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Volume 36, Number 4July/August 1985

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Muslims in China

The People

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

The Muslims of China are a colorful, cosmopolitan people - more varied than the Muslims of any other nation. Where the Muslims of Saudi Arabia, for example, are mainly Saudi Arabs, and those of Turkey mainly Turks, the Muslims of China belong to 10 different ethnic groups: Hui, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Sala, Tajik, Tatar, Tungxiang, Paoan, Uighur and Uzbek, whose customs and cultures add still more flavor to what is already one of the most fascinating countries in the world.

Ancient, vast, evolving, The People's Republic of China had, according to the last official count, one billion, 130 million people - 1,130,000,000! Of them, ethnic Chinese, or Han, are thought to make up 93 percent of the total, with the remaining millions divided among 55 groups referred to in China as "minority nationalities." Although relatively small in number - the largest of the 10 Muslim groups, the Hui, is said to total only 7.2 million people - these minorities are politically significant because they occupy more than half the country, including such sensitive borders as those of the Soviet Union, Vietnam and Afghanistan. These regions, moreover, are rich in natural resources vital to the economic development of modern China.

Totaling 14.6 million - according to official statistics - China's Muslims live mainly in the rugged mountains and desert basins of the northwest, on the central Yellow River Valley plains, in the southern province of Yunnan and among the city populations of the east (See map, pages 10 and 11).

Some Muslims, notably the Hui, are either descendants of Chinese converts to Islam or of Chinese intermarriages with Muslim immigrants; their appearance, language, and other cultural characteristics, therefore, are distinctly Chinese. Farmers and merchants, they live in compact communities scattered throughout China and doggedly resisting assimilation by the Han.

The rest of China's Muslim minorities are mostly Turkic peoples living in the vast Xinjiang (Sinkiang) Uygur Autonomous Region of northwest China, formerly Chinese Turkestan. Descendants of the nomadic "hordes" of Central Asia, many of them are related to the minority peoples of the Soviet Union.

The Persian-speaking Tajiks also live in Xinjiang, which covers one-sixth of the total land area of China, while the Mongol Tungxiang and Paoan inhabit small enclaves in Gansu (Kansu) Province.

In Xinjiang, the Uighurs (5.9 million people, according to the government) are the predominant people, and give the region its name. Once the rulers of Central Asia, they are distributed over the chains of oases in the Tarim Basin and in the former trading cities of the old Silk Road.

The Kazakhs (907,000) and Kirgiz (114,000) live in Xinjiang too: in the rugged mountains of the northwest, close to the border with the Soviet Union - from which they fled after major rebellions in 1916 against Russian rule. Descendants of Turkic and Mongol tribes, the Kazakhs of China still live a semi-nomadic life, driving their herds into the mountains in summer in search of pasture, and retiring to their camps in the valleys when winter comes.

The Kazakhs:

The origin of the Kirgiz is obscure, but they were apparently forest people from the upper reaches of the Yenisei River. In 840, the Kirgiz burst onto the Central Asian scene and abruptly overthrew Uighur rule in northwest Mongolia - only to be driven out themselves a century later and relegated to the backwaters of history.

"Kazakh," a Turkish word meaning "man without master," is an appropriate name for the last of the once-powerful nomadic nations of Central Asia to put up any real military resistance to the Czar.

The Kazakhs, in fact, yielded to no one until the middle of the 19th century when, trapped between the expanding Russian and Chinese empires, they were forced to accept Russian rule. And even then the Kazakhs were only temporarily quelled. In 1916, they rebelled briefly against Russian rule and in 1917, faced with forced settlement on cattle-breeding collective farms, those with herds fled east to China.

In 1949, with the Communist takeover in China, some Kazakhs set off again, this time on an epic journey that took them south to Tibet - which refused them entry - then northwest to Kashmir. Of the 40,000 who set off, only 3,000 made it across the 'Roof of the World," and these were eventually resettled in Turkey.

For those who remained in China, a separate political division was set aside for them in the Tian Shan in northwest Xinjiang - the 111 Kazakh Autonomous District, with its capital of Kuldja - as well as two autonomous districts at Mori and Barkol in eastern Xinjiang. There, today they maintain their traditional nomadic lifestyle, migrating seasonally in tribal groups in search of pasturage for their sheep, goats and cattle.

