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The Kirgiz Ethnic Group

Living Areas:
Most of the Kirgiz people in Xinjiang live in the Kizilsu Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture; others are scattered on both sides of the Tianshan Mountains. Another group of tens of thousands live in Fuyu County of Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China.

Population:  In Xinjiang, the Kirgiz population is around 173,700, 0.90 percent of the regional total.

Language:  The Kirgiz language belongs to the Turkic branch of the Altaic language family. The Kirgizs speak two different dialects – Southern and Northern. Their written language is based on Arabic script.

History:  They call themselves “Kirgizs” but are recorded under many Mandarin Chinese names in historical documents.

The forefathers of the Kirgizs were nomadic tribes living on the steppe along the Yenisey River in the 3rd century BC, subjects of the Huns. Some Kirgiz tribes later moved to the Tianshan Mountain area. They were ruled by Turkic peoples, including the Uighurs. By the mid-7th century, Kirgiz tribes were subjects of the Turkic Khanate. In 648, the Kirgiz chief presented himself before the royal court of the Tang Dynasty to form an alliance. The latter set up a military station in Kirgiz territory, helping the Kirgizs defeat the Uighur Khanate and found the Kirgiz Khanate in 840. During the 10th and the mid-18th centuries, however, the Kirgizs fell again under the rule of the Kala Khanate, Liao, Western Liao, Chahetai Khanate and its successors. As the Western Liao moved their capital westwards and Genghis Khan launched his western expedition in the 13th century, the Kirgiz tribes that had remained in the Yenisey River Valley followed the trend southwestward into Xinjiang. They became subjects of the Dzungarians in the mid-17th century. After the Qing Dynasty crushed the Dzungarian rebellions, part of the Kirgiz Blut tribes moved back to the Seven-River Basin. In this long process of migrations, the Kirgizs intermingled with other tribes and developed a distinct ethnic entity.

Animal husbandry is the Kirgizs’ primary means of livelihood, but those who have settled on plains also engage in farming.

Diet:  Beef, mutton and dairy products are the traditional staple foods of the Kirgizs, with wheat foods as subsidiary. Tea with milk and salt is a favorite beverage.

Culture:  The Kirgizs have a long cultural tradition in which singing and dancing play a central role. The well-known Manas is one of the three greatest ethnic minority epics of China. Many Kirgiz women are deft embroiderers and knitters who make elegant tapestries.

Holidays:  Conventionally, the Kirgizs celebrate Corban, Rosun and Noruz.

Religion:  Islam is the primary religious belief of the Kirgizs, although some in Emin County, Tacheng observe Lamaism or Shamanism.

Costume:  Kirgiz men traditionally wear white felt hats, high horse riding boots and long chapan gowns. The typical garment for women includes a Western-style dress and colorful vest.

Marriage:  Monogamy is practiced among the Kirgizs. Marriage is prohibited between blood relations within five to seven generations. At the engagement ceremony the bridegroom’s family presents nine gifts to the bride’s, since nine is considered an auspicious number, often of domestic animals. Weddings are often grand occasions.

Residence:  Kirgiz herdspeople commonly live in yurts, while farmers live in wooden-framed adobe bungalow houses. 

(China.org.cn August 25, 2005)

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