Home E-resources People in the flow of history Implementation of a program Historical and ethnological expedition, work in foreign archives Expedition of ethnologists in Altay autonomous region Xinjiang in China

Expedition of ethnologists in Altay autonomous region Xinjiang in China

Complex study of history and culture of Kazakh people not only within republic, but also abroad, both near and far, is one of the important tasks of modern ethnographic science of Kazakhstan.  Integration on world economy, globalization processes put an important problem of saving Kazakhs as ethnos with its unique history and original culture in the forefront.

Department of Ethnology at the Institute of History and Ethnology named after Ch. Ch. Valikhanov is currently engaged in the researches of topic "Culture of the Kazakh Diasporas in China and Mongolia at the present stage ". The theme of the Kazakhs in Mongolia has been developed for a long time by the department, worthy material is collected, which is now at the stage of final processing. The study of the traditional culture of the Kazakhs from China and the changes occurring in it has begun in relatively recent time (last 2-3 years). Ethnologists had made ​​three expeditions that shown the importance of studying the material and spiritual culture of Kazakhs living in the neighboring country and representing the largest our diaspora - about 1.4 million people. The study revealed distinctive folk traditions, mostly lost in Kazakhstan during the Soviet period, as well as innovations in the life of this large ethnic group under the influence of modern processes, particularly "Chinese reforms ". In this article we would like to briefly inform the reader about the last expedition to the Altai autonomous region of Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous region, which was held in August  of the last 2012.

The expedition began working on August, 3, 2012, on this day the participants went to Urumqi - the administrative center of Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region of People’s Republic of China. In total, 10 experts took part in expedition: ethnologists, ethnoarchaeologists, and historians. The beginning of its work was dedicated to the International theoretical and practical conference entitled "Steppe Silk Road and the prospects for international economic cooperation in the Trans-Altai region". The conference started on August, 5 in Urumqi and was completed for the members of the expedition on August, 9, in Altay - the central city of Altai Autonomous Region, the majority of the population are Kazakhs there. There were such presentations on complex directions, performed at the forum, as "Steppe Silk Road and the civilization of Central Asia" and "Prospects for Trans-Altai international economic cooperation". The conference was carried out at a high organizational level, for fair; besides working days of meetings there were a lot of educational, touristic and other activities in the program, in the form of excursions to museums, exit routes, concerts. Hospitality and clarity of the organizers’ work left a lot of positive experiences and fond memories.

After the forum finished, and its main participants returned in Urumqi, ethnographic expedition members stayed in the Kaba district of Altai Autonomous Region, at its center: Akshi town. It should be clarified that in Xinjiang Kazakhs live in the northern part of the region - mainly in the special Ili-Kazakh Autonomous Region (IKAR), which consists of three districts/aimaks: Ili, Tarbagatay and Altai. The center of the region and the Ili district is Kuldja (Yining), and the centers of two other districts are Chuguchak (Shaushek) and Altai (Sarsumbe). In addition, the Kazakhs settle in other districts, counties of Xinjiang, partly outside it. The preliminary field studies were conducted in these areas in previous years.

The work of a complex ethnographic expedition of 2012 were concentrated in the Altai district, were held until the end of August. In general, a significant route was passed during the expedition, more than 2 thousand kilometers. The following districts, populated mainly by Kazakh people, were investigated: Kaba, Buyrshyn, Koktogay, Buryltogay, Shyngyl and Altai. Traditional and modern culture of the population in this district, a number of historical and cultural monuments was studied.

Big part of the population in Altai district is generally engaged in the traditional cattle-breeding in its seminomadic and semi-settled forms, with the breeding of the major types of livestock: sheep, horses, camels, cows and yaks. Principles of pasture and keeping of domestic animals, generated for many centuries, methods of traditional veterinary medicine are observed; the system of traditional settlement and housing in the form of fixed -kystau and yurts is still valid. In Altai, as in all pastoral areas of Xinjiang, the traditional crafts of the Kazakhs are mainly stored and played an important role in the economic life of the local population. Moreover, in recent years the expressed actualization of folk spiritual, non-material culture, that is not associated with life-supporting functions, can be observed. This is reflected in the original customs and rituals, colorful music, singing art, the art of dance, rich folklore, as well as the religious life of the population. The ethnographic collections of the museums of the Altai region became valuable sources for the members of the expedition: Regional Museum and Exhibition Kazakh center in Altai, as well as the county museums of Akshi, Buyrshyn and others, that contained unique historical and ethnographic exhibits.

