrowded. While the earthen homes have stood for centuries, the deadly earthquake that hit Sichuan province last May only added urgency to the project.

"Because many houses were built privately without any approval, the life of residents is not convenient and the capability against earthquakes and fire is weak," a local state-run news report said recently. "Our target is every family has a house, every family has employed members and the economy will be developed."

About 220,000 people, or 42 percent of the city's residents, live in the old town.

On the streets, where some houses have already been demolished and others have been marked for removal, feelings of resentment were evident. A bilingual education program begun in local schools several years ago, for example, had been welcomed by Uighurs who agreed that learning Mandarin Chinese would be good for business. But recently, some schools have started teaching just Mandarin, angering parents who want their children to also use their own language.

"They want us to live like Chinese people but we will never agree," said a 48-year-old woman in a red jacket and brown head scarf, who declined to give her name. "If we move into the government apartments, there are no courtyards and no sun. Women will need to cover up to go outside and we will have to spend money to finish decorating our rooms. This is our land. We have not bought it from the government."

A 60-year-old man with a neat beard and a wool hat expressed his disapproval as he walked to evening prayers along a narrow road that would soon be widened to 20 feet under the government's plan. "If the government gives me money, I will go. Everybody is unhappy about this, but government is government, we can do nothing," he said.

For now, community service officers are visiting families one by one, urging them to come to their offices and discuss compensation plans for moving out. "Let's see when they bring the bulldozers," the woman in the red jacket said. "We will talk then."

Chinese officials in Kashgar could not be reached for comment. Chinese authorities are often criticized for not being sensitive to groups outside their own majority ethnic Han culture. During the Olympic Games, for example, officials could not understand objections to their use of Han Chinese models and actors to stand in for members of China's minority tribes.

Large-scale, raw-earth building complexes are rare, according to Wu Dianting, a professor of regional planning at Beijing Normal University's School of Geography, who did field research in Kashgar last year.

"The buildings are very scientific. They are warm in winter and cold in summer. The technology used saves material and is environmentally protective," Wu said.

The old town is also one of the few authentic representations of Uighur culture left, he said. "The old town also reflects the Muslim culture of the Uighurs very well -- it has the original taste and flavor without any changes," he said. "Here, Uighur culture is attached to those raw earth buildings. If they are torn down, the affiliated culture will be destroyed."


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