Muslims in China
A Travelogue for the History of Religions
Produced by Karl W. Luckert
with the help of Li Shujiang
Script by Karl W. Luckert
Copyright VHS 1993, DVD 2004
According to official estimates almost eighteen million Muslims live in China, and these belong to ten officially recognized minority nationalities. In this video program we show glimpses of the Uighur and Kazakhs, and then provide greater detail about some of the eight to nine million Chinese-speaking Hui who live dispersed throughout all the provinces. Beacons of light -- the religion of Islam -- have touched China already during the Seventh Century.
Areas visited for the production of
this program are Guangdong, Xinjiang, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai,
Yunnan, Guangxi, Zhejiang, Beijing, Shanghai, and Shandong.
Guangdong (Guangzhou, Canton)
During the Seventh Century, Arabs and Persian merchants sailed up the Pearl River in conspicuous numbers. More and more among them were Muslims, and they kept coming ashore here in Guangzhou, also known as Canton. It seems remarkable that a historian’s camera that attempts to look back along the river of time, invariable first catches an image of itself.
Of the first Islamic merchants no continuous Islamic tradition has survived. The foothold of seafarers is often temporary. But it is still possible to find traces of their architectural style. The minaret of the oldest mosque in this city has the form of a light tower. Some faithful Muslims will tell you that in the beginning this minaret has actually been a light tower that was built to summon Muslim seamen into the hall of prayer.
Faithful Muslims also come to Guangzhou to visit the tomb of Abu Waqqas, a Companion of Muhammad and first missionary to China. “Wan Gars Tomb” this inscription says. But, of course, the identity of this Wan Gars, as a Seventh Century Companion of the Prophet, is disputed. In the adjacent cemetery one does find tomb stone inscriptions in Arabic from the Thirteenth Century.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims in China, today, can trace their religious heritage to movements of people from Arabia, Persia, and Central Asia that have oozed along the Silk Road into China since the Seventh Century. The Turkic-speaking Uighur are over seven million strong. They live from the western boundary of Xinjiang along the northern Rim of the Tarim Basin where run-off water from the mountains enables them to plant crops. On land that is too dry for planting they herd sheep.
We are in Kashgar, at the Heydikar Mosque, for midday prayers. Before and after prayer there is an opportunity to meet with business acquaintances, to meet friends, to sit with old friends, and even to sit with the imam.
Occasionally one sees women who practice purda. They cover themselves when they venture outside among strangers. This is the street of furriers and hat makers. We have come to buy traditional Uighur caps, because today we will be guests at some formal occasion.
Professor Ablat Umar, who teaches Uighur literature at the University of Xinjiang, in Urumqi, has traveled with us to Kashgar. In the homes of several relatives, after festive meals, there is always time for happy conversation. There comes a moment when words overwhelm their own limitations and are transfigured into dance. Such is the joy.
At another house there is sorrow. An uncle of Professor Ablat Umar has died during his two years absence from Kashgar. Three nephews, brothers, meet for a repeat funeral ritual by which the professor is formally included. The oldest brother speaks the memorial prayer.
A memorial meal follows the prayer and the lamentation. Between the first and the second halves of the meal, the reunited relatives visit a while in the courtyard. Then the meal ends with another prayer in memory of the uncle who is no longer with them. Then follows a journey to the cemetery which culminates in a round of prayers by the grave. This cemetery is located next to the famous Abak Hodja mausoleum. The Uighur sense of national identity is intimately linked with the tombs of saints who propagated Islam. Descendants of the famous Central Asian Sufi missionary, Mahdum i-Azam, are laid to rest here, seventy-two in number. There rests the oldest descendant of the saint. And during the Eighteenth Century a girl from this lineage, named Iparhan, was given as concubine to the emperor Qianlong. The custodian is convinced that she was returned to her Uighur homeland and laid to rest back there.
Another focal point of the Uighur national identity is a scholar’s tomb, located some distance from Kashgar. During the Eleventh Century, Mahmud Kashgari lived and worked on this hill to create the first dictionary of the Uighur language, with Arabic script. This dictionary, and the Uighur literature that was generated its wake, are what have set apart the Uighur Turkic-speaking Muslims as a distinct nationality. The Uighur uniqueness in China is validated by Islamic tomb architecture, by Arabic script, and is underscored by Islamic prayer ritual. Healing powers are attributed to the spring that flows from the burial hill. And to the branches of a tree that grows from that same spring, prayer ribbons have been tied.
