Theses Doctoral

Islamic Modernism in China: Chinese Muslim Elites, Guomindang Nation-Building, and the Limits of the Global Umma, 1900-1960

Chen, John

Modern Chinese Muslims’ increasing connections with the Islamic world conditioned and were conditioned by their elites’ integrationist politics in China. Chinese Muslims (the “Hui”) faced a predicament during the Qing and Ottoman empire-to-nation transitions, seeking both increased contact with Muslims outside China and greater physical and sociopolitical security within the new Chinese nation-state. On the one hand, new communication and transport technologies allowed them unprecedented opportunities for transnational dialogue after centuries of real and perceived isolation. On the other, the Qing’s violent suppression of Muslim uprisings in the late nineteenth century loomed over them, as did the inescapable Han-centrism of Chinese nationalism, the ongoing intercommunal tensions between Muslims and Han, and the general territorial instability of China’s Republican era (1911-49). As a result, Islamic modernism—a set of positions emphasizing both reason and orthodoxy, and arguing that true or original Islam is compatible with science, education, democracy, women’s rights, and other “modern” norms—took on new meanings in the context of Chinese nation-making. In an emerging dynamic, ethos, and discourse of “transnationalist integrationism,” leading Chinese Muslims transformed Islamic modernism, a supposedly foreign body of thought meant to promote unity and renewal, into a reservoir of concepts and arguments to explain and justify the place of Islam and Muslims in China, and in so doing made it an integral component of Chinese state- and nation-building.
“Islamic Modernism in China” argues that Chinese Muslims’ transregional engagement with Islamic modernism did not subvert but enabled the Chinese government’s domestic and foreign policies toward Muslims, and ultimately facilitated the nationalization of Muslim identity in modern China. From Qing collapse through the Second World War, urban coastal Chinese Muslim religious and political elites imported, read, debated, disseminated, and translated classic Islamic texts and modern Muslim print media, while establishing their own modernist schools and publications. Yet those same figures, through those same practices and institutions, increasingly wielded an image of Islamic authority and authenticity in support of the nationalist Guomindang government’s efforts to develop, integrate, and Sinicize China’s frontiers, including the predominantly Sufi Muslim communities of the Northwest.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, integrationist Chinese Muslim elites further mobilized modernist narratives of Islam’s rationality, peacefulness, and past and present “contributions” to China. For example, they responded to Islamophobic misperceptions about halal by arguing that Islamic medicine was an important part of Chinese medicine. They also dispatched nationalistic goodwill delegations to the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China’s own frontiers during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), to pursue cultural cooperation and spread anti-Japanese propaganda. At the same time, in contrast to this instrumentalized Islam, certain Chinese Muslim scholars studying in Cairo instead articulated an expansive, democratized version of the Islamic concept of independent human reason (ijtihad) as the basis for a more inclusive vision of both Chinese nationalism and the global Islamic community (umma). The opportunity to pursue this or any other alternative to mere integrationism soon evaporated, however, as the renewed Chinese Civil War (1945-49) split the Chinese Muslim elites across the Mainland, Taiwan, and a variety of Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Thereafter, the Chinese Muslim elites largely became marginalized from high politics in the era of Cold-War and decolonization. Many of their once-contingent narratives of history and identity, however, have nevertheless been normalized as the canonical truth of Chinese Islam to this day, quietly informing China’s minority policies, foreign relations, and rhetoric of the “New Silk Road.”
“Islamic Modernism in China” is a history of the subsumption of modern forms of mobility by modern structures of power. It narrates an assertion of difference in the context of multiple, partially overlapping integrations: the integration of a Han-centric idea of the Chinese nation-state, of an Arabo-centric idea of the Islamic world, and of a Eurocentric system of global infrastructures, institutions, networks, and knowledge. It de-parochializes the modern history of Chinese Muslims, showing how they epitomized aspirations and challenges common to Muslim minorities across many large non-Muslim societies and, to an extent, to modern Muslims everywhere. Using a wide range of new or under-studied archival and published sources in Chinese and Arabic, it connects questions of the meaning and scope of Islam, Islamic community, and Islamic modernism (scholarship on which tends to prioritize the Arab Middle East and relations with the West) to questions of religion and state in modern China (scholarship on which tends to prioritize popular spirituality and the official Confucian system, as well as relations with the West). As such, it presents Sino-Islamic transregional interactions beyond the lens of Western influence, yet also uncovers new trajectories by which Western concepts (“religion,” the “nation-state,” the “Islamic world”) became universalized. Overall, it moves beyond a circulation-based understanding of global encounters, and instead maps the contingent ways in which forms of mobility became pressed into the service of hegemonic processes of state- and nation-building: how flows of people and ideas created borders rather than simply crossing them.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Khalidi, Rashid
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 21, 2018