Preferred Citation: Walder, Andrew G., editor The Waning of the Communist State: Economic Origins of Political Decline in China and Hungary. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.

Nine Economy and Ethnicity: The Revitalization of a Muslim Minority in Southeastern China

Ethnic Politics and Economic Prosperity

Ding Hui do not attribute their prosperity to industriousness alone. When they were recognized as part of the Hui nationality in 1979, they became eligible for assistance as members of an underprivileged minority. They have received several government subsidies that have spurred their economy. Between 1980 and 1984, the government gave over 200,000 yuan to the seven Hui teams, which they spent on a running-water system, ponds for raising fish, and expansion of their razor-clam industry. The Ministry of Education has given 40,000 yuan to build a middle school, and 33,000 yuan for a primary school. As a minority nationality the Hui also receive preference in high school and college admission, and they are allowed to have one more child per family than the Han. Hui representation in the local government is also disproportionately higher than their percentage of the population. Two of the ten party committee representatives (changwei ) were surnamed Ding in 1985, as was the town's party secretary.

Perhaps more important, the Ding have exploited their transnational connections to relatives abroad, and started to do so earlier than the Han in their area, leading to increased sources of capital investment. Over 50 percent of the Ding lineage members have overseas relatives, mainly in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore — a higher proportion than their


Han neighbors (see Li 1990, 337–46). They have reestablished communications with these relatives and have been assisted by frequent remittances. One of the reasons Hui and Han alike are eager to exploit overseas connections is that joint ventures are not subject to the same government taxes as other private industries. With both their minority status and overseas connections, the Hui are in a much stronger position to exploit these favorable conditions than the Han.

This outside income is an important factor in the rapid economic development of the seven Ding villages. All seven Hui villages have elementary schools, thanks to donations from overseas relatives averaging 20,000 yuan each. Neighboring Han villages have one elementary school for every three or four villages. The Ding say that their close and frequent contact with overseas relatives is a result of their strong feeling of ethnic identity, which they say surpasses that of neighboring Han lineages, with their overseas relations. It is interesting, however, that one wealthy village family that maintained extensive overseas relations revealed that overseas relatives are often reluctant to admit their Islamic heritage! While it is not true of all Ding, in this case, it is clear that many villagers and their overseas relatives are exploiting a favorable minority nationality policy even when they may not share strong ethnic feelings about their past.

These government subsidies and special benefits are important factors in the Ding Hui claim to ethnic minority status. The manipulation of ethnic identity for special favored treatment has been well documented by anthropologists as an example of "situational" ethnicity, where ethnic groups frequently maneuver and reposition themselves for political and economic advantages (Barth 1969; Wallerstein 1987). This is certainly an important factor in understanding why the Ding lineage's ethnic identity has become even more relevant under Deng's economic reforms. Changes in socio-economic conditions and the local political economy are conducive to rapid ethnic change. Even before such policies were promulgated, however, Ding Hui occupied a distinct ecological and commercial niche, which they had maintained for generations.

This indicates that for the Ding, their ethnic attachment to certain economic practices is not merely situational, but belongs to a more deeply ingrained identity, which has been part of their collective memory for generations (Geertz 1973; Keyes 1981). Even when they have been prevented from openly expressing those traditions, they have been preserved privately through family and communal ritual. It is significant that in ancestor worship, where pork is the most highly prized of all ancestral offerings, the Ding did not offer pork to their ancestors precisely because they remembered them to be Muslim, even though they themselves for the most part are no longer Muslim and include pork in their diet. Part of the jipin (requirements of remembrance) stipulated in their genealogy was the offering of


razor clams to their ancestors (Ding Clan Genealogy 1980, 30). This indicates that ethnic specialization of labor was maintained in southern Fujian, where Hui are known to have been involved in specific aquacultural industries. These specializations were interrupted by PRC collectivist policies but have reappeared with the economic reforms.

Economic reforms encouraged private enterprise and dismantling of centrally planned economies, allowing for the rise of local associations and ethnic mobilization for economic goals. These associations in turn led to increased ethnic and even religious revitalization in this community, as well as the reestablishment of international networks. Central-state policy accords special economic and political privileges to these recently recognized Hui along the southeastern coast and encourages their interaction with foreign Muslim governments. This has had a significant impact on their ethnic identity. Fujian provincial and local municipal publications proudly proclaim Quanzhou to be the site of the third most important Islamic holy grave and the fifth most important mosque in the world.[7] Religious and government representatives from over thirty Muslim nations were escorted to Muslim sites in Quanzhou as part of a state-sponsored delegation in spring 1986. The successful promotion of Quanzhou's place on the ancient Silk Route and in Islamic history led to two UNESCO-sponsored conferences in 1991 and 1994, with substantial international participation, as part of UNESCO's ongoing study of the Silk Route as a medium of intercultural exchange.

