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Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China

March 20, 2010

Jonathan N. Lipman. Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Brent Haas (2006)

As both the founding figure in the American historical profession and the author of the deeply influential Frontier Thesis, Frederick Jackson Turner has been a force in generations of historical scholarship. The utility of the Frontier Thesis for nationalist history has been recognized beyond the bounds of American academia. In the early 1940’s Shinichiro Takakura’s classic work on Ainu studies established the foundation of a Japanese “Frontier Thesis,” and Owen Lattimore’s seminal studies of the Inner-Asian steppes posited the Great Wall as a stark, Turnerian boundary between China’s sedentary civilization and the nomadism of the grasslands. Recently, however, historians of the American West have criticized this classic formulation and effects of new approaches to borderlands have resonated in East Asian history, leading some historians to eschew ethnically-flavored terminology, preferring “zone of cultural contact,” or “intergroup situation.” James Millward’s broader formulation of the Qing frontier recognizes the importance of New Western historians, and views the frontier as both a process of state expansion and the place upon which this expansion is manifested.

Jonathan N. Lipman’s Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China utilizes a similar approach to bring stories of “hyphenated” Sino-Muslims to an English language audience, arguing that these histories are not only important for the histories of China and Islam, but also to comparative studies of “frontiers both cultural and physical” (xviii). Reacting against the dominance of ethnic categories invented by the modernizing Chinese nation-state, the minzu paradigm, Lipman successfully tells the tales of the inhabitants of the geographic and cultural borderlands of Northwest China through actors he calls Sino-Muslims. By thus reflecting what he calls the “dual liminality” of Sino-Muslims and adding experiences of the periphery to the tale of central expansion, Lipman produces “a history of becoming and then being Chinese while remaining Muslim, of the evolution of a sense of home” (xxxvi).

Lipman adeptly describes this “sense of home” by beginning with an outstanding chapter on the physical, social, and cultural geography of the northwest. This reviewer especially appreciated the geographical approach, one in line with Esherick’s opening chapter of Origins of the Boxer Uprising and Brett Walker’s ecological history of Tokugawa expansion into present-day Hokkaido (2001), which allowed for a much deeper appreciation of how the landscape of the northwest periphery shaped life there. He then moves onto a succinct survey of Sino-Muslim history through the seventeenth century, chapters on the early and late Qing, respectively, and finally Sino-Muslim approaches to a new, modern China. He traces the dizzying developments of various Islamic religious orders, textual transmissions, pilgrimages, resistance and integration. Dru Gladney’s highly laudatory review of this work, in fact, characterized the depth of study of influential Sino-Muslims as local history (JAS 60.1 [Feb., 2001] 175-7).

This reviewer found the discussions of different approaches to Chinese modernity used by Sino-Muslim leaders Ma Fuxiang, Ma Yuanzhang, and Ma Qixi, (involvement in the GMD, the revival of a reformed Jahrīya, and the creation of a capitalist, Muslim solidarity, the Xidaotang) (211), respectively, to be especially fascinating. Having traced their lives and legacies in such exquisite detail with an eye to understanding different approaches to the “problem of being a Muslim in China,” Lipman’s conclusion is forceful indeed! “The variety of their solutions, even in a single province in the northwest, reveals the hitherto hidden complexity and richness of the Sino-Muslim world” (211).

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