Uighur Migrations Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After their defeat by the Khirghiz, the Uighur Turks migrated into eastern Turkistan and western China, established new homelands, and continued their development as a nation.

Summary of Event

The Uighur Turks, a branch of the Huns, are first mentioned in Chinese documents dating from the third century b.c.e. They shared their early history with other Turkish tribes living in Mongolia and Central Asia until the eighth century, when they built their own state after the collapse of the Göktürk Empire. Under great leaders such as Guli Peiluo (Kutluk Bilgé Kül; r. 744-747), Moyanchuo (Bayan Chor; r. 747-759), Mouyu (Bügü; r. 759-779), and Xie Yujiasi (Kutluk; r. 795-805), they established a state along the Orkhun River that eventually extended from Mongolia to India. In the ninth century, however, this early Uighur empire declined and, in 840, was conquered by the Khirghiz Khirghiz . [kw]Uighur Migrations (840-846) [kw]Migrations, Uighur (840-846) Uighurs Migrations;Uighurs to Turkistan and China China;840-846: Uighur Migrations[0910] Central Asia;840-846: Uighur Migrations[0910] Cultural and intellectual history;840-846: Uighur Migrations[0910] Expansion and land acquisition;840-846: Uighur Migrations[0910] Ughe Tegin Khan

Groups of Uighurs then migrated eastward—some to the western banks of the Yellow River in Gansu, others to eastern Turkistan in the Tarim Basin at Tian Shan, and the largest group to the north of Tian Shan, where their descendants live today. The Kanchou Uighurs Kanchou Uighurs on the Yellow River never established themselves as a great power, although some of their leaders earned the respect of the Chinese. The Tankuts absorbed the kingdom in 1028. A small group called the Yellow Uighurs Yellow Uighurs , who practice Buddhism, still exist today.

The second group, living in the Tian Shan in eastern Turkistan, formed the Karakhoja Uighur Kingdom Karakhoja Uighur Kingdom near the present-day city of Turfan, where they absorbed the indigenous population in the region. The kingdom began in 846 and was recognized by the Chinese, who sent ambassadors in the tenth century. The first ruler was Ughe Tegin Ughe Tegin (r. 840-846), followed by Enian Tegin Enian Tegin (r. 846-847). Most of the Karakhoja Uighurs practiced Buddhism, converting from Manichaeanism, although some were Nestorian Christians. In this area, the Uighur civilization thrived, creating large, prosperous Buddhist monasteries and towns. The Uighurs were remarkable writers and artists, and their position along the famed Silk Road contributed to their economy. Many of the stronger Turkish states in the region formed marriage alliances with the Uighur rulers. Religion;Uighurs

The third kingdom, the Qarakhanid Qarakhanids kingdom, in the southern part of east Turkistan with its capital at Kashgar, began in 840 after the fall of the earlier kingdom. The ruler at that time was Bilge Kur Kadir Bilge Kur Kadir . This kingdom included other Turkish tribes such as the Karluks, Turgish, and the Basmils. In 999, the Qarakhanid conquered Bukhara from the Sāmānids but were checked from advancing further by the Ghaznavids. In 1040, the Qarakhanids lost control of west Turkistan, where other Turkish tribes established their own states. In 1397, the two east Turkistan kingdoms united and remained independent of the Sāmānid Dynasty Sāmānid Dynasty[Samanid Dynasty] of western Turkistan until the Qing Dynasty (Ch’ing, 1644-1911) of China conquered them in 1759.

During their first empire, the Uighurs had developed their own script and literature—initially, translations of Manichaean and Buddhist religious texts. Writing;Uighurs With the coming of Islam, they changed to the Arabic script and made great contributions to Muslim theology and scholarship. Among the most notable is Kutadgú biligŏ (1070; Wisdom of Royal Glory, 1983) Wisdom of Royal Glory (Yūsuf Khāss Hājib) by Yūsuf Khāss Hājib Yūsuf Khāss Hājib , which was written for the education of princes but also describes Uighur society and politics in the writer’s era. In the same period, Maḥmūd Kāshgarī Maḥmūd Kāshgarī wrote his dictionary of Turkic dialects, Dīwān lughāt al-Turk (1074; Compendium of the Turkic Dialects Compendium of the Turkic Dialects (Kāshgarī) , 1982-1985), a comprehensive study of the various Turkish dialects and customs as well as the geographical locations in which the dialects were spoken. Kāshgarī’s work is based on extensive travels Travel by land;Kāshgarī[Kashgari] and personal investigations and is a major source for the study of Uighur civilization. Another well-known work is poet Ahmet Yukneki’ Ahmet Yukneki Atabetül-hakayik Atabetül-hakayik (Ahmet Yukneki) .