In February 1991, the UNESCO-sponsored Silk Roads Expedition arrived in Quanzhou, which became its main port of entry on China's "Maritime Silk Route," virtually bypassing the traditional stopping-place, Guangzhou. During the four-day conference and Silk Road festivities, in which I participated, foreign guests and Muslim dignitaries were brought to a Chendai Ding village as part of their orientation in order to highlight the recent economic prosperity and government support for the modern descendants of the ancient Muslim maritime traders. At the 1994 conference, not only were academic papers presented, but participants were offered the possibility of paying to go on a tour of "Islamic Maritime Sites" following the

[7] The tombs are said to hold the remains of Imam Sayid and Imam Waggas from Medina, two reputed cousins of the Prophet Muhammad, sent to China by the Prophet with two other missionaries, Wahb Abu Kabcha, who is said to be buried in Guangzhou's bell tomb, and another saint, buried in Yangzhou. According to He Qiaoyuan's 1629 history of Fujian (the Minshu ), these four missionary saints visited China during the Wu De period of the Tang emperor Gao Zu (A.D. 618–26), which is hardly possible, since Islam dates to Muhammad's famous Hijra (or "journey") from Mecca to Medina in 622 and the Prophet died in 632. For the debate over the authenticity of the tombs, and the 1009–10 dating of the Quanzhou mosque, see Chen 1984, 95–101. For the claim that Quanzhou is an Islamic pilgrimage site, see Yang 1985.


conference, including visits to mosques and Muslim cemeteries in Hangzhou, Suzhou, Shanghai, Xi'an, and Beijing. During the 1994 conference in Quanzhou, on the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year, participants were taken to several Hui-run factories, as well as to the Ding lineage's cemetery, where Ding elders remembered their ancestors by performing such rites as burning incense, bowing three times, reading portions of the genealogy, and, in a newly "invented" tradition, presenting flowers to their ancestors' graves. In reflection of their ancestors' Islamic heritage, the Ding invited their local imam to read a passage of the Quran in front of the graves. Afterward, he invited the few foreign and local Muslims to join him in a Quranic recitation. The ceremony was followed by statements by local officials, including a strong expression of support from Hei Boli, the former chairman of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and current vice-chairman of the People's Political Consultative Congress. Foreign Muslims, including the director of the UNESCO project and officials and scholars from Iran, Kuwait, Turkey, and Malaysia also made public statements of support.

Partly as a result of these and earlier official and international Islamic contacts, construction of the Xiamen international airport was completely underwritten by a low-interest loan from the government of Kuwait in the mid 1980s. The Kuwaitis also assisted in the building of a large hydroelectric dam project along the Min River outside Fuzhou. A Jordanian businessman visiting in spring 1986 offered to donate U.S. $1.5 million to rebuild the Qingjing mosque in Quanzhou, established in the year 1009. China claims that the many Islamic relics in Quanzhou are evidence of a long history of friendly exchanges between China and the Muslim world. As a result of China's growing trade with Third World Muslim nations, it is only natural that these historical treasures should be displayed and made available to foreign Muslim visitors. It is also not surprising that the descendants of these early foreign Muslim residents in Quanzhou — the Ding, Guo, Huang, Jin, and other Hui lineages — are interested in further interaction with distant foreign Muslim relations.

International Islamic attention has had an impact upon the self-perception of the Ding lineage as Hui descendants. It has also led to a kind of ethnic revitalization and rediscovery of their Muslim heritage. In 1984, construction of a mosque was proposed in Chendai so that the Hui there could begin to learn more about Islam. The Quanzhou mosque is too far from Chendai (fifteen kilometers) to be of practical use to them, and it is now without a resident imam. When the new mosque was completed in Chendai in 1990, it attracted many villagers interested in learning more about Islam. Quranic study courses have been conducted, and some villagers have begun to learn Arabic. In 1991, they invited an imam from Inner Mongolia, and eighteen students from the Ding lineage have gone to


Huhehot to study with the Chendai imam's teacher in order to become future imams, including two women. There are four other mosques in Fujian, which formerly had imams from Ningxia and Gansu, who came at the invitation of the provincial Islamic Association between 1982 and 1989, but they all eventually returned to their more familiar homes in the Islamic northwest, and now Chendai is the only mosque with an imam in all of Fujian province. This is particularly ironic, since the mosque in Chendai is the newest mosque in Fujian, established among villagers who have only recently begun to practice the Islamic faith.

