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China’s Chessmen

China’s Chessmen

Islam And Fundamentalism In China


"Muslims have been in China for well over a thousand years and yet they are still regarded as strange and inscrutable and backward, and politically suspect." - Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster

Mention the name Ma Jia Chun - "Ma Household Army" - and most people will bring to mind the incredibly successful running team built up by Ma Junren, the famous athletics coach. For many older Chinese - including the top leadership in Beijing's Zhong Nan Hai - the name has a more political significance, however. During the long period of internecine conflict known as the Warlord Era, much of China's vast north-west lay under the control of the Wu Ma ("Five Ma") warlord group; their collective armies were also widely known - and feared - as the Ma Jia Chun. It was this group which, in 1937, halted the Chinese Communist advance into Central Asia, when it handed the fledgling PLA 'the most cruel and punishing defeat they had suffered up to that time'.

The main distinguishing feature of the Wu Ma warlords, who controlled the provinces of Ningxia, Gansu and Qinghai for most of the period between 1911 and 1949, was that they - and most of their best fighting men - were Chinese-speaking Muslims of Hui nationality. All five bore the clan name Ma - a Sinicised form of the name Muhammad which is very common amongst the Hui. Little enough is known of China's Muslims, and there is a tendency in some quarters to consider them collectively, as a single group. In fact, such is far from the case. Beijing recognises ten separate Muslim nationalities, only one of which (the Hui, making up around 50% of China's more than 15,000,000 Muslims) is Chinese speaking. The remainder - Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and the like - are national minorities in a clearly defined way, like the Tibetans and the Mongols.

In fact the Hui, too, are officially recognised as a national minority. They enjoy a special status, being represented on the national flag. The red banner of the People's Republic bears a large yellow star for the Han majority and four smaller yellow stars for the Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans and Hui respectively. Yet, despite this honour, as the perceptive Mr Theroux points out, most Han are at least puzzled by, and often suspicious of their Hui fellow countrymen. Chinese-looking and Chinese-speaking, they nevertheless eschew pork - the favourite food of most Han - read sacred texts in Arabic, pray towards Mecca five times a day, circumcise their sons and observe numerous other inexplicable practices which do not include ancestor worship! In short, from a Han perspective, the Hui are a rather inscrutable people.

What, then, is the position of the Hui in the Chinese body politic? Islam first came to China more than a thousand years ago. Traders from the Middle East arrived both by land, along the ancient Silk Road, and by sea, especially to the south China coast. Today's Hui - overwhelmingly Sinicised - are the descendants of these traders, and of local Chinese converted by them. Unlike the Turkic Muslims of China's far west, they live scattered throughout the country, from Lhasa to Harbin. In three provinces - Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan - they make up a fairly substantial part of the population, whilst in the arid northern province of Ningxia the Hui have their own autonomous region.

A product of long-distance commerce between China and the Middle East, the Hui still excel at trade - even if today their mule and camel caravans have increasingly been replaced by fleets of trucks. They are also renowned as hoteliers and restaurateurs - the Chinese sign qing zhen - pure and true, the equivalent of the Arabic term halal - hangs outside thousands of inns and eating places throughout the country. The food is good, the surroundings generally spotless by local standards - but don't always expect to get an alcoholic drink with your meal!

There is another side to the Hui - one which, in the past, has been more than a little troubling to the central authorities. Unlike the Han - who, at least until the advent of the PLA, despised soldiering, and traditionally considered a military career to be the lowest of callings - the Hui have no taboo against soldiering and, moreover, make fearsome warriors. This fact was most radically demonstrated in the great 19th century Muslim risings which swept across northern and central China, as well as (separately) in Yunnan. It took the Ch'ing nearly two decades to re-establish control, and it is estimated that more than ten million people were killed in the fighting. It is instructive to note that the victorious Ch'ing generally pardoned minority rebels, such as the Uighurs, who chose to submit; not so the rebel Hui, who were usually executed on the spot. At one time - during the reign of the Emperor Ch'ien Lung - the complete extermination of the Chinese Muslim population was given serious consideration by the Imperial Court.

Why did the Ch'ing authorities treat the Hui rebels with such unparalleled harshness? The answer seems to be because they were Chinese-speaking, and as such traitors to the Chinese polity. Herein lies the explanation for the contradictory position of the Hui in Chinese society, even today. On a political level they may have been granted minority nationality status by the communists - but to the average Han, the Hui are indeed a puzzle - they're not quite "Chinese", but then they're not fully "foreign", either. And, of course, the Hui see things the same way, which leads to a fascinating and politically sensitive conundrum.

Most Hui communities in China proper are surrounded by larger Han districts - like the famous Ox Street community in Beijing. Under such circumstances, Hui interaction with the predominant Han tends to emphasise the "non-Chinese" (Islamic) element amongst the Hui, both in their own attitudes and that of the Han. Conversely, the further from the Han-dominated heart of the country the Hui are found, the more conscious they are of their Chinese identity, and the more proud of their links with the Middle Kingdom. At the same time the "non-Chinese" aspect of the Hui, so disturbing to the Han in Beijing or Shanghai, seems to diminish in comparison with Tibetans, Mongols and Turks, whilst the Chinese element in their ethnic make-up and cultural behaviour begins to seem reassuringly familiar!

All of which means that, the farther Hui Muslims settle from the Chinese centre, the more they seem drawn to it. They have traditionally despised the Turkic Muslims of China's far west, whom they often denigrate as chan-tou or "turban heads". In the heyday of the warlord years the redoubtable Wu Ma clan may have given the PLA a bloody nose - but to the west, in far Xinjiang, their armies savagely put down Turkic separatists, and carried the Kuomintang banner to the Pamirs and the Tien Shan. It was a Hui Muslim general that outraged the Uighurs of Kashgar by hanging a picture of Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of Chinese nationalism, in that city's Id Gah Mosque. In short, the Hui are loyal to China, and strongly oppose any sort of Muslim separatist ideal.

Successive Chinese governments, regardless of their political colour, have been well aware of this fact and for this reason the Hui figure prominently as favoured settlers in such far-flung outposts of empire as Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. When - as at present - Beijing faces civic unrest in the far west, it can rest secure in the certain knowledge that the Hui Muslims, many of whom serve with distinction in the PLA, will remain loyal - to China, if not to the Communist Party.

This does not mean, however, that Beijing is entirely happy about the Hui. Nearer at home, where there are no Uighurs or Tibetans to blur the difference, relations between Han and Hui have not always been so good. In recent years minor Hui disturbances have taken place in Yunnan, leading to the storming of mosques and a number of deaths. More importantly, particularly at a time when central control is slipping, the spectre not of Hui separatism, but of Hui regionalism must be worrying. The Hui remain strong in the poor north-western provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia - the old marching grounds of the Wu Ma group. Should the rich coastal provinces of south China continue to prosper whilst the arid, harsh north-west remains mired in poverty, then - in a nightmare scenario nobody wishes to see - ethnic, as well as military, regionalism might become a problem once again.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media