Date: Wed, 25 Aug 1999 10:47:06 -0400
Sender: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture <H-ASIA@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
From: Leibo, Steven A. <>
Subject: H-ASIA: Taiwan Diary #7

From: Scott Simon <>
Subject: Taiwan Diary #7

Taiwan Diary #7: Urban Religion (Part II)

By Scott Simon, 25 August 1999

Like Dru Gladney (Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People's Republic, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), it was food that first drew me to a Chinese Muslim community. I was overjoyed one day to happen upon a qingzhen (halal, ritually purified food) restaurant on Chung-cheng Road in Kaohsiung. I returned a few days later for a delicious meal of lamb meat and beef jiaozi more reminiscent of Northern China than of anything I had ever eaten in Taiwan. The owner of that restaurant directed me to the mosque in Fengshan. Next to that mosque is yet another qingzhen restaurant that serves probably the best beef noodles in Kaohsiung. I immediately became a regular customer. Through dinner conversations with that restaurant's owners and customers, I learned much about Kaohsiung's Muslim community. And it was only a matter of time before I found myself praying in the mosque myself.

There are more than 20,000 Muslims in Southern Taiwan, who worship in a mosque paid for with a grant from the Dubai government. The Muslim community is ethnically diverse, composed primarily of Indonesian and Malaysian guest workers, mainlanders who came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, and a handful of Middle Easterners who work or study in Taiwan.

Among my acquaintances there is a middle aged business man with an M.A. in history from Tainan's Chengkung University. His father was a Muslim from Kaifeng, who came to Taiwan with a retreating KMT in 1949 and subsequently married an aboriginal woman. Asked if Taiwanese Muslims prefer to marry within the faith (as Gladney describes for China), he said no one worries about that anymore. After all, he said, there are fewer and fewer Taiwanese Muslims, and they have to live like other people in society. On Friday, they have to go to school or work rather than take the day off for rest and prayer. And when they eat with others, as in the army, they have to eat pork. There is a lot of pressure to assimilate, he said with a heavy sigh.

Noting the large number of foreign workers, I asked how fellow Muslims communicate with one another in the mosque. They don't, he said. In fact,there is a lot of animosity. Referring to anti-Chinese riots that have occured in Indonesia, he said, It's just like you see in the news. The Indonesians don't like the Chinese.

In spite of these difficulties, there are some Taiwanese who convert to Islam. I met one 34 year old man, the son of a Taoist priest. When I was 28, he said, Allah sent me a dream telling me to convert to Islam. So I came to the mosque and converted. Since then, I've even made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

An elderly man, also respected in the community for having made a pilgrimage to Mecca, told me about his spiritual path towards Islam. He was raised as a Buddhist, he said, but converted to Christianity as an adult. While reading the Bible, he found some key passages that led him to question his Christian beliefs. When Jesus was tempted in the desert, Satan promised to give Jesus authority over the whole world if he bowed down and worshipped him. Jesus replied, It is written, worship the Lord your G-d and serve Him only (Luke 4:8). He interpreted that passage to mean that one should not worship Jesus either. He became a Muslim in order to worship one G-d, the same G-d that had been worshipped by Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

The Muslim community in Kaohsiung is very different from the four Muslim communities described by Gladney. Gladney focused on Muslims as a Hui minority distinct from the Han majority. He focused on ethnic markers such as dress which visibly mark off members of the Hui minority from their neighbors. These visible ethnic markers are absent in Taiwan, and even the women do not veil in public. Gladney makes a convincing case that Hui identity in China is reinforced by state politics of identity, such as policies that give minorities preferred admission to college and let them have more than one child. In Taiwan, there is no state policy which recognizes Muslims as an ethnic minority. With less official recognition of ethnic diversity, there is perhaps greater pressure on Taiwanese Muslims to assimilate. Taiwanese Muslims thus perceive Islam to be primarily a question of personal faith rather than as a distinct ethnic identity. Personal identity in Taiwan is based more on a native Taiwanese/mainlander distinction and how individuals deal with an increasing degree of Taiwanese consciousness.

One Sunday noon, as I was leaving the mosque, I stopped to buy red bean cakes from an elderly woman at the front door. Her weathered face was broad and solid like many that I have seen in Xi'an or Beijing, and she spoke with a heavy mainland accent. I asked where she is from. I'm Taiwanese, she said. We've been here for 50 years. I then asked where she was born. That doesn't matter, she said. We're Taiwanese now. I apologized for questioning too much, saying I was only curious since I have lived in China for two years and travelled to many places. I have also visited mosques in several Chinese cities. Only then did she come out as a woman from Jiangxi.