Archive for the ‘ Ancient Lands ’ Category

Yinchuan:  A trip of serendipitous discovery



Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2016. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: It was the news in the American media about the exciting wineries of China that attracted my small group of fellow-travelers to Yinchuan, a place we had never heard of before. We explored the surprising wineries. Some of us ended up having more fun, however, drinking beer in the equally unexpected Oktoberfest, celebrated in mid-September in our German-run hotel. The Brewmeister himself served us, joined by the chef at the restaurant.  Even the chief winemaker in town came to mingle, and we got a rare glimpse of the life-style of the rich and famous Chinese who were the other guests at the hotel.

All this paled compared to what I found in yet another fortunate happenstance:  the unfurling of China’s grand strategy for the world, which is President Xi Jinping’s newly announced initiative called “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road.” Its early manifestation in the form of the “China-Arab States Expo” in Yinchuan coincided with our arrival. The “Maritime” part of the initiative will be the subject of anther report. The present paper is about navigating the meaning of all that the other part, “Silk Road Economic Belt,” evoked.

In that pursuit, I also learned about China’s economic plans for developing its “wild west” and dealing with its Muslim minorities, while it nurtures critical relations with many countries west of its borders. Equally valuable was the opportunity to glance at how China perceives its past. The part of its history that comes to focus here is also of special interest to students of world history. In 1273 Genghis Khan led the Mongol army that defeated the Chinese Kingdom at Yinchuan which was then its capital. The Great Khan died here but his army went on to establish the first foreign dynasty, under his grandson Kublai Khan, which dominated all of China. Genghis’s other grandsons, meanwhile, were establishing their own dominion over lands that constituted the western side of the ancient “Silk Road”, thus creating another historic first: the political control of most of the civilized world by a single family – which was, furthermore, foreign to both sides.

With this tapestry of diverse subjects to review, this report will struggle to draw a cohesive picture of Yinchuan. Far from being conclusive, it will be content to reveal the need for further study and better answers to the questions it raises.


China-Arab States Expo

After a two- hour flight west from Beijing, when I arrived at the Yinchuan airport the first sign that faced me said الوصول (al-vusul). This was the Arabic word for “Arrival” – also included in the sign both in English and Chinese. In the lobby of the Arrival terminal, the sign for a restaurant that served “Islamic Foods” was only in Arabic and Chinese, with no English . I knew that Yinchuan was the capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which had nearly 40% Hui Muslims, in its population. The Hui, however, were said to be the only Sinophone group among the ten predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China; the others’ mother-tongues were languages other than Chinese. I started a conversation with a young couple as we waited at the carousel for our luggage. They were returning home from a trip to Australia. They were Hui and when I asked if they spoke Arabic, they said “No, we can only read the Qur’an.” That is the Islamic holy book which is commonly read by non-Arab Muslims in its original Arabic.

The Arabic in the airport signs were occasioned by the “China-Arab States Expo,” held in Yinchuan from September 10 to 13, 2015, just before my arrival. A big sign still standing in the airport, in Arabic, Chinese and English, announced the Expo’s goal,  “Uphold Silk Road Spirit, Deepen China-Arab States Cooperation,” with its logo shining in multi-colors  {1}

As I would find out later in the official publications {2}, the Expo included a “University Presidents Forum,” and another forum on “Global Smart City,” one symposium on sustainable development in agriculture, a “Green Expo” in Yinchuan’s “Green Garden” and it featured a “Cloud Computing Technology and Applications Exhibition ” which was at the Yinchuan International Conference Hall{3}. Representatives from 26 Arab countries participated, at least, in the University Presidents Forum in Yinchuan. When we left the airport, I noted that the wide boulevard leading to the center of town was still festooned with flags of many of those Arab countries.

Our tour guide kept assuring us that the Yinchuan Muslims were “very friendly.” They were “not like Middle Easterners.” He wore a dark suit and a tie, had studied international relations in the Big Island of Hawaii and had wanted to become a diplomat but, he said, “I do not have connections” which were necessary. Surprisingly, he did not have much to say about the Expo or the Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping which underpinned it. Those subjects were important but apparently not thought to be of great interest to casual tourists.

Silk Road Economic Belt

My reading of current reports in the Chinese media, and other literature on the subject, indicated that the initiative, announced by President Xi in 2003, soon after he became China’s leader, was now at the heart of this country’s economic plans and geopolitical strategy.  Officially called “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st -century Maritime Silk Road,” the President’s proposal consists of two main components, the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt,” and “The Maritime Silk Road”. The latter aims at “investing and fostering collaboration in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and North Africa, through several contiguous bodies of water – the South China Sea, the South Pacific Ocean, and the wider Indian Ocean area.” The Belt part covers “countries situated on the original Silk Road through Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.” It “calls for the integration of the region into a cohesive economic area through building infrastructure, increasing cultural exchanges, and broadening trade.” South Asia and Southeast Asia will be added in the future as the extension of this “belt.” Also later, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor will link the two original components, the land-based Belt and the Maritime Road {4}.

There are compelling geopolitical reasons for China “to push forward with its One Belt, One Road plans at a time when its trading partners are potentially excluding it from strategic agreements,” such as Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the EU-Japan. In China’s alternative strategic agreements with the new partners it now wishes to woo by this initiative, President Xi Jinping has been mindful to ease political concerns by pointedly emphasizing “Three Nos”. These consist of “no interference in the internal affairs” of other nations, “no seeking” to increase the “sphere of influence” and not striving for “hegemony or dominance {5}.”

There is also a strong urgent economic incentive, specifically, for the land- based Belt part of Xi’s initiative.  After thirty years of unprecedented growth, China is now faced with a slowing economy. Its leadership is looking for new ways to sustain growth, while its developing neighbors to the west are experiencing rapidly rising demand. The Belt initiative can serve as a project to redirect China’s domestic overcapacity and capital for regional development. Eventually, China’s growing domestic market would provide the chance for the region to capitalize by providing goods and services. Accordingly, the Silk Road Economic Belt features prominently in China’s 13th   Five-Year Plan, which will run from 2016 to 2020 {6}.

