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A visual representation of Xinjiang's major cities
By: ChinaXinjiang

Chapter Six) Maps and Geography


A visual representation of Xinjiang's major cities


Today, the vast territory of Xinjiang is dotted with countless cities. In terms of the concentration and prosperity of its modern cities, Xinjiang has no reason to envy other provinces of China, and far surpasses its neighbors in Central Asia. I recently had the chance to visit a number of cities throughout Xinjiang, from northern cities such as Urumqi and Altay; to cities south of the Tianshan ranges, such as Kashgar, Aksu and Hotan. I was not completely indifferent to hustle and bustle of these modern cities, but — given my academic background — I tended to be far more interested in their past.


Today, Urumqi is the provincial capital and largest city of Xinjiang; wherever one looks are row upon row of high-rises. Those who love the dazzling lights and glamor of modern cities would not even throw a glance at the ruins of the "Gongning" Manchu settlement located next to Xinjiang Agricultural University (pictured in Image 86). This settlement is thoroughly dilapidated but is still more or less standing, squeezed between urban dwellings. The city of Ili remains a major hub of the Western borderlands but is no longer as prestigious as it was during the Qing Dynasty. One can still visit the old "Huiyuan" Manchu settlement and other important ruins. Kashgar has remained the largest city in southern Xinjiang throughout its history. It fuses old and new: one can still visit the old city of Kashgar and the Qing settlement of Laining, which now share the streets with modern skyscrapers. Aksu and Hotan are famous Silk Road cities with immense historical heritage, but their structures from the Qing Dynasty have been all but swallowed up by high-rises. Aksu's Qing Dynasty buildings have been completely destroyed, while in Hotan, one can still find a lone wall from the Qing Dynasty, on the site of a former soldier settlement.

Image 86: Ruins of the Qing settlement of Gongning (in July 2012)

It is worth noting that the history of Xinjiang's northern cities differs tremendously from that of its southern cities. Southern Xinjiang was predominantly occupied by oasis farming societies composed of permanent settlements. For example, prior to the Han Dynasty, there were already city-states on the oases of the Taklamakan Desert, such as the "36 kingdoms of the West" listed in the Records of the Grand Historian. Meanwhile, up until the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, northern Xinjiang was dominated by the Oirat tribes of the Dzungar Khanate, who lived as nomads wherever there was ample water and grass. At the exception of a region in the vicinity of Ili, where some southern Uyghur slaves were forced to grow crops, the concept of fixed urban dwellings was virtually inexistent in northern Xinjiang at that time — let alone large-scale cities. The modern cities that stand in Xinjiang today only really took shape during the reign of Emperor Qianlong.


These days, very few people have the time or opportunities to visit the Qing Dynasty ruins of Xinjiang, and yet it is hard to properly convey through text the layout of these cities to those who are unfamiliar with Xinjiang's geography. Therefore, I have selected two of the most emblematic maps of Xinjiang from the mid-Qing Dynasty as a means of providing readers with a clear mental image of where these cities were located.

Image 87: Overall map from the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang stored in Taipei

Although the Complete Atlas of Xinjiang (see Image 87) stored in Taipei features crude lines and approximative labels, it is nonetheless has great value as one of the few extant maps of Xinjiang during the mid-Qianlong reign. Drawn in 1773 (the 38th year of the Qianlong era), the atlas predates the Illustrated Gazetteer of the Western Territories (from 1782, the 47th year of the Qianlong era) and the Sights and Sounds of the Western Territories (from 1777, the 42nd year of the Qianlong era).


The map pictured in Image 87 has a conventional north-up orientation and depicts the region of Xinjiang during the Qing Dynasty. The ideogram 回 (hui) is used to denote cities, as it resembles city walls. Transportation networks are drawn using dotted lines. Meanwhile, mountains are represented using simple imagery, and waterways are depicted using parallel bold lines. Although the map's proportions are severely inaccurate, it still provides us with a decent idea of the distribution of Qing settlements at the time at was produced.

