The Case of Turpan, China: How to Destroy a Culture

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by Don Hanlon, Emeritus Professor of Architecture, UW-Milwaukee

In 1987, I conducted a survey of vernacular architecture in the oasis of Turpan in Xinjiang Province, in the far west of the Peoples Republic of China.  The project was funded by the United Nations Development Program in response to my initial report to the UNDP in 1985 that this ancient architectural tradition was being systematically destroyed as part of a vigorous effort by the Chinese government to eradicate the indigenous culture of the Uighur people. The Uighur have lived in Turpan continuously for over 1100 years. My role was to document, in photographs and drawings, the architecture of the town as it related to Uighur social customs and other aspects of culture before they were annihilated. As of this writing, the Chinese government has demolished all of the Uighur domestic and religious architecture in Turpan except for a few examples preserved as tourist attractions.

Turpan, view of the oasis. Photograph by Donald Hanlon, 1987.

For centuries, Turpan was an important node on the Silk Road for merchants traversing the hostile Taklamakan desert in central Asia. The Uighur were originally a powerful Turkic-speaking tribe which over time absorbed cultural influences from the many different people who passed through their domain. For example, important architectural characteristics, music and dance show strong influences from Persia and the region of central Asia to the west known as Transoxiana, an area that was home to the great cities of the Mongol empire, such as Samarkand and Bukhara. The Uighur practice a form of Sunni Islam, but due to their heterogeneous population, religious practice and Islamic social conventions are moderate and tolerant.

Family resting between street and canal. Photograph by Donald Hanlon, 1987.

Despite a harsh climate of extreme heat and zero rainfall, trade and agriculture in Turpan have thrived due to an innovative hydrological innovation imported many centuries ago from Persia. This is the system of kareze which are subterranean aqueducts that bring water to the oasis from the foothills of the Tian Shan mountain range to the north. The kareze are tunnels dug far below the desert surface, carefully engineered to maintain a constant shallow slope to prevent erosion. Thus, Turpan enjoys clean, cold water year-round for both domestic and agricultural use. A 1943 map of Turpan by a Japanese spy shows the kareze as dotted lines (courtesy of the American Geographical Society Library).

Close up view of map held in the AGS Library.

The kareze open into a system of canals in the town that form the boundaries between streets and residences. Tall, straight poplars grow in tight rows directly out of the canals. These perform several important functions: they provide deep shade for the houses and for the street; they create a wind break to control dust; they provide wood readily available for construction and heating; and they create a microclimate in the street by transpiring water through their leaves into the air, producing a natural means of air conditioning that can lower the temperature in the street and adjacent houses by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. After circulating through the town entirely by gravity, water then enters into second system of canals for irrigating agriculture. All of this is accomplished without any mechanical devices or artificial sources of energy – a truly sustainable method.

Turpan, sketch of a cross section of the kareze (subterranean aqueduct). Sketch by Donald Hanlon, 1987.
Canal in Turpan, Photograph by Donald Hanlon 1987.

My study included two types of architecture under threat – houses and mosques. The house form in use in Turpan for many centuries was typical of vernacular houses we find in an arc from Morocco, across north Africa, the Middle East to central Asia. It organizes all domestic spaces around a central courtyard, which functions as the main living space of the house. This design is a highly efficient, sustainable building form, perfectly suited to a hot, dry climate without using any mechanical means to artificially heat or cool. The house operates on a diurnal cycle.  At night, cool air settles in the courtyard while heat captured during the day in the thick surrounding walls radiates into the night air. During daylight, the gradually heating mass of the house draws the cool air of the courtyard into surrounding interior spaces.  In Turpan, a thick grape arbor over the courtyard enhanced this passive cooling system by breaking direct sunlight while allowing the passage of air.

Turpan, typical street. Photography by Donald Hanlon, 1987.

Another important characteristic of the vernacular house in Turpan was a construction technology based on sun-dried mud brick coupled with simple wood framing using the poplars – materials that were 100% organic, non-toxic, biodegradable, re-usable and required no fossil fuels for processing and transport. This was effective for two reasons: first, materials were available immediately to hand, inexpensive or free; second, the method of building was easily conveyed through an oral tradition of instruction and simple enough that just about anyone was capable of building their own house. As an architect, I was delighted to find myself in a town full of designers and builders of all ages enjoying the freedom to determine for themselves how they were to live.

Turpan, the privacy gradient. Sketch by Donald Hanlon, 1987.