Another splendid new tomb is being built in the city of Kashgar itself, for a more recent Uighur poet-philosopher. This monument also will validate and give luster to the glory of the Uighur national self-consciousness.
We are leaving Kashgar with modern Uighur music ringing in our ears. It is being played to celebrate the opening of a new hotel. A donkey whoops baritone.
We are traveling toward the rising sun. The center of the city of Kucha is marked by a rhythm of life not unlike that of Kashgar. The chief religious center in Kucha is the Friday Mosque. As its name suggests, Muslims nowadays come here to pray only on their weekly holy day, which is Friday, and on special Islamic holidays. On an ordinary weekday, a few elderly men have gathered at a smaller mosque for midday prayers. And then we move on.
The ruins of the ancient city of Jiaoche, near Turfan, reveal the depth of Uighur history. While western Uighurs were converted to Islam during the Tenth Century, those who lived here, in the Turfan area, clung four centuries longer to other religions. Buddhism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity were thriving, still, when this city was alive.
Since the Fourteenth Century Islamic architecture has taken over in this area. This mosque and minaret built in the Eighteenth Century, by the emperor Qianlong and dedicated to the memory of the Uighur leader Imin has become the best known landmark of Turfan. The mosque itself, it appears, is no longer visited regularly for prayer.
In the city of Urumqi friends and relatives are gathered to help celebrate the imminent rite of circumcision of an Uighur boy.
In the mountains north of the sedentary Uighurs live nomadic Kazakhs -- herders of horses, cattle, and sheep. They live in jurts. Over the past nine centuries they have counted themselves among the world’s followers of Islam. But, because their lifestyle is mostly nomadic, and because prayer halls are not as portable as jurts, Kazakhs have not built many mosques in which to gather for formal prayers. Simple rituals in their jurts have proven to be more practical.
Over a million Turkic-speaking Kazakh Muslims live in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. This Kazakh settlement south of Urumqi features jurts, a school, and a few houses. Some of the herdsmen have begun to stack up hay for the winter. If this process of settlement continues, Kazakhs may someday also want to build more mosques to better balance their sedentary life.
We now come to the Hui Muslims who, for the most part, speak Mandarin Chinese. There are eight to nine million of them in China. And they are easily recognizable because most of the men wear white caps. Their religious leaders wear turbans. In the city of Changji, in Xinjiang, is a colony of Hui Muslims. Around the year 1875, after having staged a rebellion in Shaanxi, the ancestors of these people were expelled and exiled here. In memory of their homeland they have named their prayer hall the Great Shaanxi Mosque. It is a Friday -- the tenth day of the first month of the Islamic year when, in some fashion, most Muslims commemorate Ashura. The Prophet Muhammad has adopted this holiday from the Jewish calendar as an optional feast day. For Shiite Muslims, since the Tenth Century, this day has been the horrible anniversary of Hussein’s death. But these Muslims here are Gedimu, that is, Sunni. A local story traces the Ahura festival to a war campaign led by Ali:
Ali’s warriors ran out of food. Eventually Fatima, Ali’s wife, served a huge meal of porridge, after desperately having cooked sawdust and stone pebbles in a cauldron. This kitchen miracle is being celebrated here with a huge quantity of porridge made of many ingredients.
In the city of Urumqi a school has recently been built for Islamic education. An Uighur, Kazakh, Hui, or other Muslim student may come here to prepare for the role of being an imam or ahong.
About one and a quarter million Hui Muslims live in Ningxia. In the city of Yinchuan an Islamic school has been added in recent years. Communal prayers at mosques are held on every Friday, but today is a special Friday. The two most important Islamic festival days are the breaking of the fast at Ramadan and the Feast of Sacrifice. Today is Qurban, the Feast of Sacrifice. To celebrate Qurban we have come to this Hufia mosque in Yinchuan. As the men arrive they pay their Zakat offering toward maintaining the mosque. The ahong proudly introduces a one-hundred-and-ten year old man. Then, the procession into the mosque moves to the tune of a simple prayer chant. Allah is greatest! Allah is greatest! Praise be to Allah!
