History of the Manuscripts

Islamic Manuscripts produced by China’s Sinophone Hui Muslims touch on a wide range of topics, cross into multiple languages, and vary in the quality of the paper used and the skills involved in their production. It has been affirmed that the Mongol conquest in the thirteenth century and the consequent massive mobilization of population between the Persianate Central Asia and East Asia resulted in the entry of Islamic manuscripts into China. The multilingual nature of the Mongol Empire echoed and likely laid the foundation for the multilingualism (Arabic, Persian, and numerous Chinese dialects) which still permeates in Hui Islamic manuscripts today. This multilingualism at times takes the form of transliteration – transliterating Arabic words with Chinese characters, or vice versa – and at others a smooth transition between different languages within the same script. Examples of this include the famous xiao’erjing, which uses Arabic alphabet to transcribe Chinese.

These Arabic and Persian manuscripts, while limited in number, show the wide range of texts – from manuals of religious creeds to grammar primers to elaborate Sufi hagiographies to political pamphlets – in the possession of contemporary Hui Muslim communities. The Chinese manuscripts and publications, largely from the twentieth century, showcase the shifting religious and political stances of the Sinophone Muslim communities in China.

These resources were collected primarily by Guangtian Ha, the principal investigator of this project, between 2010 and the present. Some of the texts were digitized at the time of collection, while others were purchased by or gifted to Ha during fieldwork and subsequently digitized at Haverford College. Most of the audio-visual files contained in this database document ritual practices long known to some scholars but which have never been observed or recorded first-hand.

It is important to note that while the manuscripts are largely of a later date – nineteenth and twentieth centuries – they were often reprints of earlier hand-copied texts, which are in turn reproductions of still earlier works. We still know frustratingly little about how one text was copied and recopied and put in circulation, who the scriveners and assemblers had been, and the chains of locations the manuscripts must have traveled before arriving in the hands of the collector. We thus share these manuscripts in their original condition with the hope that they may offer clues to scholars working on transregional Islam to uncover hitherto unknown networks that demonstrate the interconnection between Islam in East Asia and Islam in the wider Indian Ocean world.