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  • Epilogue to “Islam in China/China in Islam”
  • Jonathan Lipman (bio)

In my opening comments during the conference “The Everyday Life of Islam: Focus on Islam in China,” held at Cornell University on April 27 and 28, 2012, I proposed a number of themes, tensions, and conflicts on which we might focus our discussion of the papers. This epilogue will summarize some of the conversations that ensued and note areas of particular interest that emerged from revisions to the five essays presented in this special issue of Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review.

Some conference participants attempted to make generalizations at national and transnational levels, while others stuck tenaciously to local details. Our discussions sometimes strayed from “everyday life,” but rarely from diverse, sometimes divisive, solutions to the everyday problem of “being Muslim and being Chinese” and its macrocosmic projection, “Islam in China/China in Islam,” or, in Rian Thum’s contribution, Islam not in China. The essays here, influenced by conversations and debates during the conference, suggest future agendas for study of Islam in China and research on Muslim minorities and comparative religion and politics.

categories and paradigms

Intellectual contexts deeply influence academic arguments, which depend upon, and arise directly from, the categories scholars use to order information and the questions they ask of their materials. Readers should particularly [End Page 601] note the conjunctions and contrasts between the paper by a scholar from China (Wang) and those by U.S.-based scholars (Caffrey, Erie, Thum, and Turnbull). Pairs of “translated” terms such as minzu/ethnic group and zongjiao/religion do not embody simple one-on-one mappings. Rather, they exemplify differences between complex discourses influenced by languages, national histories, state interventions, academic cultures, and more.

In this collection, the essayists and many of their informants pursue understandings of Islamic or Hui or Uyghur authenticity, the right way to believe or understand or pray or eat as one of “us”—as a Muslim in China—but they clearly disagree about what that right way might be, or even in what discursive realm the right way might be found. Erie’s abstraction of local arguments about shari’a makes a valuable analysis of this point—who has the authority to determine what “Islamic law” (or Islam itself) might be in a China dominated by the Communist Party? One could ask the same question about the Qing government, or that of the Republic of China. Though those earlier regimes intruded into everyday life less urgently,1 Muslims sometimes called on them to adjudicate Islamic rectitude, orthodoxy, or authenticity.2

Most obviously, some contributors focus on Islam as doctrine (orthodoxy), others on Islamic practice (orthopraxy), and still others on the Islamic behavior of people defined as Muslims (that is, how to act like a Hui, Uyghur, etc.). In the People’s Republic of China (PRC) these distinctions engage the separation between zongjiao and minzu, a conceptual differentiation so crucial to the state that two separate government bureaucracies have been created to deal with its two sides. Reifying a discursive practice over a century old, the PRC has organized the society it governs into discrete, unquestionable groupings called minzu, formerly anglicized as “minority nationalities” but now officially translated as “ethnic groups.”3

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Minzu Commission of the PRC government identified precisely fifty-six “minority minzu” within its borders, theoretically based on criteria developed by Stalin in the 1920s and on the “avowedly scientific scale of material stages of social process (derived from Morgan and Engels, refined by Lenin and Stalin)” (Harrell 1995, 9). No one in the PRC can question the facticity of these minzu entities, despite the political, subjective, local, sometimes cursory process of their identification or, more accurately, “differentiation” (Ch. shibie)—a process that included both [End Page 602] observation and creation. No one, inside or outside the PRC, can doubt the draconian power of the institutions that have perpetuated and strengthened the state-recognized minzu since then while denying the existence of any others.4

While religious affiliation and practice remain more or less voluntary in the PRC, membership in a minzu is held to be genetic, biological, and therefore (in theory) necessary...


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