With sales of some 2.5 million copies, Funeral of a Muslim, Huo Da’s tale about three generations of a Hui family in Beijing, is quite possibly the most popular ethnic-themed novel ever published in China. It spans the turbulent years of the Japanese invasion, World War II and part of the Cultural Revolution.
If the novel is not well known in the West, neither are the Hui, the “other” dominant Muslim people in China who actually number over ten million. Unlike the Turkic-speaking Uyghur of Xinjiang, the Hui are descendants of Silk Road travelers — Arab, Persian and Central Asians — who married Han Chinese and converted to Islam, itself introduced during the Tang Dynasty by Arab traders.
Beijing October Arts & Literature Publishing House has commissioned an English excerpt from me, and what follows is taken from it. Inquiries regarding overseas rights should be directed to Mr. Han Jingqun (韩敬群总编辑) at email@example.com
Like many of his fellow Hui over the centuries, the novel’s protagonist, Han Tzu-ch’i, makes a living in the jade industry. He is a lapidary.
Funeral of a Muslim
(Excerpted from Chapter 1)
When Jade opened the storefront door, two strangers entered, one aged and one young. The old one was past sixty, tall and portly, with a bronze complexion, wide forehead and high nose, deep-set, spirited eyes, long white beard under his chin, head wrapped in a white prayer cap, wearing a full-length ch’angshan that was neither blue nor grey, and feet in a pair of straw sandals.
The younger was a boy in his early teens, not tall, swarthy skin, winsome eyes, shaven head, and wearing an old pair of cloth trousers of indistinguishable color, patched at the knees and cuffs.
Confronted with this pair of unfamiliar visitors, and their tramp-like demeanor, Jade was speechless and unsure how to turn them away. She turned and called: “Father, come!”
The lapidary Liang I-ch’ing put down the piece of jade he was carving and emerged from his workshop. But when he glanced up, he too was taken aback. This old man and young boy—he didn’t know them either.
Just then, the old man raised his right hand to his heart, and bowed slightly. “As-salamu alaykum!” he announced.
Startled, Liang I-ch’ing hastily returned the courtesy, placing his right hand over his heart and bowing slightly too. “Wa alaykumu s-salam!”
What were they saying? For a Muslim, there’s no need to translate. The former means, “May Allah bestow peace upon you,” and the latter, “And may Allah also bestow peace upon you.”
This is a blessing believers exchange upon meeting, signifying a shared ancestry and faith. It is the common language of Muslims worldwide, and whether they find themselves in a remote land or somewhere upon the sea, they can identify their fellow believers by virtue of these familiar phrases.
A warm current spread throughout Liang I-ch’ing’s body. “Oh, dostee, please sit down!” he said, leading them to the Table of Eight Immortals in the storefront room.
The meaning of the word dostee—a variation on the Persian for “friend”—is also understood solely by those who share the same religion. It means “Friend,” “Compatriot,” or “Brother,” for all Muslims within the Four Seas are brothers. The Huihui do not have their own script, and generally speak and write the language of the Han Chinese, but they frequently mix in certain Arab or Persian words that they are reluctant to abandon, and their usage sounds incomparably hospitable to fellow devotees.
Jade brought two tureens of strong tea that the two visitors gulped down. “It was simply to request a bowl of tea that this traveler has rudely interrupted you,” said the Elder. “We noticed the word for ‘prayer’ in the language of the Koran atop the gate to your esteemed residence, so we knew that there must be dostee inside!”
Liang I-ch’ing’s heart filled with warmth again. These two visitors were just passing through and had nothing to do with his business, but their simple-hearted confidence in his hospitality moved him. He’d lived on this street for quite a few years, but it had never occurred to him to fulfill his duty toward dostee, not even to offer a bowl of tea!
“Sir, what business does your esteemed shop do?” asked the Elder.
“My humble store is a jade workshop,” replied Liang I-ch’ing. “I have no other skill, and rely upon this craft passed down within my family.”
“Ah, you are a pearl of the Muslims!” exclaimed the Elder. “Muslims have an affinity for beautiful jade and precious stones! Khotan Jade comes from Sinkiang, Turquoise out of Persia, Cat’s Eye originates in Ceylon, Moonstone that glows in the dark is found in Syria . . .”
Liang I-ch’ing was startled. “The gentleman is a jade connoisseur, and so learned!”
“No, no,” the Elder smiled. “I’ve just read a few old tomes, culling a fact here or plucking a phrase there, and relating what I’ve heard in my wanderings. It must seem laughable to you.”
“And where . . . would you be from?”
“Far away,” replied the Elder, “I’ve come from Ch’üanchou in Fukien Province. I’ve been making my way through cities and countryside, traveling during the day and sleeping at night, for five or six years.”
“Oh!” Liang I-ch’ing began to feel sympathy for this travel-worn ascetic. “You’ve come to Peking to reside with relatives or pay a visit to friends?”
“No, not really, but that’s a long story,” said the Elder, sipping at his refilled tea, and squinting his deep, clear eyes as if searching for a past event in his mind. A moment later, he suddenly inquired: “Have you heard the name ‘Shaykh Khamuddin’?”
“I’ve heard the Elders speak of it. That was in . . .” Liang I-ch’ing was deeply ashamed of his ignorance, and he flushed lightly. He only knew that a Shaykh is a very high-ranking Imam, and vaguely recalled the name “Khamuddin,” but couldn’t say for sure in what era he had lived.
“It was in the second year of the reign of the Sung Emperor Chen-tsung, the Year 295 according to the Islamic calendar, or 996 on the Gregorian calendar, that Shaykh Khamuddin arrived in China from the Western Regions,” said the Elder slowly. He had no intention whatsoever of mocking Liang I-ch’ing’s ignorance, because that period of history was truly long past.
“He had three sons: the eldest was named Sadruddin, the second was Nazaruddin, and the youngest Saaduddin. All were learned scholars. The emperor held them in high esteem and wished to appoint them to official posts, but the three steadfastly refused, so he designated them as Mosque Imams. The eldest traveled far away on a mission to convert believers to Islam, and it is not known what became of him. As per the Emperor’s order, the other two brothers established mosques in the capital, one near the eastern city wall, and one to the south, today’s ‘Ox Street Mosque’.”
It was as if Liang I-ch’ing were accompanying the Elder on a thousand-year trek, and when he had listened to this point, he exhaled an audible “Oh!” It seemed the blood in his veins, long obstructed, could at last flow smoothly. He had lived half a century in a muddle-headed fashion, unaware of his ancestors’ footsteps.
“Sadruddin, the Muslim missionary who traveled afar never to be heard from again, has been forgotten for almost a millennium,” said the Elder with a sigh. “Who would have imagined? He also has descendants. I am the twenty-fifth of his line—Tooradin!” [end]