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Chinese Muslims: History, Religion, Identity

Chinese Muslims: History, Religion, Identity

Martin Lavicka14 Jul 2015Leave a comment


Written by Adam Horálek

Cieciura, Wlodzimierz (2014): Muzulmanie chińscy. Historia, religia, tozsamość. [Chinese Muslims: History, Religion, Identity]. Wydawnictwa Universytetu Warszawskiego, Warsaw. ISBN 978-83-235-1325-4. 410 p.

The book Chinese Muslims: History, Religion, Identity is truly one of the most significant ethno-historical monographs in recent years published in Central Europe. The author, Doctor Wlodzimierz Cieciura from the Department of Sinology at the University of Warsaw, is a prominent Polish scholar in Chinese studies whose longitudinal focus on the study of Chinese Muslims, especially of the Hui ethnic group, has culminated and matured in the presented book. There is very little to reproach about the book except maybe for its language – Polish. The book is of a global quality and its content and the expertise of Dr. Cieciura can be compared to capacities in the field such as David Atwill, Benite Zvi Ben-Dor, Michael Dillon or Dru Gladney. Just because of the quality of the presented monograph, it is a real shame that it cannot be disseminated to a wider audience via an English version. On the other hand, the book shows the quality of contemporary sinological research in Poland. The book examines the creation and evolution of the Chinese Muslim community from the very beginning till the first decade of the People’s Republic of China. The chronology of consolidation of Chinese Muslims is very well built up and covers all the major events which emerged during the development of the Chinese Muslims’ religious as well as ethnic identity.

In the first chapter, the origin of Muslims in China is discussed. This chapter deals with the very similar topics as most of the studies of Chinese Muslims do. It is always the question of the “first Muslim” in China. Also Doctor Cieciura explores the very first documents on Muslims’ presence in China and goes to the records from the early Tang dynasty and even before that. Despite the fact that Islam as a religion was founded in the year of Hijra (622 AC), most historical documents reflect the first Muslims in China even before this year. Because the bearers of the Islamic faith were of a western origin (Arabs, Persians, etc.), in Chinese sources, their ethnicity, race or geographical origin are often confused with their religion. However, it is true, that China was faced with Islam in the very early stages of this religion, probably already during the life of the Prophet Muhammad. As most of the Muslims came to China as traders, Islam was introduced via the major commercial routes and appeared first in the coastal harbor cities and later along the Silk Road and other land trade-routes (via contemporary Yunnan and Southwest China). The major shift in the Muslim community in China occurred during the Ming dynasty, when, as Cieciura says, the Muslims in China turned to be Chinese Muslims. The double identity or identification of Chinese Muslims is the thing most scholars stress and which comprises the core discourse about their identity. The second major shift in Chinese Muslim’s identity appeared in the Qing dynasty, when the Han Kitab version of the religion turned to Menhuan (or Chinese Sufi order) under the influence of Ma Laichi. This happened to be the most important shift in their religious identity. The two major shifts, the “ethnic” one in Ming and the religious in the Qing dynasty made the Chinese Muslims, or today the Huizu, a very specific part of both China and Islamic Ummah.

In the second chapter, the very stormy nineteenth century in the evolution of Chinese Muslims is presented. The social, economic and political developments in China during the 19th century caused one of the biggest famines as well as the biggest casualties of civil and religious wars and uprisings. The population of some provinces in the Northwest, such as Gansu, dropped during this period to one tenth of its original population and never really rehabilitated from it. This included also a huge Northwest population of Chinese Muslims. In light of these historical events, also the identity of the Hui or Chinese Muslim people changed rapidly. Also their appearance in the eyes of the Han majority changed drastically from loyal “xiaojiao” (little faith) followers to “rebels”. These severe developments caused another shift in their religion and a new order called yihewani emerged. At that time, Chinese Muslims (Huihui) were diasporically dispersed throughout the whole of China, however with three major centers – the Northwest (Gansu, Qinghai, Shaanxi), the Southwest (Yunnan), and the East (Henan).

The “Golden Age” of Chinese Muslim intelligence and cultural emancipation happened on the edge of the fall of Qing dynasty and the dawn of the Chinese republic. In that period, as the author describes with eminent precision in the third chapter, Chinese Muslims extensively elevated their identity, education and through the influence of western philosophy and ideology, mediated via Japan, also emancipation. The first new-era scholars and thinkers emerged in the society and hundreds of periodicals appeared to strengthen the spread of ideas and self-identity throughout the whole of China. Chinese Muslims became for the first time in their history a true community, joint by the media, but not by territory which remained dispersed.

The following development in the Chinese Republic remained quite positive towards Chinese Muslims. The Muslims were incorporated in the “wuzu shibie” classification by Guomindang which recognized five constitutive ethnic groups of the Chinese nation, including the Muslims. However, the position of the Chinese Muslims was uncertain as a lot of politicians understood the Muslims as so called “Turban Muslims” or Uighurs. Nevertheless, the creation of an Islamic pedagogical school in Shanghai and Wanxian, connections with the worldwide Ummah and its institutions (including the Cairo University, the eminent source of Islamic theology and ideology in China) and overall it was an important period for the consolidation of Chinese Muslims. Similarly important was also the continuous impact of Japan on Chinese Muslims’ identity (the following, fifth chapter). Here, many Chinese Muslims studied at universities and produced several Muslim periodicals which were then spread through China. Very precious is the part of this chapter, where Cieciura analyzes the Chinese Muslims in territories occupied by Japan, especially after the Mukden incident. This topic is barely covered by other scholars and makes, including the previous chapter on Chinese Muslims in the Chinese Republic between the two world wars, a significant contribution to the knowledge. Most authors discuss the previous or the later developments, however the very detailed research the author conducted about this period fulfills the long-standing gap in the research.

The final chapter is focused on Chinese Muslims in the early People’s Republic of China, till the year 1957 (e.g. before the Great Leap Forward). The Chinese communists came up with a totally different approach to ethnic minorities compared to the Guomindang – with the right to self-determination.  In the early 1950s, the Huizu or Huihui minzu were established and codified by which their institutional development was partially finished. Their religion was secured and protected, their habits, traditions and economy inclusive. It can be agreed that the early 1950s were for the Chinese Muslims one of the best times ever to keep, protect and advance their own identity, culture and way of life.

The book Chinese Muslims: History, Religion, Identity ends in the year 1957. Despite this, it is one of the most valuable and most comprehensive books on the history of Chinese Muslims/Huis. The later development during Mao’s era and Deng Xiaoping’s reforms is quite well covered and so are the ancient histories of Chinese Muslims till the end of the 19th century. Therefore I do appreciate that the period between the fall of the Qing dynasty and the creation of the People’s Republic of China has been covered so well in this book, which comprises almost half of the book. Moreover, it is historiographically very rich, descriptive as well as interpretative. The number and quality of sources used is impressive. The book is recommendable to everybody who is interested in the ethnic issues of China and its Muslims in particular. It is a study worth reading.

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