Living Otherwise: Buddhist Photography on the New Silk Road

History and Geography

Let me take you back over 1000 years. In the sixth century a nomadic tribe called the Uyghurs entered the historical record. Within 200 years they had established a powerful empire first in Mongolia and later in present day Northwest China. In fact, after the fall of the Tang Dynasty, Uyghurs came to control the famous Dunhuang Buddhist grottos and thousands of miles of the Silk Road to the west. In the ninth century the Uyghurs’ political power was decentralized. But in subsequent centuries Uyghurs were employed as scribes in the Mongol and Chinese empires. Beginning in the 10th century, Islam began to take hold in the region we now know as Xinjiang, the current Uyghur homeland.  With the exception of a small number of Uyghurs who remained in the Dunhuang area, by the 16th century nearly all of the people we now think of as Uyghurs had become Muslim. Uyghurs who live near Dunhuang continue to practice Buddhism to this day. China’s 18th-century conquest of the region under the rule of the Manchus added another layer of complexity to the autonomy of Uyghur society. But it was only in the 20th century, that social and political change under the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China profoundly altered Central Asian life. 

It was during this same period of the mid- to late 20th Century that Han settlers such as Tian Lin’s family became part of the story of Chinese Central Asia.

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