The stories presented in this volume have circulated for many centuries in the oases of Central Asia’s Tarim Basin, the southern part of what is today Xinjiang, China. They recount the heroic deeds of a particular lineage of Turkic khans of the Qarakhanid dynasty, a lineage which we may call for convenience the Bughrā Khāns. Although the particular manuscript that Jeff Eden has translated here dates to the late 18th or early 19th century, parts of the text have roots that may reach as deep as the eleventh century. Its latest significant incarnations, printed in the 1980s, are revered by readers in the Tarim today and banned by the Communist Party of China. In all of these eras it has been, as far as we can tell, a popular text, whether consumed through audition, reading, or both.
This longevity and popularity make the stories of the Bughrā Khāns an illuminating through-line in the cultural history of the Tarim Basin. The bountiful oases of the Tarim, perched between nomad-dominated mountains and the empty Taklamakan desert, have undergone radical cultural changes over the last thousand years, as Buddhist kingdoms surrendered to Islamizing Turks, Mongol conquerors brought new forms of sovereignty, Sufi lineages subverted royal prerogatives, and the Manchu Qing Empire linked the Tarim’s fate to China. Much of this history, in one way or another, is reflected in the Bughrā Khān tales as they have come down to us today.
The stock phrases and tropes that repeat throughout much of this text suggest that an oral epic tradition lies at the core of the Bughrā Khān war stories, and indeed they fit neatly into the wide tradition of Turkic epic. It is a tradition that embraces both verse and prose, and that often focuses, like the Iliad or the Shahnamah, on war. As oral commemorations of Qarakhanid Turk victories over the non-Muslims of the Tarim, the Bughrā Khān tales likely emerged from the very events they describe.
The Tarim’s Basin’s largest Turkic ethnic group today—in some senses the heirs of the Qarakhanids—is known as the Uyghurs. In other political circumstances the Bughrā Khān tales might have been taken up as the national epic of the Uyghurs, as the Shahnamah has been for Iran and the Manas cycle has been for the Kyrgyz. But the text in the form presented here, which is both the closest version to the oral forerunner and the perhaps oldest record of that oral tradition, never emerged as a rallying point for Uyghur nationalism. Instead, it was a biographical novel, Saypidin Azizi’s best-selling Sutuq Bughrakhan (1988), that eventually turned the Qarakhanids into Uyghur national heroes.
The reasons for this alternative road to nationalist literary prominence lie in the period before nationalism’s 20th-century arrival in the Tarim, when the text circulated widely in manuscript form, functioning as a hagiography. In its hagiographical guise it offered both liturgy and history for the numerous death-sites of Qarakhanid martyrs, which drew thousands of pilgrims. At such shrines, pilgrims from across the region could hear recitations of the text, and while it was read outside of the shrine context as well, the nexus of public recitation and pilgrimage undoubtedly promoted the widespread circulation of the text. Thus, by providing a shared history for the inhabitants of the Tarim Basin, the hagiographical manifestation of the Bughrā Khāns cycle was no less effective a vehicle of group identity than any national epic.
However, when Saypidin Azizi sat down to write his proud account of the Uyghurs’ Qarakhanid heritage in the 1980s, he did not pay much attention to the parts of the Bughrā Khān tale rooted in oral epic. The centuries between the Qarakhanids and the Communist Party had wrought a dramatic transformation of the text. Most strikingly, new material from a very different literary tradition had been attached to the tales of Qarakhanid holy wars. This new material was a 16th or 17th-century Sufi hagiography of the original Bughrā Khān, Satūq, and it was this section (from the beginning to page 62 of Eden’s translation), that Saypidin Azizi drew from for his novelized account. Azizi had grown up in the town of Atush, near the tomb of Satūq, and it was the Sufi hagiographical section that most directly addressed the story of his hometown saint.
Most surviving manuscripts of the Bughrā Khān tales include both the holy-war epics, which begin with the rule of Ḥasan Bughrā Khān, and the Sufi hagriographical section, which treats the earlier Satūq Bughrā Khān and his teacher. Many add another distinct work, a short genealogy of Satūq Bughrā Khān’s descendents. It is this standard composite version which Jeff Eden has translated.
Every manuscript is of course different, and the specimen Eden has chosen has interesting peculiarities. It is an unusually old manuscript of the Bughrā Khāns text, perhaps even the oldest surviving copy, though it is impossible to date precisely. A copyist has taken some fascinating liberties in order to smooth out the transitions between what were originally independent works. Other specimens tend to present the various parts translated here as separate, even including at the beginning of each the “bismillah” (in the name of God) that opens all books. But this copyist has gone further than merely running the texts together without page breaks and “bismillahs.” The chapter number that normally begins the Satūq biography has been removed, hiding its original place in a larger work, as has the author name (Sayyid Qāsim Samarqandī) that is usually embedded in the genealogy. At the beginning of the section on the holy wars, an extensive introductory paragraph naming another author, “Mullā Ḥājī,” has likewise been removed. The result is a manuscript that, on its face, bears no obvious sign of its diverse origins. Given that most popular hagiographies in the Tarim of the 18th and 19th centuries were anonymous, we may see this as an adaptation of older texts to prevailing literary norms.
Although the particular presentation in this manuscript is unique, there is a strong case to be made that this group of tales, in one form or another, has been the most widely consumed literary work of the last millennium in the Tarim, more so than the Qurʾan. In translating this narrative cycle in full for the first time, Jeff Eden thus fills an important gap for the Anglophone world. He does so with admirably strong and simple prose that both transmits the rough vigor of the original and achieves his goal of a readable and entertaining text. Eden’s rich contextualization does an excellent job of preparing the reader for a text that mixes mysticism and bloodshed, the sacred and the swashbuckling, in ways that may be surprising to readers outside of the tradition.
And Eden’s translation comes not a moment too soon. The People’s Republic of China is engaged in a massive campaign to re-engineer Uyghur culture, involving the internment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and the burning of books like this one. I can think of no better text to read for a view of Uyghur culture, and no more important time to read it.