The Baoan, master sword makers in the Silk Road
The Baoan, master sword makers
In the dry lands of Gansu province, at the foot of the Jishishan mountain, there are three villages inhabited by different people. At first glance, their life is the same as that of any other Muslim population in that vast region crossed by the Silk Road, but when you look more closely you will discover a different language, related to that of the Mongols, a culture full of surprises, and a fame that has spread beyond the provincial borders.
This is due to their swords, originally a complement to their meager income from agriculture and livestock, whose fame however extends to Tibet. Many have heard of the Baoan’s swords, but few know that they are made by the inhabitants of these three villages, who no longer live in Baoan, having abandoned their home in the 19th century, but keep in their name the memory of their ancestral home in the neighboring province of Qinghai.
The Baoan are one of the minorities in China with the smallest population, only 9,000 people in 1982, 16,500 according to the 2000 census, having increased to just over 20,000 people in the 2010 National Census.
They live in northwest China, in Gansu Province, Lingxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture. In the Jishishan autonomous district of the Baoan, Dongxiang and Salar. They seem to be culturally and linguistically related to a population called Baoan Tu, who live in the Tongren District in Qinghai Province. Robert Wayne Fried, who has studied the language[i], believes that the Baoan actually has two dialects, one spoken in Gansu and the other in Qinghai.
The Baoan have their own language, a branch of the Mongolian language of the Altaic family, although all the Baoans are bilingual with Chinese, whose writing they use. Their language has great similarities with that of the Dongxiang and the Tu.
They follow the Muslim religion, and there are at least two theories about their origin. Some believe that they originated precisely from Mongolian populations that two hundred years ago embraced Islam. Others, that they may come from the border area between the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai, being the result of the fusion of the local populations with Mongolian and Tibetan immigrants. Since the Yuan dynasty they embrace the Muslim religion, differentiating themselves from their neighbors. Others think that during the Qing dynasty they participated in some of the great rebellions produced in the area, generally settled with bloody repressions, emigrating the survivors to their current home.
Ma Yin[ii] gives another version of the story. According to him they traditionally lived in three large villages in the area of Baoan, near Tongren, but during the years of Emperor Tongzhi, that is to say in the late nineteenth century, they fled from the oppression of the feudal lord of the area, to the province of Gansu, where they founded three other villages. This may explain why there are still some Baoan in Qinghai province, descendants of those who did not flee at that time.
They call themselves «Baoan». It is thought that they receive that name because about 150 years ago they lived near the city of Baoan, in the province of Qinghai. Given their Muslim religion, they are sometimes known and called «Baoan Hui» or «Huihui» (Hui is a term applied in China to Muslims).
Their main activity is agriculture, although their lands are very poor and give very low yields. They raise livestock, generally family farms, have a poorly developed forestry, and above all are known for their handmade swords.
Their dress is very simple. Men usually wear a white blouse, and women a blue or purple one, but at festivals or weddings they put on their best clothes, and men sometimes wear a hat, riding boots, and one of those swords that have made them famous at their waist.
All Baoans are Muslims, but they belong to two sects, the New and the Old. «The moral requirements defended by Islam, such as good deeds, respect for the elderly and solidarity and mutual assistance, have evident effects on the formation and functioning of the social morality of the Baoan people. The concept of «the Muslims of the world are all brothers» that Islam defends is also important for the Baoan». (Liao 2019)[iii]
«Therefore, the traditional virtues of the Baoan people to honor their parents, respect the elders and love the young can be established and shared by all the people. (Liao 2019).
Baoan Funeral Customs
Their funeral rituals strictly follow Islamic rules, with three types of burials: «ground burial», «simple burial», «quick burial». The method of burial is very simple, a good location is chosen, then a firm grave is dug 1 meter wide, 2 meters long. The head of the deceased is facing northwest, the feet are facing southeast, the face is facing west. After placing the body in the grave, the hole is sealed with adobe and mud, and finally with earth. The bottom of the grave should not be made of flagstone, stone, iron, or any other non-earth, and no house should be built on the grave[iv].
The Islamic religion advocates the simplicity of funeral services, and there is no need for bureaucratic formalities and accompaniment, regardless of the family’s situation. The body is wrapped in a white cloth, and the women are covered with a three-foot-long cloth, wearing no other clothing. The only procedure is to ask the imam to recite the prayers, and «get the water» for the deceased, that is, wash the body with water, if it is a man by the imam or a trusted person, if it is a woman by some old ladies willing to wash her, not letting the water flow in the seven holes. The body is wrapped and taken to the commune mosque and after a short funeral ceremony, it is taken to the grave. During the ceremony, it is forbidden to cry, make noise, celebrate, send wreaths and elegies, light firecrackers, play gongs and drums, and play music.
