Chinese Different Strokes for Different Folks

Yet another Ian Johnson article to comment on!  Reading the September 6th New York Times “Shariah With Chinese Characteristics: A Scholar Looks at the Muslim Hui”  an interview with Matthew S. Erie of Oxford University on his two years of field research among the Hui, one of China’s Muslim minorities, in a small town in Gansu Province in central China.   Erie found a surprising degree of autonomy among the Hui there.  This part of the interview I found especially intriguing:

“Your book challenges the idea that the Hui are the “good” Muslims, while the Uighurs are the “bad” ones, engaged in terrorism.

The Hui have had numerous uprisings, most notably during the second half of the 19th century from Yunnan to Gansu and beyond. Not all of these were necessarily against the state. There were a number of local conflicts that often snowballed. They are not submissive lackeys of the state.

You show this through the fascinating paradigm of Shariah. In the West, people often think of Shariah as a rigid Muslim legal system from the Middle Ages, with stoning and amputations. Here we see it as something alive and very flexible. What does it encompass?

The parameters are wide, from dietary considerations to interpersonal relations. Some of it is deciding what is halal food. But it’s also what we would call torts in the U.S. — when someone driving a vehicle strikes a pedestrian. A lot of time the authorities will ask the mosques to aid in evidence-gathering. We have a localized sense of Hui morality, that may be inflected with Shariah and that might affect the outcomes — the amount of the settlement, for example. The ahongs [Hui term for cleric] will help determine an amount.

But this consultation has its limits.

Definitely. It’s not used in criminal law, where the state has the monopoly on using its own legitimated force. But in social relations, the Hui are part of this local dynamic — the clerical authority and the authority of the local state.

This is a more pragmatic exercise of power than many might expect.

The state realizes it needs the local clerics. If the state were to consciously exclude the local religious authorities, it would lose legitimacy in the eyes of the believers.”

This jibes with what I understand from my time living in other parts of China and learning from Chinese officials, scholars and other Chinese how China works.

Yes, China has in theory a different strokes for different folks nationalities system that theoretically respects the dignity of China’s various nationalities and religions.  Unfortunately because the legal system is not robust, that very often gets lost.   China is more decentralized and flexible than it often appears — that is why the orders from on high are called opinions to highlight flexibility. This too sometimes gets lost in practice but variations in implementation and compliance are common.  I hope that some day when China’s legal system become more robust and it becomes more of a real democracy, this local flexibility for showing respect to the customs and religions of its people will become more real. As the book discussed below made clear, working within a system that they had some part in making boosts voluntary compliance with the law.
I saw that myself during a 2010 visit to a rural community in Guizhou where a Miao village was having their Fire Prevention Feast (a friend of a friend was the village party secretary).  I learned that customary law is still important to the Miao (aka Hmong) people and that the PRC administration allows some crimes to be handled within the local nationality legal system rather than within the PRC system.  I was told that people generally prefer to be judged in their own system even when the penalties are greater in that system than under PRC law.
Guizhou Leishan Miao Village: Fire Prevention Feast and Miao Customary Law
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Cow awaits slaughter for fire prevention feast in Leishan County, Qiangdong Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture ethnic Miao (known outside China as Hmong or Mong) village.
Every New Year, many Miao villages have a fire prevention ceremony. All home fires are extinguished, the villagers pledge themselves to fire safety and then the members eat and drink together. The eat the meat of the ox. If someone has a fire during the year, they have to pay to buy the ox for the next year’s fire prevention ceremony. On the village level, Miao customary laws and regulations operate in parallel with and reinforce provincial and national regulations according to recent book by two Guizhou University scholars. Here is capsule summary of one of them:
Miao Customary Law and PRC State Laws Seen from the Perspective of Legal Diversity A Field Study in the Ethnic Miao Nationality Area of SE Guizhou Province  法律多元视角下的苗族习惯法与国家法——来自黔东南苗族地区的田野调查[Falu duoyuan shijiao xiade miaozu xiguanfa yu guojiafa laizi qiangdong dongnan miaozu diqu de tianye diaocha] by Xu Shaoguang 徐晓光 and Wen Xinyu 文新宇, published Guizhou, December 2006, Guizhou Minzu Chubanshe (Guizhou Nationalities Press). Xu Shaoguang is a professor at the Law School of the Guizhou Minorities University. Wen Xinyu, an ethnic Miao and native of Leishan County, is an assistant researcher at the Guizhou Academy of Social Sciences and graduate of the Law School of the Guizhou Minorities University.The Miao do not have a written language so their laws and legal tradition is passed down through word of mouth, especially during gatherings at special memorial markers and through songs. Customary law enacted over the centuries covers a wide range of issues including marriage, libel, theft, murder, land boundaries, mountain land use, forest rights, and extortion. Miao have used gatherings for legislation and setting up boundaries to A organize themselves regionally as in 1937 when thousands of Miao rallied to oppose high taxes and impressments of Miao into Chiang Kal-shek’s KMT army. For the past several hundred years, rich forest resources brought more attention to the Miao areas of Guizhou and the increasing imposition there of Chinese law and written contracts, although Miao traditional law continued to function at the local level. During the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 191 central government officials in Miao areas left village civil disputes to traditional laws and often deferred to customary law in handling serious criminal cases as well.

