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Yugurs and Uygurs: Two Different Ethnic Minority Populations

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Winter Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(4) page(s): 15 and 16


In the past few weeks, several letters crossed this desk asking about these two Chinese ethnic populations. In English, they can sound alike. In Chinese, it is clear they are not the same minority population.

One missive misspelled one of them in a way we have never seen before. No matter how they are spelled or written, the Chinese do not think of them as one minority group. They are different in size, behavior, food consumption, etc. One is the fifth largest of all Chinese ethnic minority populations, the other the seventh smallest among these groups.

One letter reminded us that one of them is a group of some fifteen thousand according to China’s 2010 Chinese census. It is appropriate to clarify both of them for no other reason than Wikipedia, when we used a search engine, sent us to ‘tigers.’ Now that was an odd error. Then when looking for foods about the smaller group, not a single recipe appeared. Clarification and information seems appropriate even though we have no recipes for either group. Perhaps a reader or two can help with this void.

We have written about Uighurs which we have seen spelled as Uigur, Uygur, and Uyghur. This group is discussed in Volumes 11(1), 18(2), 18(3), and 21(4). In these pages, we write about the smaller minority population first, the larger one after them. As to recipes, we recommend you search for both and then advise us.

YUGUR are indeed a very small ethnic population. Their history is best known to their own members, one they pass on, one generation to the next, through song and legend. They had no written language until recently, and now they use the one taught to all Chinese in schools. They have been fanatic about singing, about their own history and lifestyles, and they tell these one generation to the next; and do so often.

Their name means ‘wealth and solidarity’ and they sing and tell stories as they have for many years. They sing to their children as they grow up, and do so often telling them about local families, herding their sheep, feeding their lambs, making foods for their families and friends, and about long family weddings that can last two or more days. They also sing about their funerals, their felt hats, nursing their young, mowing their grasslands, driving their camels, etc. These songs and the stories they tell are about daily life, coming from the west and going east, their twelve zodiac signs, cliff paintings, leather sculpting, and more.

Most people in this minority live in four areas of the Yugur Autonomous County in the Gansu Province in Western China. They learn to sing before they learn to walk, and soon after that, they say they learn to talk. Much is known about their history because of these songs and legends. They share them in one of the several languages they speak. These include Eastern Yugur, Western Yugur, Tibetan, Mandarin, and/or another Turkic language tht is commonly spoken where they live. The first two are arcane, the others mostly branches of an Altaic language called Raohul or Engle, or a multi-lingual tongue with many borrowed words from Han or Turkic languages related to one their neighbors speak.

Many Yugur elders express concern that their native tongue(s) will disappear because they now use Chinese characters and Han words to record their expressive but dying forms of communication. Others just talk in whatever tongue they know and worry not.

Renown for their hospitality, Yugur folk offer fragrant tea or milk tea as soon as someone crosses their threshold. It might be wine if a man is welcoming another man coming to chat, share a drink, or share a meal.

Their main meal is eaten once a day and is often a baked meat such as mutton, chicken, beef, or camel; but never pork. They share other foods that revolve around rice, pulled fried noodles, and/or a mixed grain dish. These dishes are always prepared with soy sauce, garlic, vinegar, and sometimes a small animal caught when out hunting.

Like every ethnic group, they have their own unique foods and culture; and these rarely include fresh vegetables. They are herders and raise stock. Therefore, they adore meat grilled and/or cooked on skewers over a burning fire. Meat is their main caloric intake, and they like it flavored with shallots, leeks, and fresh mushrooms; little else. The females prepare most of the staple foods that their men proudly grow.

When not cooking, these women make carpets and embroider flowers, insects, grasses, and other local items on their high-collared outerwear or on the sleeves of their inner garments showing them off in warm weather. Many also put them on the ends of blue or green waistbands or handkerchiefs tied on the left side of their clothing.

If you know a Yugur man or woman, we hope you will have them get in touch with you or us telling you about their foods so we can all learn together. If you have any pictures, we hope you send them along for our visual education.