Yinchuan Showcase

Trial area. In 2014, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) which had been established ten years earlier decided to focus on the building of the Silk Road Economic Belt. While in the past it had been meeting as a ministerial conference in Beijing, CASCF chose to have its 2015 China-Arab States Expo in Yinchuan, deeming it as important for Sino-Arab cooperation in the province of Ningxia, and “a trial area for inland-foreign-oriented trade in China, with its eye on opportunities in Arab countries and the Muslim world.” As evidence of Yinchuan’s qualification, at the Expo the mayor of the city boasted of “its projects in recent years such as the Yue Hai Wan Central Business District, Binhe New Area, and Bonded Area”. He added that he hoped the Expo would help the city “to advertise its beautiful landscape, history, cultural heritage, and good ecology.” The officials of Ningxia Autonomous Region told the Expo about the province’s  “work on modernizing its agriculture for more cost-effective results using local characteristics,” pointing out that “Ningxia has climate and geographic conditions similar to Arab countries,” and therefore, there was “great potential for cooperation in such fields as dry land farming, water-saving agriculture, desertification control, and soil improvement {7} .”

Transitional times.  As we drove toward our hotel in Yinchuan we could see the impressive landscape of modern tall buildings in the part of town where new offices  and hotels  were located . Just outside of this area, however, we turned onto a bumpy road for an hour ride to another attraction of Yinchuan, its farmland. The farms on the one side were separated from the dusty road by an irrigation canal which was built on a berm. “We get very little rain here,” our guide said. “The Yellow River is practically the sole source of our water with its dams and canals,” he continued.  (Indeed, Yinchuan means “Silver River” which, I thought, might point out the city’s original raison d’être.) “The River comes from Tibet, and it is called Yellow because it is murky due to the silt,” the guide said.

The other side of the road we were on was lined with Poplar trees. A very dirty bus  covered with the dust of the desert and crowded with passengers, passed us. The women we saw among the passengers were wearing headscarves. Old Hui Moslem women usually wear headscarves but, our guide said, “other women also wear them for protection against the dust.”  On the drive back to the city, we approached a traffic jam and soon our van came to a standstill on the narrow road of the farmland just before we reached the wide new boulevard that served this modern part of Yinchuan. Two passenger cars blocked most of the entrance to the boulevard. When we were finally able to pass them, a half an hour later, our guide explained that those two cars, involved in an accident, were waiting for the insurance adjusters as neither driver was willing to accept fault.

It has been suggested that urbanization is a more promising way to deal with China’s surplus of capital and production problem than the Belt initiative. The country’s current urbanization rate of 52 percent is low given its level of development. A lot of the young rural population has come to cities as migrant workers, but they cannot bring families or truly become citizens of the cities due, in part, to the lack of sufficient housing. As we drove around Yinchuan, we noticed a considerable number of newly- built apartment blocks, presumably to address the housing shortages. We could not be sure that they were fully occupied.

Unused infrastructure. China’s current new kind of surplus, that of unused infrastructure, was evident in the miles of brand new freeways we saw in Ningxia as we later drove from Yinchuan to Shapotou, one of its major “ecological attractions,” some 200 kilometers southwest. The toll road G6 was an excellent four-lane divided road with an island in the middle which had trimmed bushes almost like topiaries in the middle . There were guard rails on both sides. Exits were numbered. There were signs in Chinese and English with icons for gas and food. We stopped at a “Servicer Area.” A sign in its urinal in Chinese, Arabic and English urged: “A small step forward. A big step in civilization .” On the road another sign said in English: “Waste discarding prohibited.”  Yet another sign read: “Please No Weary Driving.”

Traffic was very light, with only a few buses and several trucks and cars.  A Police car passed us with its lighting siren on without any visible reason. We noted ten road workers in orange vests, but no accompanying vehicle. Two women workers were picking up trash.  Coal burning power plants could be seen in the countryside. They were still in use also in the city of Yinchuan. Our guide explained:  “we have a lot of coal here.” He also said: “where we are driving was a desert 20 years ago.”  He amplified: “Yinchuan is surrounded by three deserts.”  Shapotou Desert tourist area is located in the southeast of the Tenggeli Desert.

Street scene. Notwithstanding all the signs in Arabic and English, I did not run into any Arab or Westerner (not counting the Americans in my small tour group). Their absence was especially conspicuous in the downtown area, called Xing Qing. I walked in this section of town which was by far its busiest. The Drum Tower  was a reminder of how Yinchuan looked before its recent “modernization.”  Like those in other cities of China, the Drum Tower, as its name indicated, was originally constructed for musical purposes. Now it faced a Western style plaza with its Burger King restaurant and a stage being set up for a karaoke- type participatory music event . At another corner of the street facing the Tower, however, was a lone Chinese musician sitting at the Gehu, the Chinese version of Cello, playing old Chinese melodies, with a basket for tips in front of him . There were more musicians in the long and wide pedestrian street, XinHua . However, they attracted attention more as curiosities. One was a singer propped up by a crutch under his arm . Another was interesting for his unusually small body and big head . Still a third was a paraplegic who played harmonica as he sat on a customized motorcycle . By far the largest crowd, however, gathered around another man with missing limbs who painted calligraphy on papers spread on the ground, holding the brush by his teeth.

The shops that surrounded this non-modern ensemble of entertainers were strikingly modern. However, they lacked any non-Chinese name signs. Not only English but even Arabic writings were missing. Only around the corner, I saw a food vendor who had the Islamic creed calligraphed on his cart . Here also there was a sign for a فندق (funduq), Arabic for hotel, on a building . This was apparently in anticipation of receiving Arab tourists from abroad which Ningxia hoped to “lure,” according to local newspapers.


