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Mobilities, Boundaries, and Travelling Ideas

Philipp Schröder
Manja Stephan-Emmrich

Part 2. Travelling Ideas: Sacred and Secular

5. A Sense of Multiple Belonging: Translocal Relations and Narratives of Change Within a Dungan Community1

Henryk Alff

Texte intégral


  • 1 The research for this chapter was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (...)

1The so-called ‘Forum for Culture and Science’ organized by the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, a major legislative body nominally chaired by President of State Nursultan Nazarbaev was attended by numerous leaders of the country’s ‘diasporas’. Held in September 2011 in one of Almaty’s most prestigious restaurants, its entertainment program consisted of ‘traditional’ dance performances accompanied by various signature dishes belonging to the different groups that are part of multi-ethnic Kazakhstan, alongside national delicacies. However, Husey Daurov, a successful businessman and head of Kazakhstan’s Association of Dungans, a group of Chinese-speaking Muslims, used the event as a venue for negotiating business deals rather than celebrating culture and science. Trade entrepreneurs seeking support, as well as phone calls to and from China, constantly interrupted my interview with Daurov, an interview that took place on the sidelines of the larger meeting. As Daurov clarified, excusing himself for the frequent interruptions, Dungan connections built over the past three decades between Central Asia and China far exceed the level of mere commerce. They include a range of exchanges regarding education and innovation that facilitate the Dungans’ role as political and socio-economic mediators across what is presented from the state perspective in both Kazakhstan and China as a newly emerging ‘Silk Road’.

  • 2 The Huizu are an ethnic group; the word is used in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) collective (...)

2Originating predominantly from the Chinese provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu, Dungans in Central Asia are descendants of refugees who were forced to leave the late Qing Empire in the course of what has become known as the Hui revolts (1862–1877). Following these events they established themselves in the Russian Empire and later in Soviet Central Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the second half of the twentieth century, Dungans were negatively affected by the Sino-Soviet divide that, in 1963, led to the closing of the border between the two Communist powers. However, starting with the Sino-Soviet rapprochement and increasingly so since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many of Kazakhstan’s Dungans have managed to establish relations with Huizu2 and Han Chinese business networks and position themselves favorably in cross-border exchanges between coastal China, Xinjiang, and post-Soviet Central Asia. Dungans value the position of socio-spatial liminality they occupy, and they often attribute particular meaning to the places their practices connect. It is therefore worthwhile to investigate the relational and translocal production of place and the sense of multiple belongings that occur as a result. Notably, during interviews in Russian, my Dungan interlocutors referred not only to themselves but also to their perceived co-ethnics in China, as Dungan, even though Hueitsu is in widespread use as a common emic label or ethnic self-denomination in the ‘Dungan language’.

3This chapter explores the relations and practices among the people of coastal China, Almaty, and south-eastern Kazakhstan and the impact they have on notions of belonging and social change within a Dungan community. It takes an ethnographic approach to examine how the socio-economic and socio-cultural changes in interrelated places are perceived, represented, and narrated and how they both shape and are shaped by the actors’ social practices. The focus of this inquiry, therefore, is on issues of human interaction and translocal flows of ideas and how they influence the production of a particular sense of place. I argue that because of their discursive positioning between ‘rising’ China and post-Soviet Kazakhstan, the Dungans perceive themselves as belonging to multiple groups. I will then investigate how the translocal socio-spatial positioning of a group impacts on the exchange of goods and people, as well as the appropriation or translation of particular ideas of social change between interconnected places.

  • 3 These periods of field research were complemented by a short stay in Guangzhou in December 2014.

4Field research for this study was conducted between September 2011 and May 20143 in the large village of Shortobe, about 200 kilometers from Almaty, and in the Barakholka bazaar agglomeration in Almaty. My ethnographic methods included semi-structured interviews with residents and participant observation.

5My initial engagement with the Dungan community of Kazakhstan was facilitated by Husey Daurov, the most prominent community leader and businessman in Almaty. Since travelling to the People’s Republic of China in search of family links for the first time during the 1980s, Daurov has remained the main facilitator of Dungan cultural and political exchanges between Central Asia and China. As one interview partner said: ‘Husey Shimarovich [Daurov] has done a lot for the Dungans, in particular for those here in Shortobe. In fact, all of the people doing business with Chinese partners have received contacts and built their business through him’. Daurov therefore served as a crucial resource for my inquiries into Dungan history. He was also a key point of entry into the Dungan community, helping me to identify other interlocutors, including students and entrepreneurs in Shortobe and Guangzhou. The twenty respondents I selected were predominantly entrepreneurs, running their own trade businesses in Almaty, but the group also included local representatives of the Association of Dungans, several high-school teachers, and college students in Shortobe and the neighboring Dungan-populated village of Masanchi. In addition to these more formal interviews, I enjoyed many informal conversations with Dungans in Kyrgyzstan, as well as three interviews with Dungan students in Guangzhou, Southeast China.

6This method of acquiring contacts enabled translocal research. However, my reliance on Husey Daurov as a gatekeeper resulted in interlocutors who were close to the community leaders. Facilitated by this ‘snowball system’, but also due to the self-proclaimed pious Muslim identity of the Dungans, my interlocutors belonged exclusively to the well-connected and highly mobile male Dungan community. This introduces a certain amount of gender and (im-)mobility bias to the current study, which reflects the fact that the vast majority of Dungan women do not take part in either trade operations or educational exchanges with China.

