Cultural erasure: Tracing the destruction of Uyghur and Islamic spaces in Xinjiang

Cultural erasure This report is supported by a companion website, the Xinjiang Data Project. 24 Sep 2020

What’s the problem?

The Chinese Government has embarked on a systematic and intentional campaign to rewrite the cultural heritage of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). It’s seeking to erode and redefine the culture of the Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking communities—stripping away any Islamic, transnational or autonomous elements—in order to render those indigenous cultural traditions subservient to the ‘Chinese nation’.

Using satellite imagery, we estimate that approximately 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang (65% of the total) have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, mostly since 2017. An estimated 8,500 have been demolished outright, and, for the most part, the land on which those razed mosques once sat remains vacant. A further 30% of important Islamic sacred sites (shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes, including many protected under Chinese law) have been demolished across Xinjiang, mostly since 2017, and an additional 28% have been damaged or altered in some way.

Alongside other coercive efforts to re-engineer Uyghur social and cultural life by transforming or eliminating Uyghurs’ language, music, homes and even diets,1 the Chinese Government’s policies are actively erasing and altering key elements of their tangible cultural heritage.

Many international organisations and foreign governments have turned a blind eye. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) have remained silent in the face of mounting evidence of cultural destruction in Xinjiang. Muslim-majority countries, in particular, have failed to challenge the Chinese Government over its efforts to domesticate, sinicise and separate Uyghur culture from the wider Islamic world.

Case study: The desecration of Aksu’s sacred cemetery

Near the Yéngichimen village in Toyboldi ( تويبولدى ) township, about a four-hour drive from Aksu city, lay the remains of Mulla Elem Shahyari ( شەھيارى ). Shahyari was a notable poet and Islamic leader around Aksu in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In his youth, he studied Islamic oratory, and he eventually became a chief poet for the ming-begi (local chieftain, مىڭ بېگى .40)

He is known for his long poem, composed over 10 years, ‘Rose and Nightingale’ ( گۈل ۋە بۇلبۇل ). In 1814, after he died from illness in his home town at Toyboldi, his grave became a shrine. The grave was near the entrance of a 13-hectare cemetery, in the yard of the cemetery’s prayer hall (Figure 22).41

Figure 22: Yéngichimen cemetery in 2014 and 2019, showing its destruction

Source: Maxar via Google Earth.

As a child, Aziz Isa Elkun, a now-exiled Uyghur poet who grew up nearby, revered Shahyari’s shrine; the village considered Shahyari to be enlightened. During an interview with ASPI, Mr Elkun said: 

[Our] Islamic and Uyghur cultural identities … are intrinsically linked; therefore [we] regard [Shahyari’s] burial place as a holy place that connects the spirits of the generations past and today … [The] graveyard is a symbol of bonding for the Uyghurs spiritually, culturally and politically.42

With many of his fellow townspeople, he visited the grave of Shahyari every Friday and after religious holidays, praying in front of the tomb:

I read Mulla Elem Shahyari’s best known poem ‘Rose and Nightingale’ when I was a teenager … After reading his poetry, it inspired me to learn Uyghur classic literature and poetry. Since then, I started writing poems and had them published in local newspapers and journals.43

The last time he visited Shahyari’s shrine was the last time he returned home in February 2017. During that visit, the shrine was in serious disrepair, and the authorities were prohibiting locals from repairing the grave (Figure 23).

Figure 23: A photo of Mulla Elem Shahyari’s Mazar, taken in 2009

Source: Cultural Relics Bureau of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (新疆维吾尔自治区文物局), Immovable cultural relics: Aksu area, volume 1 (不可移动的文物 阿克苏地区卷1). Urumqi: Xinjiang meishu shying, 2015, p. 537.

Mr Elkun left Xinjiang in 1999, but his family stayed behind, mostly living in Yéngichimen village. In 2017, Mr Elkun’s father, Dr Isa Abdulla, was laid to rest after a life in the vicinity of Shahyari’s shrine, within 150 metres of it in a cemetery plot prepared by the family several years previously (Figure 24). Unable to return home, or even contact his relatives without risking their punishment, Elkun was forced to mourn from afar, finding his father’s grave on satellite images.

Figure 24: Dr Isa Abdulla’s gravesite, before its demolition

Source: Matt Rivers, ‘More than 100 Uyghur graveyards demolished by Chinese authorities, satellite images show’, CNN, 3 January 2020, online.

However, less than nine months after his father’s death, local authorities in Aksu Prefecture began re-engineering the cemetery. In August 2018, lines of new numbered graves were constructed over a corner of the cemetery. According to official documents and state media reports, the numbered graves are referred to as ‘public welfare ecological cemetery graves’ (公益性生态公墓建设).

Chinese Government officials say that they’re ‘standardising’ and ‘civilising’ public cemeteries in the name of social stability, rural revitalisation and ecological protection while preventing ‘random burials’ and relocating old graves.44 The new graves would eventually cover 1.5 hectares of the old cemetery.

Dr Isa Abdulla’s grave is now unmarked, save for the number 47, and is now otherwise identical to dozens of white clay-brick graves in 39 identical rows (figures 25 and 26).45

Figure 25: Isa Abdullah’s wife and daughter mourn at his new grave in a Chinese state media propaganda report

Source: ‘By following CNN, we find how they make fake news about Xinjiang’, CGTN, 13 January 2020, online.

Figure 26: Toyboldi’s new ‘public welfare ecological cemetery’

Source: ‘By following CNN, we find how they make fake news about Xinjiang’, CGTN, 13 January 2020, online.

