The Cross-Boundary Networks of the Hui Muslim Communities

The Cross-Boundary Networks of the Hui Muslim Communities in Chengdu and Xichang

Tsai Yuan-lin

The Hui 回 are the most urban and mobile ethnic minority of China. They have scattered in every province but mainly concentrated in the urban area. The peculiar pattern of the Hui settlement, called by the Chinese scholars “largely scattering, and highly concentrating” (大分散,小集中), can be traced back to their Muslim ancestors’ history of immigration. Indeed, the Hui people are the descendants of the Muslim merchants, envoys, and soldiers who had migrated from the Middle East and Central Asia through the ‘Silk Road’ on land and sea, and eventually settled in China. Due to their unique entrepreneurship, the Hui people continued their internal migration within China through the imperial to modern periods. They are more acculturated than other ethnic minorities but never fully assimilated to the Han Chinese societies. Certainly, the key factor to maintain the boundary between Hui and Han is the Islamic tradition.

Sichuan is an ideal place to explore the history of the Hui internal immigration and their interaction with the Han majority and other ethnic minorities. Historically speaking, Sichuan had been the frontier province from the Han viewpoint, surrounded by the Muslims of the North-western provinces, the Tibetans of Qinghai and Tibet, and the Yi, Miao and other ethnic minorities of Yunnan and Guizhou; from the Hui viewpoint, Sichuan had been the crossroad of the North-western, Southwestern, and Eastern provinces. The long history of the co-existence and social contact among the Han and Hui immigrants, and the indigenous peoples creates the largely diverse cultural and religious landscape of Sichuan.

My research will focus on the Hui communities of Chengdu 成都, the provincial capital, and Xichang 西昌, the capital of the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture 涼山彝族自治州. In addition to the high concentration and long history of the Hui communities in these two cities, the reason to take these two cases is to make a systematic comparison between the distinctive patterns of the religious practices of the Hui communities in the two different contexts of the Han majority (Chengdu) and the Yi plus Tibetan majority. Moreover, the two urban areas provide the best locations of mapping the intertwined networks of heterogeneous ethnic and religious communities. Like the Muslim communities in the rest of the Muslim world, the social spaces of mosque and market are the most important for the urban Hui Muslims to operate their social networks with their Muslim brothers (and sisters) and also with the non-Muslim peoples. My field work will especially focus on the inter-ethnic and inter-religious activities done by the Hui Muslims in the mosques and their nearby market streets (or quarters) of Chengdu and Xichang in order to picture the socio-historical formation of those unique cross-boundary networks.

The historical period of my research is the politically unstable and culturally efflorescent in the late Qing and Republic era (1840-1949). In spite of her frontier location, Sichuan could not escape from the enormous political and cultural influences of the critical historical events of the late Qing and Republican era, including the great Hui rebellions (1856-1872 in Yunnan and 1862-1873 in the North-western region), the 1911 Revolution, the 1919 May Fourth Movement, the Northern Expedition of the Nationalist Party (1926-28), the Sino-Japanese War and the following Second World War (1936-1945), and the Nationalist-Communist Civil War (1945-1949). I will systematically collect and investigate a large amount of original official documents, newspaper, magazines, journals, memoirs and other biographical materials in regard to the Hui Muslim religious beliefs and practices in this era, presented by both the Hui people themselves, and the Han and other non-Muslim peoples. The most important original materials are the new publications by the modern-thinking Muslim elites who organized themselves into local, provincial and national voluntary organizations and expressed their progressive ideas in the Republic era. The historical case of the Hui Muslim people in Sichuan will enhance theories and methods for the study of Islam and Chinese religions, and produce the basis of conceptual paradigms on religious pluralism that can be applied to the rest of the world.