Moving Muslims: The Great Northwestern Rebellion and the Transformation of Chinese Islam, 1860-1896

Moving Muslims: The Great Northwestern Rebellion and the Transformation of Chinese Islam, 1860-1896
Hannah Theaker


This thesis explores the history of an empire’s attempt to remake its Muslim subjects. Across the 1860s, a vicious civil war devastated Qing China’s northwestern provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu. Whilst the events that became known as the Great Northwestern Muslim Rebellion (c.1860-1874) were both themselves complex and linked to a collapse of the Qing state occasioned by rebellions elsewhere in China, blame was laid at the feet of the Muslim protagonists by officials and populace seeking to understand the immense devastation brought about by ten years of war. The reconstruction process that was put in place after the Qing finally reconquered the region sought to address the perceived causes of the violence by instituting a highly ambitious project of social engineering that strove not to resurrect the antebellum order, but to transform the entire northwest. Governor-General Zuo Zongtang proposed the resettlement of thousands of Chinese Muslims (Hui) away from their Han Chinese neighbours, on the grounds that separating the two groups was the only way to ensure that violence would not reoccur. This thesis explores the consequences of that attempt.
Based on extensive archival research using a local Qing county archive combined with gazetteers, Muslim histories, interviews and stele from local areas, this thesis opens with a revisionist history of the role Sufi paths played in the 18th century extension of Qing empire into Gansu’s Sino-Tibetan fringes to understand the prebellum structures of Chinese Muslim society in the northwest, arguing for the political dominance of Sufi paths in Gansu. Postwar, the reconstruction period fundamentally changed the structures of everyday life and governance albeit not in the ways that the Qing state had anticipated. The new clusters of Muslim settlement and rise of generation of military elites produced by resettlements in the postbellum period engendered a religious revival which ultimately ended the political role of Sufi lineages in borderland life and created the conditions for the arrival of currents of Islamic reformism in China. This outcome is the product of the complex interplay of a new nationalism with older Qing ideas of empire and ethnicity, and of the local, half-implemented reconstruction project that remade the Gansu-Qinghai social world. The legacy of the attempt to settle Muslim away from non-Muslim, however, lives on in the process of minoritization it catalysed: Muslims in China today are considered an entirely separate ethnicity from the Han. Overall, this thesis describes two parallel arcs: the rise and fall of China’s Sufi paths and the rise of the Muslim nationalist military lineages, who would become the Republican-era ‘Muslim warlords’.


Hannah Theaker

Defended in


PhD defended at

University of Oxford, Faculty of Oriental Studies