In Pursuit of Islamic "Authenticity": Localizing Muslim Identity on China's Peripheries

Lesley Turnbull, New York University
Shadian’s Great Mosque, 2011. Photo by Lesley Turnbull.
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In this ethnographic sketch, I analyze the complex processes of Sino-Islamic identity formation by examining the variety and diversity of locally produced “authenticity,” situated within a global understanding of Islam. Even within a single province, among a single official minzu (nationality) that People’s Republic of China propaganda, media, and scholarship often construct as a unified, static group, localized practices and processes of identity formation are remarkably diverse. This article investigates how trans/national discourses and practices of Islamic authenticity are localized within two specific field sites: the provincial capital of Kunming and the rural Muslim enclave of Shadian. For the purposes of this article, I focus primarily on how life is temporally and spatially structured, both in everyday practice and in imaginings of one’s place in history, modernity, the Muslim world, and the Chinese state. By setting out details of the daily lives of two Hui Muslim women, I aim to elucidate how temporal and spatial structures of life, which are tied to urban or rural location, reflect and shape local identity formation. I argue that as actors involved in their own self-production, Hui Muslims in Kunming and Shadian negotiated, appropriated, and contested both monolithic notions of Islam and the official state-propagated minzu classificatory system, producing their own versions of authentic Hui Muslim identities. What constituted authentic Hui Muslim identity depended to a great extent on the residence of the individual.

Keywords: Chinese Muslims, Hui, identity, modernity, trans/nationalism, comparative ethnography