The Martyr’s Memorial in Shadian, China, is a gray pillar topped with a crescent moon, set on a stone block engraved with names. It commemorates the so-called Shadian incident, a massacre that took place in July of 1975, when the People’s Liberation Army came to this small southwestern town to quell what the central authorities were calling an Islamist revolt. Then, as now, Shadian was inhabited almost entirely by Hui, members of one of the country’s two main Muslim minority groups. In the years leading up to the incident, the Red Guards had attacked the Hui, destroying their mosques and forcing them to wear pigs’ heads around their necks. When the P.L.A. soldiers arrived, they razed more than four thousand houses and killed some sixteen hundred villagers in one week. The Chinese government later apologized for the raid, blaming it on the Gang of Four—the ousted architects of the Cultural Revolution—and helping fund Shadian’s reconstruction. But locals do not pay homage to the state at the memorial. The pillar is emblazoned with the Fatiha, the first chapter of the Koran, in green Arabic calligraphy, and, above it, in Chinese characters, the word she-xi-de. “That’s the Arabic word shahid, instead of lieshi, the Chinese word for ‘martyr,’ “ a man named Huang told me. (As with the other Chinese Muslims I spoke with, I will protect his identity by referring to him only by his surname.) “You know why? Lieshi would include the P.L.A. soldiers, wouldn’t it?”
Huang and I were standing on a hill overlooking Shadian, whose twelve thousand residents are about ninety-per-cent Hui. (Huang, a Muslim convert, is a member of China’s Han ethnic majority.) Most Chinese know little about the town. When I told people in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, that I was going there, they asked whether I was visiting for the famous halal barbecue. Shadian is otherwise best known for its Grand Mosque, a nineteen-million-dollar edifice built almost entirely with private donations, its gilding and green domes patterned after those of the Nabawi mosque in Medina, complete with imported date palms lining the entrance. It had stormed earlier that afternoon, the sound of thunder and rain mixing with a lilting call to prayer, followed by fifteen minutes of Koranic teaching blared over the mosque’s loudspeakers in Mandarin. Now Shadian’s minarets pointed quietly into a clear sky. The smell of grass filled the air as Huang and I walked around the monument, tracing the names carved into the base.
The history of the Hui in Yunnan is one of seasons of prosperity punctuated by violence. The province wasn’t part of China until the thirteenth century, when Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar al-Bukhari, a Central Asian Muslim who served the imperial court, brought it into the fold. According to Ahmed, an imam at one of Kunming’s mosques, many Hui still revere Sayyid Ajjal, because he demonstrated that Islam could coexist with Chinese philosophy. “Chinese tradition teaches the dao of man, and Islam teaches the dao of heaven—the two are complementary,” Ahmed said. Sayyid Ajjal built Confucian academies alongside mosques and Buddhist temples, infusing foreign religion and culture with domestic ideals of harmony and hierarchy. “This is why Hui can mix with Han, but Uighurs can’t,” Ahmed continued, referring to China’s other significant Muslim minority. “We have Islam with Chinese characteristics.” Nevertheless, relations between the Hui and the Han have not always been peaceful. In the nineteenth century, during the Qing dynasty, tensions between the two groups erupted over how Yunnan’s mineral resources were being apportioned. Qing officials ordered a xi Hui—a washing away of the Hui—slaughtering at least four thousand people in the course of three days in 1856. That massacre sparked a sixteen-year rebellion, which ended with another massacre, this time of at least ten thousand Hui.
After the Shadian incident, as China’s economy opened up, the Hui flourished again. They operated private copper, lead, and zinc mines, some of which outcompeted state-owned enterprises. Wealth brought them relative religious freedom, and with a steady flow of zakat, the Muslim equivalent of a tithe, Shadian’s citizens built mosques and madrassas, giving scholarships to religious students and sending hundreds of Hui on the hajj each year. Seeing potential for Shadian to attract religious tourists from Southeast Asia, provincial authorities began marketing the town as the “little Mecca of the East.” They allowed street signs in Arabic and even a green dome on the local administration building’s roof.
Things changed in 2014. On March 1st of that year, a group of knife-wielding attackers began stabbing passengers at random in the Kunming train station, killing more than thirty and injuring more than a hundred and forty. Police shot four of the attackers at the scene, and three others were later executed; one woman was sentenced to life in prison. They were Uighurs from the far-western province of Xinjiang, known for its restive separatism and ethnic strife. When news emerged that the Kunming attackers had spent time in Shadian, droves of Chinese netizens began criticizing the town’s religious appearance, calling it “China’s Islamic State.” The little Hui town became vilified as an enclave for religious extremism, where too many Muslims were allowed too much freedom. Popular online forums such as Tianya Club and Baidu became filled with Islamophobic vitriol. “Can these yellow-skinned Arabs stop disgusting us Chinese people?” one commenter wrote. “We know that huaxia”—the Han ethnicity’s ancestral tribe and culture—“is a pile of shit in your hearts. Why are you still here?” As Han chauvinism swept the Chinese Internet, authorities instituted a series of “counter-extremism” policies, tightening at least the image of control over Yunnan’s Muslims by planting flags in front of every mosque, painting green roofs white, and requiring all religious students and teachers from outside provinces to go home. Hundreds of Uighurs were deported to Xinjiang.