A parallel campaign was to attract Western visitors, especially by the lure of Yinchuan’s wineries. My American companions had specifically come to visit them. Two days before the opening of the China-Arab States Expo, Yinchuan hosted another one, the East Helan Mountain Area International Wine Expo, in which seven wines from this surrounding area were given gold medals. So it was that our guide had lost no time in taking us directly from the airport to Chateau Bacchus on the outskirts of the city. As we drove through a rather dry farmland, he explained, “hot days and cold nights here are ideal for growing grapes and, therefore, for wineries.”  He added:  “this is the fruit season,” pointing to the vendors we saw selling watermelons on the side of the road.

“Chateau Bacchus began by a man who made his money in the south of China 20 years ago,” our guide continued. “He came and fixed the desert and asked the French for help. Then others came too.”  As we arrived through an imposing gate, a marching tune blared on the loudspeakers and a water fountain jetted water to cool the desert air.  This was to welcome us as the winery knew of our coming. As we approached the entrance to the winery’s main building, a group of men appeared on the steps . Taking them as the manager and his staff, we eagerly shook their stretched hands. But then they said goodbye and walked toward the exit. It turned out that they were the “Head of Tourism Office” and aides, on an inspection visit there. Chateau Bacchus had proudly posted on its gate an “AAA” ranking sign by the National Tourist Evaluation Committee . Alas, we remained the only visitors the whole time we were there.

A young woman was our host .  In a small “tasting” room, we sat at a plain table as she served us Grenache and Shiraz wines.  She poured from a glass which was used as a decanter , filled by another glass directly from the barrel . The grapes were from their own vineyards. Our host said “the winemaker is Chinese but the standards come from the French.” There were framed certificates of awards given to the winery, mostly from China, on the walls of the room . There was also a painting of galloping horses which were “the symbols of fast success,” we were told.

The winery had a “restaurant” but it would be opened “only with a prior reservation.”  Its wine was also sold only from barrels located at different branches for “club members.” Our host was the only staff we saw. She now led us to a cellar which was exclusively for the club members. This was a dark underground cave, with barrels of wine. The signs here, and in the garden of the winery were in Arabic, as well as Chinese and English .  A two-story building on the other side of the garden was called the Business Center. A sign at its entrance described it:  “The Business Center is a high-end Club, which sets catering, entertainment and accommodation as a whole. The dreams of Romance and Luxury can be come true, as if we enter the ancient European castle of Middle Ages.” Regarding the “romance,” inside the building were a lobby furnished with a white piano and a stairway leading upstairs to two bedrooms with two beds each. In another room, there were a basin, a washer and a dryer.

Winery Chateau Moser XV

As we left Chateau Bacchus we picked a branch from a grapevine in the vineyard just outside the gate and tasted its black Merlot.  The size of this vineyard was minuscule compared to the vineyard we saw in the next winery we visited in Yinchuan: Winery Chateau Moser XV . The biggest in Ningxia, the building area of the Chateau is nearly 140,000 square feet. With many fountains and turrets, the winery calls itself Changyu International Wine City . The name Changyu is a reminder that this is actually a subsidiary of a more venerable winery by that name in China’s northeastern Shandong province which is “the most comprehensive” winery, while the Yinchuan branch specializes in “high end” wines.

When we entered the “wine tasting center” building of Changyu, which was about 54,000 square feet, an electric people mover  carried us to a large auditorium at the other end, where we were shown a short film about the history of the winery. The Changyu winery was founded in the 1890s by Chang Bishi . He was the first Chinese Consul in Penang Pulau (today’s Malaysia). He was a philanthropist , and also provided financial aid to the 1911 Chinese Revolution. He was called by the revolutionary party the “Financier of Revolution .”

The winery presented itself as a part of “Changyu Pioneer International Chateau Alliance” in a “Chateau Alliance Map” showing branches in several places in China, including “Chateau Changyu Castle Yantai, as well as in Austria, France, Italy, Germany, Hungary and Moldova.”  The walls of the wine tasting center showcased pictures of famous world leaders with glasses of its wines before them:  Presidents Obama, Putin and Holland and Chancellor Merkel among them, as well as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates .

Our guide said that the winery received some 300 foreign visitors a year.  A guest book had recorded what previous visitors had said about their visits. The sign above it said, in English: “God has given to human good and valuable things, than wine.”  A page from the book featured comments which were equally unclear, such as: “I am the resveratral (sic), hug me will bring the blessing of health to you!.” We were now at the winery’s 38,000 square foot “mysterious underground cellars” which boasted a storage area for over 2000 oak barrels and 260,000 bottles for aging. There was a picture of a famous Chinese movie star of the 1920s, advertizing for this winery . We were given a gift of a 6-year old brandy, bottled in front of us from the barrel. Each bottle was closed with a cork that was literally hammered in .

A few wine bottles were on display. One was priced at about 50 dollars . The sales revenue of Changyu Group in 2007, reportedly, reached 695 million U.S. dollars, making it one of the top ten grape wine enterprises of the world, the first Asian enterprise to appear on that list. By 2012, its ranking on the list rose up to No. 4.  We were told that the grapes for the winery’s vineyard originally came from France‘s Bordeaux and Burgundy regions. The chief wine maker was from the Austrian Moser family:  Lenz Moser, the heir to “fifteen generations” of European wine planting and brewing technologies , looked at us from a framed picture on the wall of the winery. He has declared that this was one of the most potential production areas of best wine grape in the world because of its soil, dry air, number of days of sunshine and temperature differences between day and night.  Lenz Moser has succeeded in substantially increasing the sale of Changyu wines in Europe and was eyeing bigger expansion to even include the American market.