Inside, the ahong welcomes and introduces a government representative who, then, offers friendly greetings to his fellow Muslim citizens.
Then the prayer ceremony begins. A small number of women have gathered in this corner, in the back. Qur’anic verses are recited on earth, where mortal human lips babble the eternal words of God. Eternal words from the heavenly Qur’an echo from human lips.
Meanwhile, under the stairway of the mosque, children in their innocence still perceive the occasion as an opportunity for play. By contrast, upstairs the minds of adults are being guided in the direction of more serious ritual. Unto us a girl is born who, in this exclusive world of men, seems destined to be a reformer.
The Qurban tradition is based on a story which Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike have accepted as their own: Once upon a time, the pastoralist and patriarch Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son. The ahong and his fellow Muslims participate in a moment in Near Eastern history when human sacrifices are abolished. God in his mercy has provided a substitute animal. The ahong praises God’s generosity and compassion. Allah is greatest! Allah is greatest! Praise be to Allah!
Together with the ahong we are invited to an elder’s home to celebrate Qurban with his family. Three sheep have been set aside for sacrifice.
Every culture has religious ways to justify the amount of killing which is deemed necessary for human survival. By performing this Abrahamic ritual of sanctified killing, the ahong, on behalf of his people, praises God who reigns supreme. It is God who thereby assumes responsibility for their death and provides justification for the human quest for food. A ritual which sanctions a certain amount of violence for human survival also establishes the sacred limit on such killings. Human kind remains dependent on God for substance, God remains supreme. He judges what is moderation and what is excess.
A festive meal follows this ritual of sacrifice. And for fruit and watermelon we wander off to another place.
Wuzhong City is a county seat, and her city fathers are proud about the thriving economy. The new wealth was produced with irrigation water drawn from the Yellow River. In the kitchen, at the home of our host, ladies are busy frying sanzi to serve their guests. In the large room of the home, upon the kang, four elderly ladies are at prayer. Privately, in their homes, the prayer postures of women are approximately those that men take, publicly, in the mosque. With their rosaries these ladies count thirty-three times three prayer sentences. Praise to God’s kindness! All praises belong to God! God is the greatest!
Outside by the vinegar jar, which is protected against mishap by a traditional red flag, we bid each other farewell and Allah’s speed.
From the Yellow River, many kilometers uphill, an irrigation system has recently been completed. The agricultural rewards for this effort are just now beginning to show up at the Tongxin market. Two young ladies buy their fineries. Pots for everyday use! A blacksmith keeps his fire hot in readiness for the next customer. At the cattle market a few stragglers still argue over the price of a yearling. Not even the sellers are ready to agree among themselves on what the price should be.
The cutting edge of economic life can be felt at markets. Nevertheless, to see the vibrancy of a people’s culture, and their prospects for the future, one must look at their schools. At the Islamic high school in Tongxin, in 1988, an Arab guest has dropped in for a visit. As he improvises a lesson in Arabic, the regular teacher translates difficult words into Chinese. Two visits later, in 1992, the new Arabic school in Tongxin is completed. In the classroom Arabic lessons are taken seriously.
The heart beats of life and culture may be felt at markets and in schools, indeed, but it is in prayer halls where one gets to meet with Hui people in heart and soul. Ahong Li is head imam of the Grand Mosque in Tongxin. Today is a Friday, and the ahong has graciously invited us and our cameras into the mosque.
As we approach this venerable house of prayer, an image of the tree of life, in paradise attracts our attention. There are bicycles in this paradise. The meeting begins with a round of teaching. Communal prayers end as they begin with individualized silent meditation. After the prayer service, Ahong Li sits down with his mullahs to read from the Holy Qur’an.
The time has come to say goodbye. We contemplate once more the symbol of paradise at the entrance of this venerable hall of prayer. From here the road to paradise leads toward heaven past a resting place in the cemetery. As far as the eyes can see, these are the graves of Muslims who have already exchanged their humble dwellings on earth for better places in heaven. The former ahong of the Grand Mosque, retired and ill, has come to pray at the place where he knows his body will soon find rest.