In summer, the Kazakhs pitch their dome-shaped felt tents - known as yurts - on the grassy upper slopes of the Tian Shan range, which, with their forests of fir, cascading waterfalls and permanently snowcapped peaks, resemble the Swiss Alps. In winter they stay in the valleys, living, with their livestock, in long, low log cabins, faced with mud to keep out the cold.

Although the outside of their yurts - with the exception of the brightly-painted wooden door - are drab, the interiors are remarkably cheerful and cosy: the collapsible wooden frame, which supports the felt covering, gaily decorated, colorful bed rolls stacked against the walls and a cheery stove - its chimney sticking through a flap in the roof - sitting in the middle of the felt carpet-strewn floor. In some cases, such as those of newly-married couples, there may also be a four-poster bed, with colorfully embroidered curtains, standing against the wall.

Although they have all but abandoned their colorful traditional dress - predominantly-red layered skirts, padded jackets and plumed pill-box hats for young women, white embroidered smocks for young men - most Kazakh women still dress in bright colors, and men still wear velvet skullcaps usually decorated with a gold or silver-colored symbol similar to a fleur-de-lis.

The Kazakhs are often confused with the Cossacks who played an important military role in medieval Russian history, but there is no real connection. Turkic-speaking, Mongol-looking, the Kazakhs are an ethnic group descended from Turkic and Mongol tribes that occupied the Kazakh Khanate of Central Asia, now the Kazakh Republic of the USSR.

Expert horsemen and women, the Kazakhs, even today, delight in showing off their riding skills to visitors - thundering across the grasslands on their short, but sturdy chargers in reenactment of traditional sports such as ulak tartish - in which men try to seize the carcass of a goat from each other - and kiz kholashi, an ancient form of Kazakh courtship. In kiz kholashi, women pursue men and, if they catch them, beat them with riding whips.

More at home on horseback than on foot, the Kazakhs of China, with their semi-tribal, still-nomadic ways, are one of the last vestiges of the ancient nomadic empires of the steppe.

Among the other Muslim minorities are the Uzbeks (12,400) and the Tatars (4,100) - both of which, like the Kazakhs, have tribal links within the Soviet Union.

The Uzbeks take their name from Khan Uzbek, the ruler responsible for the conversion of the "Golden Horde" to Islam at the beginning of the 14th century. In the 16th century, the Uzbeks held sway overall of Transoxania, and were the last of the Central Asian khanates to submit - peaceably - to Russian rule, in 1920.

The Tatars were the first Muslims to come under Russian rule - in 1552 - and despite efforts to forcibly convert them to Christianity, they remained firmly Muslim - eventually playing a crucial role in establishing Islam in Central Asia, where they served as teachers and administrators in the newly-won eastern territories of the expanding Russian Empire.

The Uighurs:

All these peoples have rich histories, but the Uighurs probably have the richest: their nomadic ancestors once ruled Central Asia, built its first walled cities, created its first literate civilization and "wrote," according to one scholar, "one of the brightest chapters in its history."

Today, by contrast, the Uighurs are largely a sedentary, village people - their habitat the network of oases in the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang. And although relatively well off by modem Chinese standards - on average Uighur farmers earn more than city dwellers to the east - they no longer enjoy the living standards of their predecessors, described by one scholar as "unparalleled in (medieval) Central Asia."

In the year 745, the Uighurs emerged victorious from a power struggle among the tribes of the Turkic Empire. Their victory, however, also marked the end of unity among the nomadic Turkic tribes of Central Asia; subsequently, the larger tribal coalitions migrated to the Russian steppe and the Middle East.

At its zenith, the Uighur empire stretched from the Altai Mountains to Lake Baikal, and was governed from the city of Karabalghasun. Tamim ibn Bahr, a Muslim traveler who visited the city around 821, speaks in admiring terms of this fortified town lying in a cultivated country - a far cry from the barbarian image of Mongolia.

