China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Geographic references occupy a pivotal position in the work of ethnic Hui authors. Scattered around China, the Hui lack the centrally defining attributes of ethnic Chinese minorities: a proper language and a delimited territory. Primarily framed and promoted as ethnic writers (minzu zuojia), Hui authors face the double challenge of branding the Hui as a distinctive minority that simultaneously forms part of the unity of the Chinese people. Taking the multi-volume book series “Hui Contemporary Literature” (2012–2015) as a case study, I argue that the emphasis on place—through toponyms, elements of the material culture, and Arabic and Persian words—promotes the idea of Hui distinctiveness. This type of representation locates the Hui on three distinct yet interwoven levels of place-based identification: local (the rural reality), national (China as a nation-state), and transnational (the Middle East as the Hui’s ancestral place of origin). To illustrate my point, I analyze the works of two prominent Hui authors. Bai Lian’s “Mountain Pass” emphasizes local Islamic legends and practices in a Shaanxi village and, at the same time, glorifies the village’s role during the Northwestern Muslim rebellions against the Qing troops (1862–1877). Shi Shuqing’s “The Grey Robe” narrates the story of a Muslim healer, placing the story in dialogue with Islamic Sufism and promoting the idea of Ningxia as a culturally distinct Chinese region. Together, these stories blur the center/periphery discourse in favor of multi-linear, non-hierarchical levels of identification with the local, the national, and the transnational.