Uighurs of China

Final Project Blog


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UNESCO and its intervention in Afghanistan

“A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive”

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a specialized organization of the UN, just like IMF, World Bank and WHO. UNESCO was established in 1946 post World War II. Since 1953 it has 193 member states. This specialized organization was established to deal with specific issues such as International Security, Human Rights etc. It is responsible for harmonizing relations between the different countries or member states and protect the cultural heritage of these nations.

Terms such as cultural heritage and modern nations are problematic. What is a modern nation? How are boundaries perceived? Are these just “imagined communities”? Are these places real? People die during illegally crossing borders….people may hard earned money to pay taxes to their country! Are maps the same thing as territories? Who made these maps? Who decided that Kashmir would be half in India and the other half in Pakistan? I consider myself Canadian; it is a part of my high maintenance identity. But where is Canada? Where does it lie? It is an IDEA! It is fluid and in flux. This idea is constantly made and remade in response to the surroundings…in response to contemporary world.

Cultural Heritage, what is that? The UNESCO has identified 911 times in the form sites within 193 countries. What is this idea? Why would we preserve something like cultural heritage? Why is it necessary? Is it really true what the UNESCO slogan says?  Does a nation stay alive when its culture stays alive? What do you think about the 2001 bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas? That was a part of the cultural heritage of that region, did that kill the nation? Or, were the people of Afghanistan dying from war and hunger from much earlier? Cultural Heritage, it is bound up with identity…it answers questions about the self, like who we are…..where we come from. Cultural Heritage can be tangible (architecture and monuments) and intangible (language, religion etc). Why is it necessary to keep an extinct or nearly extinct language alive among a few scholars? Why would we want to fund the preservation of these cultural sites over saving the people….for example in Afghanistan. People are dying to hunger while UNESCO is funding projects for building museums. Why is that?

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norms…What is NORMAL?

What is the definition of a “good woman”?


What is gender?


What is religion?

Ask yourself…do you have an answer? If you do…then you are thinking in a very, very narrow personal context. These questions have no simple answers, but yet the “western world” takes the liberty to define terms such as “good”,  “normal”, “usual” etc. What is considered normal in the United States for example could be far from normal in lets say Afghanistan.

This is a picture of an Afghan girl, would you say its normal to come across someone like her on the NYC subway? Your answer should most certainly be “NO!”

Yet, we constantly claim to know what normal is… what is good…

Food for thought…

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Chang’an: Capital of the T’ang Dynasty

Build as a symbol of power; Chang’an was a big, planned and highly regulated city. Modern day Xian is only one-seventh of what used to be Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty. In the eyes of a visitor it would seem like a beautiful, well-controlled city located at the end of the Silk Road. Bustling with business, merchants brought goods all the way from Japan to India and Persia for trade in Chang’an. The picture of Chang’an that Hansen’s article creates in the mind of the reader is one very similar to the cities represented in Disney stories. All this splendor and magnificence doesn’t come free of cost. Much like the Disney stores, the commoners are the ones who pay. The article leaves me with a view that a form of social control was practiced in Chang’an, which was enforced by the ruling class, maintained by the officials and experienced by the merchants and other commoners. Everything from what kind of house a merchant can live in to the daily closure time of the local markets was controlled. The imperial palace occupied one-seventh of the city while the common person lived in one to two rooms and ate an average of two meals per day. Just like the cities of Disney stories, the city of Chang’an also had the “saints” who helped the deprived commoners. They were the Buddhist monks who ran hospitals, dispensaries and other social services free of cost. Not unlike any other metropolis in the present day, there was a certain separation of the classes, the rich distinguished from the poor. The system built with little scope to escalate in the social hierarchy.

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The title given to the article written by Ma Shichang is “Buddhist cave-temples and the Cao family at Mogao Ku, Dunhuang”, seems misleading. The family is scarcely mentioned in the entire article except for the very last paragraph. In the last paragraph it is mentioned that the Cao family were of the ruling class and not only believed in Buddhism but used it so secure their high position in the social hierarchy. But, nowhere in the article is it mentioned how did financing the construction of cave temple helped to secure their rule. Was is the belief that building temples and helping Buddhism to flourish will help their rule or was it more pragmatic? Was it the belief in Karma, that helping in the way of Buddhism will bring them good fortune, or was it the idea that building temples will please the population who will support their rule. Was it both?

