Chinese Muslim’s Pilgrimage to al-Andalus

Zhang Chengzhi (张承志), the white-hot Red Guard who mastered Mongolian and Japanese—and then converted to鲜花的废墟 Islam—has written En las Ruinas de la Flor: Viajes por al-Andalus (鲜花的废墟). His Chinese-language travelogue takes us through Moorish Spain, Portugal and Morocco in search of the golden age of Islam in Europe (8th-15th centuries).

Freshly Flowering Ruins: Travels in al-Andalus

“The Arabs call Muslim Spain ‘al-Andalus.’ From the eighth century to the fifteenth century, the central and southern part of the Iberian Peninsula and the land south of Gibraltar was the site of a miraculous blossoming, and withering, of a civilization.The name ‘al-Andalus’ evokes that historical era. The reason for my deep-seated interest in it is quite natural: Not simply because Muslims vanquished the West—the sole instance of any people from the East vanquishing the West—but especially because it is a period of time when civilization vanquished the West.” (excerpt, author’s Preface)

If you are looking for a dispassionate, objective view of Muslim Spain, stop here. Zhang Cheng-Zhi is a pilgrim, not a historian. But definitely a pilgrim . . . with a difference.

Arguably the most well known, and certainly the most controversial Muslim writer in China today, Zhang Cheng-Zhi sports an extraordinary bio: Born into a Muslim Hui family, he was raised as an atheist; the first, self-proclaimed Red Guard in Beijing in the 1960s, according to The People’s Daily;  “sent down” during the Cultural Revolution to the countryside in Inner Mongolia for four years, where he mastered Mongolian; after earning a degree in archaeology, he then studied in Japan, where he became fluent in Japanese; and in the 1980s, lived six years among the Hui of Xihaigu, Ningxia, and converted to Islam.  Along the way he published writing in Mongolian, and his History of the Soul (心灵史), a work of historical fiction about the development of Sufism in northwest China, was a China best-seller in 1994.

Less a travelogue than a detailed account of one man’s discovery of, and enchantment with,  the marvels of Moorish culture and history, Freshly Flowering Ruins is very personal. The 375-page tome features a photo, sketch or painting on virtually every page, all by the author’s hand. Many are run-of-the-mill, but the balance between words and visuals seems just about right. Hundreds of detailed references are made to the Arabic origins of Spanish vocabulary and place names, and he quotes from a wide variety of sources, including the Koran, Philip K. Hitti’s History of the Arabs, and even Japanese works on Spain.

Written over several years and six visits to al-Andalus (Morocco, Portugal and southern Spain), we see how Zhang Cheng-Zhi discovers the links between the Moors and China, from the Uighurs in Xinjiang to the port of Quanzhou in Fujian, to the prevalence of fig trees in China’s northwest. Increasingly fascinated by the spirit of the Muslim conquerors, their irrigation technology, and the olive trees so prevalent in southern Spain, he actually tries to transplant them to northwest China. His experiment fails, but his clumsy efforts to somehow grow the olive in China, a fruit rendered sacred by its mention in an oft-repeated Koranic verse (see Chapter 17, below), is an almost desperate attempt to bring part of his beloved al-Andalus back home.

To the best of my knowledge, Freshly Flowering Ruins has not been translated out of the Chinese. Potential markets/readership for a translated version:

  • Southeast Asia: Could be of interest to Spain-bound Muslim travelers in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, India or Pakistan, thanks to Zhang Cheng-Zhi’s very positive take on the contributions of al-Andalus to both Muslim and world civilization, and the fact that he relates to this history as an Asian, not a European.
  • For Westerners who, in the post-9/11 world, are interested in getting a handle on the “Muslim world view,” especially one so unique, i.e., how a Chinese Muslim, himself an ethnic minority within his own country, views the “lost empire” of al-Andalus.

Chapter 1: Confluencia de los Mares

Where the Atlantic and Mediterranean converge. Boat crossing from Morocco’s Ceuta to Spain. “Gibraltar: Historic symbol of the victory of the East and of the Muslims, later to become symbol of the vanquished.”

Chapter 2: Pasado en Vecindad

Moved by Roman ruins in Morocco. “Leaving the sister cities of Volubilis and Moulay Idriss, I set three exacting standards for my beloved Europe: A renowned city must at once possess the culture and vestiges of Rome, Arabia and Catholicism.”

