Uighur Turks Rule Central Asia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

By consolidating their power over the Central Asian steppe in the second great Turkic empire, the Uighur Turks were able to introduce stable government systems to the region.

Summary of Event

In the sixth and seventh centuries, numerous peoples of Turkic ethnicity dominated the vast steppe regions to the north and west of China. Around 550, the Tuque Tuque (T’u-chüeh) established loose domination of the area stretching from Korea to Karashar. A confederation of nine western tribes known as the Tiele Tiele (T’ieh-le) broke away from Tuque control in the mid-seventh century and moved east to provide military aid to the government of the Chinese Tang Dynasty Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907). In 647, the Chinese took the tribes under their official protection, but by the end of the century, the Tuque khaghan (ruler) Mochuo Mochuo (Mo-ch’o) had again subjugated them. The Uighur (Uyghur) tribe, one of the nine Tiele, led a successful rebellion and overthrew Tuque rule. The leader was the Uighur Guli Peiluo Guli Peiluo of the Yaloge Yaloge , one of the ten Uighur clans. He allied the Uighur with the Basmil Basmils and Kharlukh Kharlukhs tribes and sent the severed head of the last Tuque khaghan to the Chinese emperor as proof of the coup. The Kharlukh and Uighurs soon turned on the Basmil, scattering them. The Kharlukh were next, and they, too, were forcibly absorbed into the new Uighur state. In 744, Guli Peiluo declared the founding of his Uighur Empire and his own position as khaghan. [kw]Uighur Turks Rule Central Asia (744-840) [kw]Central Asia, Uighur Turks Rule [kw]Asia, Uighur Turks Rule Central (840) [kw]Turks Rule Central Asia, Uighur (840) Uighurs Central Asia;744-840: Uighur Turks Rule Central Asia[0640] China;744-840: Uighur Turks Rule Central Asia[0640] Expansion and land acquisition;744-840: Uighur Turks Rule Central Asia[0640] Government and politics;744-840: Uighur Turks Rule Central Asia[0640] Guli Peiluo Moyanchuo Mouyu Xie Yujiasi

The son of Guli Peiluo, Moyanchuo Moyanchuo , finished off the Basmil and Kharlukh resistance and began the process of changing Uighur—and steppe—culture. Before 744, the Uighur were purely nomadic herders who lived in constant motion. They had no experience with farming or city life except through visits to China or the Iranian regions to the west. They were fierce horsemen and master mounted bowmen. However, Moyanchuo chose not to rule from horseback and established a brand new capital city, Ordu Balik Ordu Balik (Karabalghasun), on the upper Orkhon River. Its centerpiece was the khaghan’s palace, on the flat top of which a golden tent was erected; a wall with twelve great iron gates surrounded the palace. The city itself was 4 by 1.5 miles (7 by 2.5 kilometers) in area and grew from empty grassland to thriving emporium virtually overnight. It was an administrative center, a major local and long-distance market center, and a hive of craftspeople of all sorts. The Uighurs were beginning to see themselves as rivals of the Chinese and consciously avoided imitating them. Ordu Balik and Bay Balik (Rich City), built on the Selenga River, were steppe cities without the form or feel of Chinese urban centers. In many ways, the Uighurs would look westward for models even as Moyanchuo married the Tang emperor’s daughter in 758.

Chinese losses at the Battle of Talas River (751) Talas River, Battle of (751) against a Muslim army in the west and in wars against Korea in the east spawned the rise of the Turkic/Sogdian general An Lushan, An Lushan who united the northern Chinese and many Turks against the Tang. The rebellion An Lushan Rebellion began in December, 755, and by spring, four thousand Uighur horsemen led by Mouyu, second son and heir of Moyanchuo, were aiding the Tang government armies to great effect. After a year, An Lushan was assassinated, but the war continued under Shi Chaoyi Shi Chaoyi (Shih Ch’ao-I) until 763. The rebels had taken both Chinese capitals of Chang’an (now Xi’an) and Luoyang, and with Uighur aid, both were taken. To the Uighurs, however, a captured city was a captured city, and a three-day sack should have been their reward. Chang’an was spared, but Luoyang was looted.

