The Dungan, a little-known community of Russian-speaking Muslims of Arab-Chinese descent, have survived years of religious persecution and yet managed to keep their identity intact.
KARAKOL, Kyrgyzstan — Karakol is a town of 67,000 people located in eastern Kyrgyzstan, near the eastern tip of Lake Issyk-Kul. It's home to a small Chinese-looking, Russian-speaking Muslim community called the Dungan, who settled here over 140 years ago. The town is rimmed with a shady grid of trees and distant snowy peaks that make a stark contrast against the blue skies.
Dungan village is a 20-minute drive from the city centre. The place has a museum, a mosque and several restaurants.
Dungan people are known to be a mix of Arab-Chinese ethnicity. They immigrated to Karakol and nearby Deishan village in the 1880s to escape religious persecution. To this day, they are holding on to their Dungan culture, despite certain Russian words seeping into their language. Over the years their traditional attire evolved as they absorbed some Soviet-style outfits. Yet, in the post-Soviet space, they proudly express their identity and ethnicity.
There are legends about the origin of the Dungan. One of them was told to me by Gubbar Lyuvolinov, a Dungan man in his fifties.
“In 628, on the 18th day of the third moon, Chinese Emperor Chenguan saw a monster in his dream that pursued him in the palace,” said Lyuvolinov.
“He was surrounded by enemies on all sides and didn’t know who to turn to for help. The monster overtook the emperor, when suddenly a wise, young man appeared in a turban, wearing a green robe, with rosary beads. The emperor understood that he was a holy man. He said his name was Ma — the emperor understood he was the Prophet Muhammad.”
Lyuvolinov stopped and took another sip of his herbal tea that he collected from the mountains the previous night.
A feast of 40 different homemade Dungan dishes was spread on the table. The food was rich in flavour and distinct from local Kyrgyz or Kazakh cuisines.
“One more cup?” he asked me, grabbing a traditional Samarkand style teapot while going on with the story.
“Prophet Muhammad, he was the one who changed our destiny and our nation forever. He offered help to the Chinese emperor, after that he was invited to travel to China. The prophet refused, because he couldn’t leave his land. But he sent 3,000 soldiers to help the emperor defeat his enemies.”
A long silence filled the room, as his little kids intently listened to the tale — as if they were hearing the story for the first time.
“These soldiers were impressed by the hospitality of the Chinese emperor and remained in China for years.” As Lyuvolinov ended the tale, he looked over at his children with a forlorn expression.
“The life of any nation cannot be understood in isolation from the past. The history of the Dungan in Kyrgyzstan is connected with the bloody events that have changed the destinies of many immigrants from China,” he said, sitting on the ‘jer toshok’ — a colourful Dungan-style quilt stuffed with embossed cotton — an object that can be found in almost every Dungan traditional household.
Dungan is a term used across the former Soviet Union to refer to a group of Muslim people of Chinese and Arab origin. The history of the Dungan people can be traced to Central Asia where they originated from the Kuldja and Kashgar regions. But various sinologists differ on when the migration from China actually started.
Between 1862 and 1877, there were a series of riots staged by some of Dungan and Uighur communities subject to Qing authority. The Dungan moved to Central Asia for the first time in 1877 after a Dungan uprising against the despotism and cruelty of the Qing dynasty in China. After the suppression of the national liberation uprising of the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Salars, Uighurs, the Dungan and other people by the Qing Army, the rebels were forced to seek political asylum from the neighbouring Russian state.
“We are not Arabs, nor are we Chinese. We are Dungan — with a separate culture, history and lifestyle,” Lyuvolinov said, with a sign of pride emanating from his tone.
Father of eight children, Lyuvolinov does everything to preserve his Dungan identity and pass it to his children. The Dungan have very little access to their own traditions and history — so leaving oral tradition is the primary means to keep the folk customs alive. He speaks with his family only in Dungan language, even if sometimes his children unintentionally mix Russian words in their daily conversations. Every inch of Lyuvolinov’s house is covered with ethnic Dungan textures and colours mixed with Soviet style — red carpets and yellow curtains in the living room. The ethnic diversity of food makes the composition of the culinary feast in their kitchen unique: rice bowls, noodle dishes, stir-fried vegetables only with chopsticks. Once or twice a week, he goes to the Dungan mosque, an ornate wooden structure constructed in 1910. The mosque is unique in that it's been built without a single nail, one of the striking features that reminds us of the delicate mastery of East Asian architecture.
Dungan migration occurred in three separate waves and different groups through the Tian Shan Mountains during the exceptionally severe winter of 1877-1878, escaping persecution after the quashed revolt.