The earliest Uighurs were Shamanists, but adopted Buddhism, Brahmanism, and Manichaeanism. In 934, the Uighurs converted to Islam under Satuq Bughra Khān Satuq Bughra Khān , the first Turkish ruler to adopt the Muslim faith. Religion;Uighurs Islam;Uighurs Over the next few centuries, the khans built hundreds of mosques. More than three hundred were established in Kasgar alone, the most famous being the Azna (twelfth century), the Idgah (fifteenth century), and the Appak Khoja (eighteenth century) mosques. The government also established schools (madrasas Madrasas ), creating eighteen major schools in the capital that taught Muslim theology and also secular subjects such as logic, arithmetic, geometry, ethics, astronomy, medicine, and astronomy. Almost two thousand students attended at any one time. In the fifteenth century, the capital’s Mesudi library had a collection of two hundred thousand books.

The Uighurs were farmers, growing wheat, millet, sesame, grapes, melons, sugar beets, cotton, and other produce. They built canals to bring water from distant sources for irrigation. Some of these canals are still used today. Cotton was a source of great commercial wealth as were the carpets woven by the Uighurs. Agriculture;Uighurs The early Turks wove carpets using knotted fibers. Uighur carpets, which were first made in the third century, were woven from cotton, wool, and silk imported into China and displayed many different colors and patterns. Cities such as Hoten, Kashgar, and Turfan became quite renowned as centers of Turkish carpets. The Uighurs created metal objects of various kinds as well. They also made and played more than sixty different musical instruments. Music;Uighurs

The oldest Turkish burial grounds are found at Hun Kurgans near the Altai Mountains. These were small mounds over a hidden chamber. During the Göktürk Empire, the graves were simple stones over the graves surrounded by statues (balbal), which stood for the persons killed by the deceased in battle. The Uighurs, however, covered their dead with a dome known as a stupa.

Chinese visitors to Turkistan expressed their admiration of Uighur civilization. For example, ambassador Wang Ye De, addressing the Karakhoja Uighurs in the 980’, wrote “I was impressed with the extensive civilization I have found in the Uygur [sic] Kingdom. The beauty of the temples, monasteries, wall paintings, statues, towers, gardens, housings and the palaces built throughout the kingdom cannot be described. The Uygurs are very skilled in handicrafts made from gold and silver, vases and potteries. Some say that God has infused this talent into these people only.”

The Uighurs were well known for their medical knowledge. During the Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279), an Uighur physician, Nanto, visited China, bringing with him medicines Medicine;Uighurs and knowledge unknown to the Chinese. The Chinese scholar and physician Li Shizen (1518-1593) records in his medical text that Uighurs used more than a hundred different herbs in their medical practice, and Uighur documents reveal descriptions of acupuncture with graphic anatomical examples. Indeed, some scholars have argued that acupuncture was a Turkish invention perfected by the Uighurs, rather than a Chinese creation.


The Uighur migration into eastern Turkistan and western China after the fall of their empire led to the survival of their ethnicity and its further cultural development. The Uighurs never again created as great of an empire; however, the literary, scholarly, scientific, and spiritual achievements in this phase of Uighur history contributed greatly to its own society and that of other communities in Central and East Asia. Uighur manuscripts discovered in the caves of Turkistan have revealed the development of Turkish writing and literature. The Uighurs’s religious diversity allowed religious dissidents such as the Nestorian Christians to preserve their churches, and the Uighurs’s later conversion to Islam helped to spread that faith into the Far East. The Uighurs left their name in the Uighurstan region of China, where a Muslim minority called Uighurs (or Uyghurs) exists until today. However, there is a scholarly debate if these are descendants of the medieval Uighurs or later migrants who adopted the name.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beller-Hann, Ildiko. The Written and Spoken: Literacy and Oral Transmission Among the Uighur. Berlin. Das Arabische, 2000. A scholarly book describing Uighur literature and folklore.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rudelson, Justin Jon. Oasis Identities: Uighur Nationalism Along China’s Silk Road. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Describes Uighur roots in the Tarim Basin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sinor Denis, ed. The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Has a chapter on the Uighur Empire and references to their subsequent fate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wei, Ts’ui-i. Uighur Stories from the Silk Road. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1998. A collection of Uighur folktales.

Categories: History