Dongxiang Muslim group in China tries bilingual education

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Mar 18 16:39:18 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, March 19, 2006

Faith and Poverty Mark Muslim Enclave in China

DONGXIANG, China No, the old man answered, standing in his bare home deep
in a mountain ravine, he had never seen an airplane. The man, Tie
Yongxiang, has never watched television, either. He listened to the pop
quiz and seemed pleased when he could answer the last question in the
affirmative. China? Had he ever heard of it? "I know what China is," said
Mr. Tie, 68. "It is a country run by people who are supposed to be helping
us." "Us," as Mr. Tie puts it, are the Dongxiang people, an ethnic group
that has lived for eight centuries in the dry, forbidding mountains that
make this county in Gansu Province one of the most isolated places in

The most recent census found 513,000 Dongxiang people in China, and the
overwhelming majority live in and around Dongxiang County. Of the 25
townships in the county, 19 do not have a single Chinese person. Most
people do not speak Chinese, and some, like Mr. Tie, have only a vague
notion of China, despite living in the middle of it. The geographic
isolation has helped preserve an Islamic culture, as well as an ancient
language, but it has also separated the Dongxiang people from the
prosperity lifting other parts of China. The Dongxiang, one of China's 56
officially recognized ethnic minorities, are now among China's poorest and
most illiterate people.

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 lie
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 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
fundamental 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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