The Uzbek are one of China's 55 official minority groups. Their numbers have varied greatly over the course of recent decades. In 1953 there were more than 13,600 Uzbeks in China. By the 1964 census, however, their numbers had dwindled to only 7,700: many Uzbeks chose to flee to the Soviet Union to escape from Mao Zedong's extreme policies.
Uzbek history in China dates back to the time of the Mongol hordes who dominated Central Asia and China in the thirteenth century. The Uzbek in China are descended from traders who traveled along the Silk Road. Others arrived in the 1750s after the Chinese armies defeated the Jungars. The name Uzbek probably came from Ozbeg Khan, a Mongol ruler of the Golden Horde who spread Islam throughout many parts of the Empire in the fourteenth century. Those who remained in the area under Ozbeg Khan's rule became known as Uzbeks. Previously, they were called Kazaks.
The Uzbek's Islamic faith permeates every area of their daily lives. Funerals are major events in Uzbek society. The dead person's children stay in mourning for a full seven days. Forty, 70, and 100 days after a death, Muslim priests are called to chant portions of the Qur'an inside the home of the grieving family.
For centuries the Muslim clergy have been responsible for the religious and secular education of Uzbek children. When the Chinese announced that all children in China were required to attend a state school, the Uzbek were outraged and refused to send their children to be educated by an atheistic regime. The Uzbek are committed Muslims, perhaps more so than any of the other Muslim peoples in Xinjiang.
There are an estimated 50 Uzbek Christians in China today - significant considering the strength of Islam among the Uzbek. Most Uzbek, however, are completely unaware of the gospel. The Uzbek in China are a difficult group to reach for Christ because of their small numbers and close-knit communities. A breakthrough has started to occur in Uzbekistan, however. More than 46 churches have been planted in recent years. In 1996, 40 Uzbek believers volunteered to become church planters in the countries of Central Asia.