How Yunnan Became Chinese, and Muslim

From Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, by Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Kindle Loc. 2475-2501:

Seven hundred years before the present wave of tourists was an altogether different wave, of Mongols, Turks and Islam. The Mongol conquest of Yunnan in the thirteenth century brought this hitherto independent kingdom for the first time under Beijing’s control and began a process of integration into ‘China proper’ that has continued to today. The Mongol conquest also brought an astonishingly diverse influx of mainly Muslim peoples, from across their Eurasian domains.

Though the invasion forces were ultimately under Mongol command, many of the officers and most of the soldiers were Turks or people from further west. The force that invaded Burma for example is said to have included no fewer than 14,000 men of the erstwhile Persian Khwarezmid empire, under their own commander Yalu Beg. Others came to garrison the new possession. They included Turks from Samarkand, Bokhara, Merv and Nishpur. They also included tribal peoples like the Kipchaks and even Bulgars from the lower Volga. Yunnan itself had been conquered by the Mongol Prince Uriyangkadai who had also conquered Baghdad, and his forces most likely included captive soldiers from the Abbasid caliphate as well as southern Russia and the Ukraine.

There were even more exotic immigrants. They included the Alans–a Sarmatian tribe today known as the Ossetians–who had submitted to the Mongols and had provided a thousand warriors for the personal body guard of the Great Khan. A son of the Alan chief, Nicholas, took part in the conquest of Yunnan, and men from the North Caucasus were posted along the Burmese borderland.

A member of the Mongol imperial clan, Prince Hugeshi, was appointed ‘prince of Yunnan’ whilst the old ruling family, the Duans, were allowed to stay in Dali and keep the title of ‘maharaja’. The Muslim newcomers, based at Dali, became extremely powerful and the most powerful of them all was a native of Bokhara named Sayyid Ajall Shams al-Din Omar. He claimed descent from the emir of Bokhara (though some say his family were originally from Cairo) and by the late 1250s he was a rising star in the Mongol establishment. He served in Baghdad and in China and was appointed as the top administrator in Yunnan in the 1270s. Today the Muslims of Yunnan regard him as the founder of their community, a wise and benevolent ruler who ‘pacified and comforted’ the peoples of Yunnan.

Sayyid Ajall was officially the Director of Political Affairs of the Regional Secretariat of Yunnan, about as bureaucratic a title as one can imagine in medieval times. According to Chinese records, he introduced new agricultural technologies, constructed irrigation systems, and tried to raise living standards. Though a Muslim, he built or rebuilt Confucian temples and created a Confucian education system. His contemporary, He Hongzuo, the Regional Superintendent of Confucian Studies, wrote that through his efforts ‘the orang-utans and butcherbirds became unicorns and phoenixes and their felts and furs were exchanged for gowns and caps’. There were many other civilizing missions on China’s periphery but only in Yunnan was one conducted under Muslim (and essentially Turkish Muslim) leadership.

In this way, Yunnan became known to the Islamic world. When Sayyid Ajall died in 1279 he was succeeded by his son Nasir al-Din who governed for five years and led the invasion of Burma. His younger brother became the Transport Commissioner and the entire family entrenched their influence. There were still very few Han Chinese in Yunnan and the growing Muslim community began to excel as long-distance traders as well. In the early fourteenth century, the great Persian Jewish historian Rashid al-Din Hamadani stated that the Dali region had become exclusively Muslim.

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Filed under Burma, Central Asia, China, Islam, migration, Mongolia, Turkey

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