China - Land of Diversity

Part 4
Muslim History in China - A 1300 Year Chronology

Of all Muslim minorities throughout the world, the Muslims of China clearly rank foremost among those with the longest and one of the most unusual histories.

The history of Islam in China begins with the coming together of the two great traditions, the Islamic and the Chinese, when both were flourishing. Muslims were trading and settling in China as early as the seventh century, many centuries before Muslim communities would become established in South and Southeast Asia. Well before Europeans had arrived on the China scene in any significant numbers, Muslims had long become an indigenous population throughout all China. Today there are more Muslims in China than in Saudi Arabia itself, more in fact than any Arab country except Egypt.

The rise of Islam in Western Asia corresponds chronologically to the rise of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China. It was natural that these major Asiatic Empires should establish cultural and diplomatic relations. The first Arab ambassadors dispatched by Caliph Uthman (r.644-656) are reported to have arrived at the court of Tang Emperor Kaotsung (r. 650-683)in Changan, the Tang capital, in 651. The missionary nature of Islam, combined with the energy of the Arab armies during the first expansion of the Muslim Empire, ensured that the Arabs visted Changan before the Chinese visted Damascus. This state of affairs would anyway have appeared normal to the Chinese, with their ancient civilisation and their Sinocentric philosophy.

From then on, hundreds and thousands of Arabs and Persians came to China via two routes. First was the sea route, from the Persian Gulf and southern tip of the Arabian penninsula across the Indian Ocean to Canton and other port cities of Southeast China. Second was the land route - the fabled "Silk Road" that extended from the Eastern Mediterranean across Central Asia to Bukhara and Samarkand before entering Northwest China and terminating in the markets of Changan (modern-day Xian) and Beijing. Muslims came to number among China's citizenry both through immigration and through China's expansion into Central Asia. As Muslim communities became established throughout China the Muslims grew in numbers not only through natural increase but also by the absorption of large numbers of native Chinese - through in-marriage, adoption, and occasional conversion.

Those who came to China by land were mostly soldiers, diplomats, scholars, artists, traders, and religious leaders. They were deeply involved with Chinese politics, armies, commerce, religion, culture, and family life. Whether in peace or in war, most of them settled permanently, married Han Chinese woman, owned land, were employed by civil or military authorities, established stores, served as ahong (religious leaders) in mosques that they built. It was not easy for them to reach China and it was not easy for them to leave China. Their settlment in China was the chief factor in the creation of the Chinese Muslim minorities. The Muslims who traded at the coastal cities of China during the Tang, Sung and Yuan periods, contributed little to the growth of Chinese Muslim population in comparison to those Arabs, Persian and Central Asians who came to China by land.

Islam, Judaism, Manichaeism, Nestorianism and Zoroastrianism came to Tang China at about the same time. But by the end of the Ming Dynasty, Islam was the only faith which survived, developed, gained strongholds, evolved into a sinoised minority and obtained permanent ethnic membership in the formation of the Chinese nation. The other four religions either went underground or disappeared in the 14th century; although Buddhism, which came to China in the first century AD, was still the second largest faith, it was negative to reality and the wordly life, lacking the perpicacity and principles to meet the Chinese demands.

However, this glorious millennium was, unfortunately, followed by the dark age of Chinese Islam, the Muslim genocide in the Qing period (1644-1911). In these 267 years, the Manchu rulers adopted policies designed to oppress the Muslims and to suppress the practice of Islam, if not to completely eliminate this religion. After the downfall of the Qing, the First Republic of China was established in 1912. All the Chinese Muslims supported the new government and started their revival movement which is continuing to the present day on mainland China as well as in Taiwan.

When Islam in Western Asia was flourishing, Muslims in China also enjoyed prosperity and peace. When Islam in Western Asia fell on bad days, Muslims in China suffered too. Thus, historically viewed, Chinese Islam is an integral part of the world-wide Islamic entity.

© Copyright 1997
Bethany World Prayer Center
This article (which first appeared in "Frontiers Focus" Vol 4 #3 and 5 #2, and is used by permission)
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