7This chapter comprises six parts in total: a brief section on the socio-cultural and historical background of Kazakhstan’s Dungans, followed by an outline of the theoretical background of this research. The remainder of the chapter explores Shortobe’s Dungans and their relations, socio-spatial boundaries and narratives of multiple belongings, ending with some concluding remarks on my analysis.

Historical and socio-cultural background

  • 4 See the extensive work by Dru Gladney (1991, 1996, 2004) for thorough ethnographic research on the (...)
  • 5 In Dungan studies, as well as by the Dungans themselves, their language, however, is regarded not (...)
  • 6 The chair of Dungan Studies (dunganovedenie in Russian) at the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences is the o (...)

8Kazakhstan’s Dungans, a group of Chinese-speaking Muslims about 56,000 strong, predominantly live in a cluster of compact settlements in the Zhambyl oblast in the southeast of the country (Agenstvo po statistike 2012). They also form one of the largest minority groups in the Chuy and Issyk Köl oblast of neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Yet, while Dungans in the Central Asian republic (and in China, where they are subsumed under the ethnic category of Huizu)4 are widely considered to be a more or less coherent ethnic group, those originating from the Shaanxi and Gansu provinces of China speak different dialects of Mandarin5 and often inhabit distinct settlements (Jimenez Tovar 2013). In Kyrgyzstan, those claiming their origins in Gansu province dominate among the 60,000 Dungans and form the intellectual elite.6

Fig. 5.1 Shortobe and the Dungan-populated villages in South Eastern Kazakhstan. Map © Henryk Alff (2014), CC BY 4.0

  • 7 See Kamol Abdullaev’s discussion in Chapter One about Tajik refugees in Afghanistan for an example (...)

9The 20,000 Dungan inhabitants of Shortobe, as well as those forming the overwhelming majority of the populous nearby villages of Masanchi, Bular Batyr, and Aukhatty, are almost exclusively descendants of refugees hailing from the Chinese province of Shaanxi. During the late 1870s, they left Qing China under the guidance of Muhammad Ayub Biyanhu, one of the military leaders of the Hui Revolts (Vansvanova 2000). Having escaped annihilation in the Qing Empire, the Dungan refugee groups were settled by Tsarist authorities a few kilometers north of the garrison of Tokmak (Shushanlo 1967), now a regional centre across the border in Kyrgyzstan with a sizable Dungan community. Along the fertile valley of the Chu River, the Dungan refugees cultivated former pasture land and established irrigated farms, making use of their advanced agricultural skills and the seeds they brought from China.7 On the basis of Dungan-dominated settlements, collective agricultural production units were formed in the early Soviet period. Some of them, like the collective farm ‘Kommunisticheskiy’ in Shortobe, were renowned for their high productivity in growing corn, potatoes, and garden vegetables throughout the Soviet period.

10The dismantling of the Soviet Union and subsequent independence of the republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as sovereign states in 1991 brought about fundamental changes to Shortobe’s Dungan population. On the one hand, loss of state subsidies and the gradual solidifying of the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border in the early 1990s meant that collective farming and the distribution of their products, which was the main source of employment and subsistence for the majority of the population, was heading towards disintegration. On the other hand, Shortobe’s Dungans were among the first rural dwellers in Kazakhstan to gain from the relaxation of travel and foreign trade regulations across the newly opened Sino-Soviet border. Drawing on their ethno-linguistic (and religious) affiliation with Huizu and Han Chinese, Dungan community leaders from Shortobe started to form close interpersonal relations with partners across mainland China (Laruelle and Peyrouse 2012:123) and even as far as Malaysia. Unlike adjacent, mostly Kazakh-populated villages, Shortobe continues to expand and thrive thanks to intensive highyield agriculture, catering for the markets and for Dungan restaurants in the major cities of Kazakhstan. Trans-Eurasian trade and transport, linking manufacturing centres in China’s seaboard, Xinjiang, with the post-Soviet states, is the community’s second source of income. Furthermore, dozens of Dungan students now study at the universities or are employed in Xi’an and Lanzhou and in the manufacturing centres of coastal China.

  • 8 Interview, 20 May 2014, Shortobe.
  • 9 Hundreds of Dungans from Kazakhstan leave for hajj every year on charter flights, taking up a cons (...)

11The end of the Soviet Union, however, has also brought about a religious revival and an exchange of ideas about Islam among the Dungan population of Shortobe. Over the past two decades, eighteen mosques were constructed there and in the neighboring Dungan-populated villages, with at least one in what is locally called the ‘Chinese style’, referring to the curved gable construction of the roof. Shortobe’s Dungans consider themselves pious Muslims and usually follow their religious obligations more strictly than their Kazakh co-villagers. In interviews Dungans often described themselves as following the strict rules of Islam, in contrast to their neighbors. Thus, one of my interlocutors in Shortobe joked that Kazakhs consider themselves Muslims only three times in their entire life: when they are born, when they marry, and when they die. For Dungans, on the contrary, Islam is fundamental to their lives and religious duties are to be discharged on an everyday basis.8 Dungans in Shortobe regularly engage in the prescribed five-times daily prayer; travel for hajj at least once (but often twice);9 and abstain from alcohol and tobacco, substances that have been banned from sale in local shops by the community’s elders.

  • 10 Cross-border Muslim solidarity among Dungan groups plays out, for example, in the organization of (...)