Modern economic activity of the Kazakhs of China excited a great interest to members of the expedition. As it is noted above, there has been actively functioning nomadic and semi-nomadic cattle-breeding until recent time in the life of the Chinese Altai Kazakhs, but which is currently undergoing significant changes, although many of the traditional elements of the former cattle-breeding economy are still remained. For example, the transport of goods for migrations is implemented both by freight transport and by camels. The PRC government is currently conducting an active policy of introduction of settled way of life for the Kazakhs - semi-nomadic cattle-breeders, while there are different benefits and payments, given as a compensation for their transition to sedentary life. In accordance with long-term, strategic plans for economic and social development in Xinjiang as a whole, and the Chinese Altai, in particular, so in the latter, along with notable economic and infrastructural changes, there is intensive work on development of tourism zone in the area, the formation of the tourism cluster here, and in the short term. Of course, unique nature of this part of the Altai promotes to this fact, where, for example, a wonderful Kanas Lake is situated, as well as many other attractions. Even today, thousands of tourists from Inner China make a touristic pilgrimage to Altai.

It should be noted that the tourism business is also growing in other parts of the Kazakh settlement - such is the great gorge Bogda, to the south of Fukang, 80 kilometers to the east of Urumqi, which is located in the upper reaches of the picturesque lake Bogdakol. Perfectly made road with a length of 20 km Leads to it, this road looks no worse, if not better than our famous way on Medeu. The area has long been settled by Kazakh cattle-breeders, many of which are now settled and involved in the service sector for many tourists. On the shore of this large lake, where now one can see the motor ships, a yurt camp is formed where such guests take up residence as: the Chinese and foreigners. Service is generally of a good level and there is the only sad moment - the area of existence of traditional Kazakh culture is gradually becoming narrower, and some groups of Kazakh cattle-breeders are forced to lead a nomad’s life in the high mountains.

But we think that in the modern epoch, the process of extinction old traditional culture is, in principle, inevitable. It is gratifying that the Kazakh population of Xinjiang tries to maintain ethnographic basis of culture - particularly in the area of ​​spiritual culture as well as in accessible forms of material sphere. In general, the ethnic culture of the Diaspora in China is, one might say, at the stage of the professionalization of folk art with sufficiently active use, scenic and other presentations, and plays a very important role in terms of self-identification and preservation of a major ethnic group. To a certain extent there is a museumification of traditional culture. The Altai region of Xinjiang has many museums, where the best examples of the Kazakh material culture have been selected with the efforts of enthusiasts from the local Kazakhs. It is significant that in the above mentioned Bogda Gorge, in Santu area, a big center of the Kazakh culture "Khan Saraiy" with the museum, which has a very representative ethnographic exhibition is created; the museum building is designed in the style of folk architecture of the Kazakhs of Eastern Turkestan. It’s interesting that this cultural center was established at the initiative of a Chinese businessman, with the participation of local Kazakh ethnographers.

However, returning to actively developing tourism in China that involves our compatriots too, a question appears automatically: why not to create the tourist areas with the appropriate infrastructure in Kazakhstan, in no less picturesque part of the Altai?

The adaptability of modern Kazakhs of China to the current actively developing in the country market relations undoubtedly excites an interest. Products of Kazakh artisans and craftsmen are always in demand from local Kazakhs. This production includes, for example , home textiles, decorated with Kazakh ornament made with embroidery and appliques, traditional style clothes for special occasions, the national musical instruments, wooden kitchenware, household articles made of iron and many others. Chinese Altai Kazakhs are also engaged in various types of trade, there is gold mining from ancient times. A peculiar, unfamiliar to us mine is, for example, extraction and processing of stones, both semi-precious and ordinary, but the original form, etc. These stones are in great demand among the population of the whole Altai, they are worn as jewelry, and they can be found in the interiors of homes. Apparently, this is one of the examples of acculturation, influence of Chinese culture on the local Kazakh culture.

During the expedition a complex study of modern settlements, forms of housing, as well as the features of the memorial architecture of Kazakhs from Altai, including mosques and gravestones was carried out. It should be noted that the restoration of monuments of Kazakh figures of XVIII - beginning of XX centuries, which have been destroyed during the "cultural revolution", is implemented with the forces of the local Kazakhs. Modern memorials dedicated to leaders of the national liberation movement of Kazakhs in Altai governor Sharipkhan Kogedaiuly, General Dalelkhan Sugirbaiuly, excites great interest, as well as the Mongolian historical complex "Saddle of Genghis Khan ".

It is necessary to note that expedition was organized and carried out with the support of the administration of Academic Institution of history and ethnology named after Ch.Ch. Valikhanov (director Professor H. Abzhanov) and the colleagues from Institute of history and ethnology in Xinjiang Pedagogical University (Normal University, director doctor Dilmurat Omaruly). The representatives of local culture institutions, informants-compatriots, also assisted within their powers. Revelation, research and introduction of received materials on the culture of Kazakh diaspora in China into scientific circulation will promote to preservation, study and popularization of ethno cultural legacy of Kazakh nation.

S.E. Azhigali

(The head of Chinese (Xinjiang) ethnographic expedition of the Institute of History and ethnology named after Ch.Ch. Valikahnov, doctor of historical sciences, professor)


(The Institute of History and ethnology named after Ch.Ch. Valikahnov, candidate of historical sciences)


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