By Harry(Guohan) Zhang and Jake Li
The Tunbao people are a unique cultural group that resides in the Gansu province in China. Despite being ethnically Han, they maintain their own vibrant and fascinating customs and traditions. Their rich history dates back to the Ming dynasty, from which they have inherited—and kept—many of their distinct architectural style, religious practices, and way of life. In this article, I will discuss their history, their influences, and their way of life.
During the Ming Dynasty, the Tunbao people were tasked by the Hongwu Emperor with guarding the western frontier of China, defending from Mongol hordes on the Great Wall. These requirements for them to work as a cohesive unit forged a highly disciplined and efficient Tunbao culture. The Tunbao people were also fiercely loyal to their service and their mission, which extended to their personal lives. Having to work for hours in rough conditions, eliciting fortifications in the harsh sands of Gansu, they developed a strong work ethic. Their work in knowing the land and providing effective defense also created a connection to the land. These values of discipline, loyalty, hard work, and connection to their land have passed through generations, continuing to shape their way of life, and remaining an integral part of Tunbao culture.
The Tunbao people are predominantly Muslim, believed to be first in contact with Islam during the Yuan Dynasty, when Islamic traders pondered through the silk road, spreading Arabian textiles, incense, and Islam to the central plains of China. During their service to the Ming Dynasty, their frequent contact with the Hui people, who were also tasked with defending the frontier, allowed them to learn Islamic teachings and practices. Nowadays, the Tunbao people practice their own branch of Islam, with many distinct Chinese essences and characteristics. Their Sini-Islam emphasizes the idea of harmony, respect, and balance in daily life, encouraging practitioners to live amongst the people in peace while maintaining their own identity. Chinese folk practices, such as Feng Shui and filial piety are also rooted in their branch of Islam. The region and people’s rich and complex history can be fully seen in their religion, and thus in their way of life.
The Tunbao cuisine, much like their religion, also reflects the diverse regional influences and incorporates both Chinese and Islamic elements. Halal food, or food permissible for Islamic practitioners, plays a vital role in their diet. Their food must follow Islamic dietary laws, with some foods being prohibited and others required to be prepared a certain way. Many popular dishes in Tunbao culture contain lamb, a staple meat in their diet. Lamp soup, lamb skewers, and smoked lamb are all popular delicacies for the Tunbao people. For their dishes, they utilize a variety of spices, such as cumin, chili pepper, and onions, as well as a variety of cooking methods, such as smoking, stir-frying, and cold-blending. From the Islamic and Chinese influences, the Tunbao people have forged their own distinct and delicious cuisine.
Unfortunately, due to a trend of integration and a lack of focus on distinct cultural groups in China, the Tunbao people are facing a variety of factors that could be detrimental to their survival. The themes of poverty and marginalization have plagued the Tunbao people for decades. Yet, despite these troubles, the Tunbao people have managed to persevere through it, preserving their unique cultural heritage in the process. I believe that although their future still holds many challenges, the Tunbao people, just as they always have, will remain to play an important role in the cultural landscape of China, and by extension the world. Their distinctive practice of religion, cuisine, and way of life will surely live on and be celebrated for generations to come.
“Tunbao”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunbao
"Tianlong Tunbao", Wendy Wei Tours, https://www.wendyweitours.com