The Uighurs proved more accommodating to the Chinese than their predecessors, who had constantly harassed China's borderlands and repeatedly threatened its trade. In fact, Uighur troops helped the Chinese recapture the imperial city of Ch'ang-an (today Xian) in 757 during the An Lu-shan rebellion, and after 822 were instrumental in driving the Tibetans out of the Tarim Basin - through which passed the old Silk Road.

In 840, another Turkic people, the Kirgiz, put an abrupt end to Uighur rule in Mongolia and fleeing Uighur groups settled on the Chinese border in Gansu Province and the Turpan region, a Uighur protectorate since the end of the eighth century. In these regions they set up a capital at Gaochang (Karakhoja), and created a remarkably stable and prosperous kingdom that lasted for four centuries. It was called Khocho.

The Uighur kingdom of Khocho, multiracial and multilingual, permitted the peaceful coexistence of many religions, though the majority of Uighurs adopted Buddhism. During their rule literature and art - particularly fresco painting - flourished.

When the Mongol conquests came, the Uighurs, realizing that resistance was futile and would only lead to the destruction of their country, submitted voluntarily to Genghis Khan. Indeed, Uighur officials and scribes wert the first "civil servants" of the Mongol empire and transmitted to it much of their cultural heritage.

Today, the Uighurs are still the predominant people of Xinjiang, where they maintain their own political leadership - Xinjiang is an autonomous Uighur region - as well as their own language, an ancient form of modern Turkish written in the Arabic script, and their own religion: Islam, which they adopted in the 14th century.

Among the chief Uighur cities are Kashi (Kashgar) an ancient center of trade near the Sino-Soviet border, and Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang; the world's most landlocked city, it is farther than any other from the open sea.

Urumqi is a modern metropolis with apartment buildings, factories - and even a roller-skating rink. Kashi too is rapidly changing, but the oases of the Tarim Basin still have a distinctive Central European - and faintly Middle Eastern - flavor. Donkey carts are still the main form of transportation, women still cook on open fires in the walled courtyards of their mud-brick homes and men still gather in large numbers at the mosque to pray - afterwards pausing to exchange gossip.

The centuries-old system of underground irrigation tunnels - karez - still carries melted snow from the Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains) to the rich grape-growing oasis of Turpan, which at 154 meters (505 feet) below sea level is the lowest place in China - as well as one of the hottest. In summer, families still sleep in open-air bedrooms roofed with cooling vines. And the occasional group of Uighur horsemen can still be seen crossing the Tarim Basin's gravel plains.

Other links with the past survive too. Uighur men still wear the richly embroidered skullcaps and Uighur women can still be distinguished from the Han Chinese who have moved into the area, not only by their features, but by their brightly colored chiffon head-scarves. But as with the Mongols, the Uighurs have learned to coexist with the region's new rulers; one young girl recently seen sitting by the roadside in Turpan, for example, wore her traditional chiffon scarf underneath a cap with a red star.

The Huis:

The largest of China's Muslim minorities, the Hui, is racially Chinese rather than Turkic; and though classified by the government as a "national minority," is not really a "nationality." Generally indistinguishable from the Han Chinese in physical appearance, similar in social and familiar form and speaking only Chinese, the Hui are classified as a "nationality" largely on religious grounds. According to some observers, this is recognition that Islam is a powerful religious force within China today - and may be an attempt by the Chinese Communists to allow Muslims to play a part as a nominally autonomous group within modern China.

The Hui are descendants of either Chinese converts to Islam or Muslim immigrants who intermarried with the native Chinese: Arab warriors who came to China to help various Chinese emperors resist enemies, or Arab and Persian merchants who got to China via the Indian Ocean or, later, along the Silk Road.

Because of the diverse routes by which the Muslims entered China, the Hui today are scattered throughout China. They make up, for example, one third of the population of Ningxia Hui, an autonomous region of central China on the edge of the Mongolian plateau. The Hui are also a substantial part of the population of Yunnan Province on China's southwest frontier, bordering Burma, Laos and Vietnam. They also form sizeable communities in the coastal cities of the East and the oasis towns of the West.

