CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 5, March 2006


China's Islamic Communities Generate Local Histories | China Heritage Quarterly



Book cover

Yang Baojun, Dachang Huizu guji (Ancient records of the Hui people of Dachang), Dachang: Dachang Lianghua Fuyinshe, 2005, 114pp.

Book cover

Yang Baojun, Dachang Huizu shihua (A discursive history of the Hui people of Dachang), Beijing: Zhongyang Minzu Daxue Chubanshe, 2002, 148pp., 4 pages of colour plates.

Book cover

Yang Baojun, Dachang Huizu shihua (A discursive history of the Hui people of Dachang), Beijing: Zhongyang Minzu Daxue Chubanshe, 2005, 148pp., 6 pages of colour plates.

Book cover

Yang Baojun, Yisilan zai Dachang (Islam in Dachang), Dachang, 2005, 176pp., 8 pages of colour plates.

The essential beef in Big Macs served by McDonalds" in Beijing and the lamb for many of the city's hot-pot restaurants is provided by a halal abattoir located 40km east of the capital in Dachang Hui Autonomous County, over the border in Hebei province and separated from the outlying county of Tongzhou (Tongxian) by Hebei's Yanjiao economic zone. In 2005, Dachang celebrated the 50th anniversary of its formal establishment as one of China's few autonomous counties. Prior to 1955, Dachang county, which covers an area of 176sq km, was, administratively speaking, under the auspices of Sanhe city in Hebei, but from 1955 on it has been under the jurisdiction of Langfang.

Fig. 1
Fig. 1 View of the main mosque in Dachang township as rebuilt in 1988.

Autonomy has little practical meaning for China's "autonomous" counties, but Dachang's status did enable its Muslim Hui population, numbering 26,863 in the 2004 census and accounting for about 20% of the county's total population, to enjoy access to Muslim schools, clinics, mosques and cemeteries. (Figs 1 and 2) The Huis are concentrated in 26 of Dachang's 106 villages, all found within Dachang and Xiadian townships (zhen). Thirteen of the 26 villages are today considered to be "historical Hui villages'. According to the 2002 edition of Yang Baojun's Dachang Huizu shihua (A discursive history of the Hui people of Dachang), more than 50% of Hui families in Dachang have members engaged in business and commercial activities, but by 2005 that number had swelled to 90%. Whether this vocational orientation represents an ethnic, or religious, orientation is never spelled out by Yang Baojun, author of the volumes we examine here.

Fig. 2
Fig. 2 View of the main mosque in Dachang township as rebuilt in 2005.

Dachang county today can boast 16 mosques and more than 70 trained imams (Figs. 3, 4, 5 and 6) and, more pertinently, given the failure of China to provide its citizens with a comprehensive social security system, the county's Muslim hospitals have been restored and enhanced.

Fig. 3
Fig. 3 Plaque at the Hui Muslim cemetery in Dachang Hui Autonomous County, Hebei province.

The local Muslims generally trace their origins back to the early years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), but the 600-year long history of the Muslims of Dachang has been, if anything, eventful. In Yang Baojun's historical documentation, the Hui seem to have enjoyed high standing in the Ming dynasty, but their status declined during the subsequent Qing dynasty (1644-1911). (Fig. 7) Their position was further eroded in the warlord and KMT periods, when this area's inhabitants were derogatively described as "Huizi" and Dachang was depicted as a "bandit area" (feiqu). During the Republican period, the label of "bandit" was sometimes a coded designation for underground Communist Party activists or sympathizers, but only a few examples of Communist heritage are mentioned by Yang Baojun. When the Japanese occupied Dachang, "massacres" (can'an) of locals took place in Beiwu and Nansitou villages, but these too are only mentioned in passing. Republican history is only very briefly covered by Yang Baojun in the 2002 and 2005 editions of A discursive history of the Hui people of Dachang, and no comprehensive picture of conditions in the Republican period emerges.

Fig. 4
Fig. 4 Northern view of Beiwu Mosque in Dadian township, Dachang Autonomous County. [BGD]

Fig. 5
Fig. 5 View of the prayer hall of Beiwu Mosque.

