Original Multiculturalism: Xuexi Alley in Xi’an

By staff reporters FU ZHIBIN & LI YUAN

IN the heyday of the majestic Tang Dynasty (618-907), Xuexi Alley, in Lianhu District of Xi’an, Shaanxi Province was home to merchants and tradesmen from home and abroad. Across the country, it was dubbed “Foreign Trade Street,” or sometimes “Diplomacy Avenue.”

Xuexi Alley was also regarded as the starting point of the Silk Road, the transcontinental cobweb of trade routes that linked the ancient world from China to Rome. Nowadays, the alley survives as an interlinking network of hundreds of streets and alleys. Many of the alleyways count among the oldest in all of Xi’an. Sauntering through the area affords visitors a glimpse into life under the Tang, regarded by many as representing the peak of China’s dynastic historical achievements.


Community First, Ethnicity Second

 Yingli, one of the three mosques in the Xuexi community.

Seventy-one-year-old Bai Xiulan resides on Xuexi Alley. She has worked for the community there for four decades. In 2001 when the administration of Xuexixiang Community was established, Bai was elected its director. Needless to say, Bai is probably the best person one could find to introduce newcomers to the community.

“The [Xuexi] community has 10,700 residents in 3,600 households,” Bai said. “About 80 percent are members of the Hui ethnic group, so locals call the area Huifang, or Hui Block.”

Xi’an was the capital of China for six dynasties, and Lianhu District was the seat of the Tang Dynasty rulers. At that time, the political scene was stable and the leading class was open-minded. Many foreign traders came to Xi’an, then called Chang’an, through the Silk Road, including those from Central and West Asia. Many of them later settled here. According to historical records, in total there were about 4,000 households with occupants from Central and West Asia during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (712-756 on reign) in Chang’an.

Such a large foreign population posed a challenge for the country’s diplomatic, trade and business policies as well as for social administration. Language-learning and cultural communication became necessary tasks. The Ministry of Rites, in charge of education and foreign affairs, set up a special organization to teach the necessary disciplines. A number of communities dedicated to cultural and linguistic learning sprung up in the immediate vicinity of the ministry. The street on which the ministry was located subsequently got a new name – Xuexi Alley, which literally means Alley of Study.

Along with the increased flow of people into Chang’an for diplomatic and trade purposes, a heterogeneous multicultural community developed. It accommodated many embassies, then called “courier hostels.” In a way the area was similar to the embassy district in Beijing nowadays.

Xi’an lost its role as the national capital under the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). While Xuexi Alley was no longer the diplomatic hub it once was, it retained its unique cultural atmosphere, and remained a multiethnic community. According to Bai Xiulan, today many residents are descendants of Central and West Asian traders and diplomats that called Xi’an home in the Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties.

Walking down the alley one sees modern-day slogans on the walls of residences purporting concepts such as “ethnic unity,” “neighborhood harmony” and “modern families.” To some extent, the slogans, which can be seen all over China aren’t needed here – Xuexi Alley has always been a tolerant, “harmonious” place to live.

In the community there are three mosques – the Grand Xuexixiang Mosque, the oldest, the Medium Mosque and the Yingli Mosque. There is also a Buddhist temple called West Wutai and a Taoist temple dedicated to the local Town God.

According to plans from the Lianhu District administration, the street, as part of the city’s historical and cultural legacy, is to be transformed into a central “cultural tourism” zone while retaining a strong sense of the old Xi’an. The project is at the core of the Tang royal city restoration plan, which aims to unlock the unique potential of the area to thrive on tourism and business.


Protection the Smart Way

The simple but elegant arch with typical Hui features standing at the entrance to the alley, the antique pavement tiles, the blooming flowers in front of households – it’s hard to believe that visitors to Xuexi Alley have been seeing the same sights for more than 1,000 years. Nevertheless, the layout of the wider area – residences radiating out from mosques, which served as the locations for all-purpose gatherings – hints at a very long history.

Located in the center of the city, the community lacks sufficient room to expand and develop its infrastructure. For years residents had been inconvenienced by crumbling buildings, narrow roads and outdated infrastructure.

An “infrastructure upgrade” is the premise of the current transformation. The focus is on basic living conditions and the traffic problem. Once housing infrastructure and roads are improved, solving the other problems will follow suit.

In 2001 when the transformation plans got underway, the first task was to fix the roads. From dirt to gravel, and then to asphalt, the roads were gradually improved. Subsequently, with increased funding from the government, lower-lying houses and dilapidated premises were restored in a rolling scheme.

