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A Key to the Pious Economy of Turn-of-the-Century Kashgaria

Research in the social and economic history of Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang in present-day People’s Republic of China) is limited by a paucity of organized archival sources. While there are many narrative sources in Chaghatay, the Turkic literary language that was used in the region into the 1950s, as well as Chinese-language documents produced by the regional government from the eighteenth century onwards, documents that might reflect the economy from the perspective of the Muslim majority are extremely rare. Accounts by foreigners who visited the region through the early 20th century often mention Islamic pious endowments (waqf). Waqf is a pervasive economic institution in the Islamic world, which typically consists of a parcel of land (or other property, such as a shop), the produce of which supports a pious institution or activity such as a shrine, school, soup kitchen, the copying of the Qur’an and so on. Pious endowments thus employ many people and play important roles in their local economies. Nevertheless, no systematic account of these endowments’ activities in any given part of Xinjiang is known to have existed prior to the 1930s. As it turns out, a key to unlocking the socioeconomic history of the region spent most of a century in a cupboard in northern Sweden.

Fig. 1: One section of the scroll, held down on each
corner by a Swedish 50 öre piece. Note the section
at the bottom where the adhesive came loose,
and the following sheet detached. > Enlarge

May 2011 was a lucky month. I was a visiting scholar at Stockholm University, which then housed the Gunnar Jarring Central Eurasia Collection, a library of travel literature about Central Asia and printed materials from Kashgar. It was a revolutionary experience for my research on the social and cultural history of Eastern Turkestan from the 1870s to the 1930s. I had a hunch that Swedish missionary accounts from the region would provide new insights into everyday life in Kashgar, an ancient and important city in southwestern Xinjiang, around the turn of the century.

One day, someone pointed to a scroll that had just arrived at the library. It was in Chaghatay, and apparently from Xinjiang. There were a number of accomplished Turkologists around, but I had more experience with handwritten sources, and the Arabo-Persian script in which the text was written was particularly obscure. Could I identify it?

The scroll was made of seven sheets of brittle yellow paper, each of them about 20.5 cm in width and between 20.5 cm and 30 cm in length (see fig. 1). We would normally associate this kind of vertical scroll with record-keeping and documents related to land, including deeds of endowment for pious institutions, as well as genealogies and some narrative texts. The sheets were pasted together end-to-end before a scribe wrote on them – some had come loose, leaving a line of writing divided between the end of one sheet and the beginning of another. Unfortunately, the scroll turned out to be partial. Once we reconstructed the available sheets into a single scroll, the first section was clearly missing, along with any writing that might contextualize the document. So what was this thing?

What we found was difficult to categorize. First of all, it was paleographically very difficult. The writing is Nastaʿlīq, a common way of writing Arabo-Persian script in the Persianate world, dating to the fourteenth century, but of a kind that over the years I came to identify with scribes in a hurry. Certain common clusters of letters are written shorthand – for example, the genitive suffix -نينک -ning is often written with a hastily-scrawled dot for one ﻨ [n] and a loop for the final ک [g/k]. Nevertheless, I was excited: my still untrained eyes could make out lists of teachers and mullahs, and words like “college” (madrasa), “shrine” (mazār), and “pious endowment” (waqf وقف), but spelled in a way that reflected its local pronunciation: wakhfa وخفە.

The yellow paper shows that the document may have originated with the Kashgar Islamic court. Most local documents from the region were produced on rough, thick Khotan paper made of mulberry bark, but this was smooth and consistent in color. It resembles the paper in a manual of jurisprudence and other documents used at the same court, including deeds of endowment. Actually, in terms of their dimensions and quality, the sheets closely resemble Russian-made writing paper that circulated in Kashgaria in the early twentieth century. Perhaps the court was using this paper to keep records?

That turn-of-the-century date corresponds with what we learned about the scroll’s origins. It had been sent to Stockholm by the descendants of Lars Erik Högberg (1858-1924), one of the leading missionaries in Kashgar at the turn of the century. When Högberg left Eastern Turkestan in 1915, he brought home this scroll among other materials probably used mainly for language study. Since then, it had sat in a cupboard in northern Sweden in the possession of his family, who eventually decided to send it to Stockholm for identification.

Fig. 2: A section of text describing the shrines of Jalāl al-Dīn
Buzrukwār, Sutuq Bughra Khan, Abū Naṣr Sāmānī, and others.
> Enlarge

Obviously, the scroll had something to do with pious endowments and Islamic law. But where? And when? The scroll records forty-eight pious endowments (see fig. 2), and fortunately several of them are large and easily identifiable, such as the famed Āpāq Khwāja shrine and Ordam Padishah shrine complex. This knowledge placed the scroll’s data in the area of Kashgar.

