I am very slowly, line-by-line, working through, and trying to get a handle on, work by Zhang Chengzhi (张承志), a prominent and outspoken Chinese-Muslim intellectual. Little or none of his work is available in English, but he remains an important voice to be accessed in terms of understanding not just the Chinese literary scene but, importantly for me, academia and Chinese-Islam. For many, Zhang manifests a synthesis of apparent paradoxes: He is an elite with popular appeal, avant-garde but staunch traditionalist, and advocate of spiritual reform and defiance – all within in one person.
He is the author of ‘History of the Soul’, one of China’s best-selling books. This narrative history of sufism in China was compiled after he embraced the Jahriyya Tariqa (哲合忍耶) of the great sage Ma Mingxin, a Chinese variant of the Naqshbandi order, during his fieldwork in Gansu and other parts of the PRC’s political and geographic peripheries. In line with the Jahriyya’s ascetic code, he resigned from his academic post and renounced all institutional ties. Much of his work since then could be described as a kind of ‘decolonial’ writing in that he stresses the need to adopt indigenous languages and sub-altern ways of knowing in anthropologies and cultural stances – that a researcher must be an ‘adopted son’ [养子] in the field. Only then he/she can tell a heart history (心史) of the subject. For him, this was about becoming the pen of the Jahriyya.
About the Orientalism of Western academic circles and cautioning against its appropriation in the East, he once introspected, “If the cancer of Western academia, twinned with colonialism, is that it distorts and suppresses the creators of a civilization’s right to interpret their own civilization. Then, a hundred years later, in this country, when we speak about the under-developed remote areas, ethnic minorities, and civilized subjects, is there no overbearing hegemonic discourse, cultural discrimination, and one-sided nonsense?” (1)
I think that his work should be accessed more in current times for people seeking a better perspective on the debates around Muslim China, and general critiques of academia. I hope to post reflections on this if I ever get around to completing more reading. It’s a tough read and Mandarin is my fifth language so this will take some time. But you may wish to check his work in the meantime.
(1) From “Methodological Thinking under the Concept of Human Geography” [人文地理概念之下的方法论思考]