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The Kazak ethnic minority

    The Kazak ethnic minority, with a population of over a million, mainly lives in the Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture, Mori Kazak Autonomous County and Barkol Kazak Autonomous County in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Some are also located in the Haixi Mongolian, Tibetan and Kazak Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province and the Aksay Kazak Autonomous County in Gansu Province.
    The Kazak language belongs to the Turkic branch of the Altaic language family. As the Kazaks live in mixed communities with the Hans, Uygurs and Mongolians, the Kazaks have assimilated many words from these languages. They had a written language based on the Arabic alphabet, which is still in use, but a new Latinized written form was evolved after the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Ethnic Identity

    Except for a few settled farmers, most of the Kazaks live by animal husbandry. They migrate to look for pasturage as the seasons change. In spring, summer and autumn, they live in collapsible round yurts and in winter build flat-roofed earthen huts in the pastures. In the yurt, living and storage spaces are separated. The yurt door usually opens to the east, the two flanks are for sleeping berths and the center is for storing goods and saddles; in front are placed cushions for visitors. Riding and hunting gear, cooking utensils, provisions and baby animals are kept on both sides of the door.
    The pastoral Kazaks live off their animals. They produce a great variety of dairy products. For instance, Nai Ge Da (milk dough) Nai Pi Zi (milk skin) and cheese. Butter is made from cow's and sheep's milk. They usually eat mutton stewed in water without salt a kind of meat eaten with the hands. By custom, they slaughter animals in late autumn and cure the meat by smoking it for the winter. In spring and summer, when the animals are putting on weight and producing lots of milk, the Kazak herdsmen put fresh horse milk in shaba (barrels made of horse hide) and mix it regularly until it ferments into the cloudy, sour horse milk wine, a favorite summer beverage for the local people. The richer herdsmen drink tea boiled with cow's or camel's milk, salt and butter. Rice and wheat flour confections also come in a great variety: Nang (baked cake), rice cooked with minced mutton and eaten with the hands, dough fried in sheep's fat, and flour sheets cooked with mutton. Their diet contains few vegetables.
    The horse-riding Kazak herdsmen are traditionally clad in loose, long-sleeved furs and garments made of animal skins. The garments vary among different localities and tribes. In winter, the men usually wear sheepskin shawls, and some wear overcoats padded with camel hair, with a belt decorated with metal patterns at the waist and a sword hanging at the right side. The trousers are mostly made of sheepskin. Women wear red dresses and in winter they don cotton-padded coats, buttoned down the front. Girls like to sport embroidered cloth leggings bedecked with silver coins and other silver ornaments, which jangle as they walk. Herdsmen in the Altay area wear square caps of baby-lamb skin or fox skin covered with bright-colored brocade, while those in Ili sport round animal-skin caps. Girls used to decorate their flower-patterned hats with owl feathers, which waved in the breeze. All the women wear white-cloth shawls, embroidered with red-and-yellow designs.
    The Kazak family and marriage in history fully showed the characteristics of the patriarchal feudal system. The male patriarch enjoyed absolute authority at home; the wife was subordinate to the husband, and the children to the father. The women had no right to property. The marriage of the children and the distribution of property were all decided by the patriarch. When the man came of age and got married he received some property from his parents and began to live independently in his own yurt. Only the youngest brother eventually stayed with the family. Herdsmen with close blood relations formed an "Awul" (a nomadic clan). Rich herd owners or venerated elders were considered the "Awulbas" (chiefs of the community).
    The Kazak people usually practiced monogamy, but in the old society, polygamy was quite common among the feudal lords and tribal chiefs, in accordance with their Islamic faith.
    The feudal mercenary marriage system deprived young men and women of their independence in matrimonial affairs and high bride prices were charged. Hence richer people married up to four wives each and poor herdsmen were unable economically to establish a family. Among the latter, a system of "barter marriage" was practiced. Two families, for example, could exchange their daughters as each other's daughter-in-law without asking for betrothal gifts. This often gave rise to a large disparity in age of the matrimonial partners, let alone mutual affection.
    The Kazaks are warm-hearted, sincere and hospitable. They entertain all guests, invited and uninvited alike, with the best things they have -- usually a prize sheep. At dinner, the host presents a dish of mutton with the sheep's head to the guest, who cuts a slice off the right cheek and puts it back on the plate as a gesture of appreciation. He then cuts off an ear and offers it to the youngest among those sitting round the dinner table. He then gives the sheep's head back to the host.
    The Kazaks are Muslims. Though there are not many mosques in the pastures, Islam exercises a great influence upon their social life in all aspects. Their religious burdens used to be heavy. They had to deliver religious food grain and animal taxes in accordance with Islamic rules. If they wanted to invite mullahs for prayers on occasions of festivals, wedding, burial ceremonies or illnesses, they had to present given amounts of money or property.
    The Kazaks' festivals and ceremonies are related to religion. The Corban and Id El-fitr festivals are occasions for feasts of mutton and mutual greetings. The Nawuruz Festival in the first month of the lunar calendar is a grand occasion to say good-bye to the old, usher in the new, and hope for a better year in stockbreeding. Every family entertains with "kuji," a food made of mutton, milk dough, barley, wheat and other delicacies. They give feasts when there are births, engagements or weddings.
    The Kazaks, men and women alike, are good horse riders. Young men like wrestling and a game in which horsemen compete for a sheep. There are horsemanship displays on the grasslands during festivals. The young people like to play a "girl-running-after-boy" game. The boys and girls ride their horses to an appointed place; the boys can flirt with the girls on the way. However, on the way back, the girls chase the boys and are entitled to whip them if they can as a way of "vengeance." Such merry-making more often than not terminates with love and marriage.
    This ethnic minority has its own rich literary heritage. As there were many illiterates, folk literature handed down orally was quite developed. After liberation, ballad singers, or "Akens," made great efforts to collect, study and re-create old verses, tales, proverbs, parables and maxims. Many outstanding Kazak classic and contemporary works have been published in the Kazak language.
    Kazak music and dance also have their own unique features and are very popular. The Kazaks like summer the best, terming it merry-making time. They often sing and dance throughout summer nights on the pastures. The two-stringed instrument is their favorite.

