by James Pickett, Pittsburgh

In August of 1876, Yaqub Beg – the monarch of Yetti Shahr / Xinjiang[i] (r. 1865-1877) – rearticulated the contents of a letter received via the Russian Governor-Generalship of Turkestan in his own reply: “You wrote that it is the custom in European countries (mamlakat-i Frangistān) to gather scholars of every subject, and even to include sovereign rulers (ḥukmrān-hā) as honorary members, all for the purpose of advancing scientific understanding. [I understand] that this year the event will be held in Russia, and that… Governor-General [of Russian Turkestan, r. 1867-1882] von Kaufmann himself would be pleased by my participation.”[ii]

Thus Yaqub Beg became an honorary member of the International Congress of Orientalists, even though, in principle, he was simultaneously an object of study in their gaze eastward. His honorary membership was short-lived: he met his end during the fighting less than a year later. Even so, this minor historical episode provides tantalizing clues in a number of different directions, from language to diplomacy to “self-orientalization.”

But first some additional context for the material in question:


            The 1870s was a transitional decade in Central Asian history on both sides of the Russian-Chinese divide for reasons alluded to in the correspondence between Yaqub Beg and von Kaufmann.[iii] For instance, as a seeming afterthought to orientalist business, Yaqub Beg described the rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape in Xinjiang:

On the basis of my limitless love [for you, von Kaufmann], I must inform you of the following: on the fourteenth of Sha’ban al-Muazzam [4 September 1876] I set out from Kashgar and proceeded to Yarkand via Yangi Hisar, and from there to Aqsu, reassuring and protecting the people along the way. There I received word that a group of Chinese had attacked Manas and created great turmoil. Therefore, I once again set out [i.e. leaving Aqsu] to calm down the people.[iv]

            The “Manas” referenced in the quote refers to a county eighty miles to the northeast of Urumqi, which Qing Chinese troops were in the process of conquering.[v] From Yaqub’s defeat to the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, Xinjiang would remain a Chinese colony.

            Just a few years prior, routine correspondence between Yaqub Beg and von Kaufmann alluded to a reconfiguration of western Turkestan’s geopolitical landscape. In 1874, the Governor-General wrote:

Upon returning from the capital of our Great Sovereign-Emperor, I dispatched a messenger to you, His Excellency Fligel’-Ad’iutant Skobolev via the domain of Khoqand. However, due to disturbances there, he was unable to pass through Khoqand, and thus my letters and gifts did not reach you.[vi]

            Kaufmann was referring, of course, to the 1873 uprising led by Pulad Khan, which would eventually lead to Russian intervention and the extinction of the Khoqand Khanate in 1876. Alexander Morrison remarks in his recent monograph: “Fligel’-Ad’iutant Colonel Mikhail Dmitrievich Skobelev, who was meant to be on his way to Yaqub Beg in Kashgar, but whose presence in Ferghana when the revolt broke out would be the making of his military reputation.”[vii]

            The contextual backdrop of this exchange about the comparatively trivial topic of an orientalist conference was thus the disappearance both of Yaqub Beg’s state (Yetti Shahr) and the one he originated from (Khoqand).

Membership Dues

            The archival file (delo) in question begins with a letter from the Governor-General of Turkestan, K.P. von Kaufmann, to the famous orientalist V.V. Grigor’ev,[viii] who was busy organizing the Third International Congress of Orientalists, held in Saint Petersburg in 1876.[ix] Von Kaufmann wrote that when he had been visiting Saint Petersburg that winter A.A. Veinberg had suggested inviting the rulers of Bukhara and Kashgar to participate in the Congress as honorary members (pochetnye chleny).[x] Von Kaufmann authorized Veinberg to initiate direct correspondence with the rulers.[xi]

Of course, all academic societies come with dues, and Veinberg’s letter offering honorary membership in the International Congress of Orientalists came with a request the raw materials of orientalist scholarship: manuscripts, antique coins, and weapons. The Amir of Bukhara neglected to reply, despite being closer at hand and in constant communication with Russian Turkestan. However, Yaqub Beg responded not once, but twice to express his enthusiasm, personal affection for von Kaufmann & co., and to report on his efforts to collect the requested antiquities to send to the orientalist conference – this despite having his hands rather full preparing to face the Chinese army.[xii]

I will not be able to find ancient, gold coins in Kashgar right now because of the massive unrest and disruption in the area. [However,] I assigned the governor of Khotan, Muhammad Niyaz Beg Dadkhwah,[xiii] to search [for coins] with great effort and inform us without delay.[xiv]

            Yaqub Beg was less optimistic about the manuscript request, writing that “in Kashgar there are no reliable (s̱ābit) histories.”[xv] Say what now? How could it be that the pulsing cultural heart of eastern Turkestan lacked historical manuscripts?[xvi] The first (and perhaps most likely) explanation is that Yaqub Beg simply did not wish to part with valuable written heritage when the orientalists might be placated with antique – but still fairly common – coins.