They settled in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and a small part in Uzbekistan. At least 60,000 Dungan currently live in the territory of Kyrgyzstan.
Having a mixture of Chinese, Arab Muslim and Russian cultures, the Dungan are one of the numerous peoples of Central Asia with a population of more than 120,000 people spread across the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an association of at least 12 countries that were a part of former Soviet Republics.
“Our culture is difficult to describe,” Lyuvolinov said, breaking into laughter.
Interactions between groups always had a huge effect on the construction of ethnicity. The Dungan of Central Asia have also reconstructed their identity through interrelations with local populations and the Soviet categorization of nationality. A mixture of various cultures has reconstructed their new identity— calling themselves “Dungan” — a different ethnicity with its unique culture.
The peculiar lifestyle and family life of the Dungan are largely connected with the canons of the Islamic religion. Under its influence, cultural traditions, ideological baggage, norms of life and morals, stereotypes of behaviour and thinking, as well as the material culture of the Dungan were formed. Many events and rituals are accompanied by the reading of prayer and Quran. Very early Dungan opened prayer houses, called "daotang" in Chinese Sufi tradition. A mosque was built later in Karakol and, in 1910, in the town of Prejevalsk in Chinese style.
“Islam is the most important element of our identity. Dungan means Muslim. My father and grandfather taught me how to pray, read the Quran fast, and basic Islamic teachings. I have the same duty to give it to my children,” Lyuvolinov says, looking proudly at his youngest son wearing traditional Dungan ‘topu’ — taqiyah, a short, rounded skullcap with traditional Dungan ornaments on it.
The Dungan are known in the post-Soviet space as more committed to Islam than Kazakh and Kyrgyz Muslims. During the Soviet period religious activities were limited, however, the Dungan were one of the few nations to keep their religious identity intact and were able to pass it from generation to generation. They managed to retain their religion during the most difficult period of religious repression in the Soviet era.
“It is important to understand the success of the strong attachment to our culture, as not much heard about Dungan ethnicity and identity,” says Lyuvolinov, emphasizing the strong characteristics of Dungan ethnicity.
Rabia, a Deputy Chairwoman of the Association of Dungans in Kyrgyzstan, dedicated her life to the ethnographic and historical field research of her Dungan ancestors and its community.
The association was established in 1994 at the initiative of representatives of the intelligentsia. The aim of the association was to unite the Dungan and citizens of different nationalities in the Kyrgyz Republic, to preserve and multiply the spiritual and material culture of the Dungan people.
Sitting in her office full of pictures of her various Dungan conferences, meetings, national celebrations, Rabia said the community's main concern is to preserve the existence and future of the community.
“We Dungan are all around the world, especially Central Asia, which challenges the unity and identity of the group. The new borders isolate Dungan groups from one another.”
Their mother tongue is based on Gansu and Shaanxi dialects found in northwest China, however, over the past 200 years, it has evolved into a different language influenced by Turkic, Persian, Arabic and Russian. But all Dungan learn Russian at school and can speak the language. So, in addition to Russian, they may also speak Kazakh, Kyrgyz or Uzbek. They also use Arabic and Farsi for religious purposes.
Huiming Bo Dungan is the only newspaper in the world published in the Dungan Language in Kyrgyzstan. For 80 years of existence, the newspaper has undergone great changes but remained true to its original goal — the unification of the Dungan of Central Asia and Kazakhstan.
Rabia is also one of the founders the Huiming Bo Dungan newspaper. She raised her 11 children with three languages — Dungan, Russian and Kyrgyz.
“Language is the most important tool that still keeps our identity alive. People think that we are Chinese and we speak Chinese Mandarin. However, we are not Chinese. We have our different language, what we call Kansu — the official language of the Dungan — which is based on the Cyrillic alphabet plus five additional letters. We have nothing in common with Chinese characters and literary works,” Rabia told TRT World, her voice filled with anger and frustration. She passionately argued to make a clear distinction between the Dungan and China.
She grabbed a photo album and showed different pictures of her youth from Dungan gatherings.
“People think we are Chinese and the notion of “Chineseness” is being imposed on us despite not sharing a common psychological makeup, territory, religion and language. We have a characteristic identity, and we will try our best to preserve it through generations.”
Parents upheld Dungan traditions and taught them to their children. This is one of the main responsibilities she feels towards her children. Rabia sings songs in Dungan language to them, read folktales and their history, cooks Dungan dishes, send them to Dungan school and puts strict rules concerning interethnic marriages.
“This is why Dungan culture remains so strong, even now. It is difficult to remain our modelled identity in these turbulent times,” she says.