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The Dungans -- Cultural Emissaries in Central Asia

The Dungan people, living in Kirghizstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan today, are descendants of Chinese Muslims. Since the creation of the Dungan written language -- a unique phonetic language -- in the early years of the 20th century, mainly under the influence of the social environment of the former Soviet Union, the Dungans developed their own written literature. Over 70 years of experiments have turned the initially humble Dungan literature into a significant branch of Chinese literature. In fact, the rise of Dungan literature has not only enriched the diversity of Chinese literature but borne testimony to Chinese culture taking root elsewhere in Central Asia.

History of the Dungans

The uprising of the Hui Muslims, which broke out in northwest China in the late 1800s, rocked the already crumbling regime of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Defeated by massive forces dispatched by the Qing, the insurrectionists totaling 10,941 were forced to migrate into Czarist Russia in 1877, 1878 and 1879 respectively, and finally settled down in Central Asia. Over the ensuing 100-odd years the population of Chinese Muslims living there increased nine fold.

In the beginning, with the approval of the Czarist Russian government, these landless immigrants reclaimed wasteland for farming, meanwhile engaged in livestock husbandry. Early in the twentieth century, they actively participated in an armed revolt by people of all nationalities in Central Asia against the Czar's tyranny. These Chinese Muslims and their descendants also did their bit for the construction of the former Soviet Union and the victory of the anti-fascist war in the 1940s.

The Dungan people have lived scattering around Central Asia, a region inhabited by many ethnic groups, for more than a century. However, their impressions of their homeland have not become blurred with the passage of time. Up to now, over 90 percent of them speak the Shaanxi and Gansu dialects. In religious belief, housing, dietetic habits and dressing, they still keep up the traditions handed down by their ancestors who lived in northwest China.

Originally, the Dungans introduced farming and vegetable-growing knowledge and practices into Central Asia. Even today, in the markets in Alma-Ata and Biskek, vegetable-selling is mostly "monopolized" by the Dungans. No wonder local inhabitants joked that, "If the Dungans refused to work, there would be no fresh vegetables found on any family dining table!"

Involvement of Dungan Written Language

The Dungan people, moving into Czarist Russia, kept the tradition of spelling their oral language with Arabic letters. This habit, known as xiao'erjin among Chinese Muslims, was carried on till the 1920s.

In 1927, some Muslim students studying in Tashkent put forth a writing system for the Dungan language composed of 35 Arabic letters. Then the 1928 Convention on Turkic Studies in Baku heralded a campaign of Latinization in the Turkic World, which resulted in a Latinized alphabet of 31 letters as the foundation of the new Dungan written language. The first anthology of poems by Yasyr Shivaza (1906-1988), founder of Dungan literature, was published in 1931 in this version of the Dungan language.

In 1952 the former Soviet Union launched the reform of writing systems among ethnic minorities. A year later a Slavicized alphabet, which has 38 letters, was created for writing the Dungan language. This Slavicized writing system whose pronunciation is based on the Gansu dialect is still in use, helping preserve the history, language, culture and literature of the Dungans.

Dungan Literature

Beginning with the publication of the anthology of Shivaza's poems in 1931, Dungan literature has a history of a little more than 70 years.

Nonetheless, the Dungans have boasted a long tradition of oral literature. Before the October Revolution in 1917, oral literature remained the only literary form of the Dungans, which included folk songs, folklore, proverbs, tongue twisters, riddles, and so on. Most of them maintained innumerable ties with the Han people's folk literature. For example, some tongue twisters, riddles and proverbs were also very popular among the Han people. Many folktales apparently originated in northwest China. Furthermore, many ballades sung exclusively by Dungan men borrowed stories from  Chinese classics such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (by Luo Guanzhong [c.1330-1400] of the early Ming Dynasty), Heroes of the Marshes (by Shi Nai'an [1296-1370] of the early Ming Dynasty), and Pilgrimage to the West (by Wu Cheng'en [1504?-1582] of the Ming Dynasty).
In 1900, Russian scholars collected and published the first batch of documents reflecting the Dungan people's customs, habits as well as oral literature.
Within a short period, Dungan literature completed an historical transition from oral to written form. Following the creation of the Dungan phonetic language and the publication of Dungan newspapers, the Dungan written literature saw its prosperity in the 1930s.
Beyond all doubt, the long-standing folk literature has offered as a breeding ground for the development of Dungan written literature. On the other hand, living in a Russian language-dominated environment over a long period of time, Dungan writers naturally derive nourishment from Russian literature, so as to better their own artistic accomplishments. Over the past years, they have translated many Russian literary masterpieces into Dungan language, including those by Ivan Sergievich Turgenev (1818-1883), Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910), Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), and Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov (1905-1984). Arduous effort for years has eventually produced a large number of new figures who are active in the Dungan literary world.
Never forgetting their Chinese roots, generations of Dungan writers have reposed a deep affection for their homeland in their literary works, which have actually exposed the Dungan people's characteristic cultural psychology and distinctive customs and habits closely linked to the Chinese tradition. For instance, in one of his poems, Shivaza depicts a Dungan girl expressing her love with willow twigs instead of flowers, which made no sense to Russian readers. However, this poem is quite understandable to Chinese readers since willow is homophonic with the Chinese expression of "asking somebody to stay" in the Chinese language.
Brought up under the influence of their peasant ancestors living in northwest China, Dungan writers have created unique written literature characterized by a simple and unadorned style.
It's as pristine as a snowflake; however, the powerful sun is hidden in it, Shivaza once commented.
Source of 'Dungan'

The term "Dungan" was first seen in the late 18th century. Between 1755 and 1759, after suppressing a rebellion of local tribes, the Qing government moved floods of Hui people from Shaanxi and Gansu into Xinjiang to open up the frontier areas on a vast scale. These Muslim emigrants were called by the local Turki-speaking Uygurs "Tunggan," which derived from Turup Qalghan, meaning "people who have settled down." More than a century later, the defeated Muslim rebels brought their culture as well as the name of Tunggan to Central Asia. Tunggan was pronounced "Dungan" in Russian, hence the name.

Nevertheless, in terms of the source of "Dungan," historically there have existed quite a few other homophonic explanations, including:

1. Deriving from "dong-an" (east bank), since the Muslims originally came from the east bank of the Yellow River.

2. Deriving from "donggan" (eastern Gansu), since some of the Muslims originally came from eastern Gansu.

3. Deriving from Tongguan, since some of the Muslims originally came from Tongguan and the nearby area in today's Shaanxi Province.

4. Deriving from Dunhuang, since Dunhuang is situated on the Muslims' migration route into Czarist Russia.

Thus obviously, the question relating to the source of "Dungan" still remains an enigma to which no one knows the exact answer.

(China.org.cn by Shao Da, August 21, 2003)

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