To Build Central Asian Studies, Invite People In: Teach More Chaghatay by Eric Schluessel, University of Montana

Those of us who devote our careers to the history of Islamic Central Asia frequently wonder why scholarly interest in the field remains low. A survey of publicly-available data supports this impression: of the relatively few scholars who self-identify as Central Asianists in the member directories of organizations such as MESA or AAS, only a handful indicate reading skills in pre-modern Arabic-script Turkic-language sources. That is, while there are many people with solid backgrounds in Russian, Persian, and Chinese sources, and some proficient in modern Turkic languages such as Uzbek, very few could conduct primary research in the language of Babur, Navai, and countless scribes: Chaghatay.[1]

There are some obvious reasons for low interest and enrollment: Funding is poor. Culture and politics in the West make the Islamic world more an object of fear or derision than of respect. Secondary school curricula might mention Amir Timur, if we are lucky, so Central Asia is generally off students’ radars when they enter university. The regions’ major power have very little soft power of the kind that attracts undergraduates to Korea or Japan.

Perhaps most critically, market pressures in academia discourage a young scholar from specializing in Central Asia. University X wants to hire someone to teach the Russia survey and Western Civ II, not Russia and Central Asia. College Z needs an East Asianist who can handle China and Japan, not China and the Mongol Empire. If you have limited time and resources to pursue a PhD, then the sensible thing would be to spend them on marketable skills. From this perspective, the situation seems hopeless – only the eccentric and the independently wealthy would study Central Asia.

There is a solution to this problem: we can change the academic economy of time by lowering the investment necessary to conduct research in Central Asian sources. Persian language pedagogy is already well-evolved and relatively readily available at research universities, so let us focus on Chaghatay.

Consider that a tremendous volume of new manuscript sources in Chaghatay are now becoming available, ranging from photoreproductions of contracts from Xinjiang, to printed editions from the University of Tokyo’s Department of Islamic Area Studies, to the digital resources at Lund, Uppsala, and Staatsbibliothek Berlin. Nevertheless, even though the language in which these sources are written is not particularly challenging, access to the skills necessary to utilize them for research remains very limited.

At present, in order to learn to read a manuscript source in Chaghatay, one needs to study a modern Turkic language such as Uzbek or Uyghur, as well as Farsi, before entering one of the very few formal courses offered in North America or Europe. For my part, I had the rare chance to take a semester of Chaghatay at Indiana University, and then to work with retired faculty in Cambridge, Massachusetts – most people do not have access to either opportunity. There are Chaghatay readers in departments across North America who certainly could run a short course for their students, but because there is no textbook for learning Chaghatay, those scholars would have to reinvent the wheel in order to teach what they know.

This situation is reminiscent of that surrounding the study of the Manchu language and of the Qing borderlands in the mid-1980s. The language and the field of study have co-evolved over the past thirty or forty years to become recognized and valued skills in the field of Chinese history, so perhaps their example will provide some valuable lessons.

There is a proud tradition of Western Manjuristics. However, the interest in Manchu materials that characterizes the so-called New Qing History has its roots in Japanese Sinology as it evolved around the Second World War, and then was imparted to certain students in North America who studied Chinese history in Japan. In the 1980s, some scholars began to use Manchu sources and demonstrated their significance for our understanding of the Qing empire in pretty fundamental ways. Research demonstrated the relevance of these sources to larger debates.

In 2000, the publication of Gertraude Roth-Li’s reader for Manchu sources changed the game completely. This book made it possible for a scholar with a reasonable knowledge of Manchu to train a student of Chinese history to read documents at summer schools or term-time courses. Over time, the field has grown beyond the reader, as young scholars encounter new kinds of sources and combine their language skills with new disciplinary perspectives. There are now scholars of Manchu literature, poetics, medicine, and much more, organized loosely into a Manchu Studies Group.

Manchu “incubated” as a research language within the field of Chinese history, even without geopolitical demands for Manchu study or any funding from a wealthy Manchu donor. In a world where we are unlikely to see chairs in Central Asian history established alongside programs for the study of Turkology, I say, let us also use preexisting institutions to create the field we want to see.

Many scholars have shown the significance of Chaghatay sources to the histories of Russia, China, South Asia, and the Persianate world.[2] Now let’s take the next step: cut down the cost of entry by making and using a textbook.