There are many ancient structures on and around Xuexi Alley. Their cultural and historic value is significant, and during the transformation the government focused on preservation first and foremost. For instance, though the roads have been significantly improved, they are kept at their original width in order to retain the traditional layout of the neighborhood and spare roadside sites of historical importance.

“The transformation is a good thing,” said Bai Xiulan, “but it will not be a total success without the support of residents.” With this in mind, Bai helped the urban planning department organize consultative meetings with locals in order to listen to their wishes and concerns. The project managers took locals’ suggestions on board and altered parts of the plan.

As the transformation continues, several tricky problems have been solved, including issues with potable water, sewage and in-house water closets. The community has also raised funds to buy a transformer, so that all residents get access to the power grid to use things like refrigerators, TVs, and computers.

The improved living conditions have also brought economic benefits. Historically, Hui Muslims have been actively involved in commerce. In the Tang Dynasty, a popular trade was selling snacks, such as meat pancakes and cold rice noodles, on the roadside. Today many Hui residents continue the tradition, though they have moved off the road into houses set back from it. Sellers live in the back rooms, while the outer room becomes a store front.

“The environment has been improved markedly – it’s cleaner for one – and because of this more and more tourists venture into the area to sample the authentic local snacks. Business gets better and better,” said Bai.

Reinvigoration, rather than wholesale reconstruction, is the most sensible and effective way to protect old towns like Xuexi Alley. Some residents in greater Xi’an saw the old town as a blight on the city. Those residents failed to understand that the street is central to the charismatic cultural legacy of Xi’an, and a precious cultural resource. Destroying it to build just another apartment complex doesn’t make sense.


Community Living

For the residents of Xuexi Alley, a tree or a tile can serve as a spiritual connection to their ancestors many generations ago. Some locals move downtown, but even then most are reluctant to sell their ancestral home. They continue to cherish the atmosphere of the community and feel happy when coming back to deal with their affairs.

“If you’ve got a problem, look to the community,” is an old local saying. It’s more relevant today than ever. Bai and her team, as residents’ representatives to the government, are entrusted with a variety of tasks and privy to the particulars of local lives. They serve with purpose, and make all efforts to win the best for their community.

The community has set up special funds to help the unemployed, disabled and elderly. Those in difficulty can obtain necessities from the community’s Loving Supermarket. Bai’s team also helps able residents seek employment opportunities through a careers service. The community cooperates closely with the mosques to fulfill the spiritual needs of local believers.

The community also runs a variety of training classes. “Now more and more people come to take the training classes, especially those on parenting, science and health,” said Bai. “You can’t find a seat if you’re late.”

As gaining a solid education becomes even more important to landing a well-paying job, greater numbers of children in the community are sitting – and excelling in – the national college entrance exam. When students receive offers, the community does its best to provide them with financial support through scholarships and the like. The Xuexixiang community is the first to provide such student funding options in all of Xi’an. In the past six years, the community has provided over RMB 300,000 in student scholarships.

In recent years, Xuexi Alley has set up a community service hall, a library, an activities room for children, and the Star and Sunshine Home for children with intellectual disabilities.

The interplay between the different ethnic groups on Xuexi Alley should serve as a good example to the rest of the nation. There, the Han, China’s largest ethnic group by far, is a minority group. The festivals and holidays enjoyed by all ethnic groups present are respected.

“Ethnic unity refers to unity within an ethnic group as well as among different ethnic groups and different social strata,” said Bai. “In our community, the Hui people don’t celebrate Han festivals. But we [the Hui] send gifts and best wishes to them on big festivals like the Dragon Boat Festival, Double Ninth Festival, Spring Festival and Lantern Festival. When people pass away, no matter Hui or Han, everyone attends the funeral. We send wreaths to Han and visit the cemetery of the Hui, according to different customs. Tolerance is the prime tradition of our community.”

In April, dozens of tables are set up in the open air, serving various dishes made by residents themselves. Known as the 100-family Feast, today the name is an understatement; the occasion attracts members of the whole community, who, on hearing the cry “Dinner is served!” take their seats next to their neighbors and friends for an afternoon of good food and merriment.

“As the generations pile on top of each other, friction between neighbors inevitably develop,” Bai said. “But at the feast, people have the opportunity to sit down together, eat, drink, and discuss the issues. It diffuses tensions in the community, and everyone feels much closer afterwards.”

This year marks the fourth year of the modern 100-family Feast. By noon, the street was full of locals. Some wore costumes; others sang folk songs.

Sixty-six-year-old Ha Muzhai, in between bouts of singing, said: “Our community is very close. Han, Hui; we’re all the same. Living here is great!” And with that pronouncement, he headed off, half skipping, half dancing, to take his seat among friends and wait for the feast to begin.