            Another possibility might have to do with the key word “reliable.” Throughout these letters, Yaqub Beg frequently highlights the foreignness of the Petersburg event, characterizing it in terms of “European customs (rusūm).” The scholars attending the Congress were not “scholars” (ulama), but rather “orientalists” (dāniyān-i mashriq). Perhaps sensing the incommensurability of what constituted “history” in their eyes with what he understood as tārīkh, Yaqub Beg deemed the material at his disposal to be insufficiently “reliable” – at least in the eyes of those mysterious orientalists.


            Yaqub Beg’s first letter – written in Persian – contains an unusually direct comment about language: “you wrote that you prefer that that I write to you in Turki.”[xvii] Despite this injunction, Yaqub Beg’s follow-up letter a year later was also in Persian.[xviii] Why was the ruler of what is usually understood as a bastion of Turki insisting on Persian, even against the urging of his Russian interlocutors?

            Both the fact that Yaqub Beg preferred Persophone diplomacy, and that he faced Russian pressure in the other direction, reveal something important about the shifting language dynamics of nineteenth-century Eurasia. Yaqub Beg’s Persian communique was apparently not an anomaly: even when he wrote to the Ottoman Empire – a polity that had fully relegated Persian to the literary realm and adopted a Turkic chancellery centuries prior – his missives were in Persian.[xix] This stands as a reminder that Persian’s coming eclipse was not yet a foregone conclusion: it remained a prestige language of diplomacy even into the early twentieth century.[xx] Moreover, it is possible that Xinjiang’s reputation as a bastion of Turkophonia is at least partially a result of selection bias in terms of the texts that we have access to.[xxi]

            On the other hand, the Russian request to write in Turkic came from a power that was already the undisputed hegemon of inland Eurasia. In a separate exchange, Yaqub Beg wrote in Persian to von Kaufmann mostly just to check in after the Governor-General’s return from Saint Petersburg, but von Kaufmann replied in Turkic.[xxii] As Paolo Sartori has recently argued, these kinds of repeated interactions gradually shifted the language dynamics of Eurasia.[xxiii] Indeed, the Russian chancellery had favored engaging with Muslim powers almost exclusively in Turkic – even powers that were otherwise Persophone, such as the Safavids and Mughals – since the early modern period.[xxiv]

            Despite the chancellery of the Governor-Generalship of Turkestan favoring Turki, Veinberg’s letter to Yaqub Beg requesting coins and manuscripts was actually written in Persian. Why the double standard? It is quite possible that the Persian translation was written by Veinberg himself, rather than a government scribe. None other than V.V. Barthold observed that Veinberg was “an expert in the Persian language.”[xxv] Veinberg wrote the letter from Petersburg, where Persophone scribes were in short supply. The language of the letter lacks tell-tale grammatical forms (usually borrowed from Turkic) characteristic of Persian writing in Central Asia. The translation of “orientalist” as dāniyān-i mashriq seems made-up (though the phrase is repeated in Yaqub Beg’s response).[xxvi] Finally, the Russian translation of Yaqub Beg’s letter refers to Yetti Shahr with a calque of the literal Turki meaning: Semi gradii, “Seven Cities”[xxvii]: perhaps the orientalist was having a bit too much fun with the business of translation?


            As he scrambled about finding trinkets that might interest European orientalists, Yaqub Beg must have still clung to a vision of a future in which Yetti Shahr lived on as a mostly-independent domain under Russian protection – not so different from Bukhara, which had received a similar invitation from the Congress of Orientalists. Instead, his letter to von Kaufmann might well be Yaqub Beg’s last surviving diplomatic communique.

[i] Xinjiang was not a term used in either the Persian or Russian documentation. As is well known, Xinjiang is a Chinese administrative term dating to the Qing era, meaning “New Frontier” (provided here for clarity).