If you will forgive the blatant self-promotion, I have written just such an introductory textbook for the Chaghatay language, and it will be published by Maize Books (part of the University of Michigan Press) later this year.[3] The publication of An Introduction to Chaghatay is funded by Michigan’s Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, but a student will find it useful well beyond the boundaries of China.

The textbook assumes no background knowledge, but builds up a foundation in reading knowledge sufficient to work through manuscript narratives sources over the course of sixteen chapters, one for each week of a typical semester. Each chapter introduces and reinforces common vocabulary and grammar in a cumulative way. From Chapter Seven onward, students will read authentic manuscript materials to help them learn paleography and lose their dependence on typescript editions. These primary sources range from finer texts by Abū ‘l-Ghāzī, Navai, and Babur, to the sorts of textual flotsam one encounters in the antiquities market in Kashgar, to the local chronicles and hagiographies held in the reading room of a regional library.

This book is not perfect, and I anticipate corrections and amendments – but it is a start. I want this book to help everyone who has run a Chaghatay course – and there have been a few of them around the world – but struggled to put together a curriculum. An Introduction to Chaghatay is based on lessons I produced for an informal Chaghatay reading group, and then a formal Chaghatay course, at Harvard. It has been tested on people with no background in Turkic languages or Arabo-Persian script, and on those who speak fluent Uzbek or Uyghur. I am confident that it can guide a diligent student from “zero knowledge” to “reading with a dictionary.”[4]

Some will object to the prospect of people “dabbling” in Central Asia, learning a little language and not enough deep area knowledge. I would argue that we need dabblers. We need more people who will incorporate Chaghatay sources into their projects, perhaps by seeking out the Chaghatay originals of translated documents, or reading local chronicles alongside imperial sources. If someone can do that to a reasonable degree of competence after one or two semesters of study in their preferred graduate program, rather than three years at a limited number of institutions, then our field will grow and be recognized. Learning Chaghatay will be less of a barrier to entering the discussion, and more of an invitation.

In terms of scholarship, making Chaghatay skills more readily available will also encourage a broader range of research projects. To give one example, quantitative history is very rare in our field, but there are potential applications of quantitative methods to newly-available collections of contracts, deeds, and tax registers. The results of demystifying the field are unpredictable, since people with radically different scholarly approaches will think of new ways to read sources, but we must welcome unpredictability, contestation, and the ideas that they generate. Keep in mind that even a language course is an opportunity for a China scholar, a Russianist, and a South Asianist to share the same table – given that scholarship is shaped in profound ways by our social connections, we could expect interesting conversations to spring from that experience alone.

Finally, I must admit to a political concern. The last time I was in Xinjiang, I learned that certain authorities were trying to repress training in Chaghatay and the use of Chaghatay sources for historical research. The excuse was that Chaghatay manuscripts, unlike printed Chinese books, were not “formal histories,” and thus could not be relied upon for finding “historical fact.” Moreover, I learned that many Uyghur students did not realize just how close Chaghatay is to their own modern language. Under the circumstances, reading more Chaghatay and giving more space to the voices of Chaghatay demonstrates that the international scholarly community values those voices. It produces, and may in the future institutionalize, practices and discourses that explore and valorize Chaghatay sources in anticipation of the day when scholarship is free again.

If we Central Asianists want young scholars to join the field, then we ought to use the institutions we have to empower more people to conduct research in Central Asian sources at minimum personal cost. I would like to think that my textbook will help to make that easier.


[1] I am writing here mainly about Euro-American scholarship, although a comprehensive study of the global field would be very useful.

[2] We could include in this list monographs by Adeeb Khalid, Beatrice Forbes Manz, David Brophy, Steven Dale, Laura Newby, and many others.

[3] Eric T. Schluessel, An Introduction to Chaghatay: A Graded Textbook for Reading Central Asian Sources (Ann Arbor: Maize Books, 2018).

[4] On a related note, I recall the long hours of dictionary work associated with trying to read Chaghatay without an English-language glossary. This (still in progress) searchable glossary might help.

3 thoughts on “To Build Central Asian Studies, Invite People In: Teach More Chaghatay by Eric Schluessel, University of Montana”

  1. It would be fascinating to read this language of a people who changed the face of history from Central Asia to South Asia..

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