Source: The New Yorker


The Martyr’s Memorial in Shadian, China, is a gray pillar topped with a crescent moon, set on a stone block engraved with names. It commemorates the so-called Shadian incident, a massacre that took place in July of 1975, when the People’s Liberation Army came to this small southwestern town to quell what the central authorities were calling an Islamist revolt. Then, as now, Shadian was inhabited almost entirely by Hui, members of one of the country’s two main Muslim minority groups. In the years leading up to the incident, the Red Guards had attacked the Hui, destroying their mosques and forcing them to wear pigs’ heads around their necks. When the P.L.A. soldiers arrived, they razed more than four thousand houses and killed some sixteen hundred villagers in one week. The Chinese government later apologized for the raid, blaming it on the Gang of Four—the ousted architects of the Cultural Revolution—and helping fund Shadian’s reconstruction. But locals do not pay homage to the state at the memorial. The pillar is emblazoned with the Fatiha, the first chapter of the Koran, in green Arabic calligraphy, and, above it, in Chinese characters, the word she-xi-de. “That’s the Arabic word shahid, instead oflieshi, the Chinese word for ‘martyr,’ “ a man named Huang told me. (As with the other Chinese Muslims I spoke with, I will protect his identity by referring to him only by his surname.) “You know why? Lieshi would include the P.L.A. soldiers, wouldn’t it?”

Huang and I were standing on a hill overlooking Shadian, whose twelve thousand residents are about ninety-per-cent Hui. (Huang, a Muslim convert, is a member of China’s Han ethnic majority.) Most Chinese know little about the town. When I told people in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, that I was going there, they asked whether I was visiting for the famous halal barbecue. Shadian is otherwise best known for its Grand Mosque, a nineteen-million-dollar edifice built almost entirely with private donations, its gilding and green domes patterned after those of the Nabawi mosque in Medina, complete with imported date palms lining the entrance. It had stormed earlier that afternoon, the sound of thunder and rain mixing with a lilting call to prayer, followed by fifteen minutes of Koranic teaching blared over the mosque’s loudspeakers in Mandarin. Now Shadian’s minarets pointed quietly into a clear sky. The smell of grass filled the air as Huang and I walked around the monument, tracing the names carved into the base.

The history of the Hui in Yunnan is one of seasons of prosperity punctuated by violence. The province wasn’t part of China until the thirteenth century, when Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar al-Bukhari, a Central Asian Muslim who served the imperial court, brought it into the fold. According to Ahmed, an imam at one of Kunming’s mosques, many Hui still revere Sayyid Ajjal, because he demonstrated that Islam could coexist with Chinese philosophy. “Chinese tradition teaches the dao of man, and Islam teaches the dao of heaven—the two are complementary,” Ahmed said. Sayyid Ajjal built Confucian academiesalongside mosques and Buddhist temples, infusing foreign religion and culture with domestic ideals of harmony and hierarchy. “This is why Hui can mix with Han, but Uighurs can’t,” Ahmed continued, referring to China’s other significant Muslim minority. “We have Islam with Chinese characteristics.” Nevertheless, relations between the Hui and the Han have not always been peaceful. In the nineteenth century, during the Qing dynasty, tensions between the two groups erupted over how Yunnan’s mineral resources were being apportioned. Qing officials ordered a xi Hui—a washing away of the Hui—slaughtering at least four thousand people in the course of three days in 1856. That massacre sparked a sixteen-year rebellion, which ended with another massacre, this time of at least ten thousand Hui.

After the Shadian incident, as China’s economy opened up, the Hui flourished again. They operated private copper, lead, and zinc mines, some of which outcompeted state-owned enterprises. Wealth brought them relative religious freedom, and with a steady flow of zakat, the Muslim equivalent of a tithe, Shadian’s citizens built mosques and madrassas, giving scholarships to religious students and sending hundreds of Hui on the hajj each year. Seeing potential for Shadian to attract religious tourists from Southeast Asia, provincial authorities began marketing the town as the “little Mecca of the East.” They allowed street signs in Arabic and even a green dome on the local administration building’s roof.

Things changed in 2014. On March 1st of that year, a group of knife-wielding attackers began stabbing passengers at random in the Kunming train station, killing more than thirty and injuring more than a hundred and forty. Police shot four of the attackers at the scene, and three others were later executed; one woman was sentenced to life in prison. They were Uighurs from the far-western province of Xinjiang, known for its restive separatism and ethnic strife. When news emerged that the Kunming attackers had spent time in Shadian, droves of Chinese netizens began criticizing the town’s religious appearance, calling it “China’s Islamic State.” The little Hui town became vilified as an enclave for religious extremism, where too many Muslims were allowed too much freedom. Popular online forums such as Tianya Club and Baidu became filled with Islamophobic vitriol. “Can these yellow-skinned Arabs stop disgusting us Chinese people?” one commenter wrote. “We know that huaxia”—the Han ethnicity’s ancestral tribe and culture—“is a pile of shit in your hearts. Why are you still here?” As Han chauvinism swept the Chinese Internet, authorities instituted a series of “counter-extremism” policies, tightening at least the image of control over Yunnan’s Muslims by planting flags in front of every mosque, painting green roofs white, and requiring all religious students and teachers from outside provinces to go home. Hundreds of Uighurs were deported to Xinjiang.

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