In November 1984, a grass-roots organization of Ding Hui leaders was recognized by the government as the "Jinjiang County Chendai Town Commission for Hui Affairs." This is quite significant, in that formal voluntary associations outside of initial government sponsorship are generally considered illegal in China, and in this case the state recognized the organization well after it was established. One of the commission's first acts was to establish a small museum in the ancestral hall, which now displays articles substantiating their foreign Muslim ancestry, their recognition as members of the Hui nationality in 1979, their recent economic success, and the visits of foreign Muslims and foreign dignitaries, including a picture of the author's 1986 visit! The ancestral hall museum possesses the usual ritual objects and ancestral tablets on the domestic altar, as do other southern Fujianese temples, but the hall is no longer used in the worship of ancestors. Locals affirmed that daily rituals of the domestic cult, lighting incense on a daily basis, and providing special offerings on festivals and feast days, were similar to those of other Fujianese families. The main difference here is that no pork was admitted into the ancestral hall. Ding members told me that they often rinsed their mouths with tea before making offerings to their ancestors, as a way of cleansing pork residue that might be offensive to them. Perhaps more important, this ancestral hall received special township-level support and approval. Ancestral halls are now allowed in China but are generally not patronized by the state. The township provided some funding for the ancestral hall, reasoning that it also contained a historical museum of the history of the Hui, and thus of foreign relations in China. I have never seen another ancestral hall containing a museum, and it was the nicest hall that I visited in Fujian.[8]

[8] In 1990, the commission sponsored and completed construction of an "Islamic prayer hall" (qingzhen libaitang ) adjacent to the lineage village. This "prayer hall" was built exactly like a mosque, with a qibla (niche identifying orientation toward Mecca) and worship area, in Arab architecture style. The commission was not officially allowed at the time to call it a mosque (qingzhensi or masjdid ), however, as the China Islamic Association had not approved its construction. In Beijing, I was told by representatives of the association in 1991 that they were uncomfortable about giving their imprimatur to a mosque situated in a village of Hui who were not entirely Islamic and practiced Minnan folk religion. Nevertheless, a growing number of Hui villagers attend the mosque for regular prayer and Quranic study. In late 1991, they invited the imam to come to the prayer hall, and now it is officially recognized as a mosque (qingzhensi ).


The Ding Hui commission has also asked that Jinjiang county be recognized as an autonomous minority county, but this has not worked out, according to one official, because of "redistricting difficulties." Other Hui have told me the state would never risk recognizing an autonomous Hui county that was not Islamic for fear of antagonizing conservative national and international Muslim opinion. The community apparently celebrated the Ramadan fast in 1989 and 1990 by giving up pork for the month. This possible creation of a new Islamic identity for the Hui in Chendai is important to watch as it becomes increasingly relevant for them in their altered social context. It is also important to note that the reforms and prosperity that have come to Ding villagers as a result of their pressing for recognition as members of the Hui nationality and descendants of the ancient Silk Road Muslim traders have not been restricted to the Muslim Hui Ding; they have benefited the entire township. Chendai township not only has a substantial Han population, but there are also many among the Ding who do not believe in Islam, including folk religionists, and even about eighty households of Christians, who were nevertheless registered as members of the so-called Hui "Muslim" nationality! These Ding converted in the 1930s under the influence of a Western Protestant missionary, and they too have recently rebuilt their church, possibly because the local government allowed the construction of the Islamic prayer hall.

Prosperity has come to the Ding lineage partly as a result of government minority assistance, through tax breaks, development incentives, and permission to engage in small business, and partly as a result of the local Hui taking aggressive advantage of opportunities for collective action, economic enterprise, and increased contacts with overseas relatives. As noted above, although the Ding lineage only constitutes one-seventh of the town's population, it accounts for over one-third of the entire area's annual income. Economic prosperity has been accompanied by ethnic and even religious revival. These lineages have always maintained a Hui identity that in conjunction with recent events is only now beginning to take on a decidedly Islamic commitment, something quite unforeseen when the state chose to institute economic reforms in the late 1970s. It is clear that the Ding pressed for recognition as members of the Hui nationality just at the time of Deng's economic liberalization policies, and then quickly took advantage of them as an ethnic minority — a minority whose main cultural trait was defined as "entrepreneurialism." Here, ethnic revitalization can be seen as a direct consequence of shifts in economic policy. The earlier centrally planned


economy prevented ethnic specialization, entrepreneurialism, and exploitation of individual and corporate overseas ties. Now that economic planning has been decentralized, it will be very difficult to put these revitalized aspects of Ding ethnicity back in the box.

Nine Economy and Ethnicity: The Revitalization of a Muslim Minority in Southeastern China

Preferred Citation: Walder, Andrew G., editor The Waning of the Communist State: Economic Origins of Political Decline in China and Hungary. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.