Xidaotang: a Chinese Muslim community (Gansu)
Hille, Marie-Paule. « Le Xidaotang, une existence collective à l’épreuve du politique. Ethnographie historique et anthropologique d’une communauté musulmane chinoise (Gansu, 1857-2014) » [The Xidaotang, endurance and transformations of a collective existence. Historical and anthropological ethnography of a Chinese Muslim community (Gansu, 1857-2014)]. PhD diss., École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris, 2014.
A fascinating historical and anthropological study on a Muslim community of Gansu—a community, it may be added in passing, with substantial links with Amdo Tibetan communities (this is only one minor dimension of the study, on which the author Dr. Marie-Paule Hille is currently pursuing further work). This is a massive piece of work, which has received extremely high praise; some sense of its richness and depth can be drawn from the detailed table of contents.
The Xidaotang is a Chinese-speaking Muslim community located in Gansu Province, China. It originated in the unique vision of a Muslim Confucian scholar, Ma Qixi, at the end of the 19th century. Promoting a distinctive synthesis of Confucianism and Islam, members of the Xidaotang practiced collective ownership and living and eventually grew into a major cultural and commercial force in northwest China. The Xidaotang’s survival in the midst of violent opposition from neighbouring Muslims and across the upheavals of twentieth-century Chinese history pose important questions about community coherence and resilience. How was the community led and mobilized? How did a religious community develop strategies for political survival? How did the community understand the relationship between Islam and Confucianism and how have they dealt with the shifting ideologies of the past century?
This dissertation—the product of ten years (2004-2014) of field research—is a historical and anthropological study of the Xidaotang. The first half of this study traces the history of the community from 1857 to 1957 and reveals how local concerns and crises interacted with historical developments at the provincial and national levels. Although buffeted by events of national significance—the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the contentious warlord politics of the Republic of China—contingent decision-making by Xidaotang leaders and events within Gansu province played a key role in shaping the community. Thus, the history of the Xidaotang, is analysed not from a “sino-centric” perspective, but as a local historical process that interacts with provincial and national history. A “historical ethnography” is used to contrast, across time periods of varying scale, the points of view and practices favoured by all the different actors involved, between 1857 and 1957.
Based on recent ethnographic research, the second half of the dissertation examines the post-1978 period of Reform and Opening. During the Maoist period, the community had been forcibly disbanded. My research, conducted at Xidaotang religious sites and among community members, describes how the community have faced a variety of challenges and recovered its practices and norms. In particular, this half focuses on the religious beliefs of the group. As a political ethnography the dissertation analyses leadership and authority structures within the Xidaotang collective, as well as the group’s relationship to the political and religious institutions of the Chinese Communist Party and government of the People’s Republic of China.