Faces of the Muslim quarter


Xian is mostly known as a stop of on the way to the terracotta soldiers, but my favourite part of the city was the muslim quarter.

Islam came to China from traders down the Silk Road. Arabian and Persian traders sometimes settled in China, taking their religion with them. Of the several Muslim minority groups in China, it’s the hui who live in shaanxi (the province you’ll find xian in). They are ethnically Han Chinese who speak mandarin and are culturally very similar to Han Chinese, however they are also practicing Muslims.

The Muslims quarter is a couple of winding streets behind the city’s drum tower. Its an odd, but logical mix of Islamic and Chinese culture. You’ll find noodles but without the pork, drum towers meters away from a mosque and women in hijabs selling you chopsticks. The middle of the streets house the grand mosque, which looks a little out of place because unlike the rest of the city (which is aligned according to feng shui) it’s facing Mecca in the west. It’s also a mosque like nothing I ever seen before, with a pagoda for a minaret and the main prayer building inside a hutong (traditional Chinese style building) shaped hall.

Unlike much of China (which looks like the apocalypse has happened anytime after 10 at night) it continues to be bustling at night. The overall effect of the place is that it’s very photogenic, although the street food was also a big draw…

The Cost of Marriage

My Chinese teacher walked into my lesson last week and told me she was pregnant, with twins. She was excited, if a bit overwhelmed, but said that her husband was extremely stressed by the possibility of having two sons… Why? Because getting a son married is very expensive, never mind two of them.

She explained, in China, the parents of the groom are expected to pay a bride price (an amount of money either to the bride or her family) to the bride. In her case, it was about a million yuan. In addition, if the groom doesn’t already have one, they are expected to buy the couple an apartment. There’s then also the small question of furnishing the apartment, paying for the wedding and don’t forget the honeymoon! Although the latter two are actually negotiated by the parents of the bride and the groom. The brides parents also don’t get away unscathed, they are generally responsible for buying the electrical appliances in the apartment. In Tianjin specifically they also tend to buy the couple a new car.

At the wedding, all the guests will tend to bring hongbao (红包) or red envelopes of money in as presents for the newlyweds (instead of tea sets and toasters). However this gift, like most gifts, is not freely given. The parents of the newlyweds are expected to pay back an equal amount of money to their son or daughters wedding. So equal, in fact, that after the wedding my Chinese teachers parents sat and counted all the money and made a spreadsheet of how much each family had given so they could return it exactly. All the money involved in a marriage may explain why, despite a change in rules where 2 children of the one child policy, may have 2 children are still choosing only to have one.

The occurrence of such expensive bride prices is fairly recent, and my Chinese teacher sees it as a function of increased materialism since the country opened up. Her parents paid very small bride prices, mostly as a token, because at the time there just wasn’t very much money and more importantly, everyone had equally small amounts of it. As money started to rush in during Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, people got richer, unequally, and the cost of getting married soared. In addition, the male weighted gender ratio means that women are the ‘scarce resource’, for the men and their families competing for them. The massive generations gap in the cost of a marriage is a testament to how quickly things have, and still are, changing in China.

So you have to feel for this husband, who may have to cough up for not one but two apartments, bride prices, weddings and honeymoons.

Occupy Central

The general view towards Occupy Central in the mainland is summed up in these two interactions. When I told my class in Tianjin I was heading to Hong Kong for the weekend, of my kids piped up and said ‘But teacher, they did something against the government there!’. When I told my mentor at school he said, ‘Are you sure it is safe to go now?’.

While there I wondered through 2 of the 3 protest sites, and to be honest it’s easy to do inadvertently. The admiralty site is in the middle of the main Island opposite the HK government buildings, on the tourist trail. The second, Monkok, is in the middle of another big shopping area (Monkok was cleared two days after photos were taken).

Visually, it’s a bizarre experience, because right in the middle of high rises you walk down a deserted main road into a sea of tents and yellow signs. Big clothing/watch adverts and makeshift tented study areas and protest signs are in the same line of vision. It’s a very student dominated protest, as shows by the study zone set up in the middle of the protest area and the fact that quite a few students in graduation robes were having their pictures taken there. The bathroom signs and safety sign set up to help both protesters and non-protesters navigate the area would also have been a surprise to my concerned mentor.