Nevertheless, most of the place names on the scroll were obscure. Fortunately, many are marked on Aurel Stein’s detailed maps of Xinjiang from the early 20th century. Others I could only find by digging through modern lists of administrative units or scanning online maps kilometer by kilometer. Nor were most of the shrines listed in Rahile Dawut’s indispensable guide. Mapping the place names produced a triangular area of coverage about 130 kilometers on each side, all around Kashgar (see fig. 3). I suspect that the lost first page or pages detailed pious endowments in Kashgar itself.

As it turns out, the scroll details the holdings of all of these endowments. They ranged in size from vast – the Ordam Padishah shrine, by my calculations, held 1,640 hectares of land spread out across the triangle – to miniscule – the endowment of the Khwāja Pahlawān Awliya shrine near Artush held only an adjacent orchard about four hectares in size. We can start to ask questions about the economic reach of these endowments, where sometimes hundreds of workers could have been employed, and as many farmers rented and worked the land.

Fig. 3: Locations (orange) and major shrines (green) mentioned in the scroll.
Kashgar is highlighted in red. For reference, the “Kashgar triangle” is roughly
depicted in white. Image made with Google Earth. > Enlarge

Questions remain. A mention of local ruler Yaʿqūb Beg (1820-1877) places the scroll after his death, but when was the scroll actually produced? Why was there a need to produce a list of pious endowments? Does the rough handwriting on the list suggest that it was a draft, or a set of notes made to prepare a later document?

The scroll also records the names of teachers at madrasas and how many students they had, and it includes scattered notes on when some shrines were renovated or how festivals were held at them. These details may help to place the scroll in time, space, and an institutional context, but we will need more sources to corroborate any tentative conclusions. Comparison with the 1815 deed of endowment for the Āpāq Khwāja shrine shows that the information on the scroll probably came directly from these deeds, so we may wonder how much real conditions may have changed by the time the scrolls were made. On the other hand, the geography of the list seems to suggest that the details were written down as the recorder traveled from place to place. How much of this data was based on eyewitness surveys?

Surely the Kashgar Regional Archives would help resolve many of the questions that remain, as would the manuscript collections at the Kashgar Museum. However, under the current political situation, neither institution is open to scholarly research for the foreseeable future. As long as they remain closed, we may never know the answers. Nevertheless, the Kashgar scroll provides us with a snapshot of a critical social and economic institution at the dawn of the twentieth century.


DAWUT Rahile راھىلە داۋۇت (2001): Uyghur mazarliri ئۇيغۇر مازارلىرى. Ürümchi: Shinjang Khälq Näshriyati شىنجاڭ خەلق نەشرىياتى.

SCHLUESSEL, Eric (2018): “Hiding and Revealing Islamic Pious Endowments in Turn-of-the-Century Xinjiang”. In: The Muslim World (forthcoming).

Digital Silk Road. “Stein Placename Database”. Accessed 14 April 2017.

SUGAWARA Jun (2016): “Opal, a Sacred Site on the Karakorum Highway: A Historical Approach Based on Mazar Documents”. In: Sugawara Jun and Rahile Dawut (eds.): Mazar: Studies on Islamic Sacred Sites in Central Eurasia. Tokyo: Tokyo University of Foreign Studies Press, 153-174.

SUGAWARA Jun and KAWAHARA Yayoi (eds.) (2006): Mazar Documents from Xinjiang and Ferghana. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

THUM, Rian (2014): The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

ZHANG Shicai (2016): “The Waqf System and the Xinjiang Uyghur Society from the Qing Dynasty to the Republic of China Period”. In: Sugawara Jun and Rahile Dawut (eds.): Mazar: Studies on Islamic Sacred Sites in Central Eurasia. Tokyo: Tokyo University of Foreign Studies Press, 127-140.

Manuscript in the private collection of the family of Lars Erik Högberg, Sweden
Material: 7 sheets of brittle yellow paper
Dimensions: 20.5 cm in width, approximately 200 cm in length
Provenance: Kashgar, Xinjiang, 1877-1915

Manuscript of the Month 05/2017
Text by Eric T. Schluessel
© for all pictures: Eric T. Schluessel
Reference note:
Eric T. Schluessel, “A Key to the Pious Economy of Turn-of-the-Century Kashgaria”
In: Wiebke Beyer, Zhenzhen Lu (Eds.): Manuscript of the Month 2017.05, SFB 950: Hamburg,