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  • “To Construct an Unknown China”:Ethnoreligious Historiography in Zhang Chengzhi’s Islamic Fiction
  • Howard Y. F. Choy (bio)

China is a polyethnic country with the Han as the dominant majority. Among the fifty-five officially grouped "minority nationalities" (shaoshu minzu), the Manchu, the Mongolians, the Hui, and the Tibetans are the largest. Regarding the discourse of minzu, usually translated as "nationality" or "ethnic group," Jonathan N. Lipman describes contemporary Chinese history as the "creation of a hegemonic narrative, a unified story that could demonstrate the bedrock truth of minzu continuity and consanguinity in the past, for the present."1 This unified story serves to construct a unified modern Chinese nation-state. Lipman goes on to suggest that "in this account, each minzu, at its own pace and according to its own environmental and historical conditions, has followed the most advanced minzu, the majority Han people, toward higher steps on the ladder of history. . . . For Han—that is, Chinese—history, unlike other minzu histories, constitutes the story of Civilization [End Page 687] or Culture itself and thus represents the Chinese version of History, the linear and rigidly structured narrative of progress."2 Here Lipman is picking up on arguments made by other scholars, for example, Stevan Harrell, who has pointed out the three images of peripheral peoples—women (sexual metaphor), children (educational metaphor), and ancient (historical metaphor)—and the three civilizing projects in the civilizers' or colonizers' definition of historical progress: the Confucian, the Christian, and the Communist.3 Except in the missionaries' project, whose civilizing center is located in the West, it is assumed that Han ways represent a masculine, mature, and modern model for the minorities to follow.

This essay explores issues of ethnoreligious representation of the Hui in China through a novella titled "Investigation of Assassinations in the Western Province" ("Xisheng ansha kao," 西省暗殺考; 1989) and a novel, History of the Soul (Xinling shi, 心靈史; 1991), both composed by controversial author Zhang Chengzhi (張承志).4 A Muslim Chinese writer contentious in mainland China for his humanist idealism and religious enthusiasm, Zhang and his work have become the focus of a small yet emerging scholarship in the West. His early experience as an "educated youth" in Inner Mongolia between 1968 and 1972 led him to be a writer of pastoral fiction, including the novella "The Black Steed" ("Hei junma," 黑駿馬), in the late 1970s and early 1980s before he spent a number of years in northwest China and began to turn to his Hui fellows and their religious life in another novella, "Yellow Mud Hut" ("Huangni xiao wu," 黃泥小屋). An alienated metropolitan elite from Beijing, Zhang resided in the stark countryside among a Muslim group and thereby rediscovered his own identity. Now being a follower of an Islamic sect, he devotes himself to a history in which his people were evidently severely oppressed. A subjectivity was shaped when the Hui history coincided with the author's intellectual trajectory from a Maoist revolutionist to a devout Muslim resisting Deng Xiaoping's (1904–97) capitalism. By creating intertextual dialogues of history, literature, and religion, Zhang disputes the accuracy of official records and the ideology of "progress" in his uniquely gritty and tragic style.

I will provide a close reading of the selected literary texts and a cross reading of related archival sources, situating Zhang's fiction within the broader contexts of Chinese literary circles and Western critical theory regarding [End Page 688] problems of history, humanism, identity, and representation. Against the backdrop of the worldwide stereotype of Muslims as a terrifying other, this essay is also a response to the reactions to Zhang Chengzhi, especially Jian Xu's previous publication in positions.5 A comparatist specializing in modern Chinese fiction and culture, Xu approaches Zhang's Islamic fiction from the position of a godless Han reader. Xu's criticism appeared in the discursive context of global antiterrorism that defines Islam as dangerous radicalism and in the commodity culture of post-Mao China that abandons the sublimity of humanism as "exhibitionist idealism." While I share Xu's concerns about the ethnicity of the Hui historiography and the image of the minzu minorities in shaping the Chinese nation, my agenda here is to observe the issues of identity...


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