The principal aim of this project is to carry out PhD research regarding the historical construction of social space and identity narratives in the inter-ethnic context of South-eastern Kazakhstan and Northern Kyrgyzstan during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Specifically, I intend to study the cultural exchanges and adaptations by which Dungan (Muslim Hui) people established their territorial identities in the region of Kordai (Kazakhstan) and Tokmok (Kyrgyzstan) following various migratory displacements which have brought them together at various moments between the 1870s and 1960s. In particular, I am interested in reconstructing the forms of self-representation among, 1) those Dungan groups who arrived in 1878 from the Chinese region of Shaanxi to Masanchi and Sortobe and, 2) those Dungan groups who arrived in 1878 from the Chinese region of Gansu to Tokmok and the area surrounding Bishkek.

One of the main objectives of this research is to problematize existing ideas regarding the perceived ease with which Dungan and other ethnic groups are able to adapt to a multi-ethnic setting in a quasi-national context of shifting territorial identities. At a broader theoretical level, this analysis aims at contributing fresh insights and methods for the study of migrant communities and so-called stateless societies.

Historical setting: Dungan migrations of the XIXth and XXth centuries

After the expansion of the Qing Dynasty towards its Inner Asian borders in the mid-eighteenth century, at the initiative of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), there were several local revolts against the Chinese presence in what came to be known as the Western Regions of the Middle Kingdom. (1) However, it was not until the expansion of the Russian empire into Central Asia, at the expense of the territories occupied by China, that China began to show concern about the destabilizing potential of these uprisings. By the mid-nineteenth century, there were clearly defined Russian and Chinese zones of influence in the territories referred to by imperial Russia as ‘Turkestan’. At this time, China began to consolidate its influence and authority in the region currently known as Xinjiang province (which was not officially named Xinjiang until 1884). In turn, Russia began to expand into the present-day territories of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

During this period between 1862 and 1877 there were a series of riots staged by some of Hui and Uighur communities subject to Qing authority. These riots were precipitated by, and related more broadly to, the internal territorial reshuffling that followed the Tongzhi restoration, and took place during the time in which China was being subjected to the various strategies and positionings of the Western imperial powers (Wright, 1957; Perdue, 2005). It is within this context that some of the migrations mentioned above took place.

According to Svetlana Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer (1992), during the nineteenth century there were two broad migratory movements undertaken by some Uighur and Chinese Muslim communities (the latter of which are commonly known as Hui zu (回族) in China, and ‘Dungan’ in Russia and the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia). (2) The first of these movements took place after the Qing authorities crushed a Muslim rebellion in 1878, and shortly after the formal division of the Inner Asian region by Russia and China. The second major Dungan migration was precipitated after the signing of the Treaty of St. Petersburg, on February 12, 1881 (Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer, 1992).

Principal Aims of this Research Project

The main purpose of this research is to carry out ethnographic and historical field research in and around the townships of Masanchi and Sortobe, in Kazakhstan, and Tokmok and Bishkek, in Kysgyzstan, the descendants of the Dungan migrants mentioned above.

There are several reasons for having chosen these as my primary sites of interest:
First, in the case of Masanchi and Sortobe, these towns present a singular example of a minority inside the minority, since they are inhabited by Shaanxi Dungans and the Gansu Dungan language and culture were the ‘official’ during the Soviet period. This may indicate that local people’s relationship with respect to their surrounding social space is distinct from those who are the ‘canonic’. Nevertheless, both places are located in the ‘Dungan core area’, i.e. around Tokmok (Kyrgyzstan), and this factor let us think about a trans-border Dungan community. This situation may help to explain the linguistic continuity of Chinese and Russian as extant languages among the members of the Dungan community of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Dungan community of the Zhambyl Province consistently show a certain reluctance to coexist (e.g. intermarry, trade, enter into cultural borrowings) with other ethnic groups in the region. Thus, while other migrant groups, such as Uighurs, have absorbed the particularities of Russian, Kazakh and Kyrgyz cuisine and clothing, and communicate often with these groups in their respective languages, the Dungans continue to hold to their own styles of clothing, cooking and oral traditions. It is for this reason that I am interested in comparing both of these groups and exploring the multifarious ways in which different ethnic groups in the China-Central Asia-Russian context adapt and coexist.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the Dungans of Kazakhstan have never previously been the subject of detailed research, and have only been mentioned in the extant scholarly literature as part of other broader research regarding Dungan populations in the region (Allès, 2005), and there were no comparisons with the Kyrgyzstan Dungans case. Given the scant volume of publications regarding the history and self-representations of Dungan communities in Central Asia, I hope to produce novel and more detailed data that may allow for a more nuanced and critical analysis of the existence of these groups in such a multi-ethnic and shifting context. Importantly, I already had an opportunity to approach these communities and to begin to establish lasting and important ties with its members as a result of the work that I undertook recently (2007-2009) in relation to my Master’s dissertation (cf. Jiménez Tovar, 2009).


The main working hypothesis which I intend to put to test throughout this project is:

Dungans have had greater difficulty in coexisting alongside the multi-ethnic contexts of the Kazakh society. First, because the Dungans are ethnically and culturally more related to China. Hence, there are many cultural characteristics, or type features, that they appear to share with the majority nationality of the PRC -such as ancestor worship, mythological references, language, dress, cooking, among others. Whether these shared cultural characteristics are relevant or not, Dungans certainly appear to have faced greater difficulties in learning and incorporating local Central Asian languages (mainly Turkic) into their everyday lives, and, conversely, they have focused more on retaining their original cultural archetypes. This practice of ‘cultural conservation’ may have encouraged Dungan groups to be less willing to coexist with the multi-ethnic communities of their host society. Consequently, some of the groups inhabiting the Zhambil Oblast’ perceive the Dungans as alien, making it even harder for members of the Dungan community to enter more broadly into the multi-ethnic milieu of Kazakhstan.

In sum, the setting for this study will be Masanchi and Sortobe in Kazakhstan and Tokmok in Kyrgyzstan. The subject of my project will be those groups with origins in China who migrated within the past century and a half to multi-ethnic contexts in Central Asia. In this case, I am interested in the Dungan population that originated in Gansu and Shaanxi, and whose arrival in the region of study took place as a result, respectively, of various forced displacements provoked, respectively, by the Muslim rebellions in China (1862-1877) and the founding of the PRC (1949).

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1 By Western Regions (西域; xī yù), I refer generally to the territories that run from the central area of the current PRC to various parts of the modern nation-states of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia.
2 In order to differenciate the hui ethnic group living in China, from the muslim chinese settled in the Central Asian countries, for the former, I use the term hui or huizu; for the last, I use dungan.


Soledad Jiménez Tovar, M.A., Ph.D Candidate

Department Integration and Conflict, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology