Major area of distribution: Xinjiang
The Uzbek ethnic minority is scattered over wide areas of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Most of them being city dwellers, the Uzbeks live in compact communities in Yining, Tacheng, Kashi, Urumqi, Shache, and Yecheng.
The name Uzbek first originated from the Uzbek Khan, one of the local rulers under the Mongol Empire in the 14th century. Himself a Moslem, the Uzbek Khan spread Islam in his Khanate. In the 15th century, a number of Uzbeks moved to the Chuhe River valley, where they were called Kazaks. Those who remained in the area of the Khanate continued to be known as Uzbeks, who later formed the Uzbek alliance.
The ancestors of the Uzbek people moved to China’s Xinjiang from Central Asia in ancient times. In the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Uzbek merchants often traveled along the “Silk Road” through Xinjiang to do business in inland areas. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Uzbek trading caravans from Buhara and Samar Khan used Yarkant in Xinjiang as an entrepot for business deals in silk, tea, chinaware, fur, rhubarb and other such products. Some Uzbek merchants moved goods to inland areas via Aksu, Turfan and Suzhou (present-day Jiuquan of Ganzu Province). During this period, Uzbeks from Central Asia began to settle in certain cities in Xinjiang, and the number grew with each passing year. Later on Uzbeks also settled in Kashi, Aksu, Yarkant and other cities in southern Xinjiang and a number of places in northern Xinjiang.
The Uzbek people have frequent exchanges with various other ethnic groups in Xinjiang, and have particularly close relations with the Uygurs and Kazaks. The Uzbek, Uygur and Tatar languages all belong to the Turkic branch of the Altaic language family and are very close to each other. The Uzbek script is an alphabetic writing based on the Arabic letters. The Uzbeks believe in Islam, and their customs, dressing and eating habits are basically the same as those of the Uygurs.
Both men and women wear caps with bright colored embroidery in unique patterns, and some are made of corduroy or black velvet. Women sometimes wear scarves on top of their caps. Men wear buttonless robes reaching the knee, with oblique collars and the right side of the front on top of the other. The robe is tied with a triangular embroidered girdle. Women wear broad and pleated dresses without girdles. Uzbek men usually wear leather boots and overshoes with low-cut uppers. Women’s embroidered boots are very beautiful and unique in design. The collars, front openings and sleeves of men’s shirts are trimmed with colorful, patterned lace, which is typical of the handicraft art of the ethnic group.
Like other ethnic groups in Xinjiang who believe in Islam, the Uzbek people do not drink alcohol or eat pork. They like mutton, beef and horse meat and dairy products. Crusty pancake and tea with milk are standard food for all three meals of the day, and they enjoy stewed meat with potatoes, honey and syrup. “Naren,” a mixture of minced cooked meat, onion and sour milk, dressed with gravy and pepper, is a table delicacy reserved for guests. The Uzbeks eat it with their fingers.
The Uzbek ethnic group is one of those in Xinjiang that are good at singing and dancing and their folk music is melodious and appealing. They have a great variety of musical instruments. Most of them are plucked and percussion instruments. One string instrument with a triangular sound box is known for its sweet and appealing tone. Uzbek dances are famous for their vivacity, grace and variety. Most dances are solos. The traditional tambourine dance is unique in style and very entertaining.
The Uzbeks build their houses in different designs. Some have round attics, and most are rectangular adobe houses with flat roofs. These structures have thick walls with beautifully patterned niches. Patterns are also carved on wooden pillars.
Most Uzbek families are nuclear families with parents and children living separately, and brothers living apart from one another. There are also families in which three generations live together. Marriage between siblings or between people of different generations is strictly forbidden. The Uzbeks have traditional marital ties with the Uygurs and Tatars. In the past, marriages were completely arranged by parents. The boy’s family had to present betrothal gifts to the girl’s family and cover the cost of wedding feasts. The nuptial ceremony is as a rule held at the bride’s home. The bride’s parents would treat guests to fried rice and sweets during the day, and the newlyweds will go to the groom’s home in the evening after the ceremony is held according to Islamic rules. Sometimes, relatives and friends of the bride would “carry the bride off” after the wedding ceremony, and the groom has to offer gifts to “redeem” her. When the “carried-away” bride is “redeemed,” she has to make a circle round a fire in the courtyard before entering the house. This is perhaps a legacy of ancient nuptial ceremonies.