South of Dali, on the way to the ancient town of Weishan (巍山), in Yunnan province, the bus passes by a few Muslim villages. The mosques’ green domes topped with a shiny crescent and star seem out-of-place in this part of the globe.
These villages were founded by Muslim soldiers from Central Asia sent to Yunnan by the first emperor of China’s Mongol dynasty of the Yuan(1271-1368). During the Ming and Qing dynasties, they became involved in trade as caravan leaders on the Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道). The courtyards and mansions of village of Donglianhua (东莲花) shows how successful these Chinese Muslims traders were.
The Muslims of Weishan (巍山) region in Yunnan (as well as other Chinese regions) belong to the Hui ethnic group (回族). The ancestry of the Hui varies. Some are the descendants of intermarriages between Muslim men of Middle-eastern or Central Asian origins and local women, others are the descendants of Han-Chinese who converted to Islam.
Dispatched by the Mongol
During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Mongols conquered most of Asia and parts of Eastern Europe. In China, they founded the short-lived Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and anchored Yunnan into the Chinese empire, a thing that previous dynasties had not succeeded.
The first emperor of the Yuan dynasty appointed a man from Bukhara in Uzbekistan, Sayyed Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar (赛典赤·赡思丁), to become the governor of Yunann province. Sayyed Omar sent some of his armies from his homeland to the Weishan region where they founded three villages: Daweigeng (大围埂), Xiaoweigeng (小围埂) and Huihuideng (回辉登). They were advanced military outposts on the borderland.
Merging process during the Ming
These Central Asian Muslim soldiers, as they settled in the region, married local Yi women who converted to Islam. The community’s population grew and other villages were founded around the nucleus of Daweigeng, Xiaoweigeng and Huihuandeng. A descendant of Sayyed Ajjal Shams al-Din Oma founded the village of Donglianhua (东连花).
Under the Yuan dynasty, foreign religion prospered. However, after the Ming dynasty overthrew the Yuan, Islam was tolerated, but Muslim men were encouraged to intermarry with Han women and to integrate with Chinese society.
Built at the beginning of the Qing dynasty, the mosque of Donglianhua shows that from an architectural point of view Islam in China had gone through a process of sinicization. The minaret and the prayer hall have adopted Chinese architectural style of the time.
The crescent and star that top the mosque gate and the Chinese characters for mosque (清真寺 – Temple of the Pure Truth) are the only indicators that this building is actually a mosque.
Tea and Horse road
Hui men became part of the Tea and Horse Road as caravan leaders. They were part of this multi-ethnic trade that linked Dai and Hani tea producers in Xishuangbanna (西双版纳), Han Chinese merchants and tea processors in Pu’er, Hui Muslim muleteers, and Tibetan people who were the end-users.
Hui muleteers lead up to 100 horses and transported tea, silks, sugar and other products on the Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道) with an average of 30 miles a day.
The Panthay rebellion led by Du Wenxiu (杜文秀) started just a few kilometers from Donglianghua, in Xiaoweigeng. This anti-Qing dynasty rebellion that shook Yunnan between 1856 and 1873 interrupted the Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道), but the Tibetan’s people craving for Pu’er tea was too strong.
Between the end of the Panthay rebellion and the beginning of WWII, some Hui caravan leaders and merchants had built up strong trade connections in Yunnan, Burma and India, and had also managed to amass an impressive wealth. In Donglianhua, the three Ma brothers, Ma Ruyi (马如骥), Ma Ruqi (马如骐) and Ma Ruqing (马如清) of Donglianhua are the embodiment of this success.
Courtyards and Mansions
The three most important are the Ma Ruji courtyard (马如骥大院) the Ma Ruqi courtyard (马如骐大院) and the Ma Ruqing courtyard (马如清大院). They were all built between the beginning of the 20th century when the Qing dynasty was on the verge to collapse and the Republican Era. Unfortunately, with the war creeping in and military official of the Guomindang (国民党)
Coincidentally, the most common Hui family name in the region is Ma (马), which also means ‘horse’ in Chinese and the name of these means is irremediably link to the horse. The first two names of this Ma clan Hui merchant, Ruji and Ruqi, means respectively ‘as[ 如] a fine horse [骥]’ and ‘as[ 如] a black stallion 骐’, while the last one means ‘as [如] purity [清]’.
One courtyard have been transformed into museums. Collectively own by the community of Donglianhua, it is open to the public. One other courtyard is a private residence and the last one also function as a restaurant.
How to visit Donglianhua
Donglianhua, like other lesser-known villages in the Dali area, is bracing for more tourists. A tourist center and a parking lot were under construction at the entrance of the village, the last time I visited in June 2015.
After entering the village, visitors first head to the mosque to admire the Qing-era architecture. Sometimes, the classrooms located on the first and second floor of the pavilion in front of the prayer hall are open and offer a nice point of view on the village’s roof and paddy fields. The prayer hall is off limits to non-Muslims.
Exit the mosque from the main entrance and turn left at the end of the alley. On their right, visitors will stumble upon another lane, at the end of which there is a free museum to the Tea and Horse Road and the Ma brothers (entrance is free) as well as the entrance to the Ma Ruji courtyard (20 RMB). Head to the top of the watchtower for a beautiful view of the village. Sauntering around the village, there are the Ma Ruqi and Ma Ruqing courtyard.
How to get there
From Dali, the best way to get to Donglianhua is to take a Weishan-bound bus from the Southwest bus station (西南汽车站) in Xiaguan (there is a bus every 10 minutes) to Dacang (大仓). From Weishan, take a green mini-van to Yongjian (永建).
Dacang and Yongjian are pretty much the same location : there are two big villages divided by the new road that links Weishan to Dali. Once in Dacang / Yongjian, try and find a horse-carriage or a rickshaw / tuk-tuk. They are one of the mos popular means of transportation in the region. It should cost 5 yuan.