Everyday Treasures of the Ocean Trade: Muslim Pharmacies in China to 1949

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:40 AM
Williford B (Hilton Chicago)
John Chen, Columbia University
Muslim pharmacies in China date back to Muslims’ earliest arrivals during the mid-Tang Dynasty (618-907). Over the following centuries, an intensive exchange of medical knowledge and materials occurred between the Islamic lands and China by both land and sea, intertwining with Muslims’ long-term acculturation to a Chinese environment. This history is largely overlooked in English-language scholarship, while Chinese scholarship collapses it into a narrative of inexorable ethnicization and Sinicization resulting in what is now known as Huizu yiyao (“medicine and pharmacy of the Chinese Muslim ethnic minority”). Even less obvious is the extent to which this discursive Sinicization of Islamic medicine originated in the Republican era (1911-49) with elite Chinese Muslims themselves, including both ulama and Muslim pharmacists supporting them. Chinese nationalism represented a unique challenge for Chinese Muslims, prompting them to affirm their belonging in and “contribution” to China, and at the same time to assert cultural (but not political) difference. This paper therefore examines Republican-era Chinese Muslim pharmacies both as sites of distinctive medical knowledge and practice and as constituents in the production of new arguments about Chinese Muslim identity. It focuses on Xu Xiaochu, the Chinese Muslim manager of Shanghai’s famous “Great Eastern Dispensary Ltd.” (Zhongfa yaodian). Although little if anything gave away the “Muslimness” of Shanghai’s several dozen Muslim or Muslim-run pharmacies, Xu nevertheless used his income to fund the earliest efforts of modernist Chinese Muslim ulama to translate the Quran into Chinese. Offering a new material perspective on Islam in modern China, this paper raises the questions of such pharmacy’s connections to other Muslim medical and pharmacological institutions in and outside China, of what practices (if any) set them apart from Han Chinese or Western-style pharmacies, and of their role in the emergence of Islamic modernism and political integrationism among Chinese Muslim elites.