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Between Mecca and Beijing

by: Maris Boyd Gillette

Stanford CA: Stanford University Press 2000, $18.95, Paperback
ISBN: 0-8047-4685-0

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newmand
Summer Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(2) page(s): 18

This fascinating read examines how urban Chinese Muslims live and use food consumption to position themselves within/with the Chinese government. Using an old Muslim district in the city of the terra cotta warriors, now Xian but earlier known as Changan, they work hard to reject the governments characterization of them as less civilized and less modern than their Han counterparts.

Subtitled: Modernization and Consumption Among Urban Chinese Muslims, this book does discuss the entire Quran--it was once spelled Koran, and when read it does help one to understand this Muslim minority. Chapters four, five, and six titled: Traditional Food and Race, Factory Food, Modernization and Race, and Alcohol and Building a Civilized Society, are a gorgeous view of what these Muslims see, eat, feel, and sometimes say to their Han neighbors and the government bureaucrats they need to deal with.

This book and Martha Week's article about the Cuisine of the Dongan/Hui in this issue beginning on page 9 fit hand and glove toward this better understanding. Gillette discusses 'pure' and 'true' or the centrality of Hui and almost every Chinese Muslim's approach to food. It details Islamic dietary restrictions directly derived from God's revelations, the scholarly approaches to their diet, qing zhen or food's cleanliness in its most fundamental aspects—-a sort of ritual piety, that is to keep away from anything that touched pork or other unclean foods.

This means that half of the Hui in Xian are engaged in the business of food or qing zhen. At the periphery of this word's meanings, is honesty. It is an Islamic tenet as important as not touching pork and not doing anything haram or 'unlawful.' Diet and contagion keep Hui and Han apart. The Hui adore and consume lots of beef made many old-fashioned ways and probably more lamb stew than any other animal food. These are indications that they cling to their culinary traditions, especially at funerals.

The book describes some of them. One gets a lively look at wedding and funeral behaviors. One sees why Western foods can be eaten and not haram, especially for the kiddies. Find out why one very haram food, namely alcohol, is now being served in Hui restaurants. These parties and practices have political and personal politics. They are the ways Hui see themselves and the ways they see, seek, ingest, and sell food.

Take a detailed look at the politics of one Muslim minority in China, the Hui, by reading this book. Their task of establishing a niche and modus operandi in China's Han world may be easier than for a non-Muslim population group. One wonders how other minorities are consuming and self constructing. This book looks at roots and reality that came from Mecca all the way to Xian. It is a window, cleanly washed, viewing the ways of and the Hui in China today. Clouded before its publication, this is a polished perspective of food details, a topic hardly ever researched in China beyond numbers of catty’s of rice per person.

For this minority behaviorly programmed population, see how they survive and function. Find out the what and why of their thinking. It may help as the Muslims of the world are demanding attention on other fronts. Poorly understood before books such as Feeding China’s Little Emperors that was reviewed in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 9(1) on page 24 started looking at modern China, this classical anthropological perspective brings food and accommodations to it to the fore. No longer is it simply, what is there to eat. These Chinese Muslims need to deal with a country's abundance of food in its myriad of politico-social--even sanitary settings. Where will they go from here?

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