Here is the tomb of Hu Denzhou, who died some five centuries ago. He was an ahong from Shaanxi province who died here while visiting. Three bicycles stand outside the tomb and inside, at this very moment, three young men burn incense and recite prayers.
This is the tomb of a blessed teacher who lived two or three centuries ago. His place of rest is covered with white cloth. Rosaries to the left, and the remains of incense sticks upon an altar in the back, are evidence that Qur’anic prayers are regularly recited in this tomb.
Twenty li south of Guyuan is Twenty-li Pu. Here sits the tomb of a Muslim saint. Hui as well as Han people come here on pilgrimages. This ahong told the story of how, long ago, a Han imperial officer scoffed the dead saint. He was punished with a twisted neck. For atonement he donated a sum of money to enlarge the tomb. History repeats itself. Two decades ago Red Guards have scoffed the sanctity of this tomb. Two years ago the monument was wrapped in scaffolding. The government has paid for its restoration.
Fifty kilometers to the south of Xiji, on a gravel road, lies the village Shanjiaji. Its mosque has been made famous by a visit of Mao tse Dong.
Here, in the ahong’s quarters, next to the mosque, Mao tse Dong has slept on October fifth, 1935. Soon after he left, on the next day, Kuomintang air planes dropped three bombs into the courtyard. Splinter holes can still be seen along the front of the house. Some of the men serve a meal at the portico of the mosque. Others give shape to four earthen cores to mold four cupolas that will cap the four pillars at the outer gate. Women and children remain at a safe distance.
At the village of Xinglong it is a market day, and the arrival of a big-nosed foreign visitor does make a difference. People who before our arrival had been milling around aimlessly become followers. Our primary goal is to find the cattle market. We arrive just in time to see a scrawny heifer being sold. No words are exchanged during such a sale. No spectator is to know the purchase price. Finger signals are exchanged under cover to negotiate the deal.
Then, the crowd of people closes in on us. The familiar faces of my companions disappear. I am surrounded by faces who never in their life, and at this cattle market, have seen a creature like me. It appears impossible to extricate myself from this circle of astonished curiosity. There is nothing else to do but to continue filming. Peace be with you! Salam alaikuum! Your peace is my peace.
We are on the road again. This is an ideal homestead to visit. From the high road we can see that the people are home and are working. They are building a barn for some of their animals, it seems. We are welcomed into the main courtyard and into the kitchen. Steam bread is being baked.
In another room the master of the house lights three incense sticks -- a custom which this Muslim traces to Buddhist ancestors. He also demonstrates to us his Buddhist and his Islamic-inherited gestures of prayer.
Near Yinchuan the grain is
ripening. Only here and there a few people have begun harvesting their wheat.
Further down the road the wheat harvest is in full swing. Some harvesters have
threshed and are now winnowing their grain. Oops! Somewhere in the repertoire
there must exist an ancient Chinese proverb that says: Winnow grain with the
wind on your back!
This is the ancient imperial city of Chang’an, present-day Xian, in Shaanxi Province. The first Muslims came to this imperial city soon after the death of Muhammad, as emissaries of the upstart Arab empire. The Dasi-esy Street Mosque is presently being renovated. The caretaker announces our arrival to the old ahong who is a little hard of hearing. And the old man promptly emerges to greet us. We leave this place with words of divine blessings upon us.
For every old voice that falls silent a younger voice gains confidence and strength. We are at the Grand Mosque in Xian, one of China’s most prestigious Islamic centers. The first prototype of this mosque was built in the imperial city possibly as early as the year 742. Here the first Chinese people were tempted to turn away from Daoism and Confucianism. Here, in Chang’an, they were given another option alongside other foreign religions like Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity that were already here. Here they were given a chance to conquer and to walk on dragons as the emperors did. Here in this city the Chinese people were shown for the first time how to orient their religious devotion in the direction of Mecca.
We have arrived on Lotus Mountain in the province of Gansu. This mountain is the annual goal of many Buddhist pilgrims. The temple and way-stations all contain statues of buddhas and bodhisattvas. The challenge of pilgrimage, first accepted by Buddhist ancestors has been handed down to their offspring, even though many among them have meanwhile converted to Islam.