Fig. 6
Fig. 6 View of Nansitou Mosque in Dachang Autonomous County.

During the fifty years or so since the establishment of the autonomous county, the formal lines of religious transmission were broken from 1958 to 1981, when the first mosque, at Beiwu, was allowed to re-open. (Figs. 8, 9 and 10) In the Cultural Revolution some members of the Hui nationality's cadre from Beijing and Tianjin were sent as "educated youths" (zhishi qingnian) in Dachang. However, even before this urban young people had been sent there. Prior to its establishment as an autonomous county, Dachang had, in 1952, been designated an "autonomous district" (zizhiqu), and a number of Hui middle-school graduates from Beijing and Tianjin, as well as from Tongxian, Daxing and Shunyi counties, were assigned to help "construct socialism" in the area. Given the fact that Dachang was so close to Beijing (only a one-day bus ride in the early 1970s), Dachang undoubtedly saw local Beijing-connected elites sharing common experiences both as "builders of socialism" and as "educated youth'.

Yang Baojun's histories, with the exception of the selection of documents he edited, are in the genre called shihua ("discursive histories"), a type of popular historical writing favoured by teams working on local cultural history (wenshi) and often consisting of local individuals affiliated to the National People's Political Consultative Conference (zhengxie). "Discursive histories", with their readily digestible chapters, are an intermediate form between pure oral history and the traditional gazetteer, and they focus generally on pre-1949 history, including Party history, economic history and political history (featuring major local personalities). They are quite unlike the contemporary gazetteers produced since the 1980s which are more like statistical yearbooks, and they attempt to capture the raciness of "fictional history writing" (yeshi) while eschewing its heterodox "gossip'. Most topics favoured by academic historians, such as local Party history or economic history, are simply signposted or encapsulated in anecdotes, rather than discussed in any depth. "Discursive histories" can only hint at what might be in local historical archives, which play a role similar to that of Western local public libraries that passively receive materials presented by members of the public.

Fig. 7
Fig. 7 Stele of 1769 in the grounds of the main mosque in Dachang township.

The cultural heritage of Dachang is that of the Muslim Hui, and that written history begins in the Ming dynasty. However, Yang Baojun makes it clear in the works listed above that few tangible monuments from the period prior to the Cultural Revolution have survived. Only the stones of one mosque in Xiadian, as well as the walls and gates of several others, date from the period prior to the Cultural Revolution. (Fig. 11) A revival of communal Islam in Dachang took place at the beginning of the 1980s. The major reconstruction of the central mosque in the county began in 1988 (see Fig. 1, above), and it underwent further refurbishment in 2005, for the county's 50th anniversary. (See Fig. 2, above) The sixteen mosques which Dachang boasts today were all rebuilt or extensively repaired during the past decade and a half, and much of the money for this work has come from the local government.

The only openly published histories of Dachang and of its Muslims to date are these volumes by Yang Baojun, and this first step is essential if this large community is to understand its heritage. Born in 1966 in Dachang, Yang Baojun has served his local community well, editing and writing six works on Dachang's local history and, more specifically, about Islam in Dachang, and co-authoring, with Wang Jianxian, a study of the customs of the Hui nationality of Dachang. A lawyer and legislator by training, Yang was elected, at the Chinese national level, as a People's Representative (renmin daibiao) for the county, but gave up that position, and now works as a local government official. In meetings and day-to-day life, Yang is obliged to steer a clear course between the Communist Party, of which he is a member, and the Islamic tradition, which forms the ethos of the Hui nationality into which he was born. His career epitomises "the united front" (tongyi zhanxian) approach that characterises official religious organisation in China, and he has contributed to the local interpretation of that theory (Yang Baojun, Minzu gongzuo de lilun yu shijian [Theory and practice in ethnic work]; and articles included in Hebeisheng tongyi zhanxian lilun lunwen huibian, [A collection of articles on united front theory from Hebei province]). Yang Baojun identifies with Islam and its Hui ethnic expression, but epitomises a type of secular Islamic historiography and documentation perhaps unique to China—the secular assimilation of a diffuse religious ethnicity. In this sense, Yang does not fail his constituency.

