Salar fieldsite in Qinghai Province, China
Primary Site Researcher
Jianxin Wang is Professor of Anthropology at Sun Yat-sen University, in Guangzhou City, China. His research is primariliy focused on cultural anthropology and he has conducted research on Turkic speaking and Islamic ethnic groups in Central Asia and the northwestern part of China for more than 20 years. These include the Uyghur and the Hui in the northwest part of the China. In recent years, he has also begun conducting field research on the Yao, Zhuang and Miao ethnic groups in the southwest of China.
He is a Director of the ethnology section of the Anthropology Department, at Sun Yat-sen University, running a PhD program on Culture and Cognition, and research projects on related topics. He has one book published in English, Uyghur Education and Social Order: The Role of Islamic Leadership in the Turpan Basin (2004 ILCAA Japan)
He has co-authored two books, one published in Japanese, Bazar and Mazar in the Xinjiang Uyghurs (2002 ILCAA Japan) and the other in Chinese, Yuedong Qiaoxiang: Socio-Economic Changes in Xinhe Village Shantou (2008 Guangdong Peoples Press).
Jianxin has edited several books published in Chinese, such as Local Societies and Religious Customs (2007 Sun Yat-sen University Press), Guangnan Ake: Field Research on the Economic Development and Cultural Traditions in Ake Village, Guangnan County, Yunnan Province China (2008 Beijing Zhishichaquan Press). He has also written many articles on topics related to the ethnic groups he has studied published in English, Japanese and Chinese.
Salar is one of the 55 minority ethnic nationalities living mainly in Xunhua Salar Autonomous County, Qinghai Province in the northwest part of China. The two Salar villages that serve as our research field are located in a valley by the Chaja river in the mountainous area of the eastern part of Qinghai Province.
The total population of the Salars is around 100,000, and they are counted as one of the several very small ethnic nationalities such as Erwenke, Daghul and Tatar. The two villages we have chosen as research fields, Gujilai and Yangkulang, are clusters of village houses belonging to about 370 Salar households and a total population about 2,100 people.
The language of the Salars is an eastern dialect of the Turkic language group which is taken as belonging to the Altaic language family. Although it is possible for the Salars to communicate orally with people who speak other Turkic dialects, such as the Uyghurs, Uzbeks and Kazaks, they can not read each others' written languages since the Salars use Chinese characters in writing while the latter ethnic groups use Arabic letters.
The Salars have a legendary history of their ethnic migration from Samarqand in the Central Asian area. It is said that a Salar hero called Galman left his home country after being persecuted by a tyrannical king about 700 years ago. He rode a white horse and wandered for many years to the east with some of his followers.
When they came to Xunhua, a place beside a river with rich lands, Galman decided to settle down there and make a living undertaking agricultural production and animal husbandry. Though the present Salars receive public education in mandarin Chinese, there are clear ethnic boundaries with the Hans and other neighbouring ethnic groups marked by lhe historical memory of their ancestors' migration, the Salars' Islamic faith, and the fact that their primary language is a dialect of the Turkic language.
The remote location of their villages, the basic structure of social organisation, and their semi-nomad lifestyle also contribute to their ethnic identity and group integration.
Political and social organisation
Similar to other rural areas in China, there is a legally-organised organ for each Salar village, which has some political leaders, such as the secretary of communist party or the head of the village, as the core members of the political administration. However, alongside this legally sanctioned political organisation, a traditional system of social organisation exists, functioning importantly in the social life of the Salar villagers.
First, the Salar villagers all belong to several independent patrilineal lineages 'aghina' (one family or several families) under the surnames Ma, Han, Liu and so on, and each lineage has a male elder as its leader. Second, several lineages are further forming a clan 'komsan' as the upper kinship organisation to the former, with a male elder elected by the kinship members involved as its leader. Third, the clans in a local society are collectively called 'aghela' (village) with several male leaders functioning as the social authority of the villages paralleling with the legally-organised administrative organs.
Beyond this, several villages together form a large rural district called a 'Gong', with a consulting board consisting of village leaders to solve issues of public affairs that arise among village societies. At present, though the legally-organised political system has important function in social organisation in the Salar villages, the local government could never overlook the traditional system of social organisation of the Salars themselves.
Economic practices and daily life
Traditionally, the economy base of the Salar villagers was agriculture, and they have made ends meet by producing wheat, cultivating fruit trees and raising domestic animals.
However, from 1990, the rapidly increasing local population created an imbalance between the population of the village and farmlands, and as a result, the income from agricultural production became limited, causing villagers to gradually quit farming in fields on the mountain slopes and instead, leave the village to search for a new way to make a living.
Some started businesses relating to agricultural production, and many people became rich by raising and selling livestock. Now many villagers run businesses of raising, selling and transporting domestic animals or run businesses dealing with real estate and transportation. These developments have greatly benefited the economy of the villages.
Schooling and literacy
Each village has its own primary school, with about 600 pupils enrolled from the first grade to the six as regular students, accounting for more than 95% of the total children in the villages. However, education beyond primary school is much more sporadic, since the villagers send their children to areas far away from the villages after primary school. Many pupils quit their education after graduating from primary school. There are perhaps several dozen junior and senior high school graduates as well as some university graduates among the villagers.
The Salar villagers in question are born Islamic believers, taking the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet as their saint books providing cultural norms for their social life. In addition to that, Islamic Sufism is also an important part of their religious practice.
Although the Salars and their cultural traditions are getting more and more influences from the outside world in the present situation of the modernisation and economic development in China, their lifestyle and culture remain traditional, and continue to distinguish the Salars from other surrounding ethnic groups.
There is no hospital in the Salar villages in question, however there is a western style medical clinic in each village with a doctor and a nurse to provide some basic medical treatments, such as ordering medicines for villagers who get colds, headaches, stomach aches, or require injections.
Also, there are some folk healers, like midwives taking care of women giving birth and private doctors using Chinese medical methods to deal with small ailments that happen to the villagers. However, the Salar villagers have to go outside their villages to nearby towns to see a doctor when they become severely ill.
Arienne M. Dwyer (2007). Salar: A Study in Inner Asian Language Contact Processes (Part 1: Phonology), Harrassowitz Verlag.
Ma Chengjun, Ma Wei (2004). One Hundred Years' Academic Studies on the Salars (in Chinese, Bainian Salarzu Yanjiu Wenji, Qinghai Peoples Press).
Ma Wei, Ma Jianzhong, Kevin Stuart (2001). The Folklore of China's Islamic Salar Nationality (Chinese Studies, Vol. 15), Edwin Mellen Press.