Seek Knowledge in China Thinking Beyond the Abrahamic Box Part II

Seek Knowledge in China Thinking Beyond the Abrahamic Box Part II




Military service was not, however, the sole vehicle by which Muslims came to China. During the first centuries, commerce and trade were the primary avenues by which Islam entered China. Early Muslim merchants played a vital role in the Chinese economy.

Their status in China was based on formal pacts between the Chinese emperor and Muslim rulers abroad. Thus, like Muslim soldiers in the emperor’s service, Muslim merchants enjoyed official legitimacy and considerable prestige and could travel freely.

Muslim merchants in China were not free to live wherever they chose. Instead, they were restricted to special conclaves, where they enjoyed considerable autonomy. Their communities were generally affluent, reflecting the prosperity of Muslim trade.

Houses were centered around large central mosques, constructed with official permission. Chinese authorities appointed special governing committees of elders, who were usually Muslims and bore honorable official titles. In addition to overseeing the internal affairs of the Muslim community, the governing committees served as liaisons between the Muslims and state authorities.

In the early period, Muslims in China were classified as “foreign guests.” The status could last for generations. Early records speak of Muslim “Chinaborn guests” even after the fifth generation. Despite the fact that Muslims intermarried with Chinese women and became proficient in local dialects, communal segregation preserved their foreign identity and retarded the development of a fully indigenous Chinese Muslim culture.

In the early thirteenth century, the Mongols conquered China, established the Mongol (Yuan) Dynasty, and altered forever the situation of Chinese Muslims. During their conquests in the Muslim world, the Mongol hordes razed many great centers of Islamic civilization in Central Asia, Iran, and the eastern Arab world. Although they massacred entire populations, the Mongols spared select groups of Muslim craftsmen, young women, and children, many of whom were forcefully marched to China.

This practice brought about massive demographic changes in China and increased the Chinese Muslim population by possibly as much as two or three million.

Ironically, the Mongol invasions that devastated Muslim populations in much of the traditional Islamic world engineered an unprecedented expansion of the Muslim presence in China.

In China, the Mongols pursued a conciliatory policy toward their captive Muslim population and won their loyalty. Even more than earlier Chinese emperors, the Mongol overlords helped consolidate their rule in China by relying on Muslims as auxiliary troops, employing them as governmental officials, and using them in other capacities. Sai Dianji (al-Sayyid al-Ajall), who was originally from Bukhara in Central Asia, became one of the most highly regarded Muslim officials. When Marco Polo visited China in the thirteenth century, Sai Dianji was the imperial Minister of Finance. Later, Sai Dianji was appointed Governor of Yunnan Province, where he promoted Confucianist culture and introduced the Islamic religion.

Under Mongol rule, imperial intervention fostered an unparalleled cultural presence for Muslims in China. In contrast to earlier dynasties, the Mongol emperors sought the full incorporation of Muslims into Chinese society. In order to uphold the dynasty, Muslims were dispersed throughout China and settled in strategic areas, rendering the earlier policy of communal segregation obsolete. The Mongols encouraged Muslim migration to China, which led to an influx of notables, scientists, and scholars. The vibrant community of Chinese Muslims that emerged helped to link China to the outside world, ultimately creating intercontinental networks of trade and commerce that prefigured present-day globalism. In the fourteenth century, the Ming Dynasty, which was ethnically Chinese, supplanted Mongol rule. The Ming period constitutes one of the greatest epochs of Chinese history. In reaction to Mongol rule, the Ming rulers were generally hostile to foreigners and vigorously asserted Chinese supremacy. To the good fortune of China’s Muslim population, which had taken on a distinctively Chinese character under the Mongols, the Ming Dynasty did not look upon them as foreigners and continued the policy of utilizing Muslims to consolidate and buttress imperial power. Muslims played their traditional role as officers, soldiers, and administrators. They also partook actively in higher Chinese culture, including literature and philosophy.

The Ming gave Chinese Muslim culture a thoroughly indigenous stamp. It was under their rule that “Hui” became the standard appellation for Chinese Muslims. The actual meaning of the name is open to debate; it is not unlikely, however, that “Hui” initially designated the Central Asian region of Khawarezm, from which an exceptionally large number of the ancestral Hui originated. Chinese surnames were a state honor and symbol of status. They were conferred officially and could not be taken merely by personal choice. During the Ming period, Chinese names became the rule among the Hui. The Hui had ceased to be Muslims in China and now became Chinese Muslims.

Ming rule lasted almost three hundred years. In 1644, it was brought to an end by the Manchurians, a warlike, nomadic people from China’s northeastern expanses. The Manchurians established the Qing (pronounced “ching”) Dynasty, which lasted until 1912. Hui culture flourished during the early Manchurian period. The dynasty espoused a benign policy of “equal benevolence” toward the Hui and the Han majority. Hui officers and soldiers continued to serve in the military, and Chinese Muslims were appointed, as before, to significant positions in the imperial bureaucracy. But the period of Manchurian rule, especially its final decades, was among the most difficult periods of Hui history. Peaceful coexistence between the Han and the Hui was replaced by communal violence in many parts of China. The bloodshed peaked in the middle nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The conflict has yet to be adequately studied and is not sufficiently understood. The discord ran mostly along Han-Hui ethnic and religious fault lines, but there were also new ideological divisions within the Hui community itself, which repeatedly pitted the Hui against each other.

The Manchurian dynasty is often seen as the major instigator of the Han-Hui conflict. Officially, the Manchurians were seldom stringently anti-Hui, but, in practice, discrimination against the Hui predominated under their rule. Relationships between the Hui and Han were strained, ultimately leading to communal strife and open rebellion. Blame for the communal trouble does not seem to rest primarily on the central government but on poor provincial administration and the breakdown of central authority, which left large numbers of the Hui at the mercy of local Han officials and landholders, who often flouted the directives of the emperor.

As a rule, the bloodshed sprang from local conflicts of interest that were ignited by disputes over matters like land ownership and intermarriage. Paradoxically, the discord came at a time when the Hui had become an integral element of Chinese culture.

According to some, the fact that the Han and Hui had come to have a similar socio-economic status was a major reason for the conflict, since it put both communities in direct competition with each other, which generally had not been the case before.

From the 1780s until the 1930s, there were repeated outbreaks of communal violence between the Han and the Hui, especially in the northwestern and southwestern provinces. Members of both groups lived in insecurity and constant fear. The Hui were not passive victims but retaliated in kind. As the clashes spread, they took on the semblance of civil war and may be compared to the Hindu-Muslim communal violence that followed the partition of India in 1947.

Han-Hui carnage peaked between 1855 and 1878.  The Hui suffered the greatest losses and, in some regions, faced the threat of genocide. One of the worst bloodbaths took place between 1862 and 1878 in Gansu, a northern province with a large Hui population.

The entire region was depopulated; its original population of fifteen million was decimated to one million. One person in every ten was killed, two-thirds of them Hui; almost everyone else fled as refugees.

To be continued


Source: Nawak Foundation Paper

by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Ph.D.