Destruction of an Ancient City: The Demolition of Kashgar

Last year for a class presentation on current events in Central Asia, a friend and I decided to investigate the protracted devastation of the ancient city of Kashgar. Kashgar, which not many people have heard of, is an historic city in northwestern China, home to one of China’s minority ethnic groups, the Uighurs. In fact it was one of the last Uighur-majority cities in their ancestral region. Historically, Kashgar was a hub of trade and a cultural bridge between China, India, and Central Asia. It was even prominent focal point on the Silk Road and specifically within the surrounding territory and, before the demolition, the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic village in Central Asia. This legacy was even engaged in order to have Kashagar considered a world heritage site by UNESCO in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to prevent the destruction.

A woman walks the streets of the old city. Photograph from Time.com by Gilles Sabrie / OnAsia.com

In China’s northwest province of Xinjiang, the western-most city of Kashgar is one of the last major cities home to the Uighurs, “a Turkic-speaking people who have long chafed under Beijing’s rule and who worry that their culture is slowly disappearing” (Fan, 2009). Uighurs have long been subjected to state repression in terms of culture, religion, and economic and political power, and are resentful of the moderated inflow of Han Chinese workers. Due to this increased migration over time, largely resulting from state-sanctioned monetary incentives, Han Chinese have come to dominate political and economic life and government positions in Xinjiang, pushing Uighurs to the margins in their own home, in fact one of the only place that many Uighurs truly identify as their home. As a result of this marginalization, many Uighurs have sometimes made violent attempts or calls for independence, a fact that makes the Chinese government very nervous, and has often led brutal state oppression, as evidenced by the 1997 Ghulja massacre and the 2009 ethnic riots in Urumqi.

In the same year as the ethnic riots, the Chinese government announced its “$500 million ‘Kashgar Dangerous House Reform’ program” (Hammer, 2010) to move about 50,000 residents out of the old city and into modern apartment buildings” (Fan, 2009). This plan entails the demolition of about 85 percent of the old city of Kashgar, including mosques, markets, and many peoples’ earthen homes, some of which have been standing for years, representing, to the Uighurs, a link to their ancestors and traditions.

Demolition of the old city has been underway since about 2010, forcing the relocation of thousands of Uighur families. Photograph from Time.com by Gilles Sabrie / OnAsia.com

The government has cited overcrowding, and the physical instability of the earthen homes in the old city as reasoning for this transition, however many Uighurs suspect the reason is much less noble, namely severing Uighur cultural ties and forcing assimilation. Others have suggested this demolition as both a punishment for Uighur militancy and a way to prevent future terrorist activities (Hammer, 2010).

This demolition and reconstruction is likely also motivated by the potential revenue of new building projects and the state’s manic rush for modernization. Chinese authorities…do not attach much importance to protecting traditional vernacular architecture. Imperial palaces and grand religious temples are worthy of preservation or even reconstruction,” but anything beyond that is often “deemed too ordinary, especially when there is money to made building high-rises in their stead.” (Geens, 2010). For instance, “In 2005, new construction in Beijing equaled the total in all of Europe, according to the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (BCHPC)” (Hammer, 2010).

Furthermore, “Chinese authorities are often criticized for not being sensitive to groups outside their own majority ethnic Han culture” (Fan, 2009). If the Chinese government does not even make special efforts to preserve elements of Han Chinese culture, then it seems the culture of an ethnic minority, such as the Uighurs is at an even higher risk of being erased in the government’s race to modernize.

The banner beneath this statue of Chairman Mao in the People’s Square of Kashgar urges people to “Implement the six responsibilities, promote the concept of scientific development, build a harmonious Kashgar.” Photograph from Time.com by Gilles Sabrie / OnAsia.com

Homes are disappearing one by one, as the owners settle their compensation with the Chinese government. However, “if their owners hold out indefinitely they’ll be denied electricity and water until their cause is made irrelevant” (Geens, 2010). In place of these traditional buildings “work crews are constructing 2-3 story reinforced concrete frameworks, at roughly the same scale as the structures they replace,” while around the perimeter of the old city, “4-6 story medium-rise residential buildings are sprouting” (Geens, 2010). These new buildings are generic replicas of one another and in no way resemble any of the traditional architecture of the old city. Even the layout of the streets and alleys is changing with this new construction.

Although the government may have more incentive to preserve the city if tourism were bringing in more revenue, this should not be the sole factor driving conservation. Even without a broad touristic appeal, these homes and shops and mosques do not deserve to be demolished, since they compose the ancestral home of the long-oppressed Uighurs, and thereby ground this community to its cultural heritage.

In the old city of Kashgar, where these Uighurs have lived for many years, they have established community networks and cultural ties to their ancestral heritage, and the atmosphere of the old city subsequently reflects these attachments. “Traditional urban geography anchors local culture through the unique social interactions it facilitates; Kashgar’s alleys, with their many small mosques and nearby teahouses, foster micro-neighborhoods safe enough for bare-bottomed toddlers to play unsupervised” (Geens, 2010). And while a small portion of the city will be maintained for wealthy Chinese tourists, this means little to the thousands of Uighurs who will have lost not only their homes, but their communities, only to be relocated to an apartment complex without any sense of culture or community.

A woman looking around her home for the last time before being relocated. The state has offered families cash incentives for moving out even earlier than scheduled. Photograph from Time.com by Gilles Sabrie / OnAsia.com

Last year in May 2014, Chinese ­authorities did clash with residents of Xinjiang in response to a string of brazen attacks attributed to Islamist extremists. In the aftermath, state security forces made several arrests and increased surveillance, with Kashgar in particular described as a city on lock-down. This may have acted as further motivation for the state to increase the pace of demolition and finish the construction projects. However, as of right now, the status of the demolition and new construction is unclear as there hasn’t been much recent media coverage.

Although many Uighurs have been enraged by this transition, there also seems to be a general sense of resignation because people feel they have no rights and no power in the face of the state’s rapid modernization.

Symbolically destroying homes is a severe blow to any person or group of people, representing a severance with one’s family life, roots, and in turn a piece of one’s identity. Specifically destroying the old city of Kashgar will be a major blow to an already oppressed community, as “the old town is also one of the few authentic representations of Uighur culture left’” where “‘Uighur culture is attached to those raw earth buildings.’” (Fan, 2009). Even more saddening is the fact that despite the widespread anger over this destruction, many have simply resigned themselves to the outcome, as demonstrated by one man’s statement that the government is government [and] we can do nothing’” (Fan, 2009). Unfortunately, it seems that “the character of old Kashgar will soon change irrevocably, not through necessity or war or natural disaster, but through fiat” (Geens, 2010).

Works Cited

Stefan Geens. “The Last Days of Old Kashgar.” 2010. http://ogleearth.com/2010/09/the-last-days-of-old-kashgar/

Joshua Hammer. “Demolishing Kashgar’s History: A Vital Stop on China’s Ancient Silk Road, the Uighur City of Kashgar may lose its old quarter to plans for “progress.” The Smithsonian Magazine. 2010. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/demolishing-kashgars-history-7324895/?no-ist 

Maureen Fan. “An Ancient Culture Bulldozed Away.” Washington Post Foreign Service. 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/23/AR2009032302935.html

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