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Shadian's Muslim communities and trans-local connectivities: observations from the field

I reached Shadian Town after a three hour drive from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, China. As I stepped out of the car in the chill of a late November night, the site of Shadian's magnificent Grand Mosque and the call to night prayers reminded me that I was in a zone quite different from Kunming.

Shadian has ten mosques, with the Grand Mosque - modeled upon the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina and completed in 2009 - as its symbol. Almost ninety percent of Shadian’s fifteen thousand residents are Muslims, belonging to the contemporary Hui minority of China. However, Shadian is also known for the so-called Shadian Incident of 1975, in which villagers forcefully opened closed-down mosques during the last years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The ‘incident’ left 1,600 people dead at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army. “The old Islamic schools in Shadian used to have valuable library collections, but everything has been burnt,” lamented my informant, Mr. Ma. Across the Mosque was the Islamic Culture and Arts Center that exhibits and sells Sino-Islamic artworks. Within a few blocks of the Grand Mosque, one senses a mix of forward-looking aspirations and painful memories, reflecting a continuing history of repression and resilience of Islam in China.

Shadian’s trans-local networks in history

Islam in Yunnan expanded during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), when Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din from Bukhara (current Uzbekistan) was appointed as the provincial governor, promoting both Islamic and Confucian institutions. According to Mr. Ma, “he also built aqueducts, without him you would not see present-day Yunnan”. Following waves of Muslim settlement into the town since the thirteenth century, Shadian became a part of caravan trade routes between Yunnan and Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and India. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, trade became so important that, just before the Chinese communist victory of 1949, around 700 out of Shadian’s 980 families, had two to three horses conducting commerce across northern Thailand and Myanmar.1Ma Weiliang, Yunnan Huizu Lishi yu Wenhua Yanjiu (Kunming, Yunnan Daxue Chubanshe, 1999), 241.

In the first half of the 20th century, Shadian also emerged as a significant center for Islamic learning. For example, of the thirty-three students from China who studied in Cairo’s al-Azhar University in the 1930s and 1940s, five came from Shadian alone. They were heavily sponsored by Bai Liangcheng (白亮诚, 1893–1965). A scholar and an official, Bai Liangcheng founded the Yufeng Elementary School in 1914, one Islamic Girls School, and several Islamic periodicals. The old Yufeng Elementary School now displays an exhibition on Bai Liangcheng and Shadian’s notable Muslims. Here I learned that Bai also initiated industrialized tea commerce based in Yunnan’s southernmost Xishuangbanna. With imported technology and machineries from Japan and India, he constructed a large-scale tea factory, creating trade networks domestically and across the borderlands of Thailand and Myanmar. These connections would later provide permanent homes for Shadian diaspora, who migrated to Thailand and Myanmar in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and formed Sino-Islamic enclaves. In November 1948, Bai Liangcheng and fifty others left Shadian, most likely to flee Communist rule. The following year, fourteen of them undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca. “It’s embarrassing to say you’re escaping,” said Mr. Ma. “So you say you’re going on the pilgrimage.”

Return to Kunming

Back in Kunming, I told my Chinese host family about my experiences in Shadian, but was met with somewhat perplexed and worried expressions flashing across their faces. Later in the evening, my host forwarded me an article on Zhihu Ribao, a Chinese online platform where articles are posted anonymously. The article drew parallels between the Shadian Incident and the contemporary Islamic State in the Middle East – “both groups being violent, self-unifying and terrorist in essence” – echoing the dominant and official narrative in China. The rich histories that I observed in Shadian, rooted in southern Yunnan with its critical ties outwards that have shaped the province’s many landscapes, are apparently not making their inroads into the audience who needs them the most. 


Hyeju (Janice) JEONG is a Ph.D Candidate in the Department of History at Duke University (janice.jeong@duke.edu)

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