Tuesday, December 2

China, Day Nine: Pilgrimage to Little Mecca

The morning was pretty basic. We visited the Big Yellow Waterwheel Park – an irrelevance in the grand scheme of things, but since it was paid for we had a peek. We were actually on the way to a smaller town three hours drive away named Linxia, the main city in the prefecture of the same name. This town was relatively off the beaten path, and sometimes a stop over for those travelling further south to see and meet a Tibetan village. The relevance for us, however, was that Linxia was a town where the majority of inhabitants are Muslim - in fact it's often referred to as "Little Mecca" in recognition of this fact.

I was wrong to think that Lanzhou was visibly Muslim. Linxia was in a class of its own – you could literally see at least one (typically there'd be two or three) domed mosque or minaret everywhere you looked. Most men wore headcaps (presumably those that didn't weren't Muslim), the women had their hair covered. Markets were full of livestock, with people bartering in order to get ready for the day of sacrifice next week. Even with my eyes wide open I could imagine myself being in Karachi with only the Chinese signage and (ironically) the multiple domes giving away the true identity of the place. This really was a Muslim town, as opposed to a town which had Muslims in it - indeed the prefecture status of the area implies a certain level of autonomy for the otherwise minority ethnic group (Muslim typically describes an ethnicity in China as opposed to religion).

Being so small, there isn't much to see here. Our schedule largely involved meeting and talking to people and trying to establish a perspective on the culture here. How did Muslims live and practice here? Were there any issues in them living their life? Were they oppressed by the government as so many of us in the West believed?

Our first stop was to a Muslim school for girls. This was a private school which took in girls of all ages for three years in order to teach them Islam – except not quite since they were obligated to also provide education in other skills like English and Computing in order to avoid being shut down by the authorities. Religion alone isn't a justification for opening a school it seems, although from what I saw the added benefits were worth it; some girls were even learning how to program in Delphi!

We sat in a Quranic Arabic class, impressed by the recitation of the students. Asia (pronounced Asiah), an 18 year old student acted as ambassador to the school; her English was outstanding and she served well as a bridge to the rest of the students. She accompanied us on a tour of the rest of the school as we checked out the library, prayer and computing facilities.

We left the school uplifted; these were independent and strong willed women who were striving for knowledge and were doing something about it; the majority had travelled from all over China to study here and had ambitions to continue study further, even abroad. They were comfortable and content, being able to achieve exactly what they wanted to, and more.

Our next stop was less joyous; it was to an orphanage currently housing thirty kids after having been established five years ago. The building itself was tiny and simple, with clear indications of financial struggle (since it wasn't an officially sanctioned orphanage, government support is minimal). The kids themselves were grubby, a few of them having been playing in the dirty street. They sure knew how to pose for a photo though!

As we ate the offered apples and oranges we were told about how some of these kids had ended up here – reasons all too familiar like the preference of boys over girls, or how some were the children of a remarried divorcee woman who were unable to go to the new home their mother was heading to.

Since the kids were studying at public schools, they weren't lucky enough to gain a formal Islamic education. Instead this was left to the rector of the orphanage (or “grandpa” as he was introduced to us); he obviously does a good job at this if the six year old reciting Surah Naba for us was anything to go by.

Our final stop before home was to a Sufi mosque to offer our evening prayers. Unusually this was not domed like the majority here, it was still majestic in its own right.

A friend back home had asked me to observe and report on the social struggles Muslims face here. Obviously there are many, but I've yet to see any grave issues caused by them being Muslim and in China. Most are the usual problems caused by poverty and a lack of education (like the gender bias), but some of the more stressing ones are caused by people just being Muslim alone; indeed they are the same problems afflicting Muslims the world over.

Take the number of mosques here. Despite there being many practicing Muslims in Linxia, there is still way more prayer space than is required, something that appeared to be a result of sectarian differences. The community is quite segregated in this manner and even butt heads – we were told of the pissing contests some groups had in building their incredibly impressive three storey mosques, all while their adherents lived in squalor.

Seeing The Great Wall and Terracotta army was nice, but this half of our time in China was equal in its wonderful eye-opening effect. We still have time in Linxia and Gansu, but already my impression of Islam in China is a world apart from what I had thought before coming here. And once again I feel like I’m not spending enough time here (we leave tomorrow), this in contrast to usually feeling homesick after just ten days away from London.


  1. This is my favourite leg of your trip and post, so far.

  2. I concur with Zany. I enjoyed reading both this entry and the one after from most, if not all, of your holiday posts. I think part of it is due to the activities being more..relate-able; the mention of the girls school ie female empowerment/progress and the orphanage. two areas i have a very personal interest in. i have to add its also interesting to read your analysis/observations of the area too..definitely and positively informative. Blog entry + pics to support would be even better!
    Ps i have always thought half (caste?) chinese kids are the cute-ist kids around.

  3. Anonymous10:51

    I recently found out that the phrase "half-caste" is now considered pejorative, due to the origins of the term.


    Mixed race is all the rage now.

  4. Kylie and Sofs,

    The actual words used aside, I still have issues with the semantics. From the position I was in, the 100% Chinese kids were just as cute imo :)

  5. Thanks for the heads up Kylie. I was aware of the mixed race tag being used instead, and i guess thats why i added caste in brackets. I think its still more 'offensive' in the US than it is here tho not entirely suprising thanks to the PCworld we live in and the American Influence. I couldnt click on the link you posted, but checked the site and tho is has derogatory origins the meaning has evolved to how i used it. Which suits me alot better than mixed race since i was specifically referring to my fondness of half-chinese kids!