Affluent Chinese

According to Western reporters, for sometime the Chinese government officials and executives at state-owned companies buying expensive vintages for banquets and gifts were the major cause for an explosion in China’s domestic wine consumption. The government’s tough anticorruption campaign of the last couple of years has closed down that market. This has forced the winemakers to focus on the “real buyers,” those “who drink wine because they like it, not because of the status or favors it brings.” Prime among these are the middle- and upper-class Chinese, especially the young ones who “acquired a taste for wine while studying abroad.”

Chateau Changyu Moser XV, additionally, saw itself as “a wine estate” making “high-end chateau wine,” and aiming at “wine culture tourism” as a “high-end club of wine theme.” It boasted of the Byzantine style of its principle structure,  its “magnificent” domed castle . It expected soon to receive as many as 80,000 visitors a year. It hoped to draw them from wealthy Chinese who have begun to enjoy western-style vacations.  The promise of such a market is reflected in the nascent business of dividing big acres of land, which could be vineyards, into large parcels to create “mini chateaus” for the wealthy, as our guide told us. One such entrepreneur has reported that he has already sold two parcels around Yinchuan.

On the day I was in Chateau Changyu, virtually the only visitors I saw in the tasting center were Chinese school children . However, just outside, in the garden of the winery facing the Chateau’s castle, we noticed a crowd. They were attending a wedding in progress . This signified yet another aspect of the business of this winery, as an event venue. Our guide said the venue’s price exceeded 50,000 dollars. The Chinese wedding couple  and their guests  wore western clothes although the ceremony was conducted in Chinese, broadcast on loud speakers. Curiously, the wedding vows were engraved on glass in English at the altar . The ceremony was being filmed by a drone flying overhead.

That evening we pondered whether the guests at the wedding were responsible for our pricey hotel telling us that it had no room because it was full. We had advance confirmed reservations and the Kempinski hotel upgraded us to suites. “Germans honor their promises,” the German managers of the hotel told us. Now we were sitting in a festively decorated restaurant bar, celebrating Oktoberfest. The place was crowded with many Chinese guests. It advertised the traditional Paulaner beer, but we were exchanging “Prost!”  with the Brewmeister himself over his beer, made by the elaborate apparatus right here . This I owed to my German fellow-traveler who earlier had met the Chef of this restaurant, on his break, in the bar of the hotel lounge. The next morning, in the breakfast room of the hotel, also crowded with affluent Chinese guests, I was told by the Austrian woman who was the “Supervisor” of the room that Lenz Moser, the chief winemaker at Changyu was also among those attending the previous night’s Oktoberfest. She left me to communicate by sign language with her Chinese staff. Behind the counter, five cooks with aprons and tall chefs’ hats were struggling to fry eggs the western style.

When I walked out into the lobby of the hotel, I noticed some commotions at the elevator. There were guards watching its door as it opened. Presently, a young man and his small entourage came out and walked toward the exit from the hotel. I followed them at a distance. There were reporters with cameras tailing the man. Outside, at the entrance to the hotel, people had gathered around five young girls in red skirts and white tops and shoes, who were singing. Behind them was a black SUV with three escorting cars and a few more guards.  Soon the girls lined up in front of the SUV, smiling and holding thumps up as they faced the young man in his light yellow jacket .  As his cars eventually pulled out, I noticed a uniformed hotel staff, beaming as she looked on. I asked what was going on. She said “the Chinese super star is there.” I asked her to write his name. She wrote some Chinese characters. I said “in English.” She wrote “1401 Han Geng.” I asked “what is that number?”  She said “his room number” in the hotel. Han Geng is a Chinese Mandopop (Mandarin popular music) singer and actor, in demand by numerous TV shows, commercials and movies. He was in Yinchuan to make movies.

Xixia Kingdom Ruins

Yinchuan is famous for its West Movie Studio of Zhenbei Forts. The Studio is nicknamed “Oriental Hollywood” because it has supplied the background scenes resembling ancient northern small towns of China for nearly one hundred movies. The Studio was built around the ruins of two old forts from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. We went to see the even more ancient and historically far more significant ruins of Yinchuan on its last days as the capital of the Xixia (Western Xia) Kingdom. The city was destroyed in 1273 by the conquering Mongol army that came under the command of Genghis Khan. It is believed that the great Khan himself died of “uncertain causes,” a month before the conquest of Yinchuan was consummated. What was left in ruins, 30 kilometers west of today’s Yinchuan, is a cemetery with mausoleums of 9 Emperors of Xixia and 255 subordinate tombs. Together, they spread over 53 kilometers. They are dubbed the “Oriental Pyramids”.

I stood before one of the mausoleums which are called Tomb Towers. As a sign referred to it:“The Tomb Tower is the main architecture in the cemetery. It has a shape of octagonal cone, 23 meters high. Each side of the bottom is 13 meters. Various building components scattered around the tower is very dense. Including Chiwen, beast, ridge ornaments and so on.”  Each Tomb Tower was “an independent architectural complex with a garden above the ground and an underground palace.” The mausoleums were made of yellow-colored earth, and spread “in lines following ancient rites.” Some of the mausoleums had lost their top .

Another sign nearby described the cemetery, called the Outer City: “Outer City in a layout of rectangular, 340 meters long, 220 meters wide. At the central provision of south wall was a door: the door is the only remaining site. doorway with 7 meters remaining. Due to severe damage, outer city now full of collapsed, remaining site of bottom.”

The “Inner City” was where the people lived. Their “mysterious history and culture” is little known because of Genghis Khan’s policy calling for their complete eradication. As one expert has said:  “There is a case to be made that this was the first ever recorded example of attempted genocide. It was certainly very successful ethnocide {8}.” My further reading of the works of various historians was rewarding in revealing much about the “mysterious history” of Xixia, and the conduct of the Mongol invaders who, at this same time in history, quickly took over virtually the whole known world!

