I read somewhere that some of the best trips happen by accident. Linxia was like that for me, and I had discovered it while on a trip with my university professor, Dr. Kun Shi, who is a wild cat researcher here in China. He wanted me to see more of China, and Gansu, China was definitely not on my list of vacation destinations, at least, not for January. Linxia simply happened to be on the way to another destination I was visiting after I had finished travelling and working with him. Southern Gansu became very interesting to me because of Linxia. It's in between the capital of Gansu and the currently largest Tibetan Buddhist Monestary in China. I had known that towards the border of Qinghai there was one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monestaries in China, but I didn’t know that 2 hours away from that monestary was one of the more historical religious places to the Hui Chinese, who are traditionally Muslim, and is particularly Sufi Muslim.
I went to the provincial museum for Gansu the previous week, and although they talk about the silk road, Buddhist culture, dinosaurs, and Neolithic culture there weren't any artifacts or exhibits dedicated to Muslims in Gansu. There are over 10 distinct ethnic Muslim groups in this part of China. The Hui Chinese are an ethnic minority in China, and they have a population of nearly 10 million people dispersed throughout China. They have been recognized as being Hui because they are descendants of foreign Muslims from the Middle east, although they speak Chinese and not Turkic languages ( like the Uyghurs). Linxia has many Hui Chinese, but they perhaps aren't as recognized because the adacent region Ningxia Hui Autonomous region broke away from Gansu province and became it's own region dedicated to the Hui Chinese, which are one of 56 nationally recognized nationalities.
Linxia city is the center for the Qadiriyyah and Kufiyya Sufi orders, and within the city there are over 100 mosques, which in the past were educational centers for saints bringing doctrines from the Middle East. On the bus towards Linxia, I saw many more mosques that are part of the district, which numbers over 1000 mosques. This area is an object for pilgrimage by foreign Muslims, as well as urban Hui in China who wish to explore a historic Sufi area, which holds institutions from the late 17th century, as well as several sacred tombs. These places pivitol to the Sufi reform movement of the 16th century are dedicated to Sufi masters, called menhuan which can be translated as “saintly lineages” or Chinese Sufi sects. This wave of Sufi culture revitalized an already growing Muslim population in China, which began in the Tang dynasty near 619 AD.
I got off the bus at around 11am after a relatively smooth ride from Lanzhou, with no wait time because a bus leaves every 30 minutes. At the bus station, I feel slightly awkward simply walking away from the bus, as if there’s more to be said or done there. Nonetheless, I depart, surrounded by strangers carrying their knap sacks and holding babies. At the entrance of the station and above the city on the mountain I can see a large Taoist temple with some kind of vertical pagoda. I’m tempted to go there immediately to see the view of the city, but instead start walking down the street. I reach a Muslim restaurant, which like most of these restaurants, serve beef noodles for lunch. Muslim noodle restaurants are characteristic in most cities in Gansu, with mostly young men wearing their traditional white muslim hats working inside.
I hop in a taxi and the driver asks me where I’m going.
“qingzhen si (清真词)“ I reply, which is Chinese for Islamic temple. The direct meaning on qingzhen is pure and true Islam. They use the words qingzhen on their restaurants and stores as well. It’s kind of like the Chinese version of Halal for the Hui, and they use this word as a reinforcement of their religious habits, diet, and customs. Whether qing zhen si should be regarded as a potent symbol, a handy catch prase, evidence of Hui identity, or a manifestation of a power that really exists, I cannot say.
In Chinese, the driver asks which one, and I tell him I want to see the oldest and most favorite qingzhen si. I also ask him to show me a reasonable hotel for the night. I get driven around on a short tour in front of the yu baba shrine, and then dropped off in a neighborhood with a few hotels. He smokes in the cab, which is typical of most drivers, although he’s so friendly that it doesn’t bother me.
Unfortunately, I’m in the wrong place because only certain hotels in China are permitted to cater to foreigners, and the one he's dropped me off at doesn't cater to foreigners. A woman with her baby notices me looking lost and perplexed in front of the hotel and begins to ask me where I’m going etc. I tell her I’m looking for a hotel. Many Chinese muslim women have a way of dressing with sparkling accessories, and are usually adorned with rhinestones, sequence, flowers, or necklaces worn on their heads over their traditional headdress. I noticed on her she has tight black pants with a silver metal tiger embedded. Her hat is dull peach color adorned with red flowers and sequence. She takes me over to her mother who has recently killed some chickens and has set them out on a table and is picking off the rest of the remaining few feathers. Then she gets ahold of her brother on the phone who speaks fluent English. Across the street there’s a fur vendor who has animal fur vests hanging on the wall. Nearby there are several carpet makers. I can’t find a hotel yet, but this lady is being so nice she even offered me a place to stay at her house after another hotel turned me down for being a foreigner. Although I'm intrigued by her and her family, I decide to find my own place to stay and wind up staying at Hehai Mansion, which does cater to foreigners and is slightly upscale with rooms for 200 yuan a night. I don't expect to find a cheaper room, and in hindsight, staying with that funny lady would have been more enjoyable. Next time, I would probably take the offer.
I finally get to exploring the nearby mosques and shrines. At the Yu Baba Shrine one of the caretakers is sweeping the stone walkway. The gongbei complexes are shrines for the Sufi master. They include a grave topped with a dome. I found an interesting article online “Muslim Tombs and Ethnic Folklore: Charters for Hui Identity” which was interesting and gave an in depth perspective on the Muslim culture, especially on the tomb culture, which visiting this place alone could not provide for me. There are many significant tombs in Linxia which the Hui people worship, and make pilgrimage to. They worship tombs, and also pray in graveyards, which is not typical of Muslim mosque culture, nor Chinese. The Qadariyya in China was established in China by a twenty-ninth generation descendant of Muhammad, Khoja Abd Alla, and he would come to Linxia periodically to preach. This path became firmly rooted in China by one of his disciples, Qi Jingyi, who is buried at Da gongbei. The most influential Kufiyya menhua, the Huasi branch is surrounding the tomb of Ma Laichi, who studied extensively in Yemen at Naqshbandi hostels. No where in the shrines do I see old framed photographs as rememberance of these saints, but what I did find was several stone carved dioramas with tiny people etched into the stone. They are perched in classical Chinese style on mountains, or fishing in lakes, often reclining and relaxed like a Tao or Zen art.
These Chinese Muslim places are adorned with wood and stone carvings, large pieces of rock, and other tao elements as decoration. They create tablets like the Taoist, and add Islamic writing on the top. The building are decorated and painted like a traditional Chinese temple or park, with teapots, lotuses, grapes, and animals create ornamentation. Arabic script and symbols are found on doorways in place of Chinese characters. There are large prayer halls with chinese rugs with chinese scripts, and large stones on their prayer altars. They make their own incense which is sometimes thicker than my fingers. I look inside of their prayer books and they are Arabic and Chinese. At some of the mosques they are reciting and chanting together, and there is hardly a Chinese accent. The Hui Chinese also incorporate confucism, Daoism, and Buddhist folk rituals into their practices and lifestyles. I go from taxi to taxi asking to see their most favorite and oldest qingzhen si's. I'm taken down backroads and through alleys to see various gongbei.