Dungans - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The Dungans are of the Sunni sect of Islam and Hanifi school of law. Because they lived under the Communist regime, it seems, at least at first glance, that they called themselves "Muslims" only because their ancestors were Muslims. Most of the Dungan scholars and writers and the people with official positions at the Academy of Sciences and the collective farms were party members, who rarely mentioned religion in their publications except to ridicule the teachings of Islam. Young Dungans are either actively against or indifferent to Islam, but there is a tendency among the Dungans to turn to religion after the age of 40.

On closer investigation, however, one finds that Islam does play an important role in the life of the Dungans. Nearly every Dungan settlement has a mosque, which is administered by the ahung, the mosque elders, and some respected members of the laity. The livelihood of the ahungs comes from the zakat (a tax levied on property) and from the financial support of the faithful. A portion of this money is also used for contributions to the main Islamic center in Uzbekistan and for the maintenance and repair of mosques. The Dungan clergy not only conduct prayer services in the mosque but also, if invited, pray and perform religious rites at the homes of the faithful. The religious rites are performed at home, for example, when an infant is given a Muslim name or at circumcisions, weddings, funerals, the memorial services after a burial, and religious holidays. Ahungs have great influence on the faithful, but this influence is restricted to religious rituals and the domestic side of everyday life. The Quran is kept not only in the mosque but also in the homes of many of the faithful. The Quran and other religious publications are obtained from the main Islamic center. The Shensi Dungans are more conservative and follow Sharia (law of Islam) more closely than the Kansu Dungans. Being more orthodox, older Dungans still observe at least four of the five Muslim observances—reading the Quran, prayer five times a day, fasting, payment of zakat, and pilgrimage. Obviously, in the Soviet period the Dungans could only observe the first four of these five "pillars of the faith" because of restrictions on travel. The prayers are in Arabic and the same as elsewhere in the Muslim world. There are special prayers for such occasions as weddings, funerals, housewarmings, and the periodic memorial services after burials.

Dungans still practice circumcision ( sunnet ) ; this is performed when boys are 5, 7, or 9 years of age. Although Dungans do not seem to be an actively religious group, they have, perhaps unconsciously, preserved many Muslim terms and customs in their infants' birthday celebrations and in weddings and funerals.

Ceremonies. The Dungans observe many ceremonies, and they are famous for their hospitality and their banquets. Their elaborate and colorful observances of birthdays, weddings, and funerals are related to several factors: as an isolated and close-knit group, they have preserved the long-forgotten customs that were practiced in China during the second half of the last century, and, because a large number of Dungans are related to one another, they enjoy large functions that are often attended by well over 100 friends and relatives. Shensi and Kansu Dungans, urban and rural Dungans—all observe these ceremonies, which tend to differ from each other, but only in some details. Generally speaking, after a Dungan baby is born there are celebrations on the 10th, 40th, and 100th day after his or her birth and again when the child is 1 year old. As for the weddings, they are celebrated over the course of two to ten days, preceded and followed by numerous celebrations accompanied by special Chinese and Muslim customs and many banquets. Three examples will show that the Dungans conduct their weddings according to the traditions that were known to their ancestors in China: although the Dungans do not have arranged marriages any more (the young people decide whom they should marry), the matchmakers still visit the bride's home once a week for at least three weeks; the bride wears a red or pink Manchu-style gown and has the traditional elaborately decorated coiffure; and a "teasing the bride" game, which has long since ceased to exist in China, is played in the bridal chamber during the evening of the main wedding day.

Arts. The Chinese Muslims who crossed the Russian border, although almost entirely illiterate, brought with them, in oral form, their legends, stories, songs, and riddles. Not knowing Chinese characters, and living in Russia, they eventually settled on the Cyrillic alphabet. Although many works have been published, the written language of the Dungans is still close to the colloquial. Their poetry and songs have a rustic charm, reminiscent of village folk songs. Living in Russia, the Dungans have been introduced to pre- and post-Revolutionary Russian literature but not to the literature of other countries. In their tightly knit communities they have preserved Chinese cuisine, the use of chopsticks, and, to a certain degree, Chinese-style housing—most of the collective farmers have Chinese-style courtyards, and some still sleep on heated brickbeds ( k ' ang ) . Their clothes, with the exception of that of the brides and some Shensi Dungan women, are Central Asian.

Death and Afterlife. Dungan funerals are conducted according to Arabic funeral rites and differ only minutely from the present-day Muslim funerals in China. The corpse is washed, women cannot go to the cemetery on the day of the funeral, and on that day a mullah is hired to say a prayer over the grave each day for the next forty days. During this mourning period, the Shensi Dungans wear white mourning clothes; the Kansu Dungans do not wear mourning clothes. The deceased is remembered on the 4th, 7th, 40th, and 100th day after death, and then each year on the anniversary of the death.


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