One of the largest Hui communities in eastern China is in Beijing: a total of 180,000, according to community leaders, 30,000 of whom live in the Niu Jie district of the capital just a few blocks southwest of the symbol of China's imperial past - the Forbidden City - and its Communist present - the 40.5-hectare (100-acre) Tian'anmen Square, the largest plaza on earth - flanked by the Great Hall of the People and the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall - and spacious enough to hold over one million people.

In the west, the Hui live in separate, but co-existing communities among the predominantly Turkic Muslims of Xingjiang - where they add to the already exotic mix of colorful Central Asian nationalities.

Originally, the Muslims in China were called Ta-shih. They called themselves by that name because, according to some scholars, this was the name given by the Chinese to the glorious Golden-Age culture of the Abbasids which was well known and imitated by the T'ang Dynasty; it was natural, therefore, that the Arabs and Persians who settled in China later would, for prestige purposes, identify themselves as members of that glorious empire. But with the Mongol conquests, the Abbasid, or Ta-shih, empire disappeared as a political power and so the Muslims in China adopted the new term "Hui."

Under the Mongols, nevertheless, Chinese Muslims were given special status, and Muslim migration from Central Asia and the coastal cities of the East carried Islam to all corners of China, laving the foundations of the communities of today and attaining what some modern Chinese Muslim writers call the "Golden Age of Chinese Islam."

Then, at the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), their position began to deteriorate. They lost their special status and under the Ch'ing, or Manchu, Dynasty were so oppressed that they rebelled repeatedly - most notably in the Panthay Rebellion which lasted from 1855 to 1873, but was crushed with great cruelty.

Because of such repression, the Hui developed a strong sense of community spirit, living in segregated enclaves usually focused on a single mosque. The victory of the atheistic Communist Chinese has further heightened the Hui's ethnic awareness and strengthened their religious bonds.

No one seems to know the exact origin of the term "Hui." The French scholar Deveria, in his book Origine de l'Islamisme en Chine, suggests that it began purely as a nickname. "Certain Chinese [Muslim] authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have attempted in vain to find the origin and explanation of the term Hui," writes Deveria. "It appears to me to be only a nickname, based on an Arabic word which repeatedly occurs in the common speech, and which would specially have struck the Chinese during their first contact with the Arabs. My learned colleague M. Houdas, suggests to me that the word might be khouya (my brother), plural akhawa [which could have sounded to the Chinese like hu-wee and a-ha-wee]. These terms have been employed from time immemorial in common Arabic. In support of my hypothesis, I recall that during the occupation of Tientsin by the Anglo-French troops in 1860-61, the Chinese nicknamed the French 'dis donc,' and the English 'I say.'"

Yet another Turkic - and Muslim minority, the sala (69,100) in Gansu Province, a strategic corridor of land linking Xinjiang - it means "new dominion" in Chinese - to China proper. The Sala are believed to have immigrated to Gansu from the Samarkand region of Central Asia during the reign of the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty at the close of the 14th century. A warlike community, much feared, it was said, by their Chinese neighbors, the Sala now live peaceably in a small enclave south of Lanzhou.

Gansu is also the home of the Tungxiang (279,400) and the Paoan (9,000) minorities, both Mongol peoples who converted to Islam, though most Mongols were traditionally Lamistic Buddhists. The Tungxiang and Paoan also live in small enclaves on the fertile Yellow River Valley plain south of Lanzhou.

Of all the Muslims in China, however, the Persian-speaking Tajiks (26,500), who live in western Xinjiang, have practiced Islam longer than any other: 1,200 years. The original Iranian population of Afghanistan, the Tajiks were the heirs to the sedentary culture of the Iranian plateau, and transmitted it to Central Asia. They built villages of flat-roofed mud or stone houses and cultivated irrigated fields of wheat, barley and millet, and gardens famous for melons and a variety of fruits. They were also skilled craftsmen and traders, and their settled way of life was copied by many of the nomadic peoples with whom they came in contact.

Whatever their origins, however, the Muslim minorities help to solidify and strengthen a presence in mainly atheistic China that reflects the past glories of Islamic military victories and the enduring vitality of the faith.

This article appeared on pages 36-48 of the July/August 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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