Everyday heritaging: Sino-Muslim literacy adaptation and alienation

Ibrar Bhatt[1] and Heng Wang

School of Social Sciences, Education & Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland (United Kingdom)

To be cited as: Bhatt, I. & Wang, H. (2022) ‘Everyday heritaging: Sino-Muslim literacy adaptation and alienation’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, DOI: 10.1515/ijsl-2022-0058

Acknowledgement: This research is being supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust


What we in this article describe and discuss as practices of ‘Sino-Muslim heritage literacy’ have existed in China for as long as there have been Muslims in the region – since the 7th century according to the best evidence. The community’s religious and heritage literacy practices can incorporate, for example, a systematic Arabic representation of Chinese, systems of Chinese characters representing Arabic pronunciation, as well as more contemporary and novel digitalised manifestations of heritage literacy in everyday life.

Our study uses a social practice approach to literacy to examine the multiple forms of Sino-Muslim heritage literacy in modern China, including how heritage literacy practices are maintained, relinquished, and/or adapted in current times. In this paper published in the International Journal of the Sociology of Language, we draw from the first round of our data collection to offer a critical examination of heritage literacy maintenance and adaptation in the everyday lives of two Sino-Muslim families based in Xi’an (Shaanxi Province, China): the ‘Wang’ family, and the ‘Chen’ family. We explore how their religiously expressive heritage literacy practices occur at the interface between an authoritarian state which confines religious practice entirely through minority ethnic identity (shaoshu minzu; 少数民族) and its Muslim minority who have inherited and adapted literacy practices that are situated in heritage-related activities and inherently translingual and transmodal in nature.

Theoretical framework

The theoretical framework for this study brings the ideas of heritage literacy in the historical Sino-Muslim context together with a social practice approach to literacy. In our study, therefore, Sino-Muslim heritage practices are considered to inherently involve values, materiality and social relationships, and be mediated by sacred or religiously themed texts and events. Conceptualising heritage literacy through a social practice framing in this way means acknowledging that heritage identities change over time and are given shape by the values people hold. This frames our ethnographic commitment in the study.

Methodological approach

The research is being conducted by a team of researchers located across China and the UK, including the two authors of this paper. Xi’an is chosen as one of the focal sites of the research and the context discussed within the paper due to its historical connections with the historical Silk Roads, its localised development of historical Sino-Muslim ‘scripture hall’ (经堂教育) literacy, and its more contemporary BRI-related cultural shifts. Consistent with our context-sensitive and interpretive approach to literacy, we adopt a range of methods to capture the diversity and richness of the heritage literacy practices of the two families reported on in the article. These methods include inter-generational interviewing, document collection, and observations of key heritage events.

The Wang family: Letting go of heritage literacy

In the Wang family extract, we are given a glimpse into their heritage literacy story spanning three generations: Xiaoming (85 years old; ‘grandma’), her daughter Yanyan, and granddaughter Shuhan who is in her late twenties. We are able to see how much of Xiaoming’s heritage literacy learning took place within, and was contingent upon, the religious and self-help systems of Xiaoming’s early community. These resources included the mosque, the family, and community elders all of whom practiced forms of formal and informal religious education that included reading scripture with Chinese characters as well as with Perso-Arabic script.

While Xiaoming harnessed heritage literacy for spiritual, relational, and moral purposes in the community, she was unable to pass on much to Yanyan except her insistence on observing Eid and fasting. She now directs food-related activities during Eid and Ramadan, placing her as the sole ‘sponsor’ of heritage literacy in the family. The Wang family extract shows us how heritage literacy practices are distributed across networks of people, locations and artefacts, and not disassociated from social upheaval such as migration, divorce and forced cultural change.

The Chen family: Coming back to heritage literacy

As with the Wang family, multiple interviews were also undertaken with two generations of the Chen family: Jizhi and his son Lei (in his 30s). Jizhi’s account shows how his heritage literacy practices were confined to practices of liturgy which were reliant entirely on ‘hanjing’, a self-made system to transliterate Arabic scripture with Chinese characters. Jizhi’s very limited engagement with heritage literacy through hanjing, was not insignificant. It impacted his son Lei in many ways, including in two particular ways that are important for our analysis: heritage literacy as a form of ‘nurturing’, as Lei went on to undertake a more sustained religious education; and metalinguistic awareness and attachment, as Lei went on to study Arabic more deeply and complete a PhD in Arabic Language.

Heritage literacy education in this context could be described of as an active process of consciousness raising, and not just simply about doing things with culture and passing them on to the next generation. Lei’s scripture hall education was designed to orient the student to an ‘Islamic’ life grounded in a traditional moral and epistemological framework. And to cultivate in mosque students and the general congregation a sense of membership within an Islamo-Arabic “metalinguistic community”.

Our data show that Lei and Jizhi, and to some extent Xiaoming, maintained a metalinguistic attachment to Arabic even though it was through the medium of hanjing or scripture hall education, rather than a desire to be communicatively competent. They were both taught to valorise Arabic as ‘jing’ (lit. scripture) but in different ways. While Arabic was a vehicle for religious knowledge and etiquette taught in his formative years, by the time Lei applied for university entrance he thought that being an Arabic interpreter would earn him better money. In mosque, Arabic was central to status and can lead one to becoming an ‘ahong’ (阿訇; Imam), but Lei never made it that far. His alternative route took him to study Arabic all the way to PhD and to conduct field work in the Middle East, thereby making a living as an academic in the Arabic language, and also retaining a respect within the Hui community as a person who is connected to jing. Though in a manner that is far removed from the Quranic Arabic of his youth.

While mosques were the organisational base of communities and served as incubators for Sino-Muslim culture, we found that heritage literacies were not confined to them. Multipurpose sponsors of literacy in Xiaoming’s case eventually became fragmented, but in Lei’s case become sought out in other places to promote persistence through adaptation.

Concluding remarks

We conclude by arguing that it is crucial to situate Sino-Muslim heritage literacy in spaces beyond rigid and state-defined ethnic and religious discourses which tend to confine the identity of Sino-Muslims into officially designated categories. Doing so, we contend, has useful theoretical and methodological import, and can shed light on inquiry about heritage literacy in other minority settings.

[1] Contact: Dr Ibrar Bhatt [巴 亿博] (i.bhatt@qub.ac.uk), School of Social Sciences, Education & Social Work, 20 College Green, Queen’s University Belfast BT7 1LN (UK).

Authors’ Bio

Dr Ibrar Bhatt, Queen’s University Belfast

Dr Ibrar Bhatt [巴 亿博] is Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences, Education & Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast. He has research interests in literacy studies, education, and digital epistemologies. He is currently a recipient of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship for a study on heritage literacy in China. He recently featured as guest editor for two journal special issues: ‘Critical Perspectives on Teaching in the Multilingual University’ for Teaching in Higher Education; and ‘Lies, Bullshit & Fake News’ for Postdigital Science & Education. He is a member of the Governing Council of the Society for Research into Higher Education and an Executive Editor for the journal Teaching in Higher Education: Critical Perspectives. He can be contacted via email: i.bhatt@qub.ac.uk. His co-managed WeChat Official Account is: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/xHfZ5_sYOx9UCvuP_CM8mw

Ms Wang Heng, Queen’s University Belfast

Ms Wang Heng [王恒] is currently a PhD student in education at Queen’s University Belfast. She is originally from Jilin Province in China, and works with Ibrar on the Leverhulme project assisting with data collection, analysis, access, translation and fieldwork. Her prior work is in educational contexts in China and South Africa.

Managing editor: Tong Meng

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