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A View of “Sinkiang” in 1943 from Life Magazine

April 18 | 9 Comments

The cover of Life Magazine on Dec 13, 1943 featuring Xinjiang Last week a good friend and fellow Xinjiang-enthusiast loaned me a copy of LIFE magazine dated December 13, 1943. I get excited about these type of things (it’s weird, I know) and even after a quick glance I knew I wasn’t going to be disappointed.

On the cover, as you can see here, a Hui man labeled as a “Citizen of Sinkiang” stares at the reader with a youthful expression of confidence and curiosity. Forget World War II…what they heck does LIFE have to say about the far reaches of China?

Written by Theodore H. White and beautifully photographed by William Vandivert, LIFE claims this expedition in the 1940’s to be “The first accurate report on this mysterious land, since Owen Lattimore in 1927“.

Besides offering a visual history of the people and places of interest in Xinjiang (which is referred to in this magazine by its former English name ‘Sinkiang’), what struck me most were some of the ways in which the region was described.

Bathed in Blood

“Every now and then (1870, 1932) [the Chinese] have to contend with a rebellion of the Moslem masses, usually led by Chinese-speaking Moslem [now called the “Hui”]. These rebellions periodically bathe Sinkiang in blood. The massacres, though generally unreported, are spectacular.”

White actually spends little time dwelling on these massacres, but rather focuses on the “litter of races” that has been the cause. It’s interesting to see how he describes each ethnic group that he runs across, primarily because it is different from how many would describe them today:

  • Kirghiz“They are shepherds of upland pastures, are an attractive and civilized people”
  • Tatars: “They have high social rating, many are rich”
  • Kazaks“They are nomads and bandits and consume huge quantities of kumiss liquor”
  • Uzbeks“…are as exclusive as the Tartars [sic]”
  • White Russians: “They are mostly peasants and laborers but include some clerks”
  • Chinese: “Sinkiang’s merchant and ruling class…most Chinese are refugees from Manchuria”
  • Uighur“[They] are the chief landowners. They have been here since year 800”

The Chinese, White Russian and Uzbek peoples of Xinjiang

The Chinese, White Russian and Uzbek women of Xinjiang

The Kirghiz, Tartar and Kazak peoples of Xinjiang

The Kirghiz, Tartar and Kazakh men of Xinjiang

During their visit in the 1940’s, the total population of Xinjiang was only 3,700,000. Of this number, 2,700,00 of them were Uyghur while only 182,000 were Chinese.

To compare, the latest census shows that Xinjiang is home to nearly 22 million people and is split almost 50/50 between the Uyghur and Han Chinese.

Chinese from Lost Manchuria

A picture of Xinjiang's Governor Sheng from 1943 It is noted in the LIFE article that Xinjiang’s leaders were “nearly all Manchurian Chinese” and that “most of the officials today were officers in the forgotten Manchurian army of 10,000 men who retreated before the Japanese invasion”.

Xinjiang’s governor at the time was Governor Sheng (pictured to the right), who was known for implementing free education in native languages and a policy of equality between races.

According to James Millward in his book Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, Governor Sheng’s tenure as governor was “the first time ‘Uyghur’ entered official and common use to apply to the Turki-speaking, non-nomad population of southern Xinjiang”.

Other Fascinating Quotes:

“Sinjiang is the cheapest province in China”

“Sinkiang is famed for low taxes and honest tax collectors”

“[Sinkiang’s] trade has died”

“The big news about Sinkinag is that the U.S.S.R. has now given it back to China”

“[Uyghur] dancing consists more of handwork and head-weaving than of foot-work”

“There is just one steam roller [for construction] in all of Xinjiang”

A Uyghur dancer in LIFE, Dec 1943

A Uyghur dancer as pictured by Vandivert

Ghost City near Aksu, from LIFE Dec 1943

Called a “Moslem Cemetery near Aksu”, I can’t place where this is. Perhaps it has decayed or been destroyed over time.

Government meeting in Korla, LIFE December 1943

A government officials meeting in Korla, held every Monday morning.

A Uyghur man digging irrigation, LIFE Dec 1943

A Uyghur man digging irrigation ditches

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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  1. Hello,

    I’ve spent about 3 hours today viewing your articles about Xinjiang. My wife and I will be leading a group of 11th grade students from an international school in Chengdu on a spring education trip from May 18-24. It will be our sixth visit to Xinjiang and we continue to be fascinated by the people, history and culuture. We are especially interested in meeting up with expats like yourselves in order to hear your perspective on life in Xinjiang. Are you still living there? Are you involved with NGO work or relief/development work? Are you available for short tours or presentations? I’ve really enjoyed reading your work.
    Warm regards,
    Bill Gandy

    Josh on April 29th, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Hi Bill! I will be responding to you via email so we don’t have to converse on a public forum :)

  2. Interesting. This was written on the eve of Ili Rebellion which would have seen many of the Chinese refugees from Manchuria bathed in blood in the Ili River.

    Soviet backed Second East Turkestan Republic is in a way, a national liberation movement of the Turkic people (mostly Kazakhs and Uyghurs)of the Ili Valley under the ageis of the Soviet Red Army, with its inevitable attendant mass massacre and ethnic cleansing of Han Chinese civilians.

    Even though Chinese Communist Government have later co-opted the Ili Rebellion as the Revolution of the Three District(三区革命),many Han today remembers Ili Rebellion quite differently.

  3. Hello Josh,

    I’ve been leading 3 tours to Xinjiang and now leading some forums on topics related to this massive land. I would like to know more about you and your articles. Are you working in any NGO organizations in Xinjiang? Hope to hear from you.

    Best regards,

    Josh on January 19th, 2014 at 4:59 am

    Thanks for your comment, Liu. I’ll reply via email.

  4. pretty sure you mean Tatars not tartars.. coming from a central asian , please fix this

    Josh Summers on October 22nd, 2015 at 10:02 am

    Thanks for the comment! I’ve seen it written both ways and even the magazine writes it with an extra are. That said, you are correct…the most acceptable form is “Tatars” so I’ll make edits to reflect this.

  5. Chinese are not refugees from Manchuria.
    Chinese are native people in Sinkiang(Xinjiang).
    Chinese are the chief landowners and they live in Sinkiang more than 2000 years. Durig Ili Rebellion in War II, most native Chinese were killed by Uyghur and Kazakhs who were supported by Soviet.
    Uyghur moved from Syberia and Mongolia to Sinkiang around 800. Uyghur used to believed in Buddhist, and was called “Huihu” in Tang dynasty from during about 600-900.