Rian Thum, "The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History" (Harvard UP, 2014)


In his fascinating new book, Rian Thum explores the craft, materiality, nature, and readership of Uyghur history over the past 300 years. The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History (Harvard University Press, 2014) argues that understanding Uyghur history in this way is crucial for understanding both Uyghur identity and continuing relationships with the Chinese state. Rather than writing a narrative of "Xinjiang," Thum instead crafts his history as a story of the shifting spaces of Altishahr, an Uyghur name for "six cities" and a term "used by people who are denied the political power to draw maps." In Thum's hands, Altishahr ceases to be a frontier or marginal area: instead, it moves to the center along with the broader field of Uyghur history and historiography. After describing the textual landscape of Altishahri manuscripts as of the beginning of the twentieth century and introducing the genre of the tazkirah as a major vehicle for popular local history, Thum considers the importance of orality to the experience of Altishahri texts, the significance of shrines as spaces of history-making in Altishahr, the ways that the pilgrimage tradition has maintained a shared Altishahri regional identity and view of the past, and the ways that historical fiction and newspapers have helped shape a modern Altishahri historical tradition. Ultimately, Thum also shows how analyzing historical traditions in so-called "marginal" societies can help us understand the nature of history as a practice more broadly conceived.

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