Still called by his birth name Temujin, the soon to be Genghis Khan launched a raid against Xixia in 1205 in pursuit of his rival Mongol Nilga Senggum. In 1207, now having been proclaimed Genghis Khan, ruler of all the Mongols at the official start of the Mongol Empire, he launched another raid into Xixia, advancing to the Yellow River, before withdrawing in 1208. The following year, Genghis undertook a larger campaign to secure the submission of Western Xia. He besieged the capital, Yinchuan, and forced the Emperor of Xixia to agree to submit to Mongol rule. Genghiz then turned west and, in his invasion of Khwarezmia and Eastern Iran, asked Xixia for military aid. He was refused and Genghis swore vengeance. After defeating the Khwarazms in 1221, Genghis prepared to punish Xixia and in 1225, he attacked. Steadily advancing from city to city, “Genghis engaged the countryside in annihilative warfare and ordered his generals to systematically destroy cities and garrisons as they went.” He reached Yinchuan in 1227 and laid siege to the city. His death in August was kept a secret in order not to jeopardize the ongoing campaign. A month later, Emperor Mozhu of Xixia surrendered and was immediately executed. “The Mongols then mercilessly pillaged Yinchuan, slaughtered the city’s population, plundered the imperial tombs west of the city, and completed the effective annihilation of the Western Xia state {9}.”

Xixia Museum

Some of what has been discovered about Xixia is on display in a museum. We walked on a new paved road through the vast plain with the tombs and Mount Helan in the distance, to the Xixia Museum. Just outside was a map showing China’s trade roads with the world of the time, covering all of the Middle East, to the Black Sea and North Africa. The foreign land routes were in red, the regional land routes in black, and the sea routes in blue. At the entrance to the Museum, a sign introduced Xixia: “The Western Xia Kingdom was a local ethnic minority kingdom founded mainly by the nation of Dan Xiang people during 11-13 century.  The Western Xia Kingdom was characterized by the absorption of cultures from the Central Plains and other northern nationalities. It is one of splendid pearls in the great treasure-house of Chinese history and culture.”

The sign went on to describe the Museum’s collection: “Western Xia Museum… has collected the works of Western Xia Kingdom history and culture. The exhibits are divided into six parts: the movement westward of the Dang Xiang people and the rise of the Western Xia Kingdom; politics, law and military affairs; socio-economy; culture; religion of the Western Xia Kingdom. The history and culture of the Western Xia Kingdom is revealed through a rich collection of objects, charts, drawings, photographs, models and audio-visual presentations, making it a scientific, educational and interesting experience.”

The collection consisted of old artifacts, pictures, frescoes and paintings. Among Xixia relics were a stone horse, Xixia tablet inscriptions, Buddhists scriptures, Buddhist drawings, the official seal, Xixia paintings which blended Uighur and Tibetan Buddhism elements and Xixia ethnic customs. Of special significance was a display of Buddhist scripture in Xixia Characters. These characters were created in 1036, on the basis of Tangut language, in imitation of Chinese characters. Tangut was the nomadic ethnic group that established Xixia.

As a sign at the Museum summarized Xixia’s cultural heritage, “The culture of Xixia was diverse, though dominated by Dangxiang culture. The murals and painted sculptures, inheriting and developing the artistic achievements of the Tang and Song dynasties, also mixed Dangxiang, Tibetan and Uighur cultures, enriching the treasure house of Chinese culture. The creation and use of Xixia characters to spread and interpret Buddhism not only followed the developments of the Tang and Song dynasties, but also developed a unique Xixia culture.”

The mission of the Museum was expressed in another sign:  “It is an educational base for patriotism and the unity of nationalities, as well as a favorite tourist destination for foreign and domestic guests.”  On this day, a handful of us were the only foreign visitors in Xixia, joined by a similarly small group of Chinese tourists .

Shapotou Desert

We found many more Chinese tourists in another attraction of Ningxia, the desert.  When we arrived in the huge parking lot of the Shapotou Desert tourist area, a little over two hours south of Yinchuan, the place was jammed with tourist buses. “They are over a hundred,” as one among us said, with only a bit of exaggeration. The Chinese tourists who had just stepped down from the buses were lining up at the ticket windows ; those who had received their tickets were smiling as they contemplated the map posted nearby showing the sites of the attractions in the area . The desert and river were shown prominently on the map.  As the tour companies publicized: “In the area the desert, Yellow River, high mountains and oasis merge into an integral and peculiar scene. Shapotou is listed as one of the Top 50 Destinations Must-see in China.”

We took the tram to the top of a sand hill where there was a picture “shooting place,” as the sign said in English, Chinese and Arabic.  We saw what was called the “First Bay of the Yellow River” below us. In the peninsula the river had carved, the sand had been pushed to the edge of the mountains. Next to us, tourists were sliding down the sand . Behind us was the “largest natural field of sliding sand in China,” dubbed “the Shapotou singing bell”.  The sound emission, we were told, was caused by wind or by walking on the sand. The tourists were putting on special footwear to walk on the sand. When ready with full appropriate attire, including hats, they waited for the special vehicles to drive them to the right place on the sand. Some chose to go camel-riding. The line of camel riders was long, and with the desert and the mountains in the distance, they created a scenery not generally associated with China.

The attractiveness of the desert belied the truth that living in its harsh environment was difficult. Our guide said that fact was the reason the Hui people had ended up here.  “They were near Xian and there they had an uprising about 200 years ago. As a solution, a Chinese general forced them to move here near the desert, saying fighting nature would make them too weak to stage uprisings.” This was perhaps the guide’s version of history recorded in more scholarly sources as the First Dungan Revolt, which began in 1862 by the Hui community in Ningxia and the neighboring Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, and suppressed some ten years later by a Qing Dynasty general, leading to thousands of Hui Muslims being then exiled to different parts of China.

