Kelly A. Hammond’s book China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire: Centering Islam in World War II is published at a time when Islam in China is under intense scrutiny with regards to the ongoing persecution/”re-education” of the Uyghurs. While primarily dealing with Chinese-speaking Hui Muslims who are distinct from China’s non-Chinese-speaking Muslim groups such as the Uyghurs, Hammond cautions us against treating Sino-Muslims as a monothetic group. She provides some important historical context for when modern China came to think of minority groups from within its own borders, so the book has relevance for today’s situation.
Despite being a religious and ethnic minority, Sino-Muslims played a critical role in the formation of modern China and were at the centre of efforts by Chinese nationalists looking at nation building, as well as Japan’s attempt to build a pan-Asiatic empire. The Japanese showed great interest in Sino-Muslims.
“It is clear that the Japanese Empire made concerted and coordinated efforts to win the support of Muslims from China in order to foster broad and far-reaching connections to Muslims, from Damascus to Detroit,” writes Hammond. She demonstrates that the Japanese were attempting to fight Western imperialism and Soviet communism, and viewed Islam as the means to build global connections to help their empire building. Sino-Muslims were the closest Muslim population to Japan geographically, and they had connections across China and ties to the wider Muslim world. This made them very attractive to the Japanese authorities.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Sino-Muslims were put in a difficult position, especially after the Japanese occupation of North China, as Hammond explains: “The phrase ‘sitting on a bamboo fence’ (C. zuozai liba shang) is meant to evoke an uncomfortable and precarious balancing act. This particular idiom was used by an unnamed Sino-Muslim living under Japanese occupation to describe the way he and many of his compatriots felt about their situation during the war. Sino-Muslims often had to make difficult choices that involved taking calculated risks.”
The Japanese were keen to enlist Sino-Muslims in their cause, but the Chinese nationalists wanted the Muslims to remain loyal to them; both sides had the ability to inflict serious harm on the Muslims. Furthermore, from the late 19th century onwards, the idea of being Chinese in racial, ethnic and national terms was still being formulated, and whether or not Sino-Muslims were part of the main ethnic group — the Han Chinese — or a separate group, had real implications for their future presence in the country. As Hammond argues, it is through the experience of Sino-Muslims that we can learn a lot about the position of minorities in 20th century China.
Education played a huge part in Japan’s efforts to win Sino-Muslim support. The Japanese backed Muslim reformers in China and helped set up schools, and offered scholarships to Muslim men and women to study in Tokyo.
Japanese propaganda went to great lengths to create historical connections between the Japanese and Islam. There was also a boom in Islamic Studies in Japan with officials, academics and journalists being sent to North China to study the Muslim population.
Not all Japanese educational efforts were well received by Sino-Muslims, though. “In territories under Japanese control, the degree of receptiveness to Japanese-language curriculum reform varied among Muslim communities,” says Hammond.
Attempts to encourage Muslims to learn Japanese over other languages were resisted by some, and imperial officials were often involved in a balancing act. “The education of Sino-Muslim women was seen as a point of entry into the large Muslim community in Beijing. Educating Muslim women to speak, read, and write Japanese would allow them to participate more actively in the increasingly interconnected world. Japanese imperialists argued that since many Muslim women did not have the opportunity to go to school at all, their parents would be more open to accepting instruction in Japanese.”
Creating a population loyal to the emperor was only part of what the Japanese were interested in. The other languages that Sino-Muslims knew, including Arabic, were also regarded as important to the empire’s diplomatic efforts. Japan also supported Sino-Muslims to go for Hajj with the aim of creating a positive reception for the empire’s interests in the Middle East.
China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire… is a fascinating read and provides insight into a region and history which are all too often neglected. The book forces us to re-think how the history of the Second World War is taught. Our understanding of the conflict is usually from the perspective of Europe and the war with Germany, but millions fought and died across Asia and many of the wounds from that time are part of the political memory in places like China. This book is a much needed study. The fact that it is also an enjoyable read is a bonus.