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Wednesday, August 16, 2000, updated at 07:57(GMT+8)

Muslim and Han Cultures Coexist Peacefully in China

Despite pouring rain, about 400 Muslims swarmed into the Dingda Mosque in the village of Sang Po on a recent Friday night.

The Islamic congregation is the most important activity of the week for Muslims. Chanting of sutras resounds in all 11 of Sang Po's mosques, just like it was 600 years ago when the villagers' ancestors arrived. The village, inhabited by the Hui ethnic group, has a population of no more than 5,000.

Besieged by Han cities and villages, Sang Po is located in the northwest of Henan Province in Central China, where China's first dynasty, Xia (21th-16th century BC), was founded and inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BC), known as the characters of "Jiagu'' were excavated.

"Non-Islamic culture is everywhere,'' Liu Zhiheng, imam, or prayer leader, of the Dingda Mosque said. "But Islamic culture still exhibits distinct characteristics.''

Local roofs are built in the design of ancient Chinese palace roofs, but the symbol of the crescent moon on top of these roofs shows the prevalence of Islam.

Written Arabic, Han antithetical couplets are used by Sang Po villagers to spread the teaching of the Koran.

Intermarriage between Muslims and Han people are also acceptable in the village. Some Han women have married Muslim men after converting to Islam, but Sang Po women are still prohibited from marrying Han people.

"Islam means 'peace' in Arabic,'' said Liu. "It is a non-violent religion that is prone to peaceful coexistence with different cultures, just like the Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism the Han people so deeply embrace.''

"The Doctrine of the Mean'' and "The Great Learning'', two of the famous Four Books, are Liu Zhiheng's favorite reading. He often quotes from Confucius, a figure of worship for the Han people, when he preaches Islamic tenets.

"Mohammed calls all Muslims brothers and sisters, while Confucius advocates benevolence and righteousness as well as fraternity,'' Liu said.

Most of the 20 million Muslims in China live in Xinjiang Uygur and the Ningxia Hui autonomous regions in Northwest China, with about 700,000 in Henan Province in Central China.

Ancestors of Muslims can be traced back to the envoys trading among the Tang Empire, Persia and Arabia in the sixth century AD.

There used to be some conflicts between the Hui and Han people in past history, when the Qing government implemented a policy of racial discrimination.

But these conflicts are in the past, as Han nationalism was extinguished and now economic development is bringing people together, Liu said.

Peace produces prosperity for Sang Po. Thanks to its commercial tradition, Sang Po is engaged in the industry of pelt processing and exportation, which makes it Asia's largest fur processing base, with annual earnings of tens of millions of US dollars annually.

Han people account for more than 90 per cent of all laborers pursuing job opportunities in the village.

Though they do not celebrate the Lunar Spring Festival, Sang Po residents like to present gifts to their Han friends.

Many Westerners are also lured to do business here, but Sang Po people do not discriminate between Muslims and Christians. "Religion is a personal affair, we never force others to take our belief,'' said 78-year-old Ding Yuanqin.

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Despite pouring rain, about 400 Muslims swarmed into the Dingda Mosque in the village of Sang Po on a recent Friday night.

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