Silk Road’s Children

What was puzzling, however, was the tour guide’s tale of the origin of the Hui people: “They are from the Muslim soldiers who came with Genghiz and the Chinese women they married.”  Genghiz did have some Uyghur Turks in his army in 1219 when he attacked the city of Otrar (Farab) in today’s Kazakhstan which quickly led to his conquest of Muslim Central Asia. He also forcibly recruited local Turks to fight other Turks in the region, but then he ended up slaughtering them {10}. There is, however, no indication that there were Turks in the army that Genghiz led to Yinchuan in 1227.

Indeed, the Hui look different from the Uyghur and other Turks who have Eurasian features, and trace their community in China to some 1,200 years ago, long before the arrival of the Mongols. The Hui are descendants of traders who settled along the Silk Road and took Chinese wives. Most likely, their paternal ancestors were Iranian-speaking people. Among them, were the Sogdians, an ancient Iranian people of Central Asia {11}.  Chinese general Al Lushan was the son of a Sogdian immigrant to China (his Chinese name means “the Bukharan,” from Bukhara, another Iranian-speaking city not far from Samarkand) and a Turkish mother. It was Al Lushan’s rebellion in755 that finally forced the Tang emperor to withdraw his entire army from Central Asia {12}.

After Central Asian Iranians converted to Islam, in China they left their marks in Arabic script which they had now adopted {13}. The word for Muslims used in the Yuan Dynasty (which Kublai Khan – a grandson of Genghis Khan- established in 1271) was Pusuman, likely a corruption of Musalman (the Persian word for Muslim); it was also used as a name for Persians, and Pusuman Kuo (Pusuman Guo) referred to the country where they came from. Indeed, the Arabic script they (Musalman) used was called Pusuman zi (pusuman script).

In 1941 the Chinese Communist Party in its conclusive treatise entitled “On the question of Huihui Ethnicity,” defined the Hui nationality as an ethnic group descended primarily from Muslims who migrated to China during the Mongol-founded Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) {14}. Today, many in Ningxia believe that four common Hui surnames—Na, Su, La and Ding— “originated with the descendants of Nasruddin, a son of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, who ‘divided’ the ancestor’s name (Nasulading, in Chinese) among themselves{15}.”  Sayyid Ajjal was an aristocrat from Bukhara who rose in the administration of the Yuan dynasty to become the governor of the major province of Yunnan. As nomads, China’s new Mongol rulers, had to rely on the administrative skills of Central Asians, as well as other foreigners (together forming the Samu, meaning “assorted categories,” class), since they could not rely on the loyalty of the Chinese.

Another example of such Samu administrators was Kublai Khan’s vizier, Ahmad from the Iranian-speaking Tashkent (in today’s Uzbekistan) who had gained so much control over China that it amazed the visiting Marco Polo. Indeed, one of Kublai Khan’s achievements was to reopen the great east-west caravan routes with the Iranian-speaking world that had been closed since the Karakhitai (1124-1218) had severed them. Marco Polo was only one of the beneficiaries of the flourishing of trade. Ahmad’s jealous Chinese rivals seized upon his reputation as a womanizer to brand him as “villainous” and finally assassinate him. That land-route trade continued to thrive for another three centuries before being supplanted by the more efficient maritime exchange on sea routes found by navigators {16}.

Hui of Yinchuan

I found it hard to distinguish the Hui from their non-Muslim neighbors in Yinchuan. In the downtown, I ran into a Hui street vendor, and asked three young Hui girls direction to the Nanguan Mosque. The vendor wore a white cap, nicely embroidered, but the girls did not have headscarves. These items of clothing are considered distinctive to the Hui. In the mosque, I saw only two members of staff, both with white caps. There was only one visitor other than me. He soon joined a woman who was already in conversation with the staff. They were not wearing cap or headscarf. Their conversation was in Chinese.

The Nanguan Mosque lacked grandeur. Its main building was a simple two- story structure. Stairs led to a spacious prayer hall on the second floor which could accommodate a few hundred worshipers at a time. Next to the mosque was the Musilin Qingzhen (Muslim Mosque) Supermarket. Most of the other shops on the street were not marked as Muslim enterprises. The area was not especially crowded. Our tour guide ignored the “Muslim cultural Center” in this neighborhood as “just a small place for them to learn some things.”

We were told that the Hui were so thoroughly assimilated in Yinchuan that virtually their only connection to Islam was an aversion to pork. Muslim restaurants were distinguished for serving kosher halal mutton food. In the town of Zhongwei, some 18 kilometers from Shapotou, we had a lunch of that food [92], served in small private rooms of the restaurant. It was different from typical foods of the Chinese cuisine.

The Hui constitute about 26.3 percent of the population of Yinchuan and 33.88 percent of the total population of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Yet, both the mayor of Yinchuan and the Chairwoman (Governor) of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region are Hui. In some towns of that Region which has a population of 6.1 million, about half of the senior officials are ethnic Hui. All these are, in effect, appointed offices, although the governor is formally “elected by the Ningxia People’s Congress.”

Our guide said those positions are reserved for the Hui “by law”. The central Chinese government, indeed, has favored the Hui among China’s 10 different Muslim nationalities. As reported by various foreign journalists, the treatment of the Hui, who are the second largest such Muslim group, especially contrasts with that of the largest, the Uyghur.  For one thing, the Hui in Ningxia and the adjacent Gansu Province are allowed to practice Islam in the open. They operate Islamic schools and ignore the old policy which barred people under 18 from entering mosques.  In some cities there are mosques on practically every other block and women can sometimes be seen with veils. As one of their elders has recently told a Western reporter: “Muslims from other parts of China who come here, especially from Xinjiang, can’t believe how free we are.” The unrest of the Uyghur in the further west Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is well-known. That kind of strife is almost nonexistent in Ningxia, as are the restrictions on religion that fuel the Uighur discontent.

