The Kazakhs of China

Prepared by Iraj Bashiri
Copyright © Iraj Bashiri, 2002

Like the Qashqais and Bakhtiaris of Iran, and the Kirghiz of Afghanistan, the Kazakhs are a fiercely independent people. They inhabit the present-day republic of Kazakhstan and the Xinjiang province in northwestern China, between Mongolia and Tibet. The Kazakh Diaspora includes a number of former republics of the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. In recent times, both Russia and China have played a major role in shaping the lives of the Kazakhs but neither has succeeded in changing their way of life entirely. They have forced the Kazakhs to choose lifestyles, and possibly ideologies, that they might not have chosen had they been left on their own.

The history of the Kazakhs in China, a population of about one million, can be divided into four phases. a) Traditional phase, before 1949, during which they shared the lifestyle of the other Turkish tribes of Central Asia; b) Communist Revolution, 1949 to 1966, during which a Soviet-style way of life was introduced; c) Cultural Revolution, 1966-1977, during which the Kazakhs were forced to abandon all vestiges of their past; and finally d) Post-Cultural Revolution, during which a fair balance is created between tradition and modernity.

In pre-Revolutionary times, all Kazakhs lived according to the rules set forth by the elders of their tribes. The rules were enforced by the chief of the tribe and his associates. The tribe was divided hierarchically along lineage, clan, and family lines. Members of each tier were loyal to the head of the tribe first and to their lineage, clan, and family second. Traditional rituals, marriages, divorces, transactions, rewards, and punishments were all decided upon and executed according to tribal rules in each tribal hierarchy.

It was customary in the tribe for women to be sold for animals. Any young girl, therefore, was likely, at an early age, to be swapped for a few horses or yaks. Age and gender were major factors in almost all decision-making processes. This included the forced marriage of a girl to a much older man, or the ability of a woman to sell the fruits of her labor, such as a carpet, in the town market. Some of these problems, like forced marriages, abductions, lack of equality, and a lack of parity between the producer peasant and the consumer feudal lord, were apparent. While some others, most of them compelling societal problems, were not as easily discernable. The latter included a lack of access to medical care, to education, as well as to many of the other amenities that were readily available to settled populations.

The introduction of Communism into Xinjiang province changed, to a great degree, that way of life. Individual ownership gave way to collective ownership and state supervision. Thus, families were no longer part of a tribe but members of a commune. Within the commune, younger members had the right to make decisions on the fate of the older members, a situation that could never materialize in a tribal structure. Additionally, they had to hide their nobility and wealth in order to conform to the norms. Teams of more than one-hundred families were formed to tackle difficult tasks. For larger endeavors, like branding of large herds of yak, four teams were put together to form a brigade. The brigade then was given an organization that could respond to all the needs of the two thousand or so families that lived within it. Finally, for the brigades to fall into the overall Chinese administrative structure, they were combined into larger entities. Three brigades, for instance, formed a commune.

In order to help the team leaders to respond to the needs of the families, the brigade helped the team leader to organize medical, educational, and other similar services. For example, a young Kazakh, after a brief period of training, could become a doctor. He could move from place to place on horse back within the team and attend to the minor health problems of the members. Acupuncture and traditional herbs were the treatment and drugs used most often. Similarly, a young Kazakh teacher could travel with the team and hold classes in a yurt. Although the classes were taught in the Kazakh language, the contents of the courses were not centered on Kazakh life and culture. Rather, they included Communist history as well as a substantial amount of literature centered on the lives of Communist leaders and on Communist doctrines.

Administratively, the brigade was managed by a Secretary chosen by the Party Organization. The Secretary worked with four members who were elected every four or five years. The members were usually men, even though women, too, were eligible to hold office. The decision-making process was straight forward; it proceeded smoothly through a chain of command. The Secretary and his associates had the last word on what the team should get or should do.

Usually, at the team level, in the course of a ceremony, the team leader and his associates discuss the future needs of the team and make recommendations. The recommendations are taken to the brigade committee Secretary. The committee meets with the team leader, discusses the request, and makes a decision. The decision is acted upon immediately, especially if the requesting team is in good standing with the committee, as the Kazakhs usually are.

A most useful part of the brigade organization is the center shop. While during the old days women did not have access to the outside world, especially when their men were busy with the herds, during communist times, they can go to the brigade center alone and shop both for what was traditionally available, as well as many newly devised gadgets and such.

The brigade system is based on points. Every individual accumulates a certain number of points in relation to the amount of work accomplished. The points are cashed in for animals and goods at the Center. Animal products (mainly wool) are sold to the government. The money received for the goods is then spent on the needs of the brigade: tractors, generators, trucks, or for offsetting past debts. The money can also be banked for a rainy day. It should be noted also that when the brigade has a good year, the individuals might receive a bonus and during the years that the brigade is not performing up to par, individuals have to make up the difference from their own assets. Additionally, not all of a year's produce is taken away from the team. Enough is left for the members to meet such needs as making clothes, tents, and furnishings.

A major task of the Center is organizing the output of the brigade, which consists of the wool collected from the sheep. Once all teams have sent their quota of wool to the brigade, the Center packages the wool nicely and ships it to Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang. There, the Han Chinese take over from the Kazakhs and send the wool to the various parts of country for processing and, eventually, manufacturing of textile goods. Some of the textile, which finds its way into the international market, brings in much needed foreign currency to China.

The scheme worked out by the Hans in Xinjiang and the Kazakhs in the highlands is benefiting both parties. The Hans benefit from the fruits of the labor of the Kazakhs and use it at an international level to improve their economic status. The Kazakhs benefit from the employment of Chinese technology and new amenities. They also benefit because, in response to their cooperation, the Hans allow the Kazakhs to revive aspects of their culture that the ltter deem beneficial for both improving their own way of life and, in the long run, boosting production capabilities.

Like the other Turkic peoples of Central Asia, the Kazakhs of China are Muslims. It is natural, therefore, for them to perform their death rituals according to Islamic rites, to hold Koumiss-tasting rituals in the course of which both tribal (adat) and Shari'a laws are used to sanctify the sacrificial sheep, and to perform prayers, fast, and make pilgrimage to Mecca. Similarly, in matters of marriage and divorce, they want to be able to supplement their formal (communist) marriages with traditional Islamic ceremonies in which parents' symbolic consent to the union is gained. Staying on good terms with the Chinese allows the Kazakhs the right to the performance of these rituals.

In general, change is a difficult thing to implement. It is even a more difficult thing to measure. In the case of the Kazakhs, however, there is a gauge. In the past, they loved their horse first, their gun second, their place of birth third, and their wife fourth. Where does this hierarchy stand today?

See also:
The Qashqais of Iran
The Bakhtiaris of Iran
The Blacks of the Persian Gulf
Central Asia: An Overview
Azerbaijan: An Overview
Iran: A Concise Overview
Kazakhstan: An Overview
Kyrgyzstan: An Overview
Tajikistan: An Overview
Turkmenistan: An Overview
Uzbekistan: An Overview

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