Image 88: Overall map from the Map of the Western Territories

By 1773, the counties of Yumen, Yuanquan and Dunhuang had already been established west of the Jiayu Fort (on the outskirts of Jiuquan, in Gansu Province) on the road to Xinjiang. Meanwhile, in Eastern Xinjiang were the cities of Hami, Bizhan, Gaochang (or Kara-Khoja) and Turpan. Travelling west from Hami along the northern slope of the Tianshan ranges, one traversed, in the following order: Barkol, Mori, Jimsar, Tenage'er, Urumqi, Changji, Hutubi, Manas, Ku'erkalawusu, Jinghe, Tarbagatai and Ili. Meanwhile, if one travelled south from Eastern Xinjiang, one would traverse: Karasahr (today Yanqi), Kuqa, Sayram, Baicheng, Aksu, Uqturpan, Kashgar, Yengisar, Yarkand and Hotan.


Although all these cities are denoted using the ideogram 回, they differed immensely in terms of their size. In the mid-Qianlong era, the main cities of eastern Xinjiang were Hami and Turpan, while their counterparts in northern Xinjiang were Barkol, Urumqi, Tarbagatai and Ili. Southern Xinjiang's main cities were Karasahr, Kuqa, Aksu, Uqturpan, Kashgar, Yengisar, Yarkand and Hotan.
The Maps of the Western Territories (see Image 88) are currently stored in the National Library of China. They are watercolor paintings on paper by the renowned expert of northwestern frontier research, Zhang Mu, which reflect the state of Xinjiang in the mid- to late-Jiaqing reign (1811-1820). By this point, Xinjiang's urban distribution and socioeconomic conditions had stabilized thanks to development and pacification under Emperor Qianlong. The map in Image 88 has a "south-up, north-down, east-left, west-right" orientation. As the maps are large, they become difficult to read when resized. I have therefore relabeled major cities in visible red text.

Image 89: Old photo of the bell tower in the Huiyuan settlement of Ili

Zhang Mu specified the major cities of Xinjiang during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing in his annotations for the Complete Map of Xinjiang, contained within the Maps of the Western Territories: "Hami is the gateway to Xinjiang. If one heads south along from Hami to the southwest of the Tianshan ranges, one traverses Turpan, Karasahr, Kuqa, Aksu, Yarkand, Hotan, Yengisar and Kashgar on what is known as the Southern Route. If one heads west from Hami and traverses the Tianshan ranges, one passes through Barkol, the Ancient City, Urumqi, Ku'erkalawusu, Tarbagatai and Ili on what is known as the Northern Route."


If we compare the maps in Images 87 and 88, the main cities of both northern and southern Xinjiang didn't change significantly from the Qianlong era to the Jiaqing era. Hami and Turpan maintained their status as the two major hubs of eastern Xinjiang, thanks largely to their famous history and their location along one of the main roads into Xinjiang. To this day, Hami remains famous as a producer of Hami melons (similar to cantaloupes), while Turpan is well-known for its grapes.

Image 90: Old photo of the Hetian settlement

The divergent status of cities in northern and southern Xinjiang was closely related to the military administration of Xinjiang in the mid-Qing Dynasty. In this hierarchy of military officials, the General of Ili was the highest authority in Xinjiang. Underneath him were the Grand Minister Consultant of Tarbagatai, the Grand Minister Consultant of Kashgar, and the Commander-in-Chief of Urumqi. While the Grand Minister Consultants and Commanders-in-Chief were under the command of the General of Ili, they were relatively independent in terms of their functions. Therefore, one could say that these four cities were, at the time, the main centers of the military administration in Xinjiang at that time.


As the former site of the court of the Dzungar Khanate and the Ili General's place of residence, Ili's rank during the Qing Dynasty goes without saying. Meanwhile, its location in the fertile basin of the Ili River made it an ideal place for farmers to settle and plant crops. It is for this reason that the Qing Dynasty chose Ili as the location for a number of settlements, such as Huiyuan (Image 89), Huining, Yichun, Ningyuan, Suiding, Guangren, Zhande, Gongchen and Tarqi. The Prefecture of Ili had the highest number of settlements and population density in all of Xinjiang.