Miao customary law sets aside village forest land as a community resource that is protected and managed. The rich forest resources in the Miao areas were one of the reasons for strong Han immigration and conflict in the nineteenth century. With the founding of the PRC in 1949, Miao traditional, man-made forest lands were mistakenly considered to be virgin forest and so became state property whereas they were actually well-managed resources. The removal of the forestlands from the management under Miao customary law and their effective opening to anyone’s use as “state or local collectivity assets?’ led to serious conflicts during the l980s. For example, from 1981 – 1987 in the Miao county of Jinping alone, there were over three thousand forest land dispute that led to nine riots, three deaths and 86 people seriously injured. During the l990s, many Miao villages in the Qiandong Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture re-established traditional regulations and fines relating to forest management that had previously been in effect for hundreds of years.

Traditional customary Miao law, operating in parallel with PRC law, has proven effective in restoring order to forest management. Offenders are typically fined cows or pigs which they must contribute to a feast enjoyed by all the villagers. (see Xu and Wen below, pp. 122 – 132).During the past 30 years of opening and reform, Miao traditional law has again come to play an important role in resolving village disputes. The authors caution “we should uphold Marxist dialectical materialism, and study [traditional law] and keep the part of it that represents a good popular traditions and reject the part of it that is feudal nonsense.” Village disputes are solved by debate in front of all the villagers, sometimes checking whether a duck’s eye is intact after cooking to determine if the accuser or the accused should win. Once the verdict is decided, everyone shares in the feast as a pledge that the dispute is settled and the village rules will be obeyed. If a solution is available under Miao law, Miao generally will not take their cases of a PRC state court, even in instances where the punishment would be much lighter under PRC law.

A survey of people fined under Miao traditional law generally told researchers “our village rules were made by everyone, including me. Therefore they must be carried out.” (Xu, p. 82). The authors write that the “PRC Village Council Organization Law” allows villages to make regulations as long as they do not conflict with the PRC constitution, laws and regulations and even gives villagers the right to fine themselves. (Xu, pp. 80 – 83) The authors remark that they recall how for decades China has tried to implement the rule by law in the countryside yet has failed, yet in their studies of Miao villages they see how PRC laws are routinely ignored but are then deeply impressed how villages very conscientiously respect Miao customary law. (Xu, p. 85) The authors note that the revival of customary law and village self governance has made possible the revival of clan power, with the problems that brings, although clans can sometimes play a useful role in solving dispute in the current transitional period before rule by law can be fully established in the villages.

A review of this book in Chinese is at

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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