Down from the Mountains8 min read

China’s Muslim Dongxiang minority emerge from isolation – Joshua Bird

“Be sure to try the potatoes, they are world famous,” encouraged Mr. Ma, the owner of the newest restaurant in Dongxiang City, home of the Dongxiang ethnic minority in the Linxia Autonomous Prefecture of Gansu Province. As he hovered over us, his first customers, we dared not disappoint him.

We had endured two hour’s drive up and down the dizzying roads that snaked through the high mountains encircling Dongxiang City in western China, which – complemented by the Yellow, Lintao and Daxia Rivers – had provided the city and its people with a comforting isolation over the centuries. Yet while the mountains have allowed the Dongxiang minority to preserve their unique cultural and religious identity, it has also left them relatively ill equipped to take advantage of China’s economic growth.

However, things are changing. The Dongxiang are now looking to try their luck in the mainstream economy, and local specialties such as the Dongxiang potato are key to this endeavor. Thankfully, in our case the food was delicious, and we were able to provide Mr. Ma with his first satisfied customers.

While such interactions are commonplace across China, they represent a major shift in orientation for the Dongxiang – an enigmatic people with an equally elusive history. So unknown were they to their Han Chinese neighbors that upon first contact they were given a name that reflected little more than their geographical location – Dongxiang, literally “East Village,” although they themselves mostly use the self-descriptive term Sarta.

The isolation of the Dongxiang is one of their defining characteristics. As noted by Jonathan Lipman in his study of the Muslims of northwest China Familiar Strangers, the Dongxiang:

had a reputation as a tightly knit, impenetrable, and intransigent ethnic community. Local non-Muslims feared them … as violent and unpredictable, saying that they stuck together and enjoyed a good feud.

As late as the 1940s most Dongxiang spoke no Chinese, with some claims that many had little to no appreciation even of their status as members of the Chinese state. While such claims are likely hyperbole, they are an accurate reflection of the reticence of many Dongxiang to engage with mainstream Chinese society. The isolation of the Dongxiang continues to this day, in both a physical and cultural sense.

The Dongxiang are an enigmatic people with an equally elusive history”

Less than five percent of Dongxiang live in urban areas

The Dongxiang have one of the lowest rate of urbanization among China’s minority nationalities, with only 4.3 percent officially resident in an urban area. The majority live in one location – remote, rural Dongxiang County. It is an unforgiving place with poor quality soil, prone to natural disaster. Just last year, the county was hit by severe flooding which left 12 dead and thousands displaced. Surrounded by mountains and poorly serviced by public transportation and telecommunications infrastructure, even travel within the county is difficult. It is not uncommon for two villages to be located on adjacent mountains, visible to each other but separated by a half-day’s walk.

Although some of the geographical factors contributing to the isolation of the Dongxiang have now eased with the improvement of communications and transport infrastructure, cultural isolation persists. This can partly be attributed to the demographic makeup of Dongxiang County, which is not only home to the overwhelming majority of Dongxiang people, but is also overwhelmingly populated by Dongxiang people – they make up almost 80 percent of the county population, with the remaining number made up of Han and Hui nationalities. The cultural dominance of the Dongxiang only increases outside of the main town, with reports suggesting that of the 25 townships within Dongxiang County, 19 do not have a single Han Chinese resident. As a result, many local Dongxiang have little or no contact with non-Dongxiang people in their daily life.

The presence of a singularly concentrated ethnic group in such a remote part of northwest China has been attributed to various far-flung theories. These posit the Dongxiang as the descendants of Mongolian garrison soldiers brought to the region during the Yuan Dynasty, or as the last remnants of Xinjiang’s ancient Chagatai Khanate. The garrison theory finds its roots in the Dongxiang language, which is related to Mongolian. Dongxiang surnames offer no clue, as they are a mixture of Mongol, Han, Hui and Tibetan origins.