Image 91: Remains of the Hetian city wall (July 2012)

Although the Commander-in-Chief of Urumqi was under the command of the General of Ili, they both belonged to the same rank (pin) within the military administration hierarchy: congyipin, or "1B". The Commander-in-Chief was the greatest military authority in eastern Xinjiang; under his command were the Grand Minister Superintendent of Hami, the Grand Minister of Troops in Turpan, the Grand Minister of Troops in Barkol, and the Grand Minister of Troops in Ku'erkalawusu. During the Qing Dynasty, the settlement of Gongning was built on the outskirts of Urumqi (as shown in Image 86). When Xinjiang was made a province at the end of the Qing Dynasty, Urumqi rose dramatically in status, surpassing Ili in order to become the capital and largest city of Xinjiang, which it has remained until this day. Barkol is located at a strategic juncture of a major road leading into Xinjiang. It is densely populated and boasts a variety of temples — hence it is known as the "Temple Capital of Northern Xinjiang". It has two settlements: one Manchu and the other Han Chinese. Tabargatai (today known as Tacheng) is located along the northwestern border of Xinjiang. Its Grand Minister Consultant presided over affairs such as the administration of the Mongol and Kazakh nomads. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, it became the site of a Qing settlement called Suijing. One could say that the current state of cities in northern Xinjiang is a continuation of the dynamic that formed during the reign of Emperor Qianlong.


The cities of southern Xinjiang have an illustrious history. During the Qing Dynasty, the Qing court established the office of Grand Minister Consultant of Kashgar, who resided in Kashgar and presided over the affairs of southern Xinjiang. Kashgar was an important hub of the military administration and had one Manchu settlement, called Laining. The other major cities of southern Xinjiang were administered by Grand Ministers Superintendent and Grand Ministers of Troops. Karasahr was of strategic importance due to its location along the road from eastern into southern Xinjiang, near the Bosten Lake. It was administered by a Grand Minister Superintendent. After returning east from the basin of the Volga River, the Torghuts once lived as nomads there. The area of Kuqa, including the settlement of Baicheng and the Uyghur city of Bugu'er, was administered by a superintendent. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the Qing court acquired a courtyard owned by nobles to the northwest of the old city of Aksu and used it as the site of another settlement. In Uqturpan, there was a Manchu settlement that Emperor Qianlong named Yongcheng. The new settlements of Yarkand, Yengisar and Hotan (see Image 90) were all built within the center of the old city, rather than outside the city walls. In July 2012, during my expedition to Xinjiang, I discovered that the Qing Dynasty settlement of Hotan had been occupied by a military base and that many of its ruins had been incorporated into a park so as to better preserve them (see Image 91). The aforementioned major cities of southern Xinjiang were often referred to collectively in Qing documents as nanbacheng (the "Eight Cities of the South").

Image 92: Portrait of Emperor Qianlong

In the portrait of Emperor Qianlong pictured in Image 92, the emperor is accompanied by a small child. With one hand, he pets a deer; while in the other, he holds an ornamental scepter. He has a content expression on his face and an ethereal presence. His features are exactly as they are portrayed in the Portrait of Emperor Qianlong upon Ascending the Throne, shown in Image 10: a gaunt face and long, delicate eyebrows. The portrait in Image 92 also features the Autobiographical Poem of the Householder of Everlasting Spring. Emperor Qianlong's father, Emperor Yongzheng, was a devout Buddhist who gave himself titles such as "Householder who Breaks Free from the Mundane World" and "Householder of Perfect Clarity" (a householder being a non-monastic Buddhist scholar). At a Buddhist ceremony, he granted his son — at the time, only a baby — the title "Householder of Everlasting Spring".


 In post-imperial China, the city of Altay (known during the Qing Dynasty as Chenghuasi) in northern Xinjiang has flourished thanks to its strategic location as well as the immigration of Kazakh nomads fleeing natural disasters. Meanwhile, the city of Korla, which was of little note during the Qing Dynasty, has since replaced Karasahr as a major city of southern Xinjiang thanks to its modern railroad network. Following the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Karamay began to exploit its natural resources (largely, petroleum) and develop its economy; while Shihezi and Aral have grown considerably thanks to the reclamation of wasteland by army units. Despite these changes, the fundamental layout and status of cities in Xinjiang has remained the more or less the same since their initial Qing occupation during Emperor Qianlong's reign. Emperor Qianlong's contributions to the development of Xinjiang and Chinese civilization were immeasurable. While the events of the Qing Dynasty may not seem relevant to our modern society, China would not be what it is today were it not for the efforts of the "Householder of Everlasting Spring". 

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