UYGURS are the other minority population. They are often confused with the Yugur. They are a Turkic group living in Eastern and Central Asia or in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region south of Mt. Tai. We read that eighty percent of them live in the Tarim basin outside Xinjiang or in Taoyuan County in South Central Hunan, or in smaller groups in Kazakhistan, Kyrgyhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, or Afghanistan, Pakistan, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Canada, and the US.

There are many stories about their origin, some go back to the Bronze Age and the Tarim mummies. They may have been Indo-Europeans who spoke a Tocharian language or Yuezhi and were written about in ancient Chinese texts. No historians we, some modern and ancient scholars contest these origins, and one did tell us they were originally Yugurs that came from the Ganzhou Kingdom in the 900s, but not everyone agrees. More knowledgeable folk need to sort this out; we have not been able to.

They have their own language and in it the name of their group means ‘assistance’ or ‘alliance.’ They believe in Shamanism, Manicheism, Zorastrianism, and/or Buddhism. Yes, many are Buddhists, though some say they now only believe in Islam.

These folk do lovely work with gold, gems, leather goods, and silk, and they are proud of their efforts. They make gorgeous knives, are talented agricultural workers, and they are proud of all the work they do.

Years ago, when we first learned about this minority group we were confused as to who they really were. Months later, we learned the Chinese have called them ‘weiwuer’ since the Tang Dynasty. When sorting through early literature, we did find them also called 'Huihe people' who lived in Northern Wei about 386 - 534 BCE. Some called them 'Gaoche folk' meaning ‘High Cart’ or ‘Tiele’ people. Others told us that Russians reintroduced them as Chinese in the 15th century and then called them ‘Sarts.’

Recently, other information showed they were a diverse ethnic group, descendants of Caucasians, East Asians, and Middle Easterners. These days, many say they are a mixed race the Chinese call ‘Turkic.’ They call themselves Chantou or ‘Turban Head’ folk. Some see their Middle Eastern connections, we do not. Some we spoke to told us they eat lots of nang, a crisp baked bread that some call their ‘pie.’ It is a round flat baked wheaten food depressed in its center. A few who have traveled abroad say it looks more like a bagel or a doughnut but without a hole. It is never boiled, just baked, and eaten many times a day. They like it with plain tea, milk tea, or oil tea, and with any leftovers they might have.

Uygur people love fruits and meats, particularly mutton and beef among the latter. They like their main meal in the evening served with a chick pea and shredded carrot dish called nokot and the like it cold. They also like zhuafan, a dish made with rice, shredded root vegetables, and other grains. That one they like thermally hot. When visiting a group of them many years back, my guide whispered that it was OK to eat with my left hand. At that main meal, they served a meat grilled on skewers that did look like a long grilled sausage without any utensils. Later, I was told it was a mixture of ground intestine and lung. I found it delicious and similar to my Polish grandmother’s meat dishes when I was young.

At that meal, I was urged to sit in a big comfortable chair usually reserved for the eldest though I was thirty years younger than I am now, and far from the oldest even among their guests. Before entering the house, my guide told me not to leave any food in my bowl or on my plate as it is considered rude. He also said they liked my multi-colored blouse, so after I returned home I mailed it to them. I never heard if arrived, was appreciated, or even ever worn. When I left, I was given a long blue scarf to take home while the Chinese in my group were given white ones. No one explained the color difference, and to this day, I do not know why I got the only blue one. Anyone know what this means?

After a great dinner, they did entertain the group playing large round string instruments. Do not recall what they were called, but do remember we were all invited to join the singing and instrument playing, also invited to dance with them. I did none of these, just listened and clapped, and enjoyed the entertainment.

Over these many years, most of my pictures have discolored. The ones that could go with this article thus ruined. The ones used with this article were found on a website. They do remind of the clothes they wore. Wish I still had my pictures that at the time I thought were very good.

                                                                                                                                                       
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