Fig. 8
Fig. 8 View of the southern side of Beiwu Mosque. [BGD]

One of the mentors of local histories of the Hui nationality in China is Lin Song, a professor at Central Nationalities University, who provides the preface for the 1st and 2nd editions of Yang Baojun's Dachang Huizu shihua (A discursive history of the Hui people of Dachang), both of which were published by Central Nationalities University Press. Best known for his verse translation of the Quran, Lin was born in 1930 in Gejiu, Yunnan province. Among Lin's many posts and distinctions are membership of the academic committee of the Islamic Culture Centre of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and adjunct researcher of the Zheng He Research Society. He was also associate-editor of Zhongguo Huizu da cidian (Concise dictionary of China's Hui nationality) and co-authored, with He Gong, Huihui lishi yu Yisilan wenhua (The history of the Hui nationality and Islamic culture, Beijing: Jinri Zhongguo Chubanshe, 1992, 372pp.). Lin Song has also been active in encouraging local Islamic historians working in Yunnan, Ningxia, Gansu and other parts of China, and supervises a number of PhD students.

In his capacity as a local official, Yang Baojun has privileged access to the historical archives (dang'an) held in Dachang county. According to Yang, these archives run to around 10,000 volumes (juan), although he provides few details of their contents. The He clan donated its genealogy to the local archivists. Yang Baojun includes materials from the genealogies of the He clan of Luzhuangcun village, the Hai clan of Dachang village and the Feng clan, also from Dachang village, in his Dachang Huizu guji (Ancient records of the Hui people of Dachang), together with his annotations and notes on these and associated documents, including depositions and prefaces, as well as of a number of mosque inscriptions and tomb epitaphs. (See Fig. 11, above) In this work he acknowledges assistance he received from three local scholars—Hai Yang, Feng Fukuan and Wei Dexin, who pressed for the inclusion of Yang Baojun's own potted biography at the end of the collection. However many major clan genealogies, including Yang's own, are not discussed or included in this work.

Fig. 9
Fig. 9 Plaque erected by the Langfang government in 1991 proclaiming Beiwu Mosque to be a local protected cultural heritage site.

For the He clan, a full genealogy was compiled in the Guangxu period (1875-1908) of the Qing dynasty, although the genealogy project was initiated in the early years of the Qing dynasty by two brothers said to belong to the 9th generation of the clan. An 11th generation member of the clan, He Yishang, lived in Dachang Zhen (township) and revised the clan's genealogy in the 15th year (1825) of the Daoguang reign. He Jingcai, a member of the 14th generation of the He clan, continued the compilation of the genealogy between the 12th and 23rd years (1886-1897) of the Guangxu reign period. He Jingcai was a dedicated physician of Chinese medicine (waike) who, in 1902, completed a medical treatise titled Waike mingyin ji, later published by a major apothecary and clinic in Beijing's Liulichang. He was also a public-minded supporter of local education and charitable activities in the late-Qing and early Republican years.

Fig. 10
Fig. 10 View of the Chinese-style minaret of the Beiwu Mosque. [BGD]

The genealogy names the "earliest ancestor" (bizu) of the clan as a resident in the Tang dynasty of the Jinling (today's Nanjing) area. The adoption by Hui people of the Han Chinese style of clan genealogy marks an advanced stage in the acceptance of the practice of using Chinese surnames by Huihui peoples long resident in China but having Persian, Turkic or even Arabic origins and different naming traditions. The "supreme first ancestor" (taishizu) of the clan, from whom the generations cited in the genealogy are counted, was He Yesida'er, who was the father of the "first ancestor" (shizu) and his two younger brothers, and stepfather of Buhuatiemu'er. These three natural brothers (Ayansha, Azading and Shiwula), were the first members of the He clan to move to north China from the south. In 1404, they travelled north with the armies of Zhu Di, son of the founder of the Ming dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang (Emperor Taizu, r.1368-1398). Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, better known to history as the Yongle Emperor (r.1403-1424), waged a major war to regain control over China after the short-lived "usurpation" of the throne by his nephew, whose reign title was Jianwen (r. 1399-1402). Zhu Di's reign signals the Ming shift to the north from the area around Nanjing, where Zhu Yuanzhang had originally founded the Wu polity, which preceded that of the Ming. Zhu Di, Prince of Yan, was well qualified to reorient the Ming empire; he had lived for nearly twenty years in the palaces in Beijing once occupied by the Mongol emperors and had come to see himself as an embattled warrior-king. In the bitter civil war he led his armies, sometimes numbering a quarter of a million men and including many Mongols who formerly served the Yuan, to the north. He eventually transferred the Ming capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Securing his dynasty necessitated fighting a long war of attrition against the Mongols to the north. With Zhu Di's armies, many Muslims travelled to the north, among them the "first ancestors" of the He clan who settled in Beiluzhuang village in Dachang. The He clan probably also helped introduce Islam into the Dachang area, and their descendants are credited with constructing the first mosque in Beiluzhuang, either in the mid-Ming or earlier, according to the fragments of the He Clan genealogy anthologised by Yang Baojun.

