East Asia

Travelogue: Sufi Shrines in Linxia, China, China’s “Little Mecca”

by David Dettmann, Assistant Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin

In summer 2010, David Dettmann traveled to the Hui heartland in central China to collect material for his course Islam in China. The following is about his experience in Linxia, sometimes called China’s “Little Mecca,” in Southwestern Gansu Province.

Yu Baba Gongbei in Linxia

When I arrived at Linxia’s bus station, I liked the town immediately. It was obvious upon leaving the bus station that there is a hearty mix of people in Linxia, practicing different faiths and speaking different languages. There were Tibetan monks (likely in transit from the nearby Labrang Monastery in Xiahe), Hui (Chinese-speaking Muslims of various backgrounds), Han Chinese, Salar (Turkic-speaking Muslims), and the Santa and Bonan peoples (Mongol-speaking Muslims). Linxia, formerly known as Hezhou, is located in today’s southwestern Gansu Province, and is sometimes called China’s “Little Mecca” due to its important role in the spread and development of Islam in China. It is a central location in China’s Muslim heartland, part of a broader region that spans from Eastern Qinghai Province in the West, across Gansu and Ningxia, that straddles the borderlands of many historical powers: Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Turkic. The largest concentrations of China’s Hui communities—China’s largest Muslim group—are located in this region.


Linxia isn’t particularly known for tourism or anything. Most tourists who stop here (if they stop at all) are on their way to Labrang Monastery, one of the major monasteries for Yellow Hat Buddhism further down the road in Xiahe. Guidebooks in English and Chinese have very little information about Linxia, despite its long history as a center for Islamic activity in China. Much of the Muslim communities’ organization came via powerful Sufi orders, and followers still make pilgrimages to the shrines of the masters today. As a tourist here, you have to ask around in order to find some of Linxia’s many hidden charms. I came in search of religious shrines (gongbei, from Arabic qubba“cupola”) of the Sufi masters that had a major impact on the region’s Islam and politics of late Qing Dynasty.


Cooks Preparing Lunch in a Typical Linxia Restaurant

I had seen pictures of such tombs in Karl Luckert’s book entitled Mythology and Folklore of the Hui, A Muslim Chinese People, so I (kind of) knew what I was looking for. I caught a glimpse of something on the edge of town that looked like a gongbei, and I walked out to it. I got to the dusty old complex and walked through the doorway, after paying attention to the inscriptions on the doorway I realized that it was not a Sufi shrine at all, but a Buddhist shrine. After that I continued on to the next grand religious complex that I could see, and discovered this one was Daoist. I have since learned that old construction styles of prayer halls, temples, tombs, whether they be Muslim, Buddhist, or Daoist, are not particularly unique to the religion. For this region, people decorate worship centers with the same grey brick walls (see photo below), with embossed carvings detailed with slightly different motifs.

The buildings were built the same way, in the same shapes, too.  Finally, after some neighborhood kids helped show me the way, I found my first gongbei. I could see it over the wall in the middle of the neighborhood (see photo below), but it took me a while to find the entrance.


I imagined I was going to find some old structures there, probably at least as old as the run-down Buddhist shrine I had seen earlier. I was unprepared for what awaited me inside. After a dusty, noisy, narrow access, I could see an exquisite garden enclosed by brick walls that were intricately carved. I asked the policeman—who had just come back outside from praying inside the complex—if tourists could visit. He happily welcomed me in.  The beauty of the place was stunning (see first photo above).

The superb craftsman together with the garden was very calming. It was a nice change from the commotion of the busy street outside. There were two tombs inside (see photo right), and I later learned that this gongbei was of the Qadiriyya sufi order, one of the most widespread sufi orders in Central Asia. Supposedly, this had been a Muslim site dating as far back as the origin of the town. The complex was called Yu Baba Gongbei (Gongbei of Father Elm), also known as “the old gongbei.” It was maintained remarkably well. Arabic and Chinese adorned the walls, along with many images of nature.