12Islam plays an important role in Dungans’ self-identification and has certainly contributed to the expansion of Hui-Dungan business relations, as a strict self-definition as pious Muslims among both Dungan and Hui has generated mutual trust based on a shared belief in their mutual honesty.10 However, this is accompanied by a general tightening of state control, particularly in China, but also in Kazakhstan, over what some government leaders perceive as religious extremism and the establishment of suspicious religious networks. However, given the sensitivity of this topic, the religious aspects have not been studied in great detail in the present study.

The relational thinking of place and the concept of translocality

13In this section, I outline how places are constituted through complex sets of human interactions, negotiations of socio-spatial relations, and flows of ideas and meaning, or ‘alternative spatialities’. This approach stems from the paradigmatic changes throughout the social sciences since the 1980s, in particular the ‘spatial turn’, i.e., the recognition of the constructivist, multidimensional character of spatial production. In particular, I shall refer to Doreen Massey’s oft-cited conceptualization of relational placemaking (1991, 1998, 2004) and Zoomers and van Westen’s concept of translocal development (2011).

14Massey argues that people’s identities have a decisive impact on the production of particular places and vice versa. This insight implies that the specific meanings, feelings and values that people associate with a location invoke what John Agnew has called ‘a sense of place’ (Agnew 2008). We must therefore go beyond physical qualities to consider the imagined values and symbolic attachments that places can possess (for additional discussion of this symbolic meaning, see Manja Stephan-Emmrich in Chapter Nine). Yet, while these qualities appear to be properties of a specific place, they may instead result from, and possibly be expressed because of, human connections to other locations (Castree 2008). Local identities may be based in particular places, but they are rarely bound to them (ibid.). Thus, Massey argues rightly that it is ‘routes rather than roots’, the flows of meaning, that matter for the production of a sense of place (Massey 1998), and these routes also characterise distinct feelings of belonging in the Dungan case, as I shall suggest.

15Massey also argues that places should not be conceptualized as static, predetermined (essentialized), and bounded (territorialized) spatial entities, but rather considered according to their ongoing production, or what Gilles Deleuze has termed the process of ‘becoming’ (Deleuze 1995) (see also Emil Nasritdinov in Chapter Ten). Thus places are constructed through their entanglements with other places, and these interrelations are created by human interactions, processes of exchange, and mobility (Massey 2004). This understanding of places as ‘nodes in networks’ or as ‘meeting places’ implies a certain degree of unevenness and inequality, or what Massey has called ‘power geometries’. Scalar thinking in the social sciences often results in the suggestion that ‘local inequalities are caused by global interlinkages’ (Castree 2008:165–66), thus assuming a nested hierarchy. However, the negotiation of socio-spatial relations between and within places is, to a considerable degree, subject to the agency of actors and their strategic choices and practices. Individual relationships are always situated in time and space and are, therefore, highly contextual.

  • 11 For the extensive literature in the social sciences on translocality see Freitag and von Oppen (20 (...)

16Recently, the concept of translocality has gained considerable prominence in socio-spatial theory,11 both as an object of enquiry and as a research perspective. Freitag and von Oppen define translocality in a descriptive sense as ‘the sum of phenomena which result from a multitude of circulations and transfers. It designates the outcome of concrete movements of people, goods, ideas and symbols which span spatial distances and cross boundaries, be they geographical, cultural or political’ (Freitag and von Oppen 2010:5). Similar to other theoretical contributions on translocality, Freitag and von Oppen describe and explain the multiple and heterogeneous ‘interactions and connections between places, institutions and concepts’ using the concept of networks (ibid.). They consider interactions to be the central constitutive element of connections, and interactions can be broadly summarized as intense processes of movement, communication, and exchange between particular places and/or situated actors (Alff and Benz 2014:9).

17It must be noted that the movement of people, goods, and ideas from one place to another (and from one context to another), which is inherent to the process of interaction, is a central feature of translocality, further contributing to its relational character. The notion of translation, especially regarding the movement of ideas, identities, and meanings between places, implies a moment of transformation or innovation during a process of reconfiguration (De Lima Costa and Alvarez 2014:557). At the same time, paradoxically the ‘trans-’ in translation and translocality suggests a particularity to locality that contributes to the maintenance of distinctive dynamics or orders. Consequently, Freitag and von Oppen point out that translocality ‘focuses neither exclusively on movement, broadly conceived, nor on a particular order, real or imagined. Rather, it investigates the tensions between movement and order’ and thus ‘attempts to cope with transgression and with the need for localizing some kind of order’ (Freitag and von Oppen 2010:8, emphasis theirs).

18As an important extension to the general translocality concept, Zoomers and van Westen (2011) have suggested the notion of ‘translocal development’, which contributes to my analysis of the Dungan case. This concept highlights the impact that local-to-local relations and flows of capital, goods, people, and information can have on transformations that occur in interconnected places (ibid.:377). Conceptualizations of ‘translocal development’ thus seek to overcome established territorializations (‘methodological nationalism, regionalism, localism’), binary spatial dichotomies (rural-urban, central-peripheral) and an analytical assessment that is restricted to the local ‘boundedness’ of resources and people in separate places (ibid.). They allow ‘alternative spatialisations’, which challenge the significance of topographical distance and of borders, thereby contributing to an understanding of the place-and actor-based production of space that occurs daily. Zoomers and van Westen rightly argue that globalization is ‘connecting people and places that are distant in space but linked in such ways that what happens in one place has direct bearing on the other’ (ibid.:379). This focus on translocal connections that are established through mobilities and exchanges is not intended to downplay or ignore the importance of local dynamics or place-based historical formations in processes of change. Nevertheless, ‘the translocal links might generate additional perspectives for “local” development’ (ibid.:380).