[ii] "Ob okazanii sodeistviia sosednimi khanstvami mezhdunarodnsme s''ezdu orientalistov v Peterburge i o vybore sredne-aziatskikh vladetelei v pochetnye chleny s''ezda. Perepiska s vladetelem kashgara Iakub-bekom ob izbranii ego pochetnym chelnom s''ezda," National Archive of Uzbekistan (henceforth designated with classic nomenclature, TsGARUz) i1-29-139 f. 9a (Persian), 8a (Russian translation). The Persian documents included in the file are not original, but rather copies.

[iii] Unlike many of his colleagues, von Kaufmann preferred maintaining a weak Muslim state in eastern Turkestan to Chinese dominance in the region. F. Fetisov, “Poslednii gubernator Turkestana”

[iv] TsGARUz i1-29-139, ff. 9b-a. Yaqub Beg uses three different words from the Arabic root r-f-h to express his intention to bring tranquility to the people with his military advance: taraffuh, tarfīh, rifāhiyyat.

[v] "Bai Yanhu and Ma Rende who were defending Urumchi realized that their garrison was not large enough to receive the brunt of the Chinese attack and they fled south on August 13, even before the fall of Gumadi. So Urumchi fell to the Qing almost without resistance on the 19th of August. In the meantime, another Qing army column, commanded by Rongquan and assisted by the militia troops of Xu Xuegong and Kong Cai, came down to Manas from the north and took the northern town on August 18." Ho-dong Kim, Holy War in China: The Muslim Rebellion and State in Chinese Central Asia (Stanford University, 2004), 166.

[vi] "Perepiska s vladetelem Kashgara Iakub-bekom o vernopoddanichestve vo vremia poezdki general-gubernatora v Semirech'e," TsGARUz i1-29-128, f. 4a.

[vii] Alexander Morrison, The Russian Conquest of Central Asia 1814 – 1907: A Study in Imperial Expansion (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 379, 382.

[viii] Grigor’ev has been at the center of numerous historiographical debates about the nature of Russian orientalism, e.g., Nathaniel Knight, “Grigor’ev in Orenburg, 1851-1862: Russian Orientalism in the Service of Empire?,” Slavic Review 59, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 74–100.

[ix] Edward Said discusses the congresses of Orientalists briefly  in Orientalism, arguing that they were obsessed with trivial minutia, while also ensuring that Islam was situated squarely within the “Oriental” side of the binary. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2014), 261–63. He does not, however, have anything to say about the 1876 Congress in Petersburg specifically. The proceedings of this conference are readily accessible online: V.V. Grigor’ev, Trudy tret’iago Mezhdunarodnago S’’ezda Or’entalistov v S.-Peterburge 1876 (Saint Petersburg: Tipografia brat. Panteleevykh, 1879-1880)

[x] Veinberg served von Kaufmann as a diplomatic functionary (diplomaticheskii chinovnik Statskii Sovetnik) in Tashkent; this document implies that he accompanied von Kaufmann on his trip to Petersburg, where both of them came into contact with the Congress organizers. TsGARUz i1-29-139, f. 4a.

[xi] TsGARUz i1-29-139, ff. 4a-b.

[xii] Yaqub Beg communicated frequently with von Kaufmann and paid close attention to the Governor-General’s movement: e.g., TsGARUz i1-29-128. In the 1880s, when Yaqub Beg’s son, Beg Quli, found himself a refugee in Russian Turkestan and presented correspondence he had saved demonstrating his father’s good standing with von Kaufmann in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to secure a government stipend. James Pickett, “The Darker Side of Mobility: Refugees, Hostages, and Political Prisoners in Persianate Asia,” in Asia Inside Out: Itinerant People, vol. III (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 206.

[xiii] Some accounts suggest that Niyaz Beg was the one who killed Yaqub Beg, though Ho-Dong Kim asserts that a stroke was more likely. Kim, Holy War in China, 168. The actual term used for “governor” in this document is mutaṣaddī, which usually refers to a lower-level functionary or clerk, but could in this context indicate the nature of the task being assigned. "Yaʿqūb Beg’s appointment of Niyāz Beg, a Yarkandi, to the governorship of Khotan seems to have stemmed from his consideration of the general feeling of the Khotanese against the 'Andijanis.'" Kim, 91.