The details mentioned in the article about the built of the cave-temples are exhausting. From the patterns used on the tiles to the paints, it is all mentioned in details, but why were these used? Why were the particular materials used? Was it a choice to use the kind of tiles and paints and other material used? Or was it the absence of other resources that bound them to use these particular ones? These questions were hardly addressed by this article. The answers to such questions might have provided some insight to us on what kinds of lives were led by these people who built and inhabited these caves. For example, the article mentions about finding evidence of five different types of funerary practices but there was no further exploration or mention of what these practices were and why some people chose one over the other. Was it difference in belief among the people inhabiting the cave-temples or was it a matter of convenience? In other words this article in my personal perspective seems to be rather incomplete, missing the insight that we would expect. It is rather a collection of facts about the raw material and architecture of the cave-temples that was built by the Cao family. The article failed to express the relationship that it’s title implicates between the Cao family and the Mogao Ku cave site, leaving behind lots of question marks in the mind of the reader


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Sogdian Merchants On The Silk Road

Sogdiana, at different times, included territories around Samarkand, Bukhara, Khujand and Kesh in modern Uzbekistan. The inhabitants of Sogdiana were the Sogdians, an Eastern Iranian people, who are among the ancestors of modern-day Tajiks. The Sogdian states, although never politically united, were centered around the main city of Samarkand. Sogdiana lay north of Bactria, and southeast of Khangju between the Oxus (Amu Darya) and the Jaxartes (Syr Darya), embracing the fertile valley of the Zarafshan. Sogdian territory corresponds to the modern provinces of Samarkand and Bokhara in modern Uzbekistan as well as the Sugdh province of modern Tajikistan.

Sogdians played a major role in facilitating trade between China and Central Asia along the Silk Roads as late as the 10th century AD; their language became a lingua franca of trade, and in the 7th century the Buddhist pilgrim Xuanjang noted with approval that little boys were taught to read and write at the age of five, though their skill was turned to trade, disappointing the scholar Xuanzang, who recorded the Sogdians in other capacities: as farmers, carpet-weavers, glassmakers and woodcarvers.

Subsequent to their domination by Alexander, the Sogdians from the city of Marakanda (Samarkand) became dominant as traveling merchants, occupying a key position along the ancient Silk Road. Their language became the common language of the Silk Route and they played a role in the cultural movements of philosophies and religion, such Manicheism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism into the east as well as the movement of items of trade. They were described by the Chinese as born merchants; learning their commercial skills at an early age. It appears from sources, such a documents found by Sir Aurel Stein and others, that by the 4th century AD they may have monopolized trade between India and China. They dominated the trade along the Silk Route from the 2nd century BC until the 10th century AD. Trade goods brought to China included grapes, alfalfa, and Sassanian silverware, as well as glass containers, Mediterranean coral, brass Buddhist images, Roman wool cloth and Baltic amber. These were exchanged for Chinese paper, copper and silk.

Sogdiana played an important role in the religious and cultural development of central Asia. The Sogdians were noted for their tolerance of different religious beliefs. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion among Sogdians and remained so until after the Islamic conquest, when they gradually converted to Islam. Much of our knowledge of the Sogdians and their language comes from the numerous religious texts that they have left behind. The Sogdians spoke an Eastern Iranian language called Sogdian, closely related to Bactrian, another major language of the region in ancient times. Sogdian was written in a variety of scripts, all of them derived from the Aramaic alphabet. Numerous Sogdian words can be found in modern Persian language. The Sogdians were East Iranian merchants who dominated the Silk Road for a fairly long time during which their language became the lingua franca of the Silk Road.

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China’s interest in India: Buddhism, Military alliance, longevity doctors and spiritual fascination.

In the first millennium more than seventy Indian ambassadors were sent to Chinese courts. Until the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese responded with only a few. During the Tang dynasty several important ambassadors were sent to India. Some like the famous Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang started the journey towards India out of own interests. The fact that until the Tang dynasty only a few embassies went to India may be an indication that until then Indian alliance was not required. The need for military collaboration surfaced from the threats posed on the Chinese and Indian borders by the Turks and Tibetans. The enemies of enemies became friends.

Although military support may be the primary cause, the Buddhist pilgrims were responsible for most if not all of the historical significance and consequence of the Sino-Indian relationship. The role of the Buddhist monks in the exchange technology is undeniable; in fact the case may be so that Buddhist monks were intentionally included in the Tang mission in order to bring sugar-making technology to China. Another factor that worked as a catalyst for the strengthening of the Sino-Indian link was the Tang emperor’s deteriorating health. Although during the early years of his life he strongly criticized his ancestors for believing in longevity medicine, during the last years of his life he relentlessly pursued Indian life prolonging medications and Brahman doctors. This fueled and increased the frequency of Tang missions sent to India. The Chinese demands for sacred Buddhist items from the birthplace or Buddha fuelled the fire and kept the bilateral transaction going. The special position that India secured with China was due to Buddhism.


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The Yuezhi-Kushan People

The article about the migration and settlement of the Yuezhi-Kushan by Xinru Liu gives us a new perspective about nomadic life.  What is considered normative nomadic life might actually be a gross generalization.