19The following two sections reflect upon the ways in which interpersonal relationships across space and translocal flows of meaning between different places contribute to socio-spatial transformations in Shortobe, and how this affects the sense of belonging felt by the Dungan population.

Negotiations of socio-spatial relations and flows of people, goods, and meaning

  • 12 The inward-looking nature of the Dungan community, revealed in their conversations with trade entr (...)

20In Kazakhstani society during the late Soviet era, Dungans were considered a distinct and tight-knit ethnic community12 of successful and particularly hard-working agriculturalists (Hong 2005:138). Some of the most productive irrigated vegetable farms in the south of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) were the collective farms located in predominantly Dungan-populated rural settlements such as Dunganovka (on the outskirts of the city of Taraz) and the cluster of villages around Shortobe (in the Korday District of Zhambyl oblast). They acquired in-depth knowledge of, and access to, distribution networks by providing agricultural produce to formal state organizations, and they supplied the surplus goods to informal farmers’ markets in large cities in Soviet Central Asia and Siberia. These relationships were key to their status as one of the central groups in the private trade sector after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the 1990s, state-controlled provision schemes were replaced by private wholesale and retail bazaars, such as the Dordoi bazaar in Bishkek and the Barakholka agglomeration in Almaty. Dungan entrepreneurs from rural places, led by Husey Daurov, actively facilitated this process by strategically extending and rebuilding business relations with China.

Fig. 5.2 Dungan vegetable farming in Shortobe.
Photo © Henryk Alff (2014), CC BY 4.0

  • 13 Interview with Husey Daurov, 12 May 2014, Almaty.

21The Dungans of Shortobe consider themselves ancestors of a group of refugees that left the Qing Empire in 1877. While some households still retain pieces of cloth, jewelry, and even walking sticks13 from their ancestors’ flight, passing them down from generation to generation, ancestral links to China have gradually deteriorated over the past 140 years. Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer (1978:356) notes that during the Soviet period there was almost no contact between Dungan groups in Soviet Central Asia and Huizu groups in the People’s Republic, a fact she does not connect to the conflict between the leaders of the Soviet Union and the PRC during that time, but rather to almost a century of separation between Dungans and their kin in China. With the Sino-Soviet rapprochement in the late 1980s, communication with and travel to China became less restricted. Husey Daurov, a former history teacher in Shortobe’s secondary school and then the secretary of Shortobe’s collective farm ‘Kommunisticheskiy’ was the first to build up new ties with Huizu and Han political and economic circles, first in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, and later in other places across China. Daurov thereby became a pioneer and retains great influence over the extensive social networks that currently link Shortobe with China, as one of my interlocutors in Shortobe stated:

‘Husey Shimarovich [Daurov] has done a lot for the Dungans, in particular for those here in Shortobe. In fact, all of the people running business with Chinese partners have received contacts and built their business through him. He is the moral authority of our people’ (2014, Shortobe).

22A sense of cross-border solidarity and loyalty, based on ethnic and linguistic affiliation, exists between Dungans and their Han Chinese business partners, which has contributed to the establishment of enduring, trusting, and often exclusive commercial and political alliances. These were stronger than the ties between their Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uyghur competitors and the evolving Chinese business sector (Laruelle and Peyrouse 2012:123). Dungan groups in Kazakhstan are being appropriated by the Chinese state as an ‘overseas Chinese ethnic minority’ (shao shu min zu hua qiao hua ren in Chinese), which gives them particularly favorable access to social benefits offered by the Chinese authorities, e. g., to cultural and educational exchange programmes and university grants (Jiménez Tovar 2013, 2016).

Fig. 5.3 Translocal connections between Central Asia and China forged by Shortobe’s Dungans. Map © Henryk Alff (2015), CC BY 4.0

  • 14 Fieldnotes based on a conversation with a local Dungan businessman, 18 May 2014, Shortobe.

23The export of scrap metal and Soviet-era industrial installations to China in the 1900s was the first economic activity that arose from these connections between Dungan and Han entrepreneurs. The outflow of labourers from Shortobe and the neighboring villages to Bishkek and Almaty was facilitated by the organization of transport schemes between coastal China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia and by the highly profitable wholesale import of Chinese-made consumer goods such as textiles, shoes, and household items to Kazakhstan, which flourished in the second half of the decade. Today, in up to eighty percent of Shortobe’s households, one or more members are reported to be self-employed in the urban trade sector,14 especially in wholesale and larger retail trade based at Almaty’s Barakholka bazaar agglomeration, complementing the agricultural economic orientation of the village. Those people running the trade business travel to China for supplies — either to Urumqi or directly to the manufacturing centres on China’s eastern seaboard — on a regular basis. Yet, many of them return to Shortobe during the weekly day off at Almaty’s Barakholka, from Sunday evening to Tuesday morning. During a taxi ride with Dungan retail traders from Shortobe to Almaty’s Baisat bazaar in October 2012, one of them explained the evolution of his business:

  • 15 Fieldnotes, 8 October 2012.

‘I moved from Shortobe to help out my elder brother with his business back in 2002. Bazaar trade became a highly profitable way of making a living, as Kazakhstan recovered from the 1998 financial crisis. I soon could buy a sales container on my own and started to travel to Urumqi almost every two months for supplies of household appliances using the contacts my brother had established. Sales went well, nowadays they have slowed, but still I was able to buy a new house in Shortobe a year ago, although retail prices in Shortobe have reached the level of Almaty.’15

  • 16 One of my interlocutors in Shortobe named these extensive new quarters on the fringes of Shortobe (...)
  • 17 The small-scale paint factory in Aukhatty is currently run by a Han Chinese manager from Fujian pr (...)
  • 18 Fieldnotes, 19 May 2014.