It was clear to me that the craftsmanship was recent. The complex had apparently been destroyed in 1928 during Ma Zhongying’s uprising (when the region was controlled by warlords), and again during the anti-religious fervor of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. Only after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and the enactment of new policies of tolerance towards Islam was the complex restored, between 1983 and 1990. It must have been a lot of hard work. I wandered around the complex a bit, appreciating the incredible carvings and tomb architecture (see photo right).

Linxia has several gonbei, for various menhuan. Another important sufi order in Linxia is the NaqshbandiKhufiyya order, in the form of the Huasi (“multicolored mosque”)  menhuan (see photo right). Ma Laichi was a very influential leader and was very successful in converting the people of the region to Islam in the 18th century. He established the Huasi menhuan in China after he studied in Mecca and Yemen while on the hajj. His shrine in Linxia has also been destroyed and rebuilt several times, like the Yu Baba Gongbei. Still, Ma Laichi remains a revered figure today. In front of his shrine, there is a big cauldron where followers can burn incense in his honor.

When I arrived at this gongbei, I could hear several followers performing a vocal dhikr (remembrance of the Prophet, in this case done in a rhythmic chant) happening inside the gongbei.  To Chinese history, Ma Laichi’s followers played a role in the “Muslim Rebellion” from 1862-1873, when violence between competing Naqshbandi sufi orders (including the Khufiyya and Jahriyya) led to military intervention, and then anti-Muslim violence by the Qing and anti-Qing retaliation by Muslim militias. Regardless of the violent periods in the distant and recent (i.e. Cultural Revolution) past, the Huasi traditions are still going strong in Linxia. I appreciated the huge Huasi mosque as I walked back to the main road (see photo below).

I finished my day in Linxia with a delicious bowl of lamb and noodles from a Santa (Mongol-speaking Muslim, Dongxiangin Chinese) restaurant (see photo below). The boys there were great. They helped me learn a few phrases from their language, and let me take pictures of them making the noodles, which entailed tearing flat pieces of dough into the boiling water. It was a very fulfilling day. For my next trip to Linxia, I need a lot more time.

Islam in China

by David Dettmann, Assistant Director of the Center for East Asian Studies
Presently I am teaching a course on Islam in China, including the largest Muslim groups in China, the Chinese-speaking Hui people and the Turkic-speaking Uyghur people. I have two goals with this course: to broaden the students’ perspectives of what constitutes China, and also to broaden the students’ views on who in the world practices Islam.

My first encounters with Islam were actually in China. After I arrived in China in 1995 to study in Guangzhou, I, like many other Americans, was very impressed by the diversity of the metropolis. I found and began to frequent restaurants operated by Hui (many Hui run superb beef noodle shops) and Uyghurs (Uyghur food is very similar to the foods of Eurasia: nan flatbread, kebabs, and rice pilaf).

After my second year in Guangzhou, I went traveling out west, to Xinjiang Province (Xinjiang shares borders with many Central Asian countries, and it also shares cultures of the region). There I was utterly taken by the warmth of the Uyghur people, the beauty of the landscape, the flavors of the food and the fascinating music. That is what ultimately inspired me to study Turkic languages and Islam.

I noticed, even then, that there was some tension between the Uyghurs and the Han. To many Uyghurs, their own culture and livelihood was in jeopardy by the influx of Han settlers (Han Chinese had lived in Xinjiang for many decades, but in recent years they came in ever increasing numbers looking for work). That said, many Han who went to Xinjiang didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Regardless, tensions remain high in Xinjiang to this day. This tension, together with historical incidents of Muslim uprisings in the Qing dynasty and later prompt some people in China to imagine this has something to do with Islam being a violent religion. In my experience, religion has very little to do with the violence between groups in China. I never saw anything to make me think that Islam would incite violence by its followers.

Since my three years in China, I have had the opportunity to travel to and stay in other countries with large Muslim populations: Morocco and Turkey. I’ve also befriended and gotten to know Muslims here in Madison. Now when I think of Islam in general, I have to think of all of those experiences and remember all of the extremely tolerant and hospitable people I’ve met. The lesson that I’ve taken away from this is that the world’s Muslim population is incredibly diverse, and it is very difficult if not totally inappropriate, to generalize about them in any negative way.