The Kazakhs of Xinjiang

    Written by: Tsui Yenhu and Lou Wanghao
    Posted on: July 30, 2012 | Post your comment here Comments | 中文

    Kazakhs of Xinjiang, China - Kazakhs of Xinjiang

    Kazakhs of Xinjiang, China

    The Kazakhs, with a long standing nomadic history and culture, lived for a long time in Central Asia and in ancient Xinjiang of China. They reside mainly in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, Mori Kazakh Autonomous County, and Barkol Kazakh Autonomous County, all of which are located in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Up to 2009, there were more than 1,400,000 Kazakhs living in Xinjiang. They mainly practice animal husbandry, in addition to some agriculture. Most of the Kazakhs in Xinjiang speak Kazakh, which belongs to the Kipchak branch of the Turkic language sect in the Altaic language Family. The ancestors of today’s Kazakhs used Orkhon-Yenesei script and the Uyghur script. After the introduction of Islam, they began to use a phonetic alphabet based on the Arabic script.

    The Kazakhs practice monogamy. They pay special attention to whether the girl and boy about to be married belong to the same clan; if so they are not allowed to marry. No matter what, the boy and girl must marry out of the clan. Marriages within a large clan are permitted, but there must be more than seven generations, and the couple to be wed must be separated by at least seven generations. The Kazakhs believe that people who are related within seven generations share flesh and blood, and thus cannot marry. This tradition has been carried down to this day.

    The yurt, in Kazakh called oy, is not only easily transported, but also stable and resilient, comfortable to live in, and resistant to cold, rain, and earthquakes. The inside of a yurt is well ventilated and receives lots of light. It has been cherished by Kazakhs for thousands of years, and due to the white felt that covers it and the care taken with the inside trappings, it is sometimes called a “white palace.” The yurt has a wall, roof poles, a center roof piece, a felt covering, and a door amongst other components. The bottom half is cylindrical, and the top is conical. The yurt is generally about three meters tall, and has a floor area of about 20-30 m². The interior of the yurt is normally divided into two main parts: a living area and an area to store things. Directly below the opening in the ceiling in the middle of the yurt is the hearth, which can be a dug in the ground or made of iron. Half of the ground inside the yurt will be carpeted.

    Kazakh herders don’t like to be separated from their horse, a Kazakh proverb goes: “Horses are the wings of the Kazakh.” For carrying loads, Kazakh herders tend to use cow carts or camels.

    The eating habits of nomadic Kazakhs are closely related to the animal husbandry which they depend on. Their diet includes meat, dairy products, tea, and flour-based foods. As they believe in Islam, the Kazakhs don't eat pork, livestock that are not slaughtered in the Halal way, and any animal blood. Mutton accounts for the largest proportion of meat in Kazakh people’s diets. Their dairy products are mainly made from goat’s milk, cow’s milk, horse’s milk and camel’s milk.

    The main types of dairy products include fresh milk, yogurt, aq erimchik, sar erimchik, kurt, irkit, kilegi, kaymaq, kimiz, etc. Due to the high intake of animal fat in their diet and the harsh climate in summer and winter, Kazakh people have developed a habit of drinking tea. Therefore, nomadic Kazakhs often say "Rather a day without food, than a day without tea," and "Drinking tea everyday keeps illness away."

    Before accepting Islam, the ancestors of the Kazakhs celebrated the “Nawruz” festival, the holiday that is still celebrated today and is like the Spring Festival. The festival is celebrated on the vernal equinox of the lunar calendar. This date has a close relationship to the Kazakhs’ ancient zodiac system, on this day. As the Kazakhs converted to Islam over time, some of the religious customs slowly made their way into people’s everyday lives. Thus, Kazakhs today celebrate the annual Roza and Kurban festivals.

    Historically, the vast majority of Kazakhs led a nomadic lifestyle, and thus their clothing reflected the characteristics of a nomad on the steppe. Herders mostly used livestock hides and wool for clothing materials. Kazakh men would wear cotton trousers, especially corduroy and gabardine. Black and brown were usually the preferred colors. In winter, leather overcoats and trousers were worn. Generally sheep hides were used, but wolf, fox, and other animals’ hides were used too. In order to facilitate mounting and dismounting horses, trousers were fitted with sheep skin crotches, and thus were usually wide and very resilient. Shirts were usually high collared and embroidered. On top of the shirt a sleeveless jacket was worn, and on top of that a waistcoat could be worn; sometimes on top of that a qiapan (large overcoat or jacket) could be worn. Two types of fur jackets, one called tuoni (with no cloth hanging), and the other known as yishike (with cloth hanging) were worn, as well as another type of coat which was stuffed with camel hair or sheep’s wool and was known as kupu.

    Kazakhs have a rich variety of exquisite traditional handicrafts, such as embroidery, saddles, musical instruments, leather goods, silver jewelry, tapestry, clothes, dyed knitted wools, grass curtains, as well as bone, iron, wood, and bark products. Amongst these, their embroidery is truly outstanding. It is a very traditional Kazakh craft and is used widely in Kazakh life: on clothes, shoes, bedding, and all sorts of items found in the yurt – the deft hands of Kazakh women add artistic embellishment to their lives. The Kazakh people are very artistic, and very talented as well. During the long migrations of nomadic life, Kazakh women observed the mountain peaks, springs, grasslands, flowers, cattle, sheep, horses, and swans all around them and incorporated all of them into their artistic palette. Cattle horn, sheep horn, and deer antler shapes have become the main motifs of Kazakh decorative patterns and are embroidered on gold velvet, corduroy, pressed felt, and skullcaps for everyday use. These works of art have become the treasures of the Kazakh people.

    Kazakhs have created a variety of artistic and cultural activities. Kazakh literature includes written and oral traditions, both of which are outstanding. When herders talk to one another they will add oral folk literature into their speech, changing it a little, and in this way it is transmitted and evolves over time. Some of the main cultural activities are: traditional singing duets, aqyn duets, and aqyn aitys (which is a treasure of Kazakh culture). The content of aitys varies considerably and touches upon man’s struggle with nature, tribal conflict, ethical considerations of right and wrong, and gender equality, as well as educating people about history and art, expressing emotions, eulogizing the mountains and rivers, praising heroes and the homeland, and so on. Xinjiang Kazakh aitys has already been named a national level intangible cultural heritage.

    Kazakh’s recreational activities are truly abundant, especially activities related to horses. These include horse-back wrestling, bride-chasing, kokpar, horse racing, horse-back strength competitions, horse-back tug of war, and so on. These activities are all very stimulating, they are loved by all, and have become traditional activities during Kazakh festivals.

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