24The connections to China fostered the increasing mobility of Dungan trade entrepreneurs and the circulation of goods and capital, but also the exchange of innovative ideas that often accompanies these translocal flows. In the mid-1990s Husey Daurov, then the head of the privatised farm ‘Shaanxi’ in Shortobe, imported agricultural innovations from Xi’an, such as basic greenhouse and mushroom-growing technology, to generate income for the village in the late autumn and early spring months. These technologies later spread to other parts of southern Kazakhstan. Rapid housing construction triggered the constant expansion of Shortobe16 and its neighboring villages, and small-scale brick and paint production facilities were built in the neighboring villages of Bular Batyr and Aukhatty using Chinese technology and expertise17 to satisfy local demand. During a visit to the paint factory in May 2014, a Dungan foreman emphasized that the half-mechanized production is the only industrial facility in the Korday district. The products are currently sold across Kazakhstan and are always in high demand due to the lack of serious domestic competition.18

Fig. 5.4 Paint production facility in Aukhatty.
Photo © Henryk Alff (2014), CC BY 4.0

  • 19 Interview, 9 October 2012, Almaty.

25As a way to ‘develop’ Shortobe, Daurov proposed a project of ‘community-based tourism as seen in many parts of China nowadays’ to attract larger numbers of Chinese visitors, who seek to experience a highly folklorized version of ‘traditional Hui culture’ that has vanished in China after the Cultural Revolution.19 According to Daurov’s vision, inviting Chinese people to stay in Dungan homes and participate in ‘traditional Dungan wedding ceremonies’, as well as constructing an ethnographic village with ‘ancient Dungan-style houses and Kazakh yurts’, promote Chinese-Dungan dialogue and interaction and provide new modes of income (ibid., see also Laruelle and Peyrouse 2012:121–23).

26A Dungan tendency towards history-making and self-mythologization is evident in such ethno-tourism, as they explain their contemporary existence as a Chinese-speaking group in Kazakhstan with reference to a reimagined (folklorized) past (see also Svetlana Jacquesson in Chapter Six). Several of my interlocutors in Shortobe outlined that not only have Chinese tourists arrived in increasing numbers in search of what they imagine as their lost selves, but journalists, film crews, and social anthropologists from mainland China have also visited Shortobe for investigation or field research. This strategy of historicizing present, everyday reality in Dungan settlements apparently serves to attract attention from China and tap new sources of income for the rural Dungan population. It is part of a project that exploits (and appropriates) images from the past to build a prosperous future.

27Social change in Shortobe and other Dungan settlements during the past two decades was entangled with state-led modernisation across China. This is particularly true with respect to agricultural innovation in Shortobe and the simultaneous increase in more urbanized economic activities such as international trade, tourism, and manufacturing, which all contribute to what is perceived as modern society. The influx of ideas for development together with these new entrepreneurial activities is vividly expressed by my Dungan interlocutors’ descriptions of particular elements of China’s modernisation ideology. A member of Shortobe’s local branch of Kazakhstan’s Association of Dungans on one occasion said:

‘In China, the advancement of people and society is given highest priority. The Chinese government supports unity, equity, and dialogue in society though various measures, because this comes as a pledge for societal improvement and wellbeing. As Dungans in Kazakhstan’s society, we also retain a high degree of respect for our compatriots’ (2011, Shortobe).

28The importance of dialogue, harmony, and equity in society as a precondition for positive change and, at the same time, a major goal thereof, seems to be influenced by the notion of ‘social harmony’ (hexie shehui in Chinese), which is prominent in the Chinese modernisation discourse (Brox and Bellér-Hann 2014). However, the reference to ‘social harmony’ is not the only aspect of ‘Chinese modernity’ brought up during conversation by Dungans in Shortobe. The ability to flexibly and pragmatically react to changing socio-economic conditions, e.g., to adapt their supplies to the demand for products or services, or to adjust cross-border trade and transport networks to navigate changing modes of regulation and to trade effectively, are considered quintessential entrepreneurial qualities.

29Thus, among my Dungan interlocutors there is a positive sense of symbolic connectedness to the flow of ideas and forces of development in China, on the one hand, and their impact on modernisation in Shortobe, on the other. In fact, Shortobe’s Dungan population has a certain fascination with development in China. As I have stated elsewhere in more detail, it appears that by promoting particular ideas about development across borders, Chinese state elites will eventually be able to use the Dungan population for their own purposes by inspiring translocal developments that are favourable to China and are forged by key actors and communities within the Dungan population (Alff 2014, Jiménez Tovar 2016).

Fig. 5.5 Miniature version of Astana’s Baiterek Tower in a Dungan village. Photo © Henryk Alff (2014), CC BY 4.0

  • 20 Another example is the Dungan gold medal winners at the London 2012 Olympic Games, Zulfiya Chinsha (...)

