With a population of 621,500 (as of the 2010 census), people of the Dongxiang ethnic minority live in the part of Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture situated south of the Yellow River and southwest of Lanzhou, the capital city of the northwest Gansu Province. Another half of then dwell in the Dongxiang Autonomous County, and the rest are scattered in Hezheng and Linxia counties, Lanzhou city, and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Name Origin and Language
The Dongxiang ethnic minority received its name from the place they live, Dongxiang. However, this group was not recognized as a minority prior to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Before, the Dongxiangs were called “Dongxiang Huis” or “Mongolian Huis.”
At its foundation, the Dongxiang language is very similar to Mongolian, as both belong to the Mongolian branch of the Altaic language family. It also contains a number of words borrowed from the Han Chinese language. Most of the Dongxiang people speak Chinese, which is accepted as their common written language. Only a few of them uses the Arabic alphabet to write.
Historians are divided in their views about the origin of the Dongxiang ethnic minority. Some hold that they are descendants of Mongolian troops posted in the Hezhou area by Genghis Khan (1162-1227) during his march to the west. Other historians say they are a mixture of many races – Hui, Mongolian, Han, and Tibetan groups.
However, according to legends and historical data, the Dongxiangs probably originated from the Mongolians. As far back as the 13th century, Mongolian garrison units were stationed in the Dongxiang area. During times of war, the Mongol soldiers fought on the battlefield, but during times of peace, they farmed and raised cattle and sheep. These garrison troops later took local women as wives.
During the early years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they were offered amnesty by the Ming rulers, and they settled down permanently in the Dongxiang area.
For several decades before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Dongxiang people suffered under the oppressive rule of the feudal Hui and Kuomintang warlords. What infuriated the Dongxiangs the most was the pressganging of their young men into the armed forces by warlords. In 1948, the pressgangs rounded up a total of more than 3,000 young men.
The Dongxiangs are an agricultural people who grow potatoes, wheat, maize and broad beans as well as hemp, rapeseed and other industrial crops. The Dongxiang’s “three treasures,” namely apricot, melon, and date, enjoy good reputation throughout China. Livestock rearing, especially of sheep, also plays an important role in their economic life.
Men wear loose robes, bind wide belt, with knife, pouch hang on belt. Men also wear white or black flat soft cap on his head. Dongxiang women usually wear embroidered broad-sleeved clothes with a neckline around the collar, buttons down the front and embroidered lace on the cuffs. The veil of the unmarried girls are made of thin and soft green silk yarn, it will switch to black after getting married, while older women wear white veil.
The Dongxiangs are Muslims, and at one time there were 595 mosques and 79 other places of worship in the Dongxiang area. This gave every 30 Dongxiang households a place of worship. Apart from the 12 imams, there were more than 2,000 full-time religious workers.
The Muslims in the Dongxiang area was then divided into three sects – the Old, the New and the Emerging sects. Carrying out a “divide and rule” policy, the ruling class sowed dissension among these sects. As a result, the Muslims were at feud among themselves. At times there were armed clashes. Since the 1950s, the Chinese government has pursued a policy of religious freedom in the Dongxinag area and has taken measures to restore unity among the Muslim population.
“Flowers” in Bloom
The Dongxiang ethnic group have a colorful and rich folk literature, which includes legends, stories, folk songs, and proverbs. Their folk songs, called “flowers,” were sung in the past by people to express their hopes for a better life and their opposition to oppression. The “flowers,” which had been ruthlessly trampled down in the old days, began to blossom anew following the emancipation of the Dongxiang people.
There are quite a number of popular narrative poems and folktales in the Dongxiang area. The long poem “Meilagahei and Miss Machenglong” sings praise of the heroism of a young couple who pitted themselves against out-moded ethics and the feudal marriage system. The folklore “Green Widow Kills the Boa” depicts the courage, wisdom and self-sacrificing spirit of Dongxiang women.