Friday, March 24, 2006

Where do the Dongxiang come from?

From an article in the NY Times:
"Deep in China, a Pious and Poor Muslim enclave"

On a recent Friday, two days after a heavy snowstorm had coated the mountains and left a sheet of ice on the narrow village roads, old men in white caps trudged through the snow to different mosques. Though some are too poor to send their children to school, they have pooled money to build village mosques as well as graceful towers with elegant curved roofs that serve as Muslim burial vaults.

"The Dongxiang people have always believed in Islam," said Ma Ali, 36, the imam at an old mosque in the village of Hanzilin. Indeed, even within a larger region known as the center of Islam in China, the people of Dongxiang have a reputation for being particularly steadfast in their faith.
"People were devout in the past," said Ma Kui, 75, as he leaned on a wooden cane and waited for afternoon prayers with other farmers dressed in lambskin coats. "They are still devout now."

But as everywhere in China, modernity is seeping up the winding roads to the county's larger settlements and beckoning many younger people. In the county seat, Suonanba, cellphones, blue jeans and Internet cafes arrived several years ago. So did Chinese building contractors, cigarettes, alcohol and food not prepared to Islamic code.
"The Islamic atmosphere has become watered down over time, and the older people are aware of that," said Ma Chunling, who is 22. "So they want to protect their culture, and particularly Islam."

...For years, many Chinese scholars assumed that the Dongxiang descended from the Mongol soldiers in Genghis Khan's army who eventually settled in Gansu during the 13th century when the Mongols ruled China under the Yuan Dynasty. But their exact origins were never fully known, an uncertainty that fed an inferiority complex.
"A man once asked me, 'Where do the Dongxiang come from?' " said Ma Zhiyong, a historian who grew up in the county but moved to the provincial capital, Lanzhou, as a teenager. "I was 18 or 19, and couldn't answer the question. I was ashamed."