The new graves covered only slightly more than 10% of the original cemetery. In early February 2019, the remaining graves, spread over 11 hectares, were levelled, according to satellite imagery analysis.

None of the original graves remains. Although the garden of the mosque, where Shahyari’s shrine sat for hundreds of years, hasn’t been bulldozed, the shrine itself has been demolished.

In 2020, the site was visited by reporters from the Chinese state media outlet CGTN, who filmed the bulldozed and barren remains of the cemetery (Figure 27).46

Figure 27: The grounds of Yengichimen cemetery after being cleared of graves

Source: ‘By following CNN, we find how they make fake news about Xinjiang’, CGTN, 13 January 2020, online.

The CGTN report claimed that Dr Isa Abdullah’s family requested that his body be moved before the original gravesite was demolished. The mechanism of exhumation requests is unknown in this case.

However, a 2019 community notice posted at another to-be-bulldozed cemetery near Hotan gave relatives just three days to register and request the exhumation and relocation of their loved ones’ remains; otherwise, the remains would go unclaimed (Figure 28).47

Figure 28: Public notice of tomb relocation in Hotan

Note: This Uyghur notice states: ‘Notice of relocation of the tomb of Hotan Sultanim Mazar. To the people of the city: In accordance with the needs of our city’s urban development plan and the spirit of the legislation of the Ministry of Civil Affairs of the Autonomous Region on further standardisation of the management of burial places and cemeteries in our autonomous region, as well as the requirements for creating a comfortable environment for the general public, it is decided to relocate corpses from Sultanim Mazar into Imam Muskazim Mazar of the Hotan Prefecture. Therefore we ask the owners of the graves to register at Sultanim Mazar between 18 March 2019 to 20 March 2019. Any graves without registration will be considered as unclaimed graves and will be relocated automatically. A delayed response will be responsible for all the consequences. Please send this notification to others.’ Translation by ASPI.

Source: Bahram Sintash, Demolishing faith: the destruction and desecration of Uyghur mosques and shrines, Uyghur Human Rights Project, October 2019. online.

The policy of demolishing traditional cemeteries and replacing them with ‘public welfare ecological cemeteries’ has been widely adopted throughout Aksu Prefecture. Standardised management of cemetery grounds was adopted in June 2016, and ‘complete coverage’ of numbered clay graves was to be achieved by the end of 2019, according to local media reports.48

Of 26 rural shrine and cemetery complexes that we located in Aksu through satellite imagery analysis, 22 (85%) had had most or all of their graves demolished by 2020, and 15 (58%) of cemeteries had had traditional graves replaced with rows of clay-brick graves (Figure 29).49

Figure 29: Mardan Mugai, Deputy Secretary of Aksu Prefecture’s Party Committee, and other members of the local government standing beside a ‘public welfare ecological cemetery’ construction site

Source: ‘At the end of 2019, the Aksu area has basically achieved full coverage of the construction of public welfare ecological cemeteries’ (2019年底阿克苏地区基本实现公益性生态公墓建设全覆盖), Aksu News Network (阿克苏新闻网), 20 May 2016, online.

In a 2016 speech, the Deputy Secretary of Aksu Prefecture’s Party Committee, Mardan Mugai, called on government departments to ‘waste no time in guiding the masses … to change their customs’ and ‘abandon closed, backwards, conservative and ignorant customs’, 50 referring to traditional cemeteries and burial grounds in the prefecture, including sacred sites and shrines.

An August 2018 state media report claimed that the ‘rectification’ of traditional cemeteries had been implemented in 235 cemeteries across Aksu by the end of July and that the construction of 174 ‘public welfare ecological cemeteries’ had begun.51

Our evidence suggests that this policy has continued unabated since 2018 and that the number of cemeteries with graves demolished and new ‘ecological cemeteries’ built is likely to be roughly double the figure stated above.52

The demolition of spiritual sites in Xinjiang’s Aksu Prefecture represents the forcible severing of ties between Uyghur communities and their history and landscape. Aziz Isa Elkun characterised Shahyari’s shrine and the attached cemetery as the lifeblood of the village, saying, ‘The entire community was connected to that graveyard’ and that it was a place to pray.53

A Uyghur academic we spoke to while writing this report emphasised the importance of cemeteries to the public life and personal identity of Uyghurs and other non-Han nationalities in Xinjiang. The cemeteries, in their words, are ‘a material and symbolic representation of the collective claim to a place, a land and a homeland’.54

Major cemeteries ‘play a significant role in bonding the past and present’. For this individual, China’s new assault on cemeteries is more than the physical removal of sacred areas; it’s an attack on one of the last remaining aspects of Uyghur public life tolerated by Chinese authorities:

Arguably … until this campaign began, [cemeteries] had been the only part of Uyghur physical space, life and culture that hadn’t been tainted by large-scale CCP political imposition … In this sense, the demolition of cemeteries isn’t just an attack on Uyghurs’ claims to ancestral land … it is also a calculated effort to sever the emotional and blood ties to the past.55

Earlier this year, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said, in response to concerns raised about the destruction of traditional cemeteries, that ‘Xinjiang fully respect[s] and guarantee[s] the freedom of all ethnic groups … to choose cemeteries, and funeral and burial methods.’56 However, widespread evidence collected by ASPI and other researchers, including satellite images and statements from officials in Xinjiang, shows that to be untrue, as traditional cemeteries are being subjected to a systematic campaign of desecration.

Read the full article from ASPI’s website:


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