Fig. 11
Fig. 11 Original stone gateway enclosing stele of the Ming dynasty Wanli reign period at the Beiwu Mosque.

According to Yang Baojun (op. cit., p.21), the mosque in Luzhuangcun village was totally destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, prior to which it comprised twenty-three rooms. In 1982, with the local implementation of the new national policies on religious real estate and property, a new mosque was built in the village. The buildings cover an area of nearly 400sq m, and are partitioned into twenty-five rooms, including a prayer hall, shops, and rooms for religious students and teachers.

The genealogy of the He clan of Luzhuangcun also includes many later documents of historical interest. For example, one deposition discusses events of 1900 when much of the region between Beijing and Tianjin was thrown into turmoil by the Boxer Rebellion and the subsequent invasion of the area by the Eight-Power Expeditionary Force, the ostensible goal of which was to relieve the Boxer siege of the foreign legations in the capital. The upheavals of the Boxer years brought the He clan into closer contact with distant relatives, said to also be descendants of the clan's "first ancestors", in Tongzhou and Sanlihe, on the eastern and western outskirts of Beijing, respectively. These clan discoveries of distant relatives are documented in the materials collected by Yang Baojun.

The materials on the Hai clan's genealogy, which Yang Baojun presents, similarly trace the Hai clan back to the early Ming years, specifically to Hai Nanxi, a distinguished officer from the Nanjing region who also fought for the Prince of Yan. A genealogy of the Hai clan is known to have been compiled in the 48th year of the Qianlong emperor (1783), but Yang presents only a preface from this work. An alternate version of the clan's history was recorded, in oral form, in 1963 by Hai Deru, but recorded only in 1997 by Hai Yang, a distinguished local teacher who retired in 1994. Although the Hai clan were relative latecomers to Dachang, this document indicates that the Hai clan believed it originated among the Huihui of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, who were Muslims brought from Central and Western Asia to assist the Yuan with astronomy, medicine and armaments, as well as serve as soldiers. Modern Hai clan members have had little hesitation in tracing their ancestry back to the Yuan dynasty, but they may possibly have denied their Yuan origins during much of the Ming dynasty.

Fig. 12
Fig. 12 Distant view of the Beiwu Mosque.

In the 1950s, a descendant of the clan, Hai Jiuheng, was prominent in the Communist Party and was transferred for a time to Sanhe county, where he eventually became county chief. According to the materials presented by Yang, the Hai clan is well represented in many of the traditional trades and professions of Dachang that go back more than a century.

The Feng clan of Dachang also traces itself back to the early Ming years, but the Feng clan's origins are more complex. The clan's genealogy seems extensive from the limited materials presented in Yang's collection. In 1352, the 12th year of the Zhizheng period of the Yuan dynasty, Feng Sheng (Feng Guosheng), a native of Dingyuan in present day Anhui province, swore allegiance to Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming, and became one of the prominent generals during the early Ming years, leading the fight against the Mongols in north-eastern China and being honoured by the emperor with the title of Duke Feng of the Song Kingdom. His biography is included in Ming shi, the official history of the Ming dynasty, and he is also eulogised among the valiant generals included in a far less conventional work, Li Zhi's Xu Cangshu (Sequel to Books to be Hidden Away). However, it was a 16th generation descendant of Feng Sheng, Feng Qirui, who brought the Feng clan into Dachang from Lingxian county in Shandong. The prominent Muslim Hui writer, Feng Kuanrong, based today in Shaanxi, is another descendant of Feng Qirui, and Yang Baojun includes Feng Kuanrong's biography in his collection, as well as Feng Kuanrong's very personal biography of his illustrious ancestor General Feng Sheng, although the connections to Dachang of both Fengs are dubious.

