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Deep in China, a Poor and Pious Muslim Enclave 【NY Times】

On a recent Friday, two days after a heavy snowstorm had coated the mountains and left a sheet of ice on the narrow village roads, old men in white caps trudged through the snow to different mosques. Though some are too poor to send their children to school, they have pooled money to build village mosques as well as graceful towers with elegant curved roofs that serve as Muslim burial vaults. "The Dongxiang people have always believed in Islam," said Ma Ali, 36, the imam at an old mosque in the village of Hanzilin. Indeed, even within a larger region known as the center of Islam in China, the people of Dongxiang have a reputation for being particularly steadfast in their faith. "People were devout in the past," said Ma Kui, 75, as he leaned on a wooden cane and waited for afternoon prayers with other farmers dressed in lambskin coats. "They are still devout now." But as everywhere in China, modernity is seeping up the winding roads to the county's larger settlements and beckoning many younger people. In the county seat, Suonanba, cellphones, blue jeans and Internet cafes arrived several years ago. So did Chinese building contractors, cigarettes, alcohol and food not prepared to Islamic code. "The Islamic atmosphere has become watered down over time, and the older people are aware of that," said Ma Chunling, who is 22. "So they want to protect their culture, and particularly Islam." Growing up, Ms. Ma (the family name is quite common here) felt the otherness of being from Dongxiang. Her mother told stories of hiding in caves during her own childhood, fearful that "the Chinese" were coming. "All of the people in the village were waiting for the Chinese to come and slaughter them," Ms. Ma said. "But the Chinese never came." Ms. Ma, now a primary school teacher, spent three years at a vocational school in the eastern port city of Tianjin and wanted to stay and become a hairdresser. But she said her parents were conservative Muslims who believed it was inappropriate for an unmarried woman to travel far from home. "A lot of young people really want to go out and see the rest of China," she said. "But often their families don't let them. It's still very, very isolated." For years, many Chinese scholars assumed that the Dongxiang descended from the Mongol soldiers in Genghis Khan's army who eventually settled in Gansu during the 13th century when the Mongols ruled China under the Yuan Dynasty. But their exact origins were never fully known, an uncertainty that fed an inferiority complex. "A man once asked me, 'Where do the Dongxiang come from?' " said Ma Zhiyong, a historian who grew up in the county but moved to the provincial capital, Lanzhou, as a teenager. "I was 18 or 19, and couldn't answer the question. I was ashamed." Mr. Ma decided to look for an answer. Over several years, he scoured research libraries in Gansu, talked to other scholars and studied old maps. He found that some Dongxiang villages shared names with places in Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan. He also found shared customs. He said peasants in Uzbekistan and Dongxiang both learn to cut a slaughtered chicken into 13 pieces. He found that Dongxiang people described themselves as sarta, a term that once referred to Muslim traders in Central Asia. There was even a physical similarity, as many Dongxiang look more like people from Central Asia, as opposed to Han Chinese. Mr. Ma decided that the story about Genghis Khan's army was only half right. Some of the Dongxiang ancestors were Mongol soldiers. But he concluded that many others were a diverse group of Middle Eastern and Central Asian craftsmen conscripted into the Mongol army during Khan's famed western campaign. They brought several languages and, in many cases, a strong belief in Islam. Mr. Ma said that generations of intermarriage, including marriages with local Han Chinese and Tibetans, resulted in a new ethnic group and language. The language, if a source of pride, is also blamed for Dongxiang's educational shortcomings. The language is oral, so children never learn to read or write in their native tongue. In grammar school, the curriculum is in Chinese and many students drop out. Government statistics show that the average person in Dongxiang has only 1.1 years of schooling. Because of the cost, many families never even send children to school, particularly daughters. "When I was in primary school, I didn't understand what I was learning," said Chen Yuanlong, a local official and scholar. "Often, I wanted to talk to the teacher, but I couldn't communicate my ideas in Chinese. It was very difficult." The challenge of trying to teach Chinese to Dongxiang children has attracted international aid groups to Dongxiang. The British government is financing a large training program for teachers. Another pilot program, paid for by the Ford Foundation, has created a bilingual curriculum using a Dongxiang-Chinese dictionary developed by Mr. Chen and other scholars. That program has already produced an improvement in test scores, but its supporters are searching for more financial backing. Education is a basic problem but many people still struggle just to survive. Villages in the deepest ravines depend on potatoes and face starvation during drought years. Some men who live closer to roads and commerce have become mules for drug runners. Others have left for manual labor in bigger cities, demolishing buildings or working as butchers or dishwashers. Mr. Tie, the man who took the pop quiz, is too old for such work. He lives halfway down a ravine with his wife and their 16-year-old mentally retarded son. "We beg," Mr. Tie said. "We have land but when our crops aren't enough, we go to nearby villages to beg." Farther up the ravine, closer to the road that leads to the county seat, Ma Hezhe, 25, watched over her 3-month-old son. Her family is like a snapshot of Dongxiang: two of her husband's brothers had left the county to work as migrant laborers; her mother-in-law, huddled in the corner of the communal bed, had not left Dongxiang in her entire life. The tiny baby, the newest generation, had been given an Islamic name, Ibrahim. Ms. Ma had not yet given him a Chinese name. "He doesn't need one until he starts school," she said. It was a local custom, she added, to wait until a child came "into contact" with Chinese society. There would be plenty of time.
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