Tribal Life

    All Kazaks belonged to definite clans before 1949. They and their area were divided into three hordes (ordas): the Great Horde, Middle Horde and Little Horde -- or the Right, Left and Western branches as the Qing government documents referred to them. The Middle Horde was the most powerful, with the largest number of people and most complete clan lineage. The Kazaks in China mostly belonged to the Great and Middle Hordes.
    The clans were formally blood groups of different sizes. The smallest productive organization and nomadic community within the clan was the "Awul," people with the same grandfather or father; sometimes they included people without any blood ties, mostly dependent poor herdsmen from without. So, there was a sharp contrast of wealth in the "Awul" of three, five, a dozen or more families. Owing to wars, migration or other causes, such internal blood relations became very loose.
    The ruling group was composed of the nobility, tribal chiefs, herd owners and "Bis." The Bis generally came from a rich herdsman's family, were well-versed in the laws, customs and eloquence, and were generally regarded as qualified mediators. The ethnic group did not have any written law, but each clan had its own common law which protected private property, the privileges of the tribal chiefs, and tribal solidarity and unity. Whenever there were disputes over property, marriage or other matters, the "Bi" mediated and handled them in accordance with the clan law, generally practicing "punishment by nine," i.e., compensation of nine head of animals paid by the loser to the winner of the lawsuit.
    The Kazak clan organization was a combination of the feudal system of exploitation and the clan patriarchy. The ruling class plundered the people economically and enjoyed political privileges. The majority of the poor herdsmen were deprived of all rights whatsoever.

Economic Life

    The Kazaks have accumulated much experience in stock raising over a long period of history. However, under the feudal system, their production level was very low and, being conservative in technical matters, the nomads made little effort to improve their expertise and depended entirely on the natural growth of the stock. As they had no means to resist natural disasters, great numbers of animals died in snowstorms in winter and spring. Disease also took its toll of the herds.
    Kazak handicrafts were basically a family undertaking. Blacksmiths and carpenters were not specialized, they were herdsmen with expertise in these fields. The making of buttered tea, milk products and felt, tanning animal skins and tailoring furs were all done by women. Though Kazak animal husbandry provided wool, hides and skins and livestock, the commodity economy was not developed. In the pastures barter trade was in vogue, with sheep as the standard of the price. The herdsmen exchanged their stock for food grain, tea, cloth, daily utensils and handicrafts. In remote Altay, they bartered a sheep skin for only 100 to 150 grams of tea.
    A minority of rich Kazaks in the early 20th century owned thousands of head of cattle, sheep, horses and camels, while the majority of herdsmen kept very little stock and that was for subsistence. Though the pastures were owned by the whole tribe, they were in fact the property of clan chieftains and big herd-owners, the winter pasturelands in particular.
    As commerce developed in Xinjiang after the 19th century, Kazak animal husbandry economy grew closer ties with markets. The merchants, the privileged Russian merchants in particular, plundered the herdsmen through unfair exchange of commodities. Usury came into being, too. Such ruthless exploitation made the head of animals drop drastically and Kazak stock breeding virtually struggled on the brink of bankruptcy on the eve of liberation.
    The Kazaks began farming in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The main farm implements include katuman (a kind of mattock), sickles, ploughs and grinding stones.

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