Xinjiang, more formally known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is in the northwest of the People's Republic of China. It is the largest administrative district in the country at about 1,660,000 square kilometers (640,930 square miles), comprising two large basins: the northern Dzungarian Basin and the southern Tarim Basin.
Xinjiang marks the fracture-point between China and the Turkic republics of Central Asia. It borders on Russia to the north, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to the west, Tibet to the south, the Qinghai and Gansu Provinces of China to the southeast, and Mongolia to the east.
Despite its forbidding landscape and searing desert heat, Xinjiang has been incorporated into a number of different empires over the past three millennia. The famously red-haired, blue-eyed Tocharians once inhabited the region, as did the Xiongnu prior to their defeat by the Han Dynasty.
From about the time of Christ until roughly 1500, Xinjiang's significance lay in its position near the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Some of its major cities - Kashgar (Kashi) and Urumqi - were famed as Silk Road oasis cities. Today, the area is prized primarily for its valuable deposits of oil and natural gas.
In recent centuries, Xinjiang has been the homeland of the Uighur people, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group related to most other Central Asians. Today, the Uighurs make up about 45% of the population in Xinjiang, while a flood of new Han Chinese immigrants has pushed their numbers up to 41%.
The officially-atheist communist central government in Beijing deeply distrusts the mostly Sunni Muslim Uighurs, and tends to label any Uighur who calls for independence as an "Islamic fundamentalist terrorist." Traditionally, the Uighurs and other Central Asians have practiced a fairly relaxed type of Islam; ironically, however, pressure from the Chinese government may be radicalizing some young Uighurs.
Ethnic unrest has broken out at times in Xinjiang, including a series of violent protests followed by a government crack-down in the summer of 2009. Uighur activists call for their own state, which they call East Turkestan. The Han Chinese are determined to keep Xinjiang (and its fossil fuels) within the People's Republic, however. From a broader historical perspective, however, this can be seen as simply a new chapter in the age-old troubles at the fracture point between settled, agricultural China and the nomads of Central Asia.
The name "Xinjiang" comes from the Mandarin words xin, meaning "new," and jiang, "border" or "frontier." The area acquired this name during the Qing Dynasty era (1644-1911). Prior to that time, it was called "Huijiang," which means "Muslim border" or "Muslim frontier." As mentioned above, Uighur residents often prefer the name "East Turkestan."