The universal suffrage protests are against the announced mainland policy of approving candidates before they are voted on in Hong Kong. This isn’t the first time there have been requests for democratic elections in Hong Kong, most recently in 2003 and 2007. This protest is however the biggest pressure release on the issue HK has seen. However, well over 50 days in, the general euphoria of the movement has ebbed and the movement’s is grappling with practicalities; leadership and clear goals.

‘They wear stupid hats and have stupid little moustaches’

DSC_2634 90% of the time my students are just 13-14 year old students no different to those at home. Sometimes, however, hints of the political context they live in appear in my classes. The other day I was teaching my students about Remembrance Day. I told them a story about Jews in Holland during WWII. Halfway through explaining that Hitler used Jews as a scapegoat for the political and economic problems in Germany after WWI one of my students piped up. ‘But the Jews, they did something bad’. ‘The Jewish people, they took all the money and all the business, that’s why the Germans had no money’.When I asked who the Jewish people are a boy called Adolf (and yes, he did pick that name himself) piped up, and said ‘They wear stupid hats and have stupid little moustaches’. Of course, in my view Jewish people were blameless victims of genocide and was familiar with the concept of Jewish people as mean capitalist businessmen only as a stereotype. However, from a Marxist point of view Jewish people were the definition of the enemy and from a Chinese communist perspective the students had been taught to see them as ‘capitalist roaders’.

A Walk Around the Block

Everywhere I look in this area I can see the school, big, imposing… and fee paying. Although it’s not the most expensive school in the city, parents do pay 10,000 rnb/y (£1000) for the pleasure of having their kids educated here. Given that the average wage in Tianjin is between 3,000-5,000 rnb a month that makes these kids rich (even if they do pale in comparison of the top 1%). The view out of the big window of the main building looks out into downtown Tianjin and it’s major building works. The place most of these kids are aiming for.

Two steps outside the school though, you catch a glimpse of another China. Here, house doors are covered with Chinese New Years decorations (believed to protect those who live inside), little corner shops with crickets in cages (Jiminy!), and old men sitting outside playing Chinese Chess. What is most surprising is that around a school, there are also quite a few derelict shops. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in investing money locally.

China grew rich and changed so fast its not a place where old and new exist alongside each other, it’s where they literally crash into one another (warning: gapyah blog/guide book line). For a lot of people this experience is similar to that old friend from home that won’t leave you alone to hang out with your new glitzy University friends, and keeps wanting to visit old haunts when all you want to do is go to the college bar and pretend you’ve always been this ‘cool’. However, usually these friends are also the ones who are best able to remind you who you are and why on earth you decided to study Anthropology.

Border Village

Shi Wei is a small village in the North of Inner Mongolia on the border with Russia, surrounded by grasslands, Mongolian horses and forest (totally satisfying my Mongolia stereotypes). At the end of the village is a long fence marking the Russian border and another village on the other side of the fence, no more than 10 km away from where you’re standing.

The locals in the village are an odd mixture of Russian and Chinese; blue eyes and black hair were all equally common. We stayed in the home of a local family who had turned their house into a home-stay. The husband explained that his wife was half Russian and half Chinese, that’s why she had such ‘beautiful blue eyes’. Most of the people we met tried to speak Russian to us at first, because anyone white was, obviously, Russian… Sadly my Russian is limited to ‘da’. Any street signs were in Chinese, Russian and Mongolian (also sometimes in questionable English) and breakfast was either Russian bread or Chinese dumplings.

This border village was in many ways similar to any border village; a mid point between two cultures.These villages have more in common with each other than they do with their capital city. Places like this are a reminder that borders and nations are not discreet walls where one language, people and culture end and another abruptly begins. In fact, you probably wouldn’t know the difference between the two villages, apart from the arbitrary fence placed between them indicating they’re bureaucratically controlled by one central government rather than another.