Faith in a No Faith Zone
Xiaohui’s natural exuberance is uncontainable. She bounds across the street to greet a tall, lanky man, her arms waving seemingly independent from the rest of her tiny frame.
“As-Salaam Alaikum!” Peace be unto you. She bows slightly, her face radiates warmth.
“Wa-Alaikum Salaam,” Zhanshan replies, with a hint of a smile. And unto you peace.
Xiaohui looks effortlessly hip—if not a tad kitsch—in riding boots poking out from flare jeans with studded hems, her wrists adorned with silver bracelets of all shapes and sizes.
Zhanshan is older than Xiaohui, and their relationship is akin to that of uncle and niece. He pokes fun (“What ‘bling bling’ are you wearing now?”) and she responds with well-rehearsed, exaggerated offense (“You’re so boring…I’m on trend!”).
Zhanshan was born and raised here in Tonghai, a short drive south of Kunming, Yunnan. Xiaohui, on the other hand, was born and raised in Kunming until she finished middle school.
“I lived two lives in one,” she says of her upbringing. She was secular by day, at a school where the majority of students belonged to various ethnic minority groups but where families understood that signs of faith and organized religion were not welcome. She’d then come home to a silk headscarf and long black dress—not unlike what she’s now wearing now—and a steaming dinner of halal meat and Yunnnanese noodles handmade by her Hui minority family.
Shortly after Xiaohui started high school, she decided she wanted to study at an Islamic school in Tonghai. She found a Muslim family to live with, made arrangements with the nearby Najiaying Mosque, got a job working in a small restaurant and made the move.
In Tonghai, Xiaohui lives a fully qingzhen (“pure”, in relation to Islam) lifestyle: she eats halal-only meats, abstains from alcohol, and her education revolves around the mosque. It’s not uncommon for Hui families to discourage their daughters from attending university, marrying a Han Chinese, or living in a large city for fear of external influences and cultural assimilation. But Xiaohui’s journey has been largely self-guided.
“It’s different here, you know?” she says. “In Kunming, it’s okay to be Muslim. But here, it’s the whole community. The xinyang (belief) is very strong. And I study and pray in the most beautiful mosque.”
Najiaying Mosque sits on a hill, its four giant minarets standing guard over Qilu Lake, neatly plotted farmland and scattered settlements. Xiaohui drives Zhanshan over for midday prayers; the background beats of Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ are nothing short of bizarre in the shadow of the mosque’s giant front entrance.
“Annie, are you OK, you OK,” Xiaohui whispers, her face scrunched and head bobbing as she turns the ignition off.
Najiaying is breathtaking with its Middle Eastern-style minarets, giant dome and glossy white walls four stories high. But the mosque still manages to maintain a welcoming feel thanks to the modest homes (some dating back to the Yuan Dynasty), dusty pathways and farmland that encircle it. The structure was built in 2001 as an extension of the smaller, adjacent mosque: one of Yunnan’s first that’s been around for over 600 years.
The adjacent mosque maintains its traditional Ming architectural style and is now used as a women’s mosque. Delicate, wooden doors carved with flowers line the entrance of intimate courtyards and a modest prayer hall.
Open air classrooms surround the prayer hall—this is the Islamic school that drew Xiaohui away from her family and her life in Kunming six years ago. Gusts of wind cycle through the classroom doorways, playing with the edges of her gaitou (‘head covering’). Colorful flowers undecidedly poke their heads half-in half-out of wooden window frames.
In this idyllic setting, Xiaohui studies Arabic and Chinese language, computer skills, Islamic history and faith, Quranic and hadith translation, Islamic law and physical education.
“Many people think you can’t practice religion in China, and, well, especially not Islam,” she says, running her finger along the spine of her Quran. The Hui, in Yunnan especially, have been known to assimilate with other minorities and Han Chinese well, allowing them to maintain their religious and cultural heritage in peace. But in Xiaohui’s experience, “Kunming’s developing fast. It’s not as friendly to us as it was before. China is a no faith zone.”
Her round face, wrapped in soft, green silk, turns thoughtful.
Zhanshan throws up his arms, gesturing to the Arabic-filled room, as if to say, “What?!”
Xiaohui immediately breaks into laughter.
“I found the exception!” she exclaims in glee, waving the Quran in her hand with a mischievous, open-mouthed wink.