By Teresa Crompton
Yuting Wang, Assistant Professor in the Department of International Studies, CAS, was awarded a Faculty Research Travel Grant in 2012.
Describe your research project
This project seeks to contribute to scholarly studies on the relationship between economic activities and religious life. Specifically, the study examines the roles that transnational business activities play in the religious beliefs and practices among Chinese Muslims. This required conducting field work among Chinese Muslim business communities in cities on China’s east coast, as well as Muslim concentrated cities in the northwest. The study strives to add to the ongoing discussions on the compatibility of Islam with modernity and non-Islamic cultures.
What is distinctive about Chinese Muslims?
Islam first arrived in China with Arab and Persian caravans and travelers in the mid-7th century. These merchants established China’s earliest Muslim communities in the port cities along China’s southeast coast and played an important role in the spread of Islam in China. In the next 1,000 years, their descendants, known as Huihui, integrated into Chinese society. Traditionally, Muslims live in independent small communities clustered around a central mosque, creating a unique structure known as Gedimu (meaning ‘old’). From the late seventeenth century, Sufism began to make a substantial impact, giving rise to menhuan, the Chinese version of the Sufi orders. This helped to integrate formerly-isolated Gedimu and facilitated the rise of Muslim warlordism in the 20th century. During the turmoil of the first half of the century, China’s Muslim communities became more aware of their connections with the Middle East. The influence of Wahhabism was evident in many Muslim reformist movements in China.
Sales people introducing new catalogues to Muslim traders after a Friday Jummah outside the Yiwu Grand Mosque, Yiwu, China (Photo by Yuting Wang).
Today, the Chinese government identifies ten ethnic groups as followers of the religion of Islam: Hui, Uyghur, Kazakh, Dongxiang, Kyrgyz, Salar, Tajik, Uzbek, Bao’an, and Tatar. The Hui are the most visible Muslim ethnic group as they are widely scattered across China. Muslims in China generally follow the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and are deeply influenced by Persian culture. They speak a creole language based on Chinese, Arabic, and Persian.
Although the essence of Islam has been well protected and maintained since it entered China, traditional Confucian ideas have left their mark on Muslim communities. Muslims have gained unique characteristics through their interaction with the Han majority and the Chinese state. The increased contact between China’s Muslim communities and global Muslim ummah has led many Chinese Islamic scholars to reevaluate various schools of thoughts within Islam. Some are critical of Chinese influence on the ways that Islam is practiced in China, ranging from architectural designs to the practices of tomb visits. Others see acculturation as inevitable and key to the vitality of Islam in China today.
What is distinctive about the business activities of China’s Muslims?
Compared with some other religions, Islam stands out in terms of its favorable attitude toward business. In Islam, business activity is considered to be socially useful. Not only was Prophet Muhammad a noble, honest, successful and well-respected businessman in his time, but the Qur’an also recognizes the importance of material success and enjoyment for human beings. However, in the traditional Chinese culture of an agricultural society, merchants were despised because frequent travel would cause instability in family life, and their activities were deemed a threat to morality and social order. A businessman seeking to minimize cost and maximize profit is often perceived as cunning, greedy, deceiving, and manipulative.
Chinese Muslims have traditionally been involved in business activities, which is due partly to the importance of trade in the spread of Islam in China and partly to the marginal position of Muslims in Chinese society. The conflictive views of business rooted in Islamic teachings and Confucian values, however, contribute to the ambivalent attitude among Chinese Muslims toward business activities (Wang and Yang 2011). Living in the midst of a non-Muslim majority, to succeed in business sometimes means to follow cultural rules regarded as appropriate in a non-Muslim society and participate in certain activities in order to build and maintain business networks with non-Muslim patrons. Some of these activities are discouraged or forbidden in Islam, for instance, drinking, smoking, clubbing, bribing, handling interest or Riba, etc.
Since an important goal of doing business is to make profit, how to observe the Islamic law and at the same time ensure profit is one of the biggest dilemmas Chinese Muslims face. Muslims fear that doing business in a non-Islamic environment could jeopardize their faith, and the greed for wealth could lead them astray. Because of the deep concern for morality in economic life and the extra cautiousness in a non-Muslim environment, Chinese Muslims have traditionally been involved in small to medium-scale family businesses related to their ethnic and religious cultures, such as halal food restaurants, butcher shops, sheepskin businesses, jewelry shops, and alternative medicines. Certainly, this also has to do with the limited venues of upward social mobility that open to Muslim minorities, as the middleman minority theory suggests.
How did you use the travel grant?
It allowed me to spend a week in Yiwu city on China’s east coast, and a week in Yinchuan city, the capital of China’s only Muslim autonomous region in the northwest. I was able to meet a number of Muslim entrepreneurs, traders, academics, and officials. These social networks help me to prepare for in-depth interviews with key personnel in the future. I am grateful for the generous support provided by the Office of Research and Graduate Studies. Without the travel grant it would have been more difficult for me to expand this line of research, which was later developed into a more fully-fledged proposal and was awarded an FRG2 grant. Comments made by external reviewers on my FRG2 proposal were immensely positive and encouraging, confirming the empirical and theoretical value of my project.
Halal Food company, Yinchuan, China (photo by Yuting Wang)
Please summarize the activities developed
· - I presented a paper at the research seminar in the Department of International Studies in December 2012.
· - I discussed the case of Yiwu in a book chapter contributed to an edited book titled Sociology of Shari’a, which will appear later this year.
· - I presented a paper based on my trip to Yinchuan for a symposium on Spiritual Capital and Civil Society in China held in Hong Kong in July 2013, and another at the Annual European Sociological Association meeting in August 2013.
· - Data collected during these trips allowed me to develop a more focused FRG2 research proposal to explore the relationship between Islam and trust among Chinese Muslim diasporas, and trade relations between China and the UAE.
· - I am currently interviewing Muslim entrepreneurs in Dubai and plan another visit to China to collect more data.
What were your main research findings?
Religion plays an important role in Muslim business decision-making processes. Islam has become more visible as China’s economic reform deepens, opening up the northwestern provinces to the global market economy. A small but significant group of Muslim entrepreneurs have successfully carved out a niche market in which to utilize Islamic cultural capital to develop and maintain business networks. They are also clearly sensible in making religiously-sound business choices. It would be interesting to further examine the role of religion in the increasingly interconnected market economy.
Did anything surprise you?
I was surprised by the growing influence of Islam and Muslim communities in China. I visited a number of newly-built state-funded projects in Yinchuan and learned of similar projects in other cities, which all draw on the religious and cultural bonds between China’s Muslim communities and the Middle East. It seems that the Chinese government is keen on exploring the potential benefit that could be brought by this bond in the economic development in the northwestern provinces.
What are your future research plans?
As my initial hypothesis on the relationship between economic activities and religious life has been partially confirmed, I plan to continue this line of research by comparing the role of religion among Muslim communities in China and the Chinese diaspora overseas. I hope that my work will contribute to ongoing discussions about the compatibility between Islam and modernity and non-Islamic cultures, as well as enrich discourse in the field of Sociology of Religion.
Teresa Compton is a Grants Writer at the Office of Research and Graduate Studies at American University of Sharjah.