This is the last place on earth where one would expect to meet Muslims from Gansu’s most conservative Islamic city, Hezhou, or Linxia. The pilgrimage song of these Muslims matches the happy tune of other pilgrims.
Beyond Lotus Mountain a highway cuts through the ancient western wall. Still today this wall approximately separates Tibetan herders from Han farmers. Along this cultural divide one also finds a colony of Hui Muslims.
This is the entrance to the Westside-Mosque Worship-Center that lies behind a row of store fronts. Behind these stores one finds a Red Crescent health care center -- where an outsider may be encouraged to use his video camera. There are some vestiges of a commune system, revitalized and combined here with the religious idealism of an Islamic mission station. These people operate a distribution and trucking business.
School children have reasons to be happy, and to dance. The children’s education at the playground comes with a worldview that knows where, on the face of Planet Earth, China is located.
All this communal enthusiasm comes enveloped in the Straight Path of Islamic devotion -- with prayers five times a day. Figuratively speaking, the ahong’s mantle of authority lies spread out along the hillside behind the mosque. Here are the tombs that vouch for the leader’s lineage. Many Islamic centers in this land have been validated by an indigenous Chinese culture that venerates ancestors. Indeed, Allah has blessed this Westside Worship Center twofold. Firstly with work, prosperity and leadership, and secondly, by agitating the competition that worships over there on the east side.
While the city of Hezhou, China’s little Mecca, basks unabashedly in the light of Islam, the number of mosques and other Islamic institutions that one finds in this Chinese city is indeed astounding. This is the New Magnificent Mosque. It belongs to a Sufi denomination.
We notice a group of young men hurry down the street toward the cemetery, carrying a corpse. This is the market avenue in Linxia. Beyond the next row of houses a store keeper washes his hands. He agrees to demonstrate the remainder of his Islamic washing rite, minus the feet-washing which, in the open street, would seem somewhat inappropriate. Then the man invites us into his house to meet his family. During the second half of the Fifteenth Century the Sunni Muslims in Linxia built their Magnificent Mosque which, nowadays, is distinguished from the newer mosque by that name as the Old Magnificent Mosque. From the top of its minaret we look down on the city. Far over there, near the edge of the city, we can see our next point of interest.
When, toward the end of the Seventeenth Century Hodja Abd-Allah, a twenty-ninth generation descendant of Muhammad, came to this city, Qi Jingyi became his student. The elder Qi Jingyi had many devout followers who, when he died, built this huge magnificent tomb over his grave. Subsequently he became known as the founder of the “Great Tomb” denomination. A steady trickle of faithful followers come here to pray. An ahong in this Gedalinye denomination may not marry. Mullahs are expected to move into the Great Tomb Mosque by the time they are ten years old. The position of the top leader of this denomination is not hereditary; he is elected for a limited term.
Near the Great Tomb of the founder has been built a smaller state tomb for someone who belonged to the same denomination. The occupant of this tomb, Cheng Mingyi, is credited with having saved the life of the Ching emperor Kangxi. In appreciation the emperor had this tomb built for him. Inasmuch as the edifice now exists, some faithful pilgrims who come to the Great Tomb next door also come here to pray.
Cheng Mingyi’s wish for a state tomb may have been judged “less than humble” by his contemporaries. Nevertheless, the enduring presence of a state-built Gedalinye tomb helped stake down the claim for the denomination’s legitimacy in the greater China.
In a suburb of Linxia, along the main road to Lanzhou we stop in hope of filming another stately mosque. But nobody is there to let us in or to keep us out. The reason for this uninhabited condition quickly becomes apparent, a little ways down the street. Several pilgrims are returning from Mecca. And that festive scene, full of life and bustle, is far more interesting than a wonderful empty mosque.
We are in Lanzhou to contemplate the hillside that rises beyond the Yellow River. Here the region’s history is displayed. A Buddhist temple compound extends upward from the River all the way to the pagoda at the top. It is obvious that the Buddhist buildings were put there first. Later in time some mosques were added among the houses.
The Sufi Nagshbandiyya Jahriyya or Zhecharenya saintly lineage began in 1744 after the enthusiastic Ma Mingxin had finished his apprenticeship under a Sufi sheikh in Yemen. He returned to China and became the founder of this denomination. This is his tomb in the city of Lanzhou.