30While this policy has elicited predominantly positive feedback among my interlocutors, who often agree with Chinese ideas about modernity, they have also tended to assert their ‘Kazakhstaniness’ and therefore their position in the post-Soviet societal order. Many of my respondents explicitly emphasized that Dungans belong to Kazakhstan’s multiethnic population, a claim that is reinforced by the extensive use, even by Central Asian standards, of Kazakhstani state symbols in Shortobe’s public spaces, for example the erection of miniature versions of Astana’s Baiterek Tower in schoolyards and central junctions of Dungan-populated villages (see fig. 5.5 and also Koch 2010).20 Dungan elites, at the same time, have offered themselves as go-betweens to the Kazakhstani government, which has allowed them to rebut the impression that they have been co-opted by China and to enhance their own influence in commercial exchanges. Thus, Dungan business people often quite literally act as translators for government delegations to China, while gaining from lucrative business deals. In the following section I shall examine how these interconnections between China and Kazakhstan foster translocal development and a sense of multiple belongings.

Translocal development and multiple belongings

31As has been outlined above, the dynamic transformation of place occurs in human interactions that shape and are shaped by socio-spatial relations as well as flows of people, goods, and ideas. Such exchanges position the village of Shortobe as a ‘node in networks’ rather than a strictly-bounded entity in space. In the Dungan case, this is nowhere more apparent than in the socio-spatial effects of educational migration.

  • 21 According to a local member of the Association of Dungans, 200 students were sent in 2013 alone fo (...)
  • 22 These stipends are allocated by Kazakhstan’s Association of Dungans.
  • 23 The allocation of grants is allegedly not always carried out in an entirely transparent way, leadi (...)

32Over the past couple of years, several hundred Dungan students21 in Kazakhstan, predominantly from Shortobe and the surrounding villages, have left to attend long-term Chinese language courses or to gain higher education in universities across China. These universities provide stipends22 to Dungans who are officially deemed ‘Overseas Chinese ethnic minorities’; thus higher education in Xi’an, Lanzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, has become accessible to the rural Dungan population. This spatial mobility for educational purposes fosters a certain degree of social mobility, but in a selective way. The prospect of a career in business thanks to the relationship between Kazakhstan and China, and in particular thanks to the investment of Chinese state corporations in Kazakhstan’s economy, has increased the popular demand for these scholarships among the Dungan population.23 It has also driven initiatives that provide Putonghua, or Chinese-standard language training, in Shortobe and neighboring villages at the secondary school level. A major outcome of improved Chinese language training in, and increasing educational migration from, Shortobe is a stronger awareness of the potential of the Dungans’ cultural-historical and socio-economic links to China, particularly among the younger generation (Allés 2005).

33During a research stay in the thriving southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou in December 2014, I met two Dungan undergraduate students from Shortobe who, having transferred from Shaanxi Normal University to the prestigious Sun Yatsen University in Guangzhou, praised the socio-economic opportunities that China’s major commercial centre has to offer. During a dinner in one of Guangzhou’s numerous Huizu-owned restaurants one of them said:

‘I first studied in Xi’ an. I then came to Guangzhou to continue my studies about a year ago. As Guangzhou is continuously expanding and booming, naturally there are many more opportunities here than in Shortobe or even in Xi’an for earning extra income. There was not much to do [in Xi’an]; when we came home from school, we went to have a nap. Here, when a trade fair is coming up or a business delegation from Kazakhstan is due to arrive, we get a call from Husey Shimarovich [Daurov] and are hired as interpreters’ (2014, Guangzhou).

  • 24 For another example of the valorization of the use of language as cultural capital see Abdullah Mi (...)

34The two students outlined the seemingly endless possibilities that China’s rapid development offered to them as Dungans, especially in places like Guangzhou. They pointed out that their origins in a Dungan village in Kazakhstan and their lengthy stays in Xi’an and Guangzhou were particularly beneficial in allowing them to make use of the opportunities offered by China’s rapid development. In common with several of those returning from China, whom I interviewed in Shortobe and Almaty, they emphasized their Dungan, Russian, Kazakh, and Chinese language skills and their in-depth knowledge of local conditions in both places as crucial for their daily life as well as for future plans.24 They highlighted their desire to contribute to the prosperity of their families back home in Shortobe, as they expected to become employed in well-paid positions in branches of Chinese corporations in Kazakhstan upon their return.

35The interviews in Guangzhou revealed, moreover, that it is not only Dungan students’ knowledge of several languages, local customs, and business culture that has contributed to their favorable position as intermediaries, but also their embeddedness in Kazakhstani Dungan-Chinese political networks. The students had direct connections to the leaders of the Association of Dungans and its regional offices in China. This resulted in relatively tight social control from above regarding their academic achievements and their housing, but it also provided direct access to influential business circles and even to official government delegations for ‘our Dungan students’, as Husey Daurov called them.

36What becomes clear from the students’ case, first and foremost, is the impact of cross-border (educational) mobility and local-to-local relations between geographically distant, yet socio-spatially interconnected places. The changes occurring in one place are therefore understood to a considerable degree through translocal human interaction, as in the case of Dungan educational migration between Shortobe and Chinese university cities. Through the allocation of Chinese-funded stipends to Dungan students in villages in Kazakhstan and the continued interest of Kazakhstani business circles in benefitting from the know-how and embeddedness of Dungans in Guangzhou or other manufacturing centres, these local-to-local connections become visible and relevant for analysis. Secondly, the intermediary socio-spatial or brokering position of the Dungans between China and Central Asia has become evident. As Husey Daurov, during one of our meetings, emphasized:

‘China with accelerated velocity draws closer to the US […]. Dungans, who know the local mentality and realities, speak both Russian and Kazakh, share commonalities in culture and language with the Chinese, should use the historical chances China’ s rapid development has to offer in any way they can’ (2012, Shortobe).

