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China’s Other Religious Exiles

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In the West, Xinjiang lacks Tibet’s luster. Owen Lattimore's private letters offer a hint as to why.

China’s Other Religious Exiles

In the West, Xinjiang lacks Tibet’s luster. Here’s one reason why.

In April 1950, Owen Lattimore, one of America’s most esteemed Sinologists, received a request for a copy of his brand new book, Pivot of Asia: Sinkiang and the Inner Asian Frontiers of China and Russia.

Such requests for Pivot of Asia—an insightful work on the history, culture, and economy of Xinjiang (Sinkiang), a province in Northwest China sharing a long land border with the Soviet Union—were probably not rare, but this one was different.

Postmarked from New Delhi, the letter was written by a group of three political refugees from Xinjiang. The authors of the letter asked not just for a copy of the book; more importantly, they wanted Lattimore and his “friends” in the American government to support Xinjiang in the wake of the Chinese revolution.

The names of the letter’s three signatories—Muhammad Amin Bughra, Isa Yusuf Alptekin, and Colonel Adam Sabri—would have been immediately familiar to Lattimore, an expert on China’s ethnic borderlands. Describing themselves as “Turkestanis,” the trio of Uyghur men had long served the Chinese Nationalist Government in Xinjiang.

When the Chinese Nationalist Army in Xinjiang capitulated in September 1949, the three men faced an uncertain future. Accompanied by some 600 other Uyghur politicians and family members, they fled the provincial capital, Urumqi, just days before troops of the Chinese Communist Party arrived.

Writing from India, Bughra, Alptekin, and Sabri styled themselves rather pitifully, telling Lattimore they were “bereft of all valuables” and “penniless.” Despite their material condition, the men remained committed to telling the world of Xinjiang’s plight under the repressive regime of the Chinese and Soviet communists. For this reason, they explained their delight that Secretary of State Dean Acheson had, at a Press Club address in January 1950, publicly shamed the Soviet Union for (allegedly) “detaching” Xinjiang from China and turning it into a semi-colony.

Although Acheson’s Press Club speech is remembered by historians for what he did not say about the US defense perimeter in Asia—whether South Korea was included—Xinjiang’s exile community probably did not notice this blunder. (Neither did Mao or Stalin, but that’s a story for a different day.) Acheson’s sharp words about Soviet imperialism in China’s western borderlands—made while Mao Zedong was in Moscow no less—signaled to Uyghur exiles in India that the United States stood by Xinjiang, even as the Cold War descended upon Asia.

From Lattimore, Bughra, Alptekin, and Sabri wanted material and financial support. Addressing the China-expert as an “Adviser to the State Department,” they asked for “[help] from you or your friends,” noting that in the midst of the difficult journey to India, they and their 600 followers had lost all worldly possessions. If they were to survive in India—let alone agitate for the independence of Xinjiang—the three men desperately needed some assistance.

Upon reading the letter, Lattimore did seek out money for Xinjiang…but not in the way Bughra, Alptekin, and Sabri had hoped. The request prompted Lattimore to try to recruit a language and area studies expert for Johns Hopkins or another university in the United States. He sent off letters to the Foreign Service Institute, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), and the University of Pennsylvania, all asking for funds to recruit a Xinjiang specialist.

Why did Lattimore want Xinjiang experts in or near the nation’s capital? He did not exactly say why, but we can speculate his motives.

At the time of Pivot’s publication and Lattimore’s fundraising effort, the United States Consulate in Urumqi had closed, a CIA operative named Douglas Mackiernan had been killed while evacuating from Chinese Central Asia, and the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union had inked a series of agreements to jointly develop Xinjiang.

All of this meant that the United States was denied access to Xinjiang, an important listening post in the Global Cold War. Lattimore probably feared that a knowledge gap about this “pivotal” region in Central Asian and Sino-Soviet affairs would develop among policymakers and policy analysts in Washington. So to prepare for after the Chinese revolution, Lattimore wanted the United States to have academics and educators familiar with the languages and locales of Xinjiang.

The Administrative Secretary of ACLS, Mortimer Graves, concurred with Lattimore that “an expansion westward from your Mongol work is certainly in order, and the Turkish of Sinkiang [Xinjiang] would seem to be a next normal step.” Though Graves was not in a position to shell out the cash, he did volunteer to approach several other philanthropic organizations on Lattimore’s behalf. “I shall not be satisfied until we have an active American development in study of the Central Asiatic Turks,” Graves concluded his letter.

The paper trail mostly ends after Lattimore’s receipt of a lengthy letter from Isa Yusuf Alptekin in November 1950. Lattimore did not succeed in bringing a Xinjiang language expert to the United States, in part because he could not marshal the funds do so. Other developments in Lattimore’s personal and professional life also prevented him from aggressively pursuing this initiative. As Lattimore wrote to one American colleague in June 1950, “You may have read in the press that my legitimate work has been greatly interfered with by the disreputable McCarthy.”

The historian Justin Jacobs has recently hypothesized that Xinjiang lacks the same name recognition as Tibet in the West because Uyghur elites, once in exile, failed to produce a single identifiable leader (their own Dalai Lama). This is probably true, but Lattimore’s correspondence also shows that the failure of American academics and philanthropists to keep the study of Xinjiang alive in Cold War America may have also played a role.

In the end, the most Lattimore could do was send his exiled friends from Xinjiang two copies of Pivot of Asia—although it seems the books may never have arrived.

Click here to read the correspondences of Owen Lattimore on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive.

Special thanks to the Ferdinand Hamburger Archives, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, for granting permission to publish these records on

About the Author

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Charles Kraus

Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program

Charles Kraus is the Deputy Director of the History and Public Policy Program at the Wilson Center.

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