On the other side of the river sits the tomb of Salima, the ceremonially named daughter of Ma Mingxin. She is remembered for having led the women’s resistance corps during Ma Mingxi’s rebellion. The resident ahong explains these circumstances.
The story of Ma Mingxin’s movement continues in Ningxia. Ma Hualong, the first hereditary leader within the Jahriyya lineage led the new teachings rebellion that resulted in ten million dead. He himself was killed by imperial troops here at Shijilianxi (Jinjibu) in 1871. Here his decapitated body lies buried, and here he is now being honored with a stately tomb. Even while construction is noisily under way -- behind piles of building materials a faithful follower laments his supplication. He kneels in front of a makeshift altar where he has lit some incense candles.
At Banqiao Daotang is the headquarters of that branch of Jahriyya which claims hereditary descent from Ma Hualong. The descendants are gathering for prayer. Incense sticks are lit at the graves of Ma Tengai, the great-grandson of Ma Hualong, and of Ma Jinxi, the grandson -- also at the grave of Ma Jinxi’s wife. Muslims here are buried with their heads to the north and their faces turned sideways and westward in the direction of Mecca. Here by the graves Qur’anic verses are recited northward in alignment with the dead person’s position of rest.
This prayer rite is being performed at an hour that had been arbitrarily agreed on for filming. Nobody counted on the government’s loudspeaker which, somehow, begins blaring at this time.
Amidst many congratulatory banners and well-wishes, inside the memorial mosque, prayers are spoken westward in the direction of Mecca.
Traces of Tibetan Buddhism are obvious everywhere in the province of Qinghai. Near the provincial capital of Xinning still exists and functions the largest Tibetan lamasery outside of Tibet itself.
From Xining we have set out in the direction of Chunke, where the waters of the young Yellow River rush past in the direction of Lanzhou, to get there before we do.
We are in Chunke township to visit some of the four thousand Tibetan Hui Muslims who are herders and farmers. In the dry bed of a mountain stream we see some of them dig for gold. Today there live approximately sixteen thousand Tibetan converts to Islam in the greater China. One fourth of these live in this township. Since the Yuan dynasty they have been taught to forget that they are Tibetans. Tibetan here means “Buddhist.” As Hui, or Muslims, they know that their ancestors have come here from elsewhere.
Mixed villages in this area have a tendency to become all Muslims. In this village only two lamas can be seen. Fortunatly they are as curious as their fellow Muslim citizens and approach our car and our camera.
At the mosque in Chunke Islamic education is going strong. An ahong instructs an assembly of thirty-eight mullahs. He first reads from the Qur’an in Arabic and then interprets and explains sentences with remarkable ease.
Mosque, it is said, was first built in 1388 in Tibetan Buddhist territory.
In Xining, the capital city of Qinghai, Islam has equally deep roots.
This is the old Nanshan Tomb Mosque. And near the top
of Phoenix Mountain, looking down upon the city, sits the tomb of Gutubu Hashimu Erpudunlehamani from Baghdad. This Muslim went to
southern Yunnan around the year 1216, during the reign of Genghis
Khan. Genghis Khan and his successors assigned many Hui and other outsiders to
important administrative positions. Gutubu Hashimu Erpudunlehamani died as a
missionary here, in Qinghai. Prayers are recited across his tomb sideways,
in the direction of Mecca.
In the year 1271 the emperor Kublai Khan sent to Yunnan Province a new governor, a Muslim named Sayed Ajal, also known as Sai Dianchi. As a Muslim servant of the Yuan empire he is credited with having built the first version of this mosque in Kunming, in the Thirteenth Century.
Rivers in ancient China were dragons, and so in essence were the clouds that had not yet descended in the form of rain. It is said that one hundred dragons lived on Sunhua Mountain, near Kunming. They were in the habit of flooding the city and the land below. Sai Dianchi commandeered his soldiers to attack and to capture these dragons on the mountain. He personally lassoed them with his turban scarf and then tied them down. With imperial style he inscribed an edict, ordering them, never to flood the land again. After that, for good measure, he built a dam below SunhuaMountain over thirty meters high. The dam is still here, and it is being enlarged many times its original size, even as we watch.
