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Volume 36, Number 4July/August 1985

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Muslims in China

The Country

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

The areas where Muslims live in China are as varied as they are vast: Xinjiang (Sinkiang), for example, an arid, mountainous region as large as Alaska on China's northwest frontier; the Yellow River Valley regions of Ningxia and Gansu (Kansu); the industrial cities and ports of the east, and Yunnan, a province of deep canyons and rain forests, on the southwest frontier.

The geographical distribution reflects to some extent the two main routes by which Islam penetrated China: through the ancient trading ports of the southeast and from the northwest via the old Silk Road. Guangzhou (Canton), China's oldest sea port, for example, still has a Muslim community of 4,000 - a remnant of the days when Arab sailing dhows dominated East-West trade, and former Silk Road oases and garrison towns on the fringes of the Taklimakan Desert, the foothills of the Tian Shan range (Celestial Mountains) and the Turpan Depression, in Xinjiang, are still predominantly Muslim.

Of China's 14 million Muslims - the official count - 7.4 million, more than half, live in Xinjiang, which, with an area of 1,646,700 square kilometers (635,800 miles), covers one-sixth of the republic's total land area and is its largest administrative unit.

East of the Xinjiang, lies the remote Ningxia region, home of some three-quarter-of-a-million Hui Muslims. Although basically an arid area, the Ningxia plain is watered by the Yellow River and produces abundant wheat and good quality rice - its network of willow-lined irrigation canals and paddy fields giving the landscape a look resembling that of southern China.

Even central China - birthplace of Chinese civilization - bears the imprint of Islam. Xian, formerly Ch'ang-an, one-time capital of China and terminus of the old Silk Road, is, for example, the site of China's largest mosque. Laid out Chinese style among gracious gardens and elegantly eaved pavilions, it stands amid the neat white houses and narrow lanes of Xian's Muslim quarter - population 50,000, according to mosque officials - in the very heart of what was once the largest, richest city in the world. And Lanzhou (Lanchow), on the Yellow River, has a busy Muslim seminary that stands amidst the ornate wooden houses of that city's Muslim quarter sandwiched between the broad, powerful waterway and White Pagoda Park, a hill dotted with Qing (Ch'ing) Dynasty pavilions and Buddhist shrines.

After centuries of stagnation, Xian and Lanzhou are now experiencing economic revivals both as industrial and - once more - communication centers. The discovery of the life-size terra cotta army of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi is attracting millions of visitors to Xian, while the extension of the railroad to Urumqi has again made Lanzhou an important staging post for the northwest.

Though caravans from the Roman Empire and China once crossed this land, it was a staggering challenge. Even today, when air travel has cut the months to hours, and when shiny black 133-ton, 2,500-horse power steam locomotives - their wheels painted bright red and edged with white - have replaced camels and pack horses, the route to the northwest, from where the Silk Road once struck out from China to distant Rome, is the same.

From Xian, that route crosses the fertile Shaanxi plain, where farmers stack their wheat in quaint, straw hat-covered sheaves and, regardless of traffic, spread out their grain on the roads to dry. Hugging the banks of the Yellow River at Lanzhou, it then winds its way through the passes of the Gansu corridor, skirts the impressive Oriental ramparts on the western end of the Great Wall and then strikes out across the Gobi Desert.

Stunning in size and variety, the scenic vistas from this route include the Magao grottoes - caves hewn in the desert cliffside and covered with 45,000 square meters (over ten acres) of brightly colored Buddhist murals - and Flaming Mountain - so called because in the shimmering heat of day its deep fissures of red rock resemble dancing flames. It then dips downhill to the center of the world's deepest dry depression and the surprisingly bountiful oasis of Turpan, and, finally, it crosses the snowcapped Tian Shan range, where sparkling waterfalls cascade down conifer clad slopes, to Urumqi, a city farther from the sea than any other in the world.

Although this journey of ever-changing vistas takes three days by train, it is still not time enough to adjust - from the traditional and typical Chinese character of the rest of the country to the sights, sounds and smells of China's northwest borderlands. Here, the men wear gaily embroidered skullcaps and the women colorful silk headscarves, the streets are filled with the aroma of cooking kebab and the murmur of the Turkic tongue. Despite Chinese efforts to resettle these "new dominions" the region retains a distinct central Asian atmosphere of its own.

China's government has done much to modernize land-locked Urumqi in recent years - building factories, hospitals and schools - but the city, capital of the vast Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, still has the raw feel of a frontier town.

Here, the people of the steppe - Kazakh, Kirgiz, Uzbek and Tatar - rub shoulders in the crowded bazaars with the transplanted Han Chinese and the city dwelling Uighurs, from whom the region takes its name. One can almost feel the distance - 3,270 kilometers (2,050 miles) - from Beijing.

Turpan too is another world. Surrounded by desert, its streets are full of donkey carts, women cook on open fires in mudwalled courtyards and men go regularly to the mosque to pray. Despite Turpan's location 154 meters (502 feet) below sea level, its ovenlike temperatures of 40 degrees Centigrade (104 Fahrenheit) and its lack of rain - a mere 16 millimeters (less than half an inch) of rain a year - this area produces grapes and melons prized throughout China. Its secret is a centuries-old system of hand dug gravity tunnels - very much like the falajs of Oman - that carry water from the nearby Tian Shan range.

Close to Turpan is the ruined city of Gochang (Karakhoja), ancient capital of the Uighur kingdom with remnants of its 12 meter thick mud walls (39 feet) still standing. These walls could not keep out the Mongols, but the Mongols were relatively tolerant of the Turkic Muslims - with whom they had more affinity than the Chinese - and it was during their rule of China that Islam spread throughout China. Having destroyed the Tai kingdom of Nanchao in 1253, for example, the Mongols encouraged immigration from the northwest to resettle the area depopulated by warfare, which accounts for the Muslim communities in Yunnan today.

This article appeared on pages 20-29 of the July/August 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1985 images.