In the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, the ancient Turk and Tubo peoples exerted important influences on the course of Xinjiang's history. The Turks were ancient nomads active on the northwestern and northern grasslands of China from the sixth to the eighth centuries. Tumaen, a Turki leader, defeated the Rouran in 552, and set up a state centered in Mobei (the area north of the vast deserts on the Mongolian Plateau). The Turki realm later split into the eastern and western sides which fought ceaselessly in their scramble for the khanate. In the middle of the eighth century, both the Eastern and Western Turki khanates disappeared, their descendants being assimilated by other ethnic groups. The Tubo were the ancestors of the Tibetans, rising to notice on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the late sixth century. After occupying Qinghai, they began to vie with the Tang Dynasty for control of the Western Regions. In 755, An Lushan and Shi Siming raised a rebellion in the Central Plains, and Tang troops stationed in the Western Regions were withdrawn to battle the rebels, whereupon the Tubo took the opportunity to occupy south Xinjiang and part of north Xinjiang.
In 840, large numbers of Uighurs (an ancient name for modern Uygurs) entered Xinjiang. The Uighur, originally called Ouigour, sprang from the ancient tribe Teli. They were first active in the Selenga and Orkhon river basins, and later moved to the north of the Tura River. In 744, the Uighur founded a khanate in Mobei, and later dispatched troops twice to help the Tang central authorities to quell the An Lushan-Shi Siming Rebellion. The Uighur Khanate collapsed in 840 because of natural disasters, internal strife and attacks by the ancient Jiegasi tribe. Consequently, most of the Uighur migrated westward. One of their sub-groups moved to the modern Jimsar and Turpan regions, where they founded the Gaochang Uighur Kingdom. Another subgroup moved to the Central Asian grasslands, scattered in areas from Central Asia to Kashi, and joined the Karluk and Yagma peoples in founding the Karahan Kingdom. After that, the Tarim Basin and its surrounding areas were under the rule of the Gaochang Uighur Kingdom and the Karahan Kingdom. The local residents were merged with the Uighurs that had moved west, thus laying the foundation for the subsequent formation of the Uygur ethnic group.
In 1124, Yollig Taxin, a member of the ruling house of the Liao Dynasty (916-1125), led his people, the Khitan tribe, westward and conquered Xinjiang, where he established the kingdom of Western Liao. In the early 13th century, Genghis Khan led an expeditionary army to Xinjiang, where he granted the territories he had conquered to his children and grandchildren. The Uighurs further assimilated a portion of the Khitans and Mongolians.
Oyrat was the general name used for the Mongolians in Moxi (the area west of the vast deserts on the Mongolian Plateau) in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The Oyrat first lived in scattered areas along the upper reaches of the Yenisaey River, gradually spreading to the middle reaches of the Ertix and Di river basins. The early 17th century saw the rise among them of the Junggar, Dorbut, Huxut and Turgut tribes. In the 1670s, the Junggar occupied the Ili River basin, becoming leader of the four tribes, and put south Xinjiang under their control.
From the 1760s on, the government of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) sent Manchu, Xibe and Suolun (Daur) troops from northeast China to Xinjiang in order to strengthen the frontier defense of the region, and they added to the ethnic mix in Xinjiang. Afterwards, Russians and Tatars migrated into Xinjiang. By the end of the 19th century, Xinjiang had 13 ethnic groups, namely, Uygur, Han, Kazak, Mongolian, Hui, Kirgiz, Manchu, Xibe, Tajik, Daur, Uzbek, Tatar and Russian. The Uygurs formed the majority, as they do today.
II. Diverse Religions Coexist and Spread in Xinjiang
As the main passageway and hub for economic and cultural exchanges between the East and the West in ancient times, Xinjiang has always been a region where a number of religions exist side by side. Before Islam was introduced into Xinjiang, there had already been believers in Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Manichaeism and Nestorianism. These religious faiths had spread to Xinjiang along the Silk Road and thrived together with the local primitive religions. After the introduction of Islam, the coexistence of diverse religions continued to be the order of the day in Xinjiang, to be joined later by Protestantism and Catholicism.
Before the foreign religions were introduced into Xinjiang, the ancient residents there believed in native primitive religions and the Shamanism evolved therefrom. Even today, some minority peoples in Xinjiang still adhere, to different degrees, to some of the concepts and customs characteristic of these beliefs.
Around the fourth century B.C., Zoroastrianism, or Fire Worship as it was popularly called, which was born in ancient Persia, was introduced into Xinjiang through Central Asia. It became prevalent throughout Xinjiang during the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties and the Sui and Tang dynasties. It was particularly popular in the Turpan area. The Gaochang state of that time set up a special organ and appointed special officials to strengthen its control over the religion. Some ethnic groups in Xinjiang that followed Islam once also believed in Zoroastrianism.
Around the first century B.C., Buddhism, born in India, was introduced into Xinjiang through Kashmir. Soon after, it became the main religion in the region thanks to efforts made by the local rulers to promote it. At its peak, Buddhist temples mushroomed in the oases around the Tarim Basin with large numbers of monks and nuns. Yutian, Shule, Qiuci and Gaochang were all centers of Buddhism. In Xinjiang, Buddhist culture reached a very high level, leaving a precious cultural heritage of statues, paintings, music, dancing, temples and sacred grottoes, greatly enriching the cultural and art treasury of China and the whole world.