Translating Integration

Conceptual Boundaries of the Sinicisation of Islam, Lived Experiences of Chinese Muslims, and the Power of the Party-State
Wednesday
11:00 am – 12:45 pm
Room 4

  • Organised by Yee Lak Elliot Lee, Ruslan Yusupov, and Jia He
  • Wlodzimierz Cieciura, Chair
  • Yee Lak Elliot Lee, “Genealogy of ‘Islamic(ate) Culture’ in the Pearl River Delta: Secular Empowerment or Religious Marginalisation?”
  • Ruslan Yusupov, “The Ethical Distance: Islamic Taboos, Everyday Sociality, and the Question of Integration in a Chinese Hui Muslim Town”
  • Wlodzimierz Cieciura, “’Chinese Mosques Must Look Chinese’: Sinicisation of Islam and the Changing Standards of Religious Islamic Architecture from Reform and Opening Up Era to Xi’s ‘New Era’”
  • André Lalibreté, Discussant

Integration of Muslim populations has been a central problem, not without tension, contradiction, or rejection, in the nation-building process of China. With the policy directive for mutual adaptation between religion and socialism, discourses on Sinicisation of Islam has dominated the public sphere of China since the current leadership. The party-state requires religions to exploit doctrines that is beneficial to social stability and the country’s developmental path while retaining core beliefs, rituals, and institutions. However, as discursive traditions, religions, and in our case, Islam would have to reinterpret and create new discourse or “language” with suitable appropriation of and referencing to concepts within and beyond the existing discursive traditions. It is in this sense that we talk about translation. Nevertheless, considering plausible untranslatability, misrepresentation, and contestation, there are conceptual boundaries and limitations leading to possible paradoxical outcomes due to novel discourses directing the integration of Muslims in China. This is not unprecedented in the modern history of China and has been having profound implications in the lived experiences of Muslims. At the same time, Chinese Muslims are not merely passive objects in this process of translation. Rather, they (re)produce and live in ways that continuously redefine boundaries and forms of Islam in Chinese societies. Intrigued by the contemporary development while remaining informed by history, this panel brings together anthropologists and historians on Chinese Islam to engage with this very problem of Chinese Muslims’ integration via the translation of their very existence into party-state authorised and enforced discourses.

Yee Lak Elliot Lee, “Genealogy of ‘Islamic(ate) Culture’ in the Pearl River Delta: Secular Empowerment or Religious Marginalisation?”

Yisilan/Huijiao wenhua, i.e., the suffixing of “culture” to “Islam,” is a prominent usage in China by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. One would find it being employed for a wide range of material manifestations and practices, from historical mosques, the Five Pillars of Islam, to names of Islamic associations. It is on this discursive conception of culture that political directives on religious Sinicisation of the party-state has been built upon in order for translation and integration between Chinese culture and Islam to be conceivable. Yet, the aim of this paper is to problematise the power neutral assumption that underlies cultural translations and abstractions of forms of life into “cultures.” Focusing on the Guangzhou–Hong Kong Islamicate networks, this paper attempts to reconstruct a genealogy of the incorporation of “culture” into Chinese Muslims’ repertoire since the early 20th century. I demonstrate that there was an earlier sense of “culture” related to literacy, alongside a civilisational sense, followed by the emergence of a civil/socio-spatial sense. This paper argues that the shift corresponded to the changing emphasis from the creation of modern Chinese nationals to a normalisation of the marginal existence of Islam. It was by employing this secular discourse of “culture” that Muslims and the state justified the existence of Islam in China; whereas it simultaneously reinforced the marginal position of Islam in different social realms and lived experience of Muslims. This paradox provides a vantage point for reconsidering the secularity of “culture,” simultaneously questioning the limits of secular translation in China and beyond.

Ruslan Yusupov, “The Ethical Distance: Islamic Taboos, Everyday Sociality, and the Question of Integration in a Chinese Hui Muslim Town”

In 2014, when Chinese social media publics saw pictures of Hui ethnic minority Muslims in Shadian town of China’s Yunnan province successfully banning the sale and consumption of alcohol, they condemned the practice as illegal and demanded immediate intervention of the state. The assumption that underlined this online hysteria was that religious taboos are incompatible with, and thus go against the commonsense reality in which the existence of alcohol is undeniable. Through an analysis of indigenous practices informed by the Islamic conception of “haram,” this paper reveals a modality of prohibition, one in which the effort is directed to construct certain ethical distance with the forbidden substance rather than banning it altogether. Insofar as the presence of alcohol is required for that distance to be actualised, haram actually serves the very means by which such virtues as tolerance and patience are cultivated, thereby securing the form of everyday sociality that flourishes across religious and ethnic differences. I then contrast such sociality to the understanding of haram with which the Chinese local government initiated the ban on alcohol, only to reveal that the government bid to recognise indigenous ways of life in the name of ethnic diversity actually creates the very boundaries that the state aimed at eliminating by that recognition. The focus on the disparity in understandings of haram, I suggest, not only sheds new light on the conventional anthropological definitions of taboo but is also critical for how we think about the place of Islam in China.

Wlodzimierz Cieciura, “‘Chinese Mosques Must Look Chinese’: Sinicisation of Islam and the Changing Standards of Religious Islamic Architecture from Reform and Opening Up Era to Xi’s ‘New Era’”

Mosque architecture in China proper has been an area of contention between traditionalists, preferring the more sinicized architectural aesthetics, and modernists who looked to the Middle East and Muslim-majority countries for inspiration. In the last forty years, the latter has been in the ascendancy with most new mosques built in China resembling more the idealised “dome and minaret” type of structure rather than the traditional architecture, which had developed in the centuries of Islam’s presence in the Chinese cultural landscape. Countless old mosques throughout China have been demolished and replaced with modern ‘Middle Eastern’ buildings, often with government’s support and encouragement in the hope of turning this architecture into a visible sign of China’s tolerance towards Islam and of the country’s willingness to promote trade and political relations with Muslim majority countries. However, this has changed since Xi Jinping’s arrival at the helm of the Communist Party, and his attempts at controlling and transforming most forms of religious practice and expression. In the Islamic sphere, one of the first areas to experience this new push for “sinicisation” of religion has been the mosque architecture. Domes and minarets are being dismantled, and more ‘Chinese’ designs are promoted in the official discourse of the Islamic Association. This paper will look into this discourse and try to find an answer as to how this “sinicization” of Islam is being reconciled with Xi’s ambitions of a “New Silk Road” and Chinese Muslims’ aspirations to “religious authenticity.”

Event Timeslots (1)

Room 4
-
Conceptual Boundaries of the Sinicisation of Islam, Lived Experiences of Chinese Muslims, and the Power of the Party-State