Han, Uygur find common ground working on processing of jade
It is eight o’clock on a clear morning in Shifosi, a small town in Central China’s Henan province. Mutuwulla Mutallip, a 53-year-old Uygur from Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, has just arrived at his stall at the local jade fair, which is already swarming with merchants and buyers. “We are sorting them by purity,” said Mutuwulla, who is packing up his jade necklaces and bracelets alongside his wife and elder son.
Han merchants, members of the largest Chinese ethnic group, work nearby. In the Henan town and throughout its markets, it is common to see Han Chinese intermingling with Uygurs, an ethnic group who live mainly in Xinjiang.
Shifosi, traditionally known for its jade business, is gaining a new reputation in the region for these promising scenes of ethnic unity.
“I buy raw jade from our hometown in Hotan before my son and coworkers process it,” Mutuwulla said. “Then we come and sell it.”
“They have the best sales here,” said Liu Xia, a close friend of Mutuwulla and fellow merchant.
“They’re very hospitable. We visit them without invitation and have some traditional homemade Xinjiang rice at their homes,” she added.
Mutuwulla feels the same way. “We’re lucky to have met such helpful Han friends,” he said. “They took our jade to other cities to sell when we first arrived and couldn’t communicate much.”
Mutuwulla is one of the thousands of Uygur jade merchants in Shifosi. Most come from Hotan, Xinjiang, which has a long history in the jade business.
Over the past decade, increasing numbers of Uygurs have discovered the perks of trading in the Henan town.
“Jade sells a lot better here,” said Mutuwulla, who makes about 80,000 yuan ($12,000) a year. “I love Xinjiang, but the people and money have been driving me here for five years.”
For some younger Uygurs, friendship with local Han people has played an even bigger role in their decision to head east.
“I got here eight years ago when I was only 18,” said Muhpul Hulam, another jade merchant in Shifosi. “But it wasn’t that difficult. The people here are very kind and open to us.”
Muhpul said Han Chinese would invite him to eat Muslim-style meals at their homes.
“I’ve got to learn Mandarin at the table,” he said, laughing.
“Now we often hang out after work and even go on trips during holidays,” he added.
“The town is like another hometown to me.”
Local government policies over the years have played a key role in fostering an environment for Han and Uygurs to live and work side by side.
Language education has been one of the most important initiatives. For most Uygur merchants new to the town, language is the biggest barrier to overcome.
The government sets up an office specifically to meet the needs of Uygurs, with five bilingual employees to help them.
The office also offers Mandarin classes for those who need them.
“Things weren’t easy at first,” Mutuwulla said. “I was illiterate and didn’t speak Mandarin, but 23 days of bilingual courses enabled me to speak basic Mandarin and write my name in Chinese.”
“In 2015, we started offering the courses as an annual regular session,” said Shi Mingzhong, an official for ethnic and religious affairs.
“Uygurs’ enthusiasm for learning Mandarin has grown quickly ever since.”
At the jade fairs across the town, Uygur merchants can be seen talking at ease with Han buyers and merchants, whether for business or just to chat.
“We speak fluent Mandarin, and it will help us a lot anywhere in the country,” the 26-year-old Muhpul said.
Language education is also in place for the next generation of Uygurs in town. Since 2014, bilingual teachers at the local primary school have offered three language courses a week for Uygur children, in addition to regular classes.
“The change came as Uygur parents attached more importance to the education their kids receive,” principal Shang Lei said. “They believe better education means everything.
“We also don’t set a limit for Uygur students’ enrollment deadline,” he said. “Whenever they arrive with their parents, they can come and be educated along with Han students right away.”
As for the future, the plans of local Uygurs vary, yet the bonds between Shifosi and the jade merchants have been unbreakable. Some return to Xinjiang thankful for what they have gained in Henan.
“My vision has been largely expanded, and I’m a mature man now,” Muhpul said. “This is the kind of experience to treasure for life.”
Muhpul hopes to open a cafe back in his hometown of Yili, Xinjiang, by the time he reaches his 30s.
“I’ll play the traditional dutar (a traditional two-stringed lute) there and share my stories from Shifosi with my fellow Uygurs,” he said.
“That will be a good way for me to both make my home better and to encourage more Uygurs to make the most of such opportunities.”
Some other Uygurs prefer to stay in Shifosi to earn more money and take advantage of the better educational opportunities for their children.
“We won’t leave here until my grandchildren are admitted to university,” said Mutuwulla, whose two grandsons are just two and four years old.
Mutuwulla and his family are quite content to stay where they are. The primary school and comprehensive classes are a big reason. During breaks, Han and Uygur students play together, their arms around one another’s shoulders.
“The Han children here aren’t aware of, and don’t care about, the differences between ethnic groups,” said Liang Yaxun, a bilingual teacher at the school.
“Uygur students are always like sisters and brothers to them.”
“I love this place and want to stay here for a long time,” 11-year-old Gulxanay said in perfect Mandarin while taking a break from dancing with Han classmates.
“I want to join the navy when I graduate from college,” she said with a smile. “Then I’ll be able to serve our country.”
Shifosi in Zhenping county, Henan province, is a major trade center of jade in Central China.
A Uygur jade trader sells jade stones and necklaces at a bazaar in Hotan, the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
Two Uygur jade traders choose jade stones at a market in Hotan.