37According Daurov, Dungans are expected to occupy an intermediate position in what he calls China’s path towards development and global leadership (see also Gladney 1996:454–58). Described as ‘relational alterity’ by Gladney (1996:454), the Dungans’ strategic practice of positioning themselves as intermediaries between China and Kazakhstan highlights the way in which they make sense of their group’s existence. The pronounced socio-spatial situatedness of Dungans as middlemen entails the translation of knowledge, skills, and particular ideas of social change, as has been outlined above, and as has also been referred to by Philipp Schröder in his study of Kyrgyz traders and by Abdullah Mirzoev and Manja Stephan-Emmrich in their chapter on Tajik migrants in Dubai (Chapters Eight and Three, respectively). Their role as brokers, moreover, both informs and is produced by what could be called a Dungan sense of multiple (translocal) belongings and embeddedness within the different socio-spatial contexts of China and post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Interestingly, Dungans of different social backgrounds have pointed this out during my interviews and conversations.

38In fact, numerous conversations with interlocutors in Shortobe revealed that the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province was commonly referred to as the historical homeland (istoricheskaya rodina in Russian) of the Dungans. This calls to mind the concept of ‘native place’ (guxiang in Chinese), which derives its significance not from its ‘localization’, but rather from historic and ongoing processes of identification (Oakes and Schein 2006:19). The crucial symbolic position of Xi’an in Dungan discourses of belonging has been strengthened over the last few years by the multi-purpose links forged with this city through crossborder cultural and educational exchanges as well as the circulation of innovative ideas. These links were institutionalized by the establishment of an official partnership between Zhambyl oblast and Shaanxi province, which was initiated by Husey Daurov using his connections to both the Kazakhstani state elite and to regional authorities in Xi’an.

39The cluster of villages around Shortobe, on the other hand, was often posited as the nucleus of the Dungan population in Kazakhstan. The unique nature of this cluster, which is rapidly developing and much more prosperous than surrounding Kazakh-inhabited settlements, was often proudly highlighted. Furthermore, several interlocutors emphasized Dungans’ strong social attachment to the places where they settle. While the demand for building plots remains high, with real estate prices in Shortobe approaching those in Kazakhstan’s largest cities, much private investment is dedicated to the maintenance and improvement of local infrastructure.

  • 25 Svetlana Jacquesson’s study of popular historiographies in Kyrgyzstan in Chapter Six may be anothe (...)

40Along with these claims of multiple belongings (see also Jiménez Tovar 2016) the emphasis on the Dungans’ role as brokers has been expressed by widespread self-representations of their existence as a product of exchanges (both of people and religious values) along the historic ‘Silk Road’.25 This claim finds its contemporary extension in the position of Dungan entrepreneurs within the state-led political discourse in China and Kazakhstan, as they discuss the creation of a modern ‘Silk Road’ or ‘Eurasian land bridge’. Several of my interlocutors in Shortobe as Chinese Muslims traced their ancestry to the century-long flows of people and values along the ‘Silk Road’, thereby connecting their past ideas with their visions of ongoing social change. Husey Daurov explicitly references the powerful political ambition to rebuild a modern ‘Silk Road’ when he praises the contemporary and future opportunities that Dungans should grasp to promote their community’s socio-economic advancement (Alff 2014).


41This chapter has drawn attention to the particularities of the constitution of place(s) through the lens of socio-spatial connections rather than through the ‘territorial trap’ (Agnew 2008) in the case of the Dungan village of Shortobe in southeastern Kazakhstan. Dungans, previously exclusively regarded as a close-knit group of farmers in Soviet-era public discourse in Kazakhstan, have strategically expanded their connections to Hui and Han Chinese groups across China in the last two decades. By so doing, they have positioned themselves favorably as mediators in the trade between China and Kazakhstan, as well as in the processes of exchange along what is often conceived from a state perspective as a newly emerging ‘Silk Road’. At the same time, Shortobe’s Dungan population has experienced a sense of multiple belongings thanks to the increasing level of translocal interaction for educational and business purposes between Shortobe, Almaty, and the booming cities of the Chinese seaboard. The Dungans’ multiple belonging evolves from both top-down (appropriation) and bottom-up (self-definition) processes.

42Analysis of the Dungan case reveals that it is largely through the mobility of people and the dynamically changing flows of goods, ideas, and meaning that Shortobe’s transformation over the last two decades literally ‘takes place’. Thus, it is not (or at least not alone) the rootedness or boundedness of distinct meaning in place, as Doreen Massey has rightly argued, but the intersecting flows of meaning through human interaction and exchanges between places that forge a particular ‘sense of place’ among actors. The construction of a ‘sense of place’ can be seen in the modernisation rhetoric that has followed the introduction of agricultural innovations in Shortobe and the promotion among its population of ‘more modern’ means of making a living. Thus I have argued, following Massey’s concept of place as a ‘node in networks’ that the constitution of place needs to be explored relationally, rather than thinking of it as a bounded entity in space.

43This approach to thinking about place through its connections may be further enriched by the concept of translocality, and more specifically with Zoomers and van Westen’s (2011) notion of ‘translocal development’. The central idea behind ‘translocal development’ is to scrutinize transformations in one place through its local-to-local relations with interconnected places, implying that changes in one place have a direct impact on the other. The case of Shortobe suggests that the relationships between interconnected places are far from even or balanced. The outcome of translocal development has been exemplified by the educational migration of Dungan students between Shortobe and university cities in eastern China. The increased yet still selective access to higher education abroad has increased the appreciation of the value of closer cultural-historical and socio-economic links to China, especially among the younger generation of Shortobe’s Dungans. The experience of a rapidly developing China has fostered hopes among Dungan students that they might personally benefit from these changes and at the same time contribute to ongoing development in Shortobe.