The isolation of the Dongxiang may also partially be attributed to their strongly religious character. Even when compared to other Muslim minority nationalities, the Dongxiang have quite strict social taboos against drinking alcohol and eating pork. This commitment to religious orthodoxy is also visible in their appearance, with Dongxiang men – young and old – almost uniformly dressed in white shirts, black vests and an Islamic skullcap. Similarly, Dongxiang women – when they are seen in public – can be recognized by their long colored veils: green for young women, cyan for middle-aged women, and white for older women.

The isolation of the Dongxiang may also partially be attributed to their strongly religious character”

Many Dongxiang characterize their practice of Islam as China’s purest, coming directly from the Arab missionaries. This is set against the form of Islam practiced by the Hui, which they perceive as tainted by secularism and Chinese culture. In truth, the Dongxiang have amassed some level of religious authority within China, producing numerous regionally influential imams and China’s sole Wahhabi movement. This reputation for religiosity also made them a target of political repression during the Cultural Revolution, leading to a further entrenchment of the Dongxiang’s pre-existing distrust of outsiders.

For female Dongxiang, the isolation from mainstream Chinese society is only magnified. The role of Dongxiang women in public life is quite restricted, with independent employment or education quite rare. Early marriage remains the norm, and most Dongxiang women have multiple children at a young age. Given the reduced opportunities for women’s participation in education and work outside the home, Dongxiang women have very low levels of Chinese language fluency and of literacy in any language. Recent data suggests that 76 percent of Dongxiang adult women remain illiterate – the highest rate for any of China’s minority nationalities.

Famous Dongxiang potatoes

However, it is uncertain how long the Dongxiang will be able to maintain their cultivated isolation among the mountains of Gansu. The Chinese government is pushing minority nationalities to speak standard Chinese, absorb Chinese “cultural values,” and actively contribute to the mainstream economy. Under the rule of President Xi Jinping, a policy of encouraging “contact, exchange and mingling” between the different Chinese nationalities has been promoted, including through interethnic marriage. President Xi’s “China Dream” concept promotes the “four identifications,” which stress the affinity of minorities with the motherland and expansion of standard Chinese language instruction and patriotic education in frontier regions. Recent developments in Xinjiang make it clear that this cultural and political integration is a non-negotiable requirement of all Chinese citizens.

The Chinese government is pushing minority nationalities to speak standard Chinese”

By the measure of interethnic mingling, the Dongxiang have proven a difficult nut to crack – having traditionally shown little interest in cultural or social engagement with mainstream Chinese society. Although the Dongxiang have posed little political or military threat to the Chinese state in recent decades, they have been targeted by authorities for the refusal of some Dongxiang to comply with national laws relating to marriage, birth control and compulsory education. Low educational levels and the absence of other marketable skills provide few options for Dongxiang looking to successfully engage with the mainstream economy. While some Dongxiang who live outside the insular Dongxiang County have found entrepreneurial success, the world for most Dongxiang centers around the farm. Agricultural production remains the sole form of income production for the majority of Dongxiang, who focus on growing potatoes and wheat and on raising cattle. Dongxiang County has also been accused of being a base for narcotics cultivation and smuggling1.

But there are signs of a thaw. As I discovered in the research for my book, Economic Development in China’s Northwest, the Dongxiang are increasingly looking for ways to leverage their ethnic identity in broader economic opportunities. For example, a recently discovered thousand-year-old Koran in Dongxiang County is the centerpiece of a new local Islamic museum, with an eye to domestic and foreign tourist dollars. Similarly, the Dongxiang’s main crop – the humble potato – has developed a degree of external brand recognition, with “Dongxiang potatoes” finding favor across China’s northwest. Whether such initiatives represent the beginning of an isolated community embracing mainstream society or a mere outlier remains to be seen. However, one can be sure that China’s government will be paying close attention to the Dongxiang as they take their first nascent steps down from the mountains. ∎

All images courtesy the author.
  1. Suutarinen, Mikko. “The Dongxiang People of Gansu – Ethnic, Religious and Local Identities.” Nordic Association for China Studies 7th Biennial Nordic Conference on Chinese Studies, Helsinki, Finland. Vol. 7. No. 9., 2005.