As all of this was happening, Huang moved to Shadian with his wife and daughter. “We came for her education,” Huang told me, nodding through wire-rimmed glasses at his nine-year-old. Huang is a native of Yangzhou prefecture, with a background in geological engineering. Twenty years ago, he converted to Islam and started an unlicensed magazine devoted to philosophy, culture, and politics. After five years of private publishing and distribution via mosques, halal stores, and cultural centers, the magazine became well-known in Muslim circles, including in Xinjiang, which got it banned. “So I changed the name and stopped distributing there,” Huang said with a shrug. His new publication has been circulating for fifteen years.
Huang and his wife came to Islam from atheist Han Chinese families. They both had Hui friends who roused their curiosity, prompting them to learn about the religion for themselves. For Huang, spiritual hunger was directly linked to intellectual control, and filling one meant breaking out of the other. The purpose of his magazine, he said, was to awaken his compatriots in spirit and mind. “There is an emptiness in Chinese society,” Huang told me over a dinner of spicy fish hotpot. Authoritarianism made people tools of the system, he said, without god or purpose in life. “Chinese people have been taught slavishness for thousands of years: follow tradition and don’t question authority,” he said. “Then the Cultural Revolution destroyed tradition. What we have now is authority but no questions, because people don’t remember how to ask them.” Just as asking questions had led him to faith, he wanted faith to make people start asking questions. “Han are an ethnicity with no real belief system, just superstitions and worshipping with no idea what or why,” he said. “But most Hui have no idea what Islam means, either.”
The same day that Huang and I visited the Martyr’s Memorial, he proudly took me on a tour of Yufeng Academy, an elementary school founded in the early twentieth century and once run by the Hui scholar Bai Liangcheng, who is known for having reformed Hui curricula to include Confucian classics alongside lessons in Arabic and the Koran. “Shadian is a cradle of Chinese Islamic civilization,” Huang said, as we strolled through exhibits honoring the town’s prominent Hui: Ma Jian, who studied at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University in the nineteen-thirties, translated the Koran into Mandarin, and founded the Arabic department at Peking University; Lin Xingzhi, who performed the hajj thirty-eight times and became a diplomatic representative of the Republic of China in Saudi Arabia; and Lin Song, who was once photographed presenting a Chinese Koran to Yasir Arafat.
Yet Shadian’s scars were visible nearby, too. A few streets away from the academy, I met a man named Hajji Wang, who was thirty-one when the Shadian incident happened. He and his six-year-old son had hidden outside of the village, he said, listening to the explosions and screams for seven days straight. “Every house had piles of dead people, some with babies still on their backs,” Wang told me. Now he and his family live in an airy villa with a bubbling fountain in its front garden, the archway over its entrance inscribed with the Arabic phrase Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim—“In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.” The family’s wealth comes from a metals factory that they own, and over the years they’ve given more than fifteen million dollars to Shadian’s mosques and madrassas. “The old days were dark as hell,” Wang said. “You couldn’t think about faith. Class enemies were everywhere. Everyone was lying. Everything was fake. It’s different now.”
My last night in Shadian was spent with Huang and his neighbor Fu, drinking cup after cup of fermented pu’er tea as the Grand Mosque glowed outside Huang’s living-room window. When I asked what “Islam with Chinese characteristics” meant, Huang pointed to the plaza facing the mosque. “There’s a set of plaques there that says ai guo ai jiao—‘love your country, love your religion,’" he said. All the Hui will dutifully repeat this slogan, he added, but the question is what ai guo means. Does loving one’s country mean loving its government? Holding it accountable? Asking for justice? If authorities destroyed the Grand Mosque today, would ai guo mean resistance?
Fu snorted from across the table. “Old Huang, you delusional intellectual,” he said. “If the state wanted to destroy that mosque, they would. You couldn’t do anything about it.” Fu’s father was one of ten Hui representatives who petitioned Beijing for help before the 1975 massacre. He now holds a high position in a local mining company, but has vowed never to go into politics. The Hui of Shadian want exactly what average people all over China want, Fu said—life without interference. That is why Yunnan’s Hui didn’t resist when the Uighurs were deported. It didn’t affect them, nor did the state’s security measures before or after the Kunming station attack. “Politicians made up the idea that Shadian is a terrorist place so they could then say, ‘We’re so good at counterterrorism,’" Fu said. “Our lives here are exactly the same. The only change is that every politician has given himself a promotion.” The single most Chinese characteristic of the Hui is probably that they are realistic, Fu added. “Let’s be clear and objective about who we are. We’re less than one per cent of the population. We’re weaklings. There’s a political game going on, and we are not part of it.”
“If you want to put it that way, everyone in China is a weakling,” Huang said. Wasn’t the difference between Muslims and atheists that they had a standard of righteousness? Wouldn’t Shadian’s people stand up if their holy places were torn down? “Sure, blood would be shed, but so what?” Fu said. “We’re a minority. We’re drops. We’re not going to dye the ocean.”