Sai Dianchi, the Muslim, has been buried in this cemetery as a mortal man. Nevertheless, he was deified by some of his Han subjects. A statue representing him as a god has been revered in a village temple nearby clear into the nineteen-fifties.
At Kunyung, a few hours drive from Kunming stands the monument of a Muslim admiral and navigator who became famous early in the Fifteenth Century. Cheng He sailed with his fleet to thirty different lands, including Africa and Arabia.
In the hope to tracking down a Nineteenth Century Hui leader, in Yunnan Province, we have traveled to Dali. In this city one finds the headquarters of Du Wenxiu, also known as Sultan Suleiman and leader of the Panthay Hui Rebellion that lasted from 1856 to 1873. When the Ching forces won in the end, Du Wenxiu lost his head. The head was carried about by Ching troops and his body lies buried here in the Dali Plain, a few kilometers from the city.
The victory massacre which the imperial army inflicted on Dali was ruthless. Only a few Hui families survived, by escaping into the surrounding Buddhist-Bai territory. Nine Muslim families escaped to Shihpang, a Bai-Buddhist village at the northern end of the Dali Plain. They adopted local Bai dress. They intermarried with their Buddhist neighbors, and by this method they gradually converted the entire village to Islam. All the people in the village, now that they are Muslims, think of themselves as Bai Muslims whose ancestors have come from elsewhere.
We climb the minaret of the mosque and look down on the village. We stroll through the village and see those who go to work in the fields. We are invited into houses and court yards to watch those who do the chores. Portions of this bear will someday be used as medicine.
By courtesy of the village government, one family was paid to cook a meal for us. This cow-tail seems especially fascinating. Its evolutionary history is obvious. Humankind domesticated cattle. Cattle attracted flies. Humans observed how cows chase away flies with cow-tails. It was cows who taught them. After the meal, the men of the village gather to pray at the mosque. Only the men go inside.
Attracted to the portico of the mosque by the presence of a foreigner, women and children gather outside. The roles of male and female, in Bai Hui society, are well displayed in these scenes.
A few last points of information, and many handshakes, and it is time to say goodbye to these Muslims at the village of Shi Pang.
In this part of the Province of Guangxi, in the city of Guilin and beyond, geography and the rhythms of life are all defined by the Li River. It was the ancestral waters of this river that have eroded the land and left behind these wonderful karst-formations of limestone. The first Muslims who came to Guilin were impressed by this landscape as much as we now are. When they saw this rock formation they concluded that it was a camel. They built their mosque next to it. This karst-formation looks like a camel from the other side as well. Moreover, camels and Islamic history go nicely together. The young ahong tells the legend:
This camel came from a faraway desert. It is one of three that together came. The two others continued walking. One remained on the bank of Li River, and the other went back to its desert home. This one enjoyed hearing nice prayers, five times a day here in the mosque. This one was attracted, and stayed.
As a matter of fact, there are many camels resting alongside this river.
In the city of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, this Phoenix Mosque was first built at the turn of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth centuries. Missionary tombs, in Hangzhou, point back a little farther still. A Muslim missionary and medical doctor came here from Persia in the Twelfth Century. At the turn of the Twentieth Century his grave, and those of his two disciples, were moved here because their ancient tombs stood in the way of city improvement projects.
Foreigners who come to China to visit Muslims and mosques are probably first steered to the Niujie Street area in Beijing. For centuries, this district has been a ghetto for Muslims. An Islamic school still functions here. A market offers Islamic pure food. And Muslims still come here from afar to visit the famous Niujie Street Mosque. According to tradition, this mosque was first built during the 970s or 980s. Some historians think that it may have been built a few centuries later. Two missionaries of the Thirteenth Century lie buried here.
We are in Shanghai, in search of the mosque. During the Nineteen-twenties this Peach-garden Mosque was built to provide a sanctuary to which foreign Muslims and travelers would have easy access. A few local men have gathered here on a weekday in 1992, for afternoon prayers.
We conclude this program with a moment in Shandong Province in the Jinan mosque. Islam in China is a faith that is quietly passed on -- at home from mother to children, and in the mosque from father to son. All that is needed is to take hold of a smaller hand.