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Elisabeth Allès, Musulmans de Chine. Une anthropologie des Hui du Henan
Elisabeth Allès' Musulmans de Chine: Une anthropologie des Hui du Henan is the first study in a Western language that focuses entirely on a Muslim Chinese community outside of the Muslim dominant Qur'an Belt of northwestern China. In a remarkable anthropological portrait of Muslim life the author highlights the complex and often contested nature of contemporary Muslim Chinese, or Hui, in the eastern Chinese province of Henan. While numerous book-length studies have been published on Hui communities in the western provinces of Yunnan, Gansu and Xinjiang, Musulmans de Chine is the first to focus exclusively on a Hui community in eastern China thereby capturing in careful detail the nature of a minority Hui community in a dominant Han Chinese context.
The book is divided into three parts that collectively probe the basic parameters of Hui identity, the boundaries of Hui and Chinese interaction, and the quotidian articulations of Muslim Chinese beliefs in Henan. Allès in the first section of the book begins by exploring the subtle overlap between the numerous terms/labels in Mandarin Chinese to express the ostensibly fixed concepts of Hui, Islam and Muslim. This is not a simple task for these terms often blur rather than differentiate between religious, political and ethnic spheres. In the People's Republic of China today to be Hui is not coterminous with being Muslim, nor does being Muslim necessarily qualify you in the eyes of the state to be designated as a Hui (there are 10 different officially recognized ethnic groups which are predominantly Muslim).
The author's description of the fluid nature of Hui identity and their complex historical roots thus provides a vital prelude to her description of the three divergent Henan Hui communities that provide the preponderance of her data: Sanpo village, the Guancheng quarter of Zhengzhou, and the Shunhe quarter of Kaifeng. Significantly, these sites were not selected as three increasingly urban (or modern) sites of investigation, but rather as three discrete and distinct arenas of Han-Hui contact. The emphasis on the Han Chinese context is not unintentional. Much of the narrative of Musulmans de Chine is centred around the manifold ways in which Hui are shaped by their interaction with the Han. Allès is careful to indicate, however, that the Hui are not defined by the Han, but that it is precisely because of the coexistence and interaction between the Hui and the Han, [ that] the two groups consider themselves as distinct from one other (p. 70).
In the second section of the book, the author examines the intricate blend of markers, practices and rituals that bind and divide the Muslim Chinese community. Previous studies (and many Hui themselves) emphasize the function that the ritual proscription of pork plays in the construction of Hui identity, in particular its role as the principal marker distinguishing them from Han Chinese. Allès, clearly unsatisfied with the reifying nature of such a definition, focuses instead on the substantive ways in which lineage, clan organization and alliancesall three of which are habitually portrayed as the main pillars of traditional Chinese societyhave powerfully shaped Hui identity. Above all Allès seeks to assert that when examining the unique nature of Hui identity we must be attentive to both those markers of Hui identity employed to differentiate themselves from the larger Han community and those markers meant to strengthen and bind the community internally.
The third and final part of the book fills a long neglected gap in Chinese studies by examining the diverse nature of Muslim Chinese mosques (again employing Sanpo, Zhengzhou and Kaifeng as representative examples) and their contrasting role in Hui communities. Much studied in other parts of the Muslim world, mosques and mosque life in China have until now escaped any systematic investigation. This lacuna is perhaps a result of the fact that Chinese mosques often outwardly differed very little from their Buddhist or Confucian counterparts, sometimes only distinguishable by the Arabic script over the doorway. But as Allès' investigation reveals, looks can be deceiving. The author's depiction exposes a startling diversity among mosques and presents before the reader how this diversity was achieved by methodically tracing the historic diffusion of mosques, highlighting their diverging rituals, and by displaying the inter-relationship of mosques and ahongs within a single community.
Taken as a whole, the most important contribution of Musulmans de Chine is its capacity to answer the question that begins the book: Who are the Hui? In this regard, Allès' scholarship follows in much the same vein as Dru Gladney's ground-breaking work Muslim Chinese (1991) and Jonathan Lipman's Familiar Strangers (1997). Yet, Musulmans de Chine, while acknowledging an intellectual debt to both these works challenges many of their conclusions. The author singles out Dru Gladney for the bulk of her criticisms taking particular aim at his designation of the Hui as an ethno-religious group a term that she suggests introduces into the debate more confusion than clarity (pp. 16-17). Despite her stated distaste for Gladney's conceptual grounding, the author often adopts an analytical approach similar to Gladney offering a spectrum of communities and individuals that demonstrate the contrasting ways in which Hui construct and act out their Hui identity. Theoretically, however, Allès strikes out against the widespread notion that Hui culture/society is a fusion or syncretism of Chinese and Islamic practices; a process that she states has no evidence in any doctrine, in any ritual, or in practice (p. 289) she encountered. Instead, the author seeks to reveal how the Islamic and Chinese cultural references parallel one another and thus reveal not a mixing, but a juxtaposition (p. 290). Allès' point is significant. To be Hui is not, and never has been, antithetical to being Chinese, instead the question lies in how to distinguish between the two spheres.
The study's response to this question is perhaps most apparent in its remarkable examination of the women's mosques (qingzhen nüsi or nüxue) of Henan. Allès adroitly presents several hypotheses of how women's mosques came to be established and their general organization structure forged. Displaying a dexterous knowledge of Chinese history, the author rejects the common assumptions that the mosques were ushered in by the Central Asians under Mongol rule or that they were part of the modernizing education system during Republican China. Women's mosques are not, as the author notes, madrasas (Quranic schools) common throughout the Islamic World but mosques created for and run by Hui women and are unique to the Hui with no corresponding entity in either Islamic or Chinese society.
One of Musulmans de Chine's greatest strengths is its unflinching recognition of the role Han Chinese play in Hui identity formation. But while Allès readily admits that the Hui have never known any other position than as a minority in a Han Chinese world, she rarely indicates with any precision the processes by which Han society and more recently the PRC government have shaped, directed and prescribed what it means to be Hui. This is a crucial point since Allès is clearly not comfortable with the contemporary state-defined minzu paradigm that categorizes the Hui as an official nationality. As she quite pointedly indicates, and she is not the first, the Hui meet none of the official criteria of one language, one territory, one history, and one culture ostensibly needed to be an officially recognized ethnic group (p. 192). This is a prickly question that few Hui today care to broach. As one of the 55 officially acknowledged minority minzu they are afforded a legal status with numerous privileges. Yet, in the absence of such analysis it is unclear if Allès perceives the Hui as primarily bound by communal, religious or ethnic ties. Even in light of such underlying ambiguities, the portrait of Hui presented in Musulmans de Chine is a powerful, and in the end, convincing new conceptualisation and delineation of the Muslim Chinese.