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1 The research for this chapter was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) in the framework of the competence network ‘Crossroads Asia’. I would like to thank both BMBF and Crossroads Asia for their generous support during the research process. Furthermore, I am grateful for the open discussion of an earlier version of this chapter at a workshop of the Volkswagen-Foundation-funded project ‘Translocal Goods’ of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in April 2015. I especially want to thank Philipp Schröder and Manja Stephan-Emmrich as well as Barak Kalir, Nathan Light and the two anonymous reviewers of the volume for their valuable input, which helped to improve the argument.

2 The Huizu are an ethnic group; the word is used in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) collectively for Chinese Muslims. They are one of the fifty-six officially recognized ethnic groups in the PRC.

3 These periods of field research were complemented by a short stay in Guangzhou in December 2014.

4 See the extensive work by Dru Gladney (1991, 1996, 2004) for thorough ethnographic research on the Huizu in China.

5 In Dungan studies, as well as by the Dungans themselves, their language, however, is regarded not as a form of Chinese, but as a language proper, see for example Svetlana Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer, ‘Soviet Dungan Nationalism: A Few Comments on Their Origin and Language’, Monumenta Serica, 33 (1978): 363–78.

6 The chair of Dungan Studies (dunganovedenie in Russian) at the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences is the only scholarly institution in the former Soviet Union dedicated to the study of the Dungan language, history, and culture. It is also responsible for the editing of Dungan school textbooks, which are based on the Gansu dialect of the Dungan language.

7 See Kamol Abdullaev’s discussion in Chapter One about Tajik refugees in Afghanistan for an example of the ‘flow of agricultural innovation’ in the early Soviet period.

8 Interview, 20 May 2014, Shortobe.

9 Hundreds of Dungans from Kazakhstan leave for hajj every year on charter flights, taking up a considerable proportion of the government quota for these journeys.

10 Cross-border Muslim solidarity among Dungan groups plays out, for example, in the organization of hajj tours. During an interview on 4 April 2012, a female director of a Bishkek-based Dungan travel agency explained how she arranged journeys predominantly for Dungans from Xinjiang, making use of the comparatively relaxed religious policies in Kyrgyzstan and bypassing the limited annual state quota for hajj travel in China.

11 For the extensive literature in the social sciences on translocality see Freitag and von Oppen (2010), Brickell and Datta (2011), Zoomers and van Westen (2011). For ethnographic accounts of translocality in China see Oakes and Schein (2006).

12 The inward-looking nature of the Dungan community, revealed in their conversations with trade entrepreneurs in Almaty, was often linked to their short-lived demands in the early post-Soviet period for political autonomy in the Korday district.

13 Interview with Husey Daurov, 12 May 2014, Almaty.

14 Fieldnotes based on a conversation with a local Dungan businessman, 18 May 2014, Shortobe.

15 Fieldnotes, 8 October 2012.

16 One of my interlocutors in Shortobe named these extensive new quarters on the fringes of Shortobe ‘micro-districts’ (microrayon in Russian), pointing to their increasingly urbanized character.

17 The small-scale paint factory in Aukhatty is currently run by a Han Chinese manager from Fujian province, employing around thirty workers from surrounding villages.

18 Fieldnotes, 19 May 2014.

19 Interview, 9 October 2012, Almaty.

20 Another example is the Dungan gold medal winners at the London 2012 Olympic Games, Zulfiya Chinshanlo and Maya Maneza (recently deprived of their medals due to alleged use of doping) who were widely praised in Shortobe as Kazakhstani idols, despite having been trained in China. See also Jiménez Tovar (2013:1).

21 According to a local member of the Association of Dungans, 200 students were sent in 2013 alone for one-year language courses and undergraduate studies (my fieldnotes, 18 May 2014, Shortobe).

22 These stipends are allocated by Kazakhstan’s Association of Dungans.

23 The allocation of grants is allegedly not always carried out in an entirely transparent way, leading to complaints by some applicants, which I once witnessed.

24 For another example of the valorization of the use of language as cultural capital see Abdullah Mirzoev and Manja Stephan-Emmrich’s contribution on the socioeconomic strategies of Tajik migrants in Dubai in Chapter Three.

25 Svetlana Jacquesson’s study of popular historiographies in Kyrgyzstan in Chapter Six may be another good case in point for this process of the ‘invention of history’.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 5.1 Shortobe and the Dungan-populated villages in South Eastern Kazakhstan. Map © Henryk Alff (2014), CC BY 4.0
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Légende Fig. 5.2 Dungan vegetable farming in Shortobe.Photo © Henryk Alff (2014), CC BY 4.0
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Légende Fig. 5.3 Translocal connections between Central Asia and China forged by Shortobe’s Dungans. Map © Henryk Alff (2015), CC BY 4.0
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Légende Fig. 5.4 Paint production facility in Aukhatty.Photo © Henryk Alff (2014), CC BY 4.0
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Légende Fig. 5.5 Miniature version of Astana’s Baiterek Tower in a Dungan village. Photo © Henryk Alff (2014), CC BY 4.0
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Research associate at the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) in Bremen (Germany) and is currently developing a new research project on materializations of China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative. His research and numerous publications concentrate on migration, mobility, trading processes, and borderland studies in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. He received his Ph. D. in human geography and migration studies.


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