Although I had studied at Widener Library in my days as a student at Harvard, I admit I had not searched for magazines or books published in the Uighur language. But this winter, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit our country, I finally did. I visited Widener in search of the first modern Uighur translation of “Qutadğu Bilig,” or “Wisdom of Royal Glory,” an 11th century work written by Yūsuf Khass Hajib Balasaguni for the prince of Kashgar, an ancient city where I was also born.
As someone who studied Economics, I was curious about the economic ideas of our ancestors who had lived one thousand years ago, and I hoped to find the seeds of those ideas in “Qutadğu Bilig.” At Widener, I did find the book — along with many Uighur books and magazines, such as “Tarim” and “Tangritagh.” I had not realized there would be several renowned Uighur literature magazines with almost full series at Harvard. Like one who can easily recognize his own footprints from the roads he has previously walked, after seeing those familiar works, I started to read them.
What made me shed tears was coming across several of my own poems and prose published in these magazines. I had written them before I moved to the United States in 1997, but I had not kept copies, believing mistakenly I would have access to them forever.
Flipping through page after page of Uighur literature, I felt as if I was reconnecting with a long-lost friend. Yet I was also struggling to reconcile the reality that Uighurs face today with the relatively good old days of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Uighur language was flourishing and young Uighurs like me were hopeful about their future.
What is in danger in today’s China is not just the Uighur language itself but the existence and future of the Uighur people. Perhaps no one is suffering as severely as the Uighurs in the contemporary world. Since 2017, the Chinese government has placed hundreds of thousands — likely even more than 1.5 million — Uighur, Kazakh, and other Muslim minorities in internment camps. Often these people are subjected to forced labor or separation from their families. Due to the Chinese government’s heinous policies in violation of international norms and rules, an ethnic group that contributed significantly to the ancient Silk Road economy and enriched Central Asian civilization for more than a millennium is not only progressing, but regressing in the 21st century.
I have written before about my people and the dire situation they are facing. But nothing on the ground has improved for them at all. Thousands of Uighur scholars like Rahile Dawut and Yalqun Rozi; young Uighur entrepreneurs like Ekpar Asat; and Uighur publishing executives have not been released from their detainments yet.
At this moment, when it is impossible to receive Uighur books or magazines from Urumqi and Uighurs abroad are unable to contact loved ones, I, a Harvardian of Uighur origin, find some comfort from what Harvard has done for my people. Last year, when I met with Professor Mark C. Elliott, Harvard’s Vice Provost of International Affairs, I was heartened to hear that Harvard hired a full-time Preceptor in the Uighur language. This March, when I found those Uighur literature magazines, even some containing my own poems, in the Harvard libraries, I felt very grateful for the people at Harvard who chose to acquire and maintain these works for so many years. They are not just storing Uighur magazines in the Harvard libraries, but contributing to the preservation of a history, a language and a people who are struggling to live as who they are.
Actions like these speak louder than words. Uighurs have a proverb saying “The bird that has not experienced the winter, never appreciates the spring.” Despite international condemnation, the winter for the Uighurs is not over yet. What is most worrisome and disgusting is that China seems ready to continue its oppressive policy against these innocent ethnic groups for years to come. It is relatively easy for the world community to say that it respects China’s desire to develop but cannot condone its crime against innocent ethnic groups. Yet real support, however small, for vulnerable people is always greater than lofty but empty words.
Kaiser Mejit is a graduate of the T.H. Chan School of Public Health.