Jonathan Lipman on Chinese Muslims

For a change, I will be occasionally talking about academia’s take on Chinese Muslims and Islam in China. One person who occasionally has written about Islam is Jonathan Lipman who is a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Boston South Hadley, Massachusetts. He is also the author of the book Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China and also edited a book on the Naqshbandiya order is China. Here is a fascinating excerpt from one of his essays on Chinese Muslims.

The pre-1949 relationship between the northwestern Muslims and the CCP followed no single unified path. It included the allegiance of some progressive Muslim intellectuals to the Party and ferocious Muslim military resistance to the Long March, as well as the cooperation of some local Muslim elites with the CCP’s anti-Japanese policy after 1935. In Gansu, Qinghai, and Ningxia, most Muslims belonged to communities dominated by families of Muslim warlords (all surnamed Ma) who joined the GMD. Some Muslims, however, joined the CCP out of poverty, sympathy for the Party’s anti-Japanese position, or opposition to the GMD elites in their communities. Committed to the broadest possible social coalition against Japan and the GMD, the CCP did not, at this point, take a strong stand against religion or religious leadership. After the Long March, Edgar Snow talked to northwestern Muslims fighting in the Eighth Route Army, who told him, “The Chinese and the Moslems [sic] are brothers; we Moslems also have Chinese blood in us; we all belong to Ta Chung Kuo [Da Zhongguo, China], and therefore why should we fight each other? Our common enemies are the landlords, the capitalists, the moneylenders, our oppressive rulers, and the Japanese. Our common aim is revolution.”

During the anti-Japanese war, the CCP moved away from the Comintern’s earlier policy, which allowed self-determination for minority groups as nations, and toward a United Front policy in which all patriotic elements within the great family of the “Chinese nationality” (Ch. Zhonghua minzu) should be encouraged to resist Japan together. Mirroring Stalin’s reversal of the right of secession for “minority nationalities,” the CCP proclaimed the indivisible unity of China (by which they meant the entire territory of the former Qing empire) and the responsibility of all citizens to love and protect the motherland. The CCP leadership had already decided that China was to be a multi-minzu state, for on their Long March they had met not only Muslims and Mongols but also the culturally diverse (and hard to control) non-Chinese peoples of Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, and eastern Tibet. Following the lead of Sun Yat-sen, they declared the Hanzu, a vast mosaic of peoples living from Siberia to the tropics, the overwhelming majority of China’s population, to be a single, undifferentiated nationality, “children of the Yellow Emperor,” sharing blood and history. All the rest became “minority peoples,” for they belong to China-the-country and should be regarded as younger brothers in the great minzu family. According to the CCP analysis, each people will inevitably follow the most advanced–the Hanzu–through Lewis Morgan’s teleological stages of advancement toward the light of socialism and communism.

This rosy picture, of course, could never be implemented in practice. Even the process of deciding which peoples of China were to be designated as distinct minzu engaged the Party and its ethnographers in contentious and highly politicized debates in the mid-1950s. Over 400 groups “applied”–that is, they were considered sufficiently minzu-like that scholars were sent to investigate and report on their conformity to the official definition(s) borrowed from the Soviet Union. Party committees at the central and provincial levels made the final decisions. The case of the Huizu, among many others, reveals that Stalin’s carefully enshrined terminology, still repeated regularly in academic and popular literature on the minorities, was honored as much in the breach as in practice. The members of the Huizu, as currently defined in the PRC, have no common language, no common territory, and no common economic life, though they are widely held to be genetically inclined toward skill at doing business in the marketplace. As for common psychological make-up, or culture, Islam itself constitutes their sole common heritage, and their “customs and habits” tend to differ from region to region except for those which derive from their religion.

Since the “nationality identification” of the 1950s, and especially since 1978, communication and transportation have improved all over China, and the state’s designation of the Huizu as a coherent social entity now has considerably more validity than it ever did in the past. Because the state has been willing to fund official minzu institutions of all kinds, members of the Huizu are now aware of their minzu identity (which they certainly were not in 1949) and that their minzu has (for example) “minzu costumes,” “minzu folksongs,” and “minzu literature” both ancient and modern. There are Huizu research institutes, Huizu exhibits at minzu theme parks all over China (as well as Hawaii and Florida), and Huizu variety performances on television on New Year’s eve. After years of “minzu work” coming from the state, many Hui are entirely convinced of the common blood they share with all other Hui.

Some Hui take pride in the institutionalized affirmation of their “national” existence, while others find it false, condescending, or downright silly. According to a young Hui worker, “we all loathe those dreadful ‘minzu village’ theme parks; they’re just places for Han to go and feel superior to the primitive natives.” Pointing to his jeans, t-shirt, and baseball hat, he said, “I’m certainly a Hui, but does this look like Huizu clothing to you?” At the same time, many Hui earn their living by research, collection, exhibition, and reification of their “national” traditions, including scholars in work-units all over China dedicated to the study of the Huizu heritage, dating back to the Mongol period or even the Tang but heavily focused on the present.

There is no question that the 1300-year presence of Islam and Muslims in the Chinese culture area has produced a remarkable synthesis. The 17th-19th c. Confucian-Muslim texts, for example, constitute a rare example of profound Islamic philosophy in a “non-Muslim” language. Sino-Arabic calligraphy is a striking adaptation of a hallowed Middle Eastern art form to the formal aesthetics of Chinese culture. The PRC’s definition of the Huizu, however, invariably distorts what have been highly localized evolutionary processes. In virtually any realm of life except religion, we may find as much difference among Hui all across China as
between Hui and their non-Hui neighbors.

9 responses to “Jonathan Lipman on Chinese Muslims

  1. As a point of correction to your article, Mount Holyoke College is located in South Hadley, MA. It is not located in Boston, MA.

  2. wa’alaikum’as’salam’wa’rahmatullah’wa’barakatahu, Glad to see you here again br. Stickley.

    J. You are absolutely correct. Mount Holyoke College is indeed in South Hadley. Thank you for pointing out the mistake. Bless you.

  3. I would be interested in knowing how you became interested in the Ma family of Northwest China. My name is Zach Ma and I am the first one born in the United States from that family tree. My Great Grandfather is Ma Hung Kui from my father’s side. My Grandfather is Ma Ting Xsiang from my mother’s side. I grew up in close relationship with Ma Hung Kui and his 2 concubines. My father has passed away, however my mom is still alive and I would think you could probably extract some information from her as to the inner workings of the family. I have just recently been searching the history of my family…..Sincerely, Zach.

    • Sometimes at lunch I read about history and came across this article. I knew a Zach Ma about 30+ years ago in Southern CA with some of the same history you mentioned in your comment. We lost touch many years ago and I would love to know if you lived in Southern CA about 1975 or thereabout.

      • I grew up in Southern California. I went to Montebello Sr. High School. I came to the Bay area in Northern California in 1977 from England. I don’t think there are that many Zach Ma’s, so I am curious to know who you are. I just noticed this message today……Zach

      • I don’t know if Zach contacted you but he is from Southern CA – he teaches tai-chi in San Francisco now (he is on facebook).

  4. I’m huizu, from Kazakhstan, my grandfather’s grandfher came from Chine in 1887 from civil war between huizu and hanzu. i live in Tarz city, there is a small place where liv huizu nation,

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