The Hui generally subscribe to a moderate brand of Islam. They avoid proselytizing to non-Muslims and also, more important, avoid contact with Islamic organizations outside China. The Chinese government, worried about the spread of Islamic extremism, has shown concern that foreigners with ulterior motives might incite trouble among Chinese Muslims. The Hui people’s demonstration of the capacity to coexist with the Communist Party has been rewarded not only with government posts but also with allowing them to obtain passports for foreign travel. In Xinjiang, by contrast, “most important government posts go to the Han, and young Uighurs find it hard to get passports to travel abroad. Government workers in Xinjiang who go to mosques or fast during the holy month of Ramadan often find themselves unemployed.”

The Hui leaders have told Western reporters: “We want to show the world that Islam is a tolerant, peace-loving religion, not the religion of burqas and bomb-throwing that people see on the news…. We also want to show that … we fully enjoy the lenient ethnic policies of the government.” The Chinese government is seeking to leverage this posture by positioning the Hui as “mercantile emissaries to the Muslim world, a role that has been bolstered by President Xi Jinping’s national initiative for a new Silk Road.”  Special “Muslim products” industrial parks have been established where the Hui live with the help of inexpensive land and low taxes. An example of the enterprises that have benefited is the Yijia Ethnic Clothing. Its three factories now produce “50 million hats a year and provide more than two-thirds of the world’s low-priced Islamic headwear {17}.”

Hui Culture Park

In the last few hours of our stay in Yinchuan, out tour guide took us to the Hui Culture Park in Ningxia. As he had shown scant interest in telling us about the Hui, this visit seemed almost obligatory for him. The Chinese media call the Park “the best place to experience China’s Muslim culture.” The man in charge of the Park explained why it was established, in 2005: “There was no place that exhibited the history and culture of the ethnic Hui. So the government of Ningxia built this Hui Culture Park and Ethnic Hui Museum to fill this tourism and culture vacuum {18}.”

The Park is located not in the Yinchuan city proper but in Yongning County, one of the two counties included in Yinchuan.  We drove on a wide modern boulevard, with a number of new high-rise buildings on one side, in the otherwise largely vacant land.  About 165 acres (1000 mu) have been allocated to the Hui Culture Park. Nearly one third of this has been opened as the first phase in the form of an ethnic Hui theme park with a museum, a mosque, an “ethnic customs” village, a catering and performance center, a restaurant and an art and craft shopping street. The officials of the Park have said: “It’s the only place in China where you can see every aspect of the Hui culture {19}.”

We were among the first to arrive in the early morning in the large empty plaza at the main entrance to the Park which could hold some 20,000 people and, we were told, “during festivals … turns into a sea of song and dance.” This plaza led to a magnificent white building which had an arched entrance with a dome on the top, several smaller domes and minarets in the back, and long arched corridors, on the two sides. This structure was clearly meant to be a Chinese near replica of India’s Taj Mahal, built by the Muslim Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, which I had seen in Agra. The Taj Mahal was in ivory-white marble; the Park entrance building was in plaster, its columns covered with intricate bas-reliefs carvings (gachbori) of Islamic calligraphy and decorative designs.

A man with a white cap and a woman with a headscarf entered the building with us. Inside the lobby we were met by another woman with a headscarf, who was a member of staff [97]. Scaffolding on the other face of the building was indicative that the Park was still a work in progress, more than a decade after it opened.  In a courtyard, a long reflection pool, another reminder of the Taj Majal model, directed us toward the “Aisha Palace (Temporary Museum) .” This Qasr (Palace) was not as ostentatious. Yet, with 7,000 square meters, it was the largest Hui museum in China.

As Park officials described it: “The museum is divided into five halls and has 1,000 relics and books on the Hui people and Islamism. The exhibits point to the historical and cultural origins of the ethnic Hui people, the development of Islamic civilization, the distinctive culture and customs of the Chinese Hui people, the Hui people’s contributions to Chinese culture and the establishment, development and changes of the Hui people in Ningxia{20} .”

I found much of this to be only aspirational goals. The Park director claimed that it “has attracted many foreign tourists with its rich exhibits.”  Some signs outside the Museum were in English and Arabic as well as Chinese, but there was no English writing in most of the signs inside, no English brochure and no good explanations by our own guide. One area was called, in an English sign: “park customs and culture of chinese hui people” with no further explanation in English, although there was a logo of allowing scanning with the picture of the Park in the middle . As I walked around here, I found on the walls a few pictures of people from centuries ago in Islamic garbs and on some of them there were a few lines in Arabic . There was no indication on how these were related to the Hui. In one corner, there was a map of China, with color-coded areas and a table showing the increase in the population of 33 parts, each from 1960 to 2010, indicating that the total population of all increased in that period from 3,934,336 to 10,586,087 . Other than the numbers, all the writings were in Chinese. This hardly made any sense to a visitor who did not understand Chinese. I only guessed by the numbers that the map perhaps was about the Hui population in China. Next I saw on another wall a picture of 9 men, some in military uniforms of the Imperial, Nationalist and Communist eras, as well a few in traditional Chinese clothes, with no explanation in any language but Chinese. Elsewhere, there was a series of Arabic calligraphy of the names of Allah and Mohammad [106], again with no explanation as to their specific connection with the Hui.

Among its collection of “relics,” the Museum claims “a Koran as small as a finger nail and an ancient golden bell as large as a human.”  Its most highly treasured items include “the oldest and best preserved Ningxia-discovered Koran from the Ming Dynasty between the 14th  and 17th  centuries, two ancient Arabic ship models and 12 sets of Islamic apparel which were donated by Abdullah Maatouk, the Kuweit (sic) judicial minister.” The Kuwaiti connection to the Hui culture was a mystery to me, until I noticed at one entrance to the Museum a display of pictures from Kuwait. A sign in Arabic said:  “The Opening of the Kuwaiti Wing.” This part of the sign was also in Chinese but not English. In another part of the same sign which was in English as well, two of the four pictures in the display collage were identified: “The Grand Mosque in the State of Kuwait” and a Kuwait Boom Ship. The signs for two other pictures were not in English.