In addition to its entirely rational environmental attributes, the typical traditional house in Turpan served to organize and control social relations between members of the family it sheltered and the rest of the community. My study revealed a “privacy gradient” by which a sequence of simple spaces through the house and into the street produced a range of social settings in which people of varying relationships could interact informally or formally depending on circumstances or a person’s status in relation to the family. In this respect, the privacy provided by a house functioned in concert with the public life of the street rather than in opposition to it. There were eight social settings organized linearly in sequence: the public street; a short, wide bridge over the canal in front of the house; a narrow yard between the canal and the front wall of the house; a monumental gate that created a private room open to the street but separated from it by a canal; an interior street bounded by service spaces; the courtyard; a second floor mezzanine overlooking the courtyard; and finally the family’s entirely private interior spaces.

A family in their house gateway. Photograph by Donald Hanlon, 1987

There were two types of mosques in Turpan: small ones serving neighborhoods and one large congregational mosque serving the entire community.  Most of the small mosques vanished when the neighborhoods they served were destroyed. Similar to the one shown here, the neighborhood mosque typically employed an ornate entry gate on the street, then a narrow passage leading to a simple, often open-air prayer hall. Note in this example of a decorative gate, the plastered brick minarets marking the corners of the building have bases in the shape of pots. This motif harks back to the form of much older, extinct precedents in which the minarets were made of bundles of reeds. These were set in pots of water to protect them from insects.  The ancient, traditional form in a fragile material persisted in a later durable material.

Neighborhood mosque entry, Turpan. Photograph by Donald Hanlon, 1987.

The monumental mosque of Turpan was the Amin Hodja Mosque built in 1776 and sited at the edge of town. The main body of the building is plastered brick while the 144-foot tower is exposed fired brick in a design typical of towers still to be found in Iran and Transoxiana.  An interesting feature of this example is that it serves three purposes simultaneously.  First, it can be used as a minaret from the top of which a muezzin would call the faithful to prayer; second, it is a tomb-tower marking the location of the tombs of its patron and his father at the base; and third, it may have been used as a lighthouse, since even a small fire at its top could have guided caravans to the oasis from many miles away. The main building also had a dual purpose. The size of its central hall suggests that it once accommodated a large congregation of worshipers while the surrounding cubic cells were used as a madrassa, or a koranic school, with boys to the right side and girls to the left. Curiously, the plan, with ranks of double cells surrounding an open center, is virtually the same as that for a typical caravanserai, which was a medieval fortified hostel for traveling merchants. A merchant would marshal his animals in a central, unroofed space and set up temporary housekeeping in one of the pair of peripheral cells – his baggage in the outside cell and his sleeping space facing the center space. Long ago, these hostels appeared at intervals of a one-day march along the entire Silk Road. Though this building was definitely intended as a mosque from its inception, it is interesting to see in the Islamic tradition how a particular plan type could accommodate different functions, in this case both religious and commercial. Though this beautiful building has not been destroyed, it was stripped of its religious function and insensitively “restored” to serve as a theme park requiring tourists to pay admission.

Amin Hodja mosque plan. Sketch by Donald Hanlon, 1987.
Amin Hodja Mosque tower, Turpan. Photograph by Donald Hanlon, 1987.

As we can readily see, the vernacular architecture of Turpan functioned as the physical armature of Uighur culture and a clear indicator of a durable, transparent social structure. The destruction of this architecture meant the fatal weakening of traditional social relations and finally the destruction society as a whole. It is clearly apparent that this was understood by the Chinese government as a means to eradicate the Uighur as a distinct ethnic group and institute a total surveillance state in Xinjiang province. In addition to other methods of control, destruction of mosques was critical to the suppression of Islam.  Also, the systematic destruction the Uighur house, which served as the basic building block of urban civic life in Turpan, resulted in the destruction of the family unit, weakening the extended family, neighborhoods and broader communal relations.

New housing in Xinjiang, China.

In the ruins of traditional neighborhoods, tall, impersonal concrete structures now rise, with hot, airless cells dependent on fossil fuels for ventilation and lighting. This act of ethnic cleansing eliminated the ability of the Uighur of Turpan to decide for themselves how to live by stripping them of their freedom to build. The result is the atomization of a community, reducing it to no more than alienated individuals, susceptible to manipulation and indoctrination and entirely reliant upon an alien regime that compels them to be obedient above all.

Laundry hanging from new housing in Turpan. Photography by Donald Hanlon 1987.

Last week Emeritus Professor Don Hanlon was the Academic Adventurers speaker at the AGS Library. The title of his talk “The Case of Turpan, China: How to Destroy a Culture” highlighted the village of Turpan and what has happened to it over the decades. He wrote this article as a guest blogger.

To view more of the nearly 300 photographs and sketches that Donald Hanlon recently donated to the AGS Library, visit the AGSL Digital Photograph Collection.

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