Go West, Young Muslim: Frontier Nation-Building and the Infrastructures of Chinese Muslim Identity Construction, 1927–49

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:50 PM
Columbia 11 (Washington Hilton)
John Tseh-han Chen, Columbia University
The assumption has long been that Chinese Muslim identity, in more or less all periods and locales, was determined first and foremost discursively: by the tension between reified legal, intellectual, or cosmological monoliths of “Islam” and “China.” This discursive “reconciliation” approach is problematic, however, because it is largely rooted in the writings of a generation of leading Chinese Muslims from China’s Republican era (1911-49) who had a vested interest in portraying Islam’s compatibility with China. Studying these formative figures themselves reveals that modern Chinese Muslim identity was constituted not only discursively but also infrastructurally. Far from being disinterested scholars or isolated local leaders, these Muslim elites from Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing were deeply invested in the expansion of the Chinese state into the predominantly Muslim western frontier regions at a time of national territorial crisis. They served in provincial governments and in a special frontier governance organ known as the Mongolian-Tibetan Affairs Commission; participated in state-led efforts to develop frontier railroads and mining; established “Muslim Cultural Progress Organizations” modeled on Guomindang party structure; and relocated schools and journals to the frontier to teach locals patriotism, Sun Yat-sen’s “Three Principles of the People, and the “national language” (Chinese), while simultaneously propagandizing to them in Arabic and “Turki” (Uyghur). Crucially, they also depicted the frontier’s centuries-old Sufi brotherhoods as illiterate, irrational, and inauthentic Muslims in need of reform—one overlooked consequence of Chinese Muslims’ importation of Islamic modernist thought from the Middle East. Meanwhile, they exhorted Chinese Muslim youths back east to join their efforts, and set up institutions to train them for it.

Using Chinese and Arabic publications and Guomindang archival documents, this paper challenges the “reconciliation” paradigm and argues instead that processes of frontier nation-building were the central force behind the self-identity of Chinese Muslim elites in the Republican era.