[xiv] TsGARUz i1-29-139, 9b. Specifically, Yaqub Bek referred coins with holes in them, “yambu” (yuanbao / sycee), and something called “taifur”: pūlī qadīm… chunānchih yāmbū, fulī-yi siyāh, miyāna-shikāf, wa ṭayfūr dārad / iz monety zhe est’ iamby, chernyi pul’, monety so skvazhinoi i taifur.TsGARUz i1-29-139, ff. 1a, 2a. Despite consulting with several experts (many thanks to Jeff Eden for input and for relaying the inquiry to others), I do not know what “taifur” refers to.

[xv] TsGARUz i1-29-139, f. 2a.

[xvi] The Jarring Collection, for instance, is full of historical manuscripts from Xinjiang, so we can easily dismiss the notion that Yaqub Beg was simply stating the facts.

[xvii] Persian phrasing: tawaqquʿ-u iltimās bi-zabān-i Turkī niwishtan; Russian phrasing: vy nadeetes’, chto pis’ma sleduiushchiia za sim budut pisany na tiurkskom iazyke.  TsGARUz i1-29-139, ff. 2a, 1a. “Turki” in this usage refers to the same language as “Chaghatay,” though the latter is a scholarly convention, almost never appearing in primary sources. See Benedek Péri, “Notes on the Literary-Linguistic Term ‘Čaġatay’: Evaluating the Evidence Supplied by Native Sources,” ed. Alice Sárközi and Attila Rákos, Altaica Budapestinensia MMII, Proceedings of the 45th Permanent International Altaisitic Conference (PIAC) Budapest, Hungary, June 23-28, 2002, 2003, 248–55.

[xviii] Even within the Persian letters, however, Yaqub Beg described von Kaufmann as ‘great’ using the Turkic ulugh. TsGARUz i1-29-139, f. 2a.

[xix] Kemal H. Karpat, “Yakub Bey’s Relations with the Ottoman Sultans : A Reinterpretation,” Cahiers Du Monde Russe 32, no. 1 (1991): 23,

[xx] Carla Nappi relays an episode in her recent book illustrating the prestige of Persian as a language of diplomacy. When a Siamese king wrote to the Ming court in Siamese, the Chinese Emperor replied with a stern rebuke: “by the way: the next time you write us, make sure it’s in Persian.” This despite neither power being traditionally understood as “Persianate.” Carla Suzan Nappi, Illegible Cities: Translating Early Modern China (Oxford University Press, 2021), 17.

[xxi] In a powerful, provocative forthcoming article, Jeff Eden argues that this selection bias was intentional. Gunnar Jarring is responsible for putting together a collection of almost entirely Turkic texts from Xinjiang stand as the single most important resource for scholars of the region. He was also a decorated Nazi, and it is possible that his ideology led him to favor Turkic texts as the “natural” heritage of a Turkic race. Jeff Eden, "A Nazi Sympathizer among the Uyghurs: The Legacy of a Far-Right Orientalist for the Study of Xinjiang," work in progress.

[xxii] TsGARUz i1-29-128.

[xxiii] Alongside diplomatic correspondence with Russia, Sartori points to sufi literature, poetry, and risalas – all written outside the royal court – as drivers of Eurasia’s vernacular turn. Paolo Sartori, “From the Demotic to the Literary: The Ascendance of the Vernacular Turkic in Central Asia (Eighteenth–Nineteenth Centuries),” Eurasian Studies 18, no. 2 (March 26, 2021): 227–32,

[xxiv] Ulfat Abdurasulov, “Papering Over a Diplomatic Gulf: Bureaucracy and Translation between Early Modern Central Asian and Muscovite Courts," in Kevin Gledhill, et al (eds.) The Caspian World: Connections and Contentions at Modern Eurasian Crossroads (Cornell University Press, 2022) (forthcoming).

[xxv] Veinberg’s harsh, open criticisms of the depredations of Russian colonialism were highly unusual. - cited from Bartol'd, V. V. Istoriia kul'turnoi zhizni Turkestana//On zhe. Sochineniia, M. 1963. T. II. Ch. I., 418. My thank’s to Said Gaziev for helping me track down information on Veinberg; Gaziev’s work can be found on this very blog:

[xxvi] TsGARUz i1-29-139, ff. 5a-6a., 9b.

[xxvii] TsGARUz i1-29-139, ff. 7a.