The basic unit of society is the family. Before the foundation of the New China, the Baoan people used to marry young. The family model of the Baoan family was mostly patriarchal. Therefore, the fathers have absolute authority over the whole family. The marriage of young men and women is mostly determined by the parents.
The Baoan people’s wedding is lively and fun, usually taking place over three days. During the three days of the wedding, men, women and children are happy, and it is not necessary for everyone to follow the usual etiquette and rules. The weddings of the Baoan people have been influenced by the Islamic religion; they are mainly celebrated on Fridays. (Liao 2019)
The wedding ceremony is characteristic of their traditional way of life as nomads. It basically consists of two ceremonies, one at the bride’s house and one at the groom’s house. On the day of the wedding the groom and his family and other people of his village go on horseback to pick up the bride at her house, and she and her people also ride to the groom’s house. Many times there are also horse races between the relatives of one and the other[v].
The wedding ceremony is also very interesting. When the groom’s family arrives at the house of the bride they throw them a tray of nuts and jujubes. Everyone rushes to pick them up as they are considered a symbol of love and blessing. In addition, the young people of the bride’s house ask the groom’s companions for the «money for the lamb», and if they don’t give it to them, they will paint their faces black. They also make jokes with the middleman, especially if he doesn’t give them enough money.
Their famous swords
Among their handicrafts, generally limited to self-supply, the Baoan swords stand out, with a certain fame in the nearby regions.
The swords that they make are very famous, having a history of several hundred years and are traded very well throughout the area, and even in Tibet. It is a type of sword, of which they make up to 30 different varieties, being the most famous the double sword, that besides having a double leaf, as its name indicates, it has an elaborated decoration in the handle. (Zheng)
The annual cycle of the Baoan existence follows a marked religious character. Most of its main festivals are similar to those of the Muslim Hui in the surrounding lands, although there are some celebrations of a marked local character.
They celebrate Ramadan in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, with fasting during the day, usually having breakfast before dawn and refusing all food until sunset, and a general cleaning of people’s homes and clothing.
Maulid al-Nabi or Muhammad’s birthday. On the day of the festival, they gather at the mosque, sing, pray and tell the story of Muhammad’s life. Charity is practiced and a family dinner is held.
Of local character is the Festival of the Mount Lang, which is celebrated from the end of May to the beginning of June, when the Baoan people go for a walk in the mountain, by the river or in the pastures[vi].
The combination of various ethnic group influences has made the Baoan oral literature rich and varied. Its folk tales reflect the life of the people in the past. In them, not only traces of the culture of the adjacent ethnic groups are seen, but also the folk tales in the world. There are variations of Alibaba and the Forty Thieves or the Lama and Carpenter[vii].
Folk tales are mainly mythological legends, animal stories, life stories, stories of witty characters, common folk tales and jokes. Among them, the most representative legends are Pegasus, the Legend of Ganhetan and the Legend of Tianchi. The most famous animal story is the Wicked Witch.
Many interesting stories reflect the normal life of the poor in the society at that time, and the desire of the Baoan people to have a rich and fair life, with sometimes moralizing tone that seeks to teach people to be diligent, kind, intelligent and honest. Thus we see stories of a poor boy marrying an intelligent girl, the mother-in-law mistreating her daughter-in-law, the love of a loving couple, a poor man becoming a millionaire by chance, etc.
Also popular among them are ballads called hua’er or «flowers».
[i] A GRAMMAR OF BAO’AN TU, A MONGOLIC LANGUAGE OF NORTHWEST CHINA by Robert Wayne Fried June 1, 2010 (https://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~dryer/FriedBaoanTu.pdf).
[ii] Ma Yin. China’s Minority Nationalities.Foreign Language Press. Beijing. 1989
[iii] Study on the Traditional Marriage Ethics of the Baoan Nationality Erli Liao. Frontiers in Educational Research Vol. 2, Issue 8: 1-7
[iv] Song Qi. Funerary customs of the Baoan. China Minzu Cultural Resources.
[v] Zheng Weiwen y Zeng Qingnan. In Search of China’s Minorities. New World Press. Beijing. 1993.
[vi] Baoan Nationality. Tour-Beijing.com
[vii] Based in “Analysis on the Inheritance and Development of the Folktales of Baoan People”. Lan Zhuo. 3rd International Conference on Contemporary Education, Social Sciences and Humanities (ICCESSH 2018)
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