Ngoc Nguyen. October 1, 2018.
Is China a Muslim country? If you happen to land in the middle of Linxia city, nicknamed the “Little Mecca of China”, you will likely say yes. Each street gives view to a mosque of each major Chinese Muslim sect, their tall minarets calling for daily prayers. Sidewalks are packed with Muslim locals in their traditional attires, passing in and out of shops branded 清真 (qingzhen, the Chinese equivalence of Halal).
But if one turns into an alley called “the Bafang Muslim neighborhood,” things begin to look a bit off. The entrance is a stone gate with a shining plaque branding “four star cultural heritage site”. Shops and streets are perfectly clean and quiet, void of the bustling activity of the town right behind your back. Houses are small, Chinese style, and empty; walls are decorated with sculptures showing the contributions of Chinese Muslims to the Chinese communist revolution. No mosque, no qingzhen store, no local life.
Why is there a designated Muslim neighborhood in a Muslim city? And why is it inherently less “Muslim” than everything else in the city?
Those were some of the questions that puzzled us in the ‘2018 Zones of Conflict Zones of Peace: Islam in China’ program. In the Muslim heartland of Northwest China, there are discrepancies in Hui (Muslim Chinese) Islam and the Chinese state’s perception of what Islam should be. Huis seek to practice the familiar Islam that we know, observable in their belief in God, prayers, and food, and inevitably sectarianism. The state, however, sees Islam as simply a cultural heritage, expressed in a vision of dancing, colors, and happiness. At stake is the erasure of a long history of Chinese Muslims’ sectarianism and conflicts.
The Bafang neighborhood is an exemplary instance. In the Qing dynasty, it marked the frontier region of Hui-Han conflict, a Hui outpost during the Muslim Rebellion in 1860. The rebellion had escalated from a series minor conflicts with various causes, including prejudices, suspicion, and cultural differences such as the Hui refusal to eat pork. Nowadays, Bafang has been remodeled into a cute, whimsical “authentic” Muslim locality that advocates for cultural unity.
The Chinese state also actively construct “Muslim” habitats in its promotion of Made-in-china Islam. In Yinchuan lies the state-built Najiahu Hui cultural village, a physical manifestation of what the state believes is the authentic Chinese Muslim identity. Inside lay colorful streets selling food and souvenirs, a full-scale copy of what looks like the Taj Mahal, and an “Arabian Night” theater hosting cultural musicals. Across the street stands a two-stories-high and three-stories-long banner of Xi Jinping on a red background with a quote calling for ethnic unity.
Yet, the state is not ignorant. The emptiness of Bafang and Najiuhu Cultural Village speaks volume about the inapplicability of the state’s vision to Muslim Chinese. Going on is a debate among scholars, Chinese and international alike, about the future of China’s ethnicities policy.
We all know a different China from the one we see in Linxia: one with Mao, modernization, the communist party, and a predominantly Han Chinese population. If China is promoting that image of itself, where is the place for Islam in it? Does Islam have to change itself in China? With current headlines showing the surveillance and detainments of Muslim Chinese and banning of Ramadan fasting, there is a global impression that Islam as a religion is being pushed out of existence.
ZCZP 2018 could not solve the political ambiguities for Muslims Chinese, but it helps in establishing Muslim Chinese culture as deeply intricate, historical, and important to Chinese culture. With 15 distinct projects revealing all aspects Hui history, culture, politics, and economics, we are giving more visibility to an identity that’s often bypassed by Chinese and global media.
Ngoc is a sophomore at Georgetown University Qatar, majoring in Culture and Politics. You will occasionally see her lifting in the Georgetown gym and more often just lying around like a cat.