Chapter 3: El Tribunal de las Aguas

Images of a northwest China oasis come to mind in the irrigated orchards of Valencia. Xinjiang and al-Andalus, “both civilizations that grew in arid environments. Both depended upon canal walls, irrigation their lifeline.”

Chapter 4: Callejuelas de Libertad

“You haven’t heard of Fez? Then why are you going to Morocco?” queried the foreigner . . .”the sum total of five hundred Kashgars” . . .visit to a madrasah established in the year 245 on the Islamic calendar, in the heyday of China’s Tang dynasty . . .

Chapter 5: Torres Hermanas

The Giralda in Sevilla, Torre Hassan in Rabat, and al-Koutoubiya in Marrakech.

Chapter 6: En las Ruinas de la Flor

The chapter on the Alhambra aside, this piece on Córdoba is the lengthiest in the travel diary.  References to Muslim Spain in Philip K. Hitti’s History of the Arabs. Zhang Cheng-Zhi discovers a mesmerizing carving of the Tree of Life amidst the ruins of Medina al-Zahra.

Chapter 7: Arco de Almería

“If you want to try to classify, dismember and critique Andalucia’s cathedrals, and provide a rough outline of a pilgrimage of sorts, you would need to write a book of some length. If you just want a short essay for comparison in a beauty contest . . . I made a supreme effort, muttered to myself, and chose San Juan Chapel in the Cathedral of Amería.”

Chapter 8: Soledad de las Estatuas

Ruminations on three statues in Salamanca: Lazarillo de Tormes, Francisco de Vitoria and San Francisco de Asís.

Chapter 9: Toro versus Caballo Acorazado

A day at the bullfights, and a finale lacking finesse.

Chapter 10: La Peña Llamada Flamenco

Flamenco: Guitar, Arab, Gypsy come to mind? Zhang Cheng-Zhi’s unique background leads him to see parallels with Things Japanese.

Chapter 11: Acercase á Carmen

Perusing Carmen, the 19th century novel about a sensuous but ill-fated Gypsy set in Seville, while on the road in Andalucia.

Chapter 12: El Secreto de Alhambra

Arguably one of the most pleasant chapters, filled with the author’s sketches and photos, and several translated texts, among them the Koran in Chinese, and his own translations from the Japanese. Four themes: al-bab (door), el agua (water), la caida (failure) and al-galib (victor).

Chapter 13: Ecos en las Alpujarras

Mountains and valleys from the Sierra Nevada in the north down to the Sierras Almijara, which separate them from the Mediterranean further to the south. Last refuge of the Moors, who remained there for 150 years after the fall of Grenada.

Chapter 14: La Gracía Verde

Unexpected greenery of Morocco. “As the story goes, a European gets off the plane in Morocco, maybe in Rabat, maybe in Casablanca. His eyes are filled with the deep green of the seaside mountains and fields. Why no desert? He fears he has disembarked at the wrong place. He grabs the nearest Moroccan: ‘Where are the camels’? he queries. The Moroccan just laughs.”

Chapter 15: Pista de la Pasión

“…but what I’m searching for is ‘passion’. The sort that responds in kind to the legendary flamenco dance, or the sangre y arena of the bullfight. A person’s natural temperament. Does that kind of passion exist, after all? And is it a part of the Spanish character?”

Chapter 16: El Olivar en la Alucinación

Thousand-year olive trees in Salamanca . . . zaytun (Arabic for “olive”)…references to olives in the Bible and the Koran . . . Quanzhou, a Fukienese port and home to an ancient mosque, long ago known to Arab traders as “Olive City” . . .

Chapter 17: Plantas Sagradas

Koran sura 95: “By the fig! And by the olive!” Inspired by the image of these “sister” fruits in this oft-recited Koranic verse,  Zhang Cheng-Zhi briefly, and earnestly, promotes olive tree farming in northwest China. But the fig, introduced via the Persians in the Tang dynasty, is better suited to Xinjiang, while the olive cannot weather the fierce winter there. 

Chapter 18: Quién Sera el Vencedor

Wa La Ghalib Illa Allah“:  “There is no victor but Allah.” This inscription in Arabic appears throughout the Alhambra, the palace where Abu Abdallah signed the 1491 treaty for the eventual surrender of Muslim Grenada to the Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel.

Speak Your Mind

*