Museum officials have said that its “variety of historical relics provide valuable materials for people to study Islamic culture,” adding that “We are working with Islamic associations and institutes.” They have reported that “ambassadors and scholars from Kuwait, Yemen, Iran {21}, Pakistan, Egypt and other Islamic countries all came to visit,” and have “ proposed to cooperate with the museum and have donated more relics to further enrich the museum.”  They have maintained that “The purpose for building this culture park is to offer a place for tourists from home and abroad to appreciate the Hui people’s history and culture, including Hui folk culture, dances, songs and movies. Our next plan is to expand the park.” They have added:  “We are planning to set up an Islamic cultural exchange center and an Arabic language school. We want to establish a platform for friendly exchanges with the world’s Islamic countries. I think this will also help Ningxia to open up to the outside world {22}.”

The Museum was connected by a courtyard to what was referred to as “a ritual palace”. There were tent- like structures in this courtyard, perhaps invoking the tents of the Bedouin Muslims. Two golden domes and four Minarets beyond the tents were, indeed, those of a mosque –which in the Chinese Communist parlance was referred to as a ritual palace.

In the huge grand hall of the mosque nine men and one woman were sitting on the floor listening to a woman guide . She and the woman in the group were both wearing long red headscarves, and pants and tops that covered the rest of their bodies. The mosque’s columns and walls were ornately decorated with traditional Islamic designs and the calligraphic Arabic profession of creed “There is no God but Allah; Mohammad is the Prophet of God.”  The semicircular niche in the wall, the Mihrab, indicated the direction that Muslims should face when praying.

Outside the Mosque we noticed that a few more tourists had now arrived in the Park. A few steps away, a white-capped man was pointing out something to a woman clad in the Hui traditional custom . They were at the door of a replica of what was called a typical house of the rich Hui in the countryside. We entered the courtyard which was covered with an overhang of grapevines . In the rooms inside the building, the furniture was of wood. Next door there was another house which featured, as the sign said, “The Hui’s feast .” We opted to see the restaurant of the Park which was in a modern looking building called Mansu’er Palace . A man with a big old- style straw broom was sweeping the steps in front of it. The restaurant was closed.

A man worshiping another god later drove us to the airport. He had a small bust of Mao Zedong on the dashboard of his van. “Some people here think that bust is a blessing, good luck, will protect you,” our local guide explained.




{1} As I read in Chinese sources: “The logo is meant to resemble an open gate, indicating that China welcomes overseas guests while the lights symbolize a bright future for Sino-Arab communications in culture and trade. The dome, composed of colored blocks to the left is a Muslim symbol to highlight its unique culture, and the concept of equality and cooperation with winning results. The red blocks represent China’s passion, energy and prosperity, while the green ones represent the Arab states, and life, hope and peace < 09/02/content_21776016.htm> (Accessed 5/19/2016) .”

{2} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{3} This was the 4th year the Exop had been held in Ningxia. According to the Chinese, it had “exerted a great deal of influence in China and abroad,” and resulted in “636 project agreements, amounting to 355.8 billion yuan ($55.4 billion), and vastly improving Ningxia’s foreign trade.”

{4} <,_One_Road>  References [2][3][4]  and[5][6] (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{5} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)}

{6} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{7} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)}.

{8} Man, John (2004). Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection, pp. 116–117

{9} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{10 } Starr, S. Frederick (2013). Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, pp.  448-449

{11} Ten years ago, while visiting Samarkand’s Afrosiob History Museum (in today’s Uzbekistan), I had seen a series of 7th Century Sogdian murals in one of which the ruler was depicted receiving gifts of silk from China, while in another panel a Chinese beauty was shown sailing in a boat.

{12} Starr, p. 122

{13} Accordingly, even in the Turkish Uygur areas of China, I had noticed, Kashgar’s largest Mosque is called Idkah (Persian for “a place for festivities”) and Turpan’s best hotel is called Boostan Mehmankhaneh (Persian for “The Garden Hotel”).

{14} In the long- gone Tang Dynasty, when Muslims first appeared in China in the 750’s, Islam was originally called Dashi Jiao (“Law of the Arabs”). Early European explorers speculated that the Hui originated from the Iranian-speaking Khorezmians who were transported to China by the Mongols.  In Xian (Chang’an), which was the capital of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and continued thereafter as a commercial center on the Silk Road in the later dynasties, I was told by the assistant to the Imam, the leader of its 60,000 strong Muslim community, in 2005, that key Persian words were still current among the Xian Muslims. They included: bamdad (morning), and sham (evening) -used especially in reference to the times of Muslim prayer-, doosti (friendship), doshman (enemy), and khoda hafez (goodbye).

{15} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{16} Starr, pp. 450- 451

{17} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{18} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{19} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{20} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{21}  Iran was conspicuously absent in the Yinchuan Expo. China was a part of a group of world powers (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council–the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China- plus Germany) that negotiated and , on 14 July 2015, signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, regarding restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting the sanctions on that country imposed in 2006 by the UN Security Council with China’s concurrence. Accordingly, China was expected to begin making “necessary arrangements and preparations,” in October of 2015, to implement its commitments under the JCPOA.  President Xi Jinping was the first major world leader to visit Tehran, almost immediately, after the sanctions were lifted. In January 2016 he went to plant “a flag for Chinese business and cast his country as a more accommodating alternative to the West.”  He pointedly stressed that China and Iran were “natural partners” in implementing China’s proposed Belt and Road Initiative. < > (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{22} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)