In 759, Mouyu Mouyu had become khaghan on his father’s death. While in Luoyang for four months, Mouyu became strongly affected by the Manichaean religion, which was hated by the Chinese and adhered to by many Sogdians. On returning to Ordu Balik, he and his court debated the wisdom of converting to the western religion and abandoning their ancient Turkic nature-religion. His acceptance of Manichaeanism Manichaeanism, Uighurs and for his people alienated many, but he enforced it by using the Mongolian military measure of having one person in charge of nine: in this case, for preaching and practicing the new faith. This also meant much tighter ties with the Sogdian Sogdians;Uighurs and merchants and their western way of life. The Sogdians quickly filled important positions at court and gained great trade concessions within the empire.

To the Chinese, for whom the Uighurs were merely powerful barbarians, the Sogdian influence was entirely unwelcome. Even though the Uighurs continued to aid the Tang, as against the Tibetans in 764-765, anti-Uighur (and anti-Sogdian) violence in Chinese territory grew in frequency and brutality. In 779, on the death of Emperor Daizong Daizong (Tang emperor) (Tai-tsung, r. 762-779), Mouyu was convinced by the Sogdians at court to attack China. This drove the khaghan’s cousin and main minister, Dun Mohe Dun Mohe (Tun Mo-ho), to assassinate Mouyu, many of his family, and as many Sogdian Manichaeans as he could. Ruling as khaghan (779-789), Dun reinstated the traditional Turkic religion and strengthened relations with the Chinese (he married a Chinese princess).

After Dun, Uighur power waned, and the position of the Yaloge clan became precarious, Tibetans Tibet;Uighurs and got the best of them militarily in the west but were checked by General Xie Yujiasi of the Xiedie clan. When the khaghan died without an heir in 795, Xie Yujiasi Xie Yujiasi took the position and began a new dynasty. Known as Kutluk (r. 795-805), he brought back the Sogdian/Manichaean influence and reestablished a strong central court. He also expanded Uighur domination to Sogdian Ferghana. His successor was Baoyi Baoyi (Pao-i) khaghan (r. 805-821), under whose rule the Uighur economy prospered and whose court became noted for its luxury. Uighur tribesmen and their allies throughout the empire were directly governed by their tribal leaders, known as tutuk, who managed affairs among the nomadic folk and collected taxes for the khaghan’s court. As that court grew more detached from its roots, it lost something of the loyalty on which it based its power. Should the tutuk be lost, central authority would crumble.

The Chinese were none too happy with the Sogdian/Manichaean renaissance, the Tibetans were seeking revenge, and a new force of nomadic horsemen, the Kirghiz, was harassing the empire’s northern fringes. In 822, the Chinese refused an offer of Uighur cavalry support, a sign of both Chinese power and strained relations. By the later 840’, the strains were too great: A poor crop was followed by a livestock-killing freeze. A Uighur rebel helped the Kirghiz gain entry into Ordu Balik and kill the khaghan. The center was shattered, and the empire disintegrated.


Uighur domination of the steppe established important precedents and planted important seeds. Unlike the earlier Turks, the Uighurs were remarkably stable as rulers. Tribalism seems to have been subordinated to central rule, and mere assassinations replaced bloody civil wars marking transitions in political power. This facilitated the flow of goods and people between east and west through the empire. The Uighurs themselves demonstrated an adaptability rarely seen in the region before, as some built and peopled cities and others became agriculturalists. Similar flexibility and stability attended the experiment with Manichaeanism.

The Sogdian influence was important in enabling the Uighurs to insulate themselves from the Chinese and yet to develop the forms and institutions of civilized life. From the Sogdians, the Uighurs borrowed a script that would also serve the Mongolians half a millennium later. The steppe could be controlled, tolls and taxes collected, records kept, and stable government maintained from a capital city.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barfield, Thomas J. The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 B.C. to A.D. 1757. New York: Blackwell, 1992. Overview of the larger issue of Chinese relations with its border peoples that views Uighurs as a major stabilizing force in the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christian, David. A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Vol. 1. New York: Blackwell, 1998. Provides a broad treatment of the region. Places Uighurs in the context of their Turkic heritage and traces the cultural effects of their contacts with Sogdians and Chinese during their imperial period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mackerras, Colin. The Uighur Empire According to the T’ang Dynastic Histories: A Study in Sino-Uighur Relations, 744-840. 2d ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972. A concise introduction to Uighur history is followed by translations from contemporary Chinese histories of the period. Attention is clearly on relations with China, but this is the only work in English specifically on Uighurs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mackerras, Colin. “The Uighurs.” In The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Short introduction to their history and culture during the imperial period.

Categories: History