Eric Schluessel studied the Uyghur language at Indiana University and is now a leading social historian in the study of China and Central Asia, including Xinjiang, the regional home to China’s Uyghur people. Schluessel is an assistant professor of history and international affairs at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.
“When I was a student, at the time, IU was the only place in North America where you could seriously study the Uyghur language,” said Schluessel.“It was the only place where you could get a comprehensive multi-level education in Uyghur, led by well trained professional pedagogues who were also very busy developing cutting-edge language learning materials — people like Dr. Gulnisa Nazarova. It was essential to everything I’ve done since.”
Schluessel earned his M.A. from Indiana University in Central Eurasian Studies, a department in the IU Hamilton Lugar School, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in History and East Asian Languages.
At a time when China’s repression of Uyghurs has become globally recognized, Schluessel’s book, Land of Strangers: The Civilizing Project in Qing Central Asia, examines the roots behind the modern relationship between Uyghurs and China. This book was awarded the 2021 John K. Fairbank Prize in East Asian history since 1800 from the American Historical Association. One of Schluessel’s current research projects, Saints and Sojourners, explores the economic history of the Uyghur region from the 1750s through the 1950s, through the records of merchants, farmers, and managers of pious endowments.
While at IU, Schluessel earned four Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) awards to support his study of Uyghur and Uzbek languages. One of his FLAS awards allowed him to spend an entire year studying intensively at Xinjiang Normal University in Ürümchi, the capital of the Uyghur homeland.
“I owe my whole career to FLAS Awards,” said Schluessel. “Because I can read, write, and speak the Uyghur language I am able to do the kinds of research that most scholars coming from North America or Europe are simply not able to do. For example, if someone were approaching the same project I was working on and they only knew Chinese, they would be at a huge disadvantage. They would be unable to correctly and authentically represent the voices and perspectives of the majority of people who live in the Uyghur region.”
Schluessel said his FLAS awards also led to more prestigious fellowships, including from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, the Social Science Research Council, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Schluessel noted that in historical studies, more than ever, scholars are questioning the relationship between representation and power.
“Scholars are recognizing the fundamental importance of centering marginalized voices,” said Schluessel. “As a white cis man, I’m not necessarily the best person to be at the center of these dialogues. Being able to use my privilege to put Uyghur voices at the center — engaging with Uyghur sources and my Uyghur colleagues and centering the questions that they bring to the table — is extremely important.”
As one example, Schluessel mentioned his recently published book, Community Still Matters: Uyghur Culture and Society in Central Asian Context.
“My co-editors, Dr. Aysima Mirsultan and Dr. Eset Sulaiman, are also leading Uyghur scholars,” said Schluessel. “Through this effort, we were able to bring in scholars who are working in the diaspora and put their concerns at the heart of the project.”
As another example, Schluessel just finished translating The Tarikh-i Ḥamidi: A Late-Qing Uyghur History, by Musa Sayrami. Sayrami’s work is the most important Uyghur source for Uyghur history in the nineteenth century, and it will be published by Columbia University Press in 2023.
“I think because of my language training, my intervention can be more valuable,” said Schluessel. “Publishers are becoming much more interested in translating primary sources and original work by Uyghur people to put those voices at the center of our discourse about their homeland.”
Including Uyghur, Indiana University offers language instruction in 80 languages — more than any other university in the country.
FLAS Fellowships are awarded by the United States Department of Education Title VI program to support undergraduate and graduate students in the study of languages deemed critical to the U.S. In 2022, Indiana University was awarded $17.7 million from the Title VI program – the highest total amount awarded to any university. Of the total, $8.6 million will be awarded directly to students through FLAS Fellowships. All Indiana University students are eligible to apply for FLAS funding (hls.iu.edu/flas) through January 30, 2023 for summer 2023 and the 2023-24 academic year.