Neither the He, Hai or Feng clan is the oldest resident Hui clan in Dachang. Yang writes, in his "Discursive history", that this distinction goes to the Sun clan, and that they were followed by the Wang clan. If the genealogy of the He clan is correct, then there were no Hui Muslims in the Dachang area in the Yuan dynasty. So most of the older Hui families in Dachang seem to have come into the area as soldiers, wealthy households, commoners or liumin ("displaced persons") who settled in this garrison area in the early Ming to raise warhorses, cattle and sheep. The Hai clan came into the area much later, originating in the Nanjing area and coming to Dachang after first settling in Cangzhou, Hebei province.

Fig. 13
Fig. 13 View from southeast of the minaret of Beiwu Mosque. [Photograph John Brennan]

Yang Baojun also includes the texts documenting the history of a number of major mosques in Dachang in his collection. Beiwu Mosque is located in the west of Beiwu village in Xiadian township on the northern edge of Dachang county. (Figs. 12 and 13) A mosque was originally constructed on the site in the Wanli reign period of the Ming dynasty (1573-1619), or slightly earlier, when Beiwu was called Dongwu. The mosque comprises separate northern and southern sections; the northern section comprises ten rooms devoted to women's bathing facilities and women's prayer rooms. The mosque contains a stone stele dated to the 45th year of the Wanli period (1617), and the stele records the donation to the mosque by Li Yangquan, a Muslim eunuch serving the imperial court as a prominent censor. Li originally had the stele erected at his grave, but it seems from Yang's notes that the stele was moved into the mosque for safekeeping after disturbances in the village in 1892. This text is also included in the comprehensive collection Zhongguo Huizu jinshi lu (Epigraphic records of China's Hui nationality), compiled by Yu Zhengui and Lei Xiaojing and published in 1992 (see References below), but the latter work does not include the poem in the classical style and introductory line of text that serves as a colophon to the stele which Yang includes in his collection.

Yang's books serve as an excellent introduction to the history of ethnic Hui Dachang and are essential first reading on the subject. They are written in light of archival knowledge and are based on information provided in a number of other more specialist secondary and primary collections, the titles of which appear in the list of textual references below. The forces of history which brought Hui people to this part of northern China must be given due consideration in any comprehensive history of the Hui people and of Islamic practitioners in China, but Dachang and its clans are also unique and historians must be beware of regarding Dachang as a neat microcosm of a larger picture. [BGD]


Dachang Huizu Zizhixian wenhua yishu zhi (A gazetteer of the culture and arts of Dachang Hui Autonomous County), trial edition, no details provided by Yang Baojun.

Langfang diqu minzu zhi (Register of ethnic groups in the Langfang area), Beijing: Zhongguo Minzu Sheying Yishu Chubanshe, 1998.

Sanhe xian xin zhi (New gazetteer of Sanhe county), Beiping: Zhonghua Yinshuju, 1935.

Yu Zhengui and Lei Xiaojing ed., Zhongguo Huizu jinshi lu (Epigraphic records of China's Hui nationality), Yinchuan: Ningxia Renmin Chubanshe, 2001.

Zhengxie Dachang Huizu Zizhixian Weiyuanhui Wenshi Ziliao Weiyuanhui ed., Dachang Huizu Zizhixian wenshi ziliao (Materials on the culture and history of Dachang Hui People's Autonomous County), vol. 1, Dachang, internal publication, September 1989.

Zhongguo Yisilanjiao shi cankao ziliao xuanbian, 1911-1949 (A selection of reference materials on the history of Islam in China, 1911-1949), Yinchuan: Ningxia Renmin Chubanshe, 1985.