“… they were not poor nomads in tatters, but rich, proud horse-riding people skillful at trade.”  They are the words Liu uses to describe the Yuezhi-Kushan People. When we think about nomadic people the first thing that comes to mind is not exactly how the Yuezhi-Kushan People are described here. They were great traders of jade, and bred fine horses. The Chinese royalty traded jade from them and the emperor’s military forces depended on them for their fine horses. These influential nomadic people traded horses for silk and later sold the silk for much higher prices. Indeed the Yuezhi-Kushan People might be the initiators of the Silk Route!

The interaction of the Yuezhi-Kushan People with the sedentary settlements/cultures of that period was not like that of the violent and drastic entry of the Mongols. The Yuezhi-Kushan People integrated into the sedentary societies by as mentioned by Liu by “voluntary associations, conversion induced by political, social, or economic pressure, and conversion brought about by assimilation.” The Yuezhi-Kushan People were not one kind of people, in clothing, facial features and even location! As they were nomadic people the moved and settled in new areas, “influencing” new people. In different parts of the steppes where they moved through the Yuezhi-Kushan People are known by different names and influenced the people of that land in different ways. It is the normative belief that when nomads settle into a society of sedentary people, they loose their culture. But in case of the Yuezhi-Kushan the dynamics were a little different.  They ruled sedentary societies and influenced their culture.


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We humans have the power to manipulate and we do not always use it wisely. Of course we use it to our advantage, or what seems advantageous at that point. The article “Myth and the construction of Foreign Ethnic Identity in Early Medieval China” by Bret Hinsch essentially talks about manipulation. How leader figures manipulated and in some cases created origin stories and ancestor myths for the “Other”. Either to make the “Other” seem human and similar, or to make them seem foreign, strange and exotic. It was a psychological manipulation used upon the common man, a form or social control, brain washing. It is still happening today! All those huge billboards, the commercials on television, there are even advertisements particularly geared towards children, manipulating their tiny brains.
“The Chinese studied the world around them, they looked for reflections of themselves. Whenever they detected their own social and cultural values elsewhere, whether in another species or in the cosmos as a whole, they felt reassured that their beliefs were universal and eternal”. This extract taken from Hinsch’s article not only describes the ancient Chinese but also us. “US” meaning each and every single one of us. We feel reassured when we find our likes and we feel accepted when we are around people who have similarities to us, consciously or unconsciously. Even in universities like University of Toronto when one enters a classroom there are sections, little pools. Asians have a little group where the sit together, the hijabi Muslim girls all sit together and the studious kind ones all sit in the first row! No one has forced us into segregation here, at least not physically or forcefully. Its in our brains, its our comfort zone. All these student’s associations that we have, why do we have them? The Bangladeshi Student’s Association, The Muslim Student’s Association, The Chinese Student’s Association and I can go on forever. They are here because we like to be around our own kind, we feel validated, accepted.
This article beautifully contrasts with Edward Said’s book Orientalism. This psychological game of, metaphorically speaking, creating a tainted glass wall separating the “Other” has been played from ancient times. In fact, unlike what Said did, going back and trying to break this glass frame or at least finding out why and how is was placed, these ancient taints are not removable anymore. They have been there so long that the line between truth and falsification is present no more. So, as a result we shall never know the true origins of some of the people of ancient China. It’s a give and take world that we live in; our ancestors manipulated the stories to draw advantage now we have to live in ignorance. Fair enough.

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Culture has not been (satisfactorily) defined yet….lets leave it that way!

Why are we always after defining things? Definitions…From childhood we are made to memorize definitions, a bunch of so-called facts that someone someday thought defined a particular term, action, substance or anything for that matter. We have definitions for everything and anything. We have definitions for what a pencil is to what the Universe is! If definitions are really here to help us, why are we so stringent about them? Why do we go astray from what we are defining to what the definition is? The definition becomes more important than what we were defining.

The term “culture” could not yet be defined in one particular way. In the 19th century theorists believed that “culture” is equivalent to “civilization”, the more “civilized” a people, the more “cultured” they were considered.  How does one judge how civilized a group of people are? In my comprehension back in the day and even now it is based on the difference of life style. There is always a power imbalance between the observer and the observed. Again, biased. “No man is an island”, the old saying. Everyone gets influenced; the variable is the degree of influence. Then why do we have to claim to be otherwise? Why this need for ours being the only right one? Why not coexist? Why do we always need it to be black and white? Why not leave some space for the grey? For me, the beauty is in the grey region. The vagueness is beautiful. It leaves enough space for people to utilize their own brains instead of memorizing “facts”. After all this, after all life isn’t all hardcore science and even in science there is vagueness.

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