I made a very brief visit to the village of Donglianhua recently. The village and surrounding area are easily interesting enough to warrant a more extended stay, but in the meantime here’s just a few pictures and superficial notes about the place.

Donglianhua is part of Yongjian Zhen, which sits on the very northern edge of the Weishan plain. Besides Ningxia and parts of Gansu and Xinjiang, it’s the most obviously Muslim area I’ve visited in China. The imam of the village mosque, pictured above, told me there were 22 mosques scattered across the plain – and the Donglianhua mosque is far from the largest. The prayer hall here can hold 1,000 people; three kilometers to the south in Huihui Cun, the imam said there was room for 6,000 to pray. The people here belong to the Hui group, mostly descended from Muslim regiments in the Mongol army that conquered Yunnan in the mid-13th century. Some of the soldiers stayed in Yunnan, initially to keep the locals in line and subsequently to become farmers and, more importantly, traders.

Descended from itinerant backgrounds, members of the Hui Muslim communities continued to live mobile lives. They dominated the caravan trade in Yunnan, creating networks that spread far into Southeast Asia. After the defeat of the Panthay Rebellion in 1873 (more about which another time), and the subsequent persecution of Yunnan’s Muslim peoples, many fled Yongjian along the Burma Road, settling into a large Chinese Muslim population in Burma. This gave the Hui who stayed behind even stronger economic ties along the old caravan trails to Burma and beyond. There are said to be more than 2,000 people from Yongjian living in Thailand, Burma, Singapore and other parts of Asia, with 200+ from Donglianhua alone in Thailand and Burma.

Donglianhua’s opulent appearance owes most to the three Ma brothers – Ruji, Ruqi and Ruxiang – who became the village’s most successful caravaneers. I have only scanty information about them so far. The eldest, Ma Ruji, was born in Donglianhua in 1897. He died in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand in 1983. Ma Ruqi, the gate to whose magnificent courtyard is pictured above, also moved to Thailand where in 1974 he became head of the Chinese Business Association. In 1988 he gave 1 million baht (about US$40,000 at the time) towards the renovation of Donglianhua Mosque.

This courtyard is also listed as having belonged to Ma Ruqi. It is now in the hands of one of his descendants, who runs a restaurant inside with the aid of his wife. Curiously, Mr. Ma claimed not to know what had become of his eminent great-uncle. From the watchtower in the background there is a fine view across the village in all directions. It offers a more complete and unspoiled view of a wealthy Qing/Republican-era village than Xizhou, which is many times better known.

Like the merchants of Xizhou, the Ma brothers made great fortunes from the Second World War, when their trading connections and caravans were engaged in the effort to bypass the Japanese blockade and bring supplies into Yunnan. The largest of the Ma courtyards, which is currently being redeveloped as a “Caravan Culture Museum”, was built in 1941. The lovely bridge pictured above, however, testifies to the long history of the caravans in this part of Yunnan. Yongji Bridge was first built in 1573. It stands just a few kilometers to the northwest of Donglianhua and, to judge by the modern roads, leads nowhere in particular. Take those roads away from the map, however, and sketch on the main caravan routes from Weishan to Dali and from Dali to Burma, and Yongji Bridge clearly becomes part of a fine short-cut from Weishan to Yongping and thence to Baoshan and Burma.

This area’s historic links with Burma had unfortunate consequences. After World War 2, illegal drugs became a mainstay of that country’s economy. Chinese Muslims in Burma and Thailand, all with family ties to Yunnan, were heavily involved in the trafficking of the drugs through Southeast Asia, using the same caravans and routes that had once transported tea, jade, silk and other goods. As the Chinese economy opened up in the 1980s, the drug traffickers saw another opportunity to exploit their family ties and trading connections – Yongjian thus became a major center for illegal drug trading, culminating in its designation in 1999 as one of China’s 17 “National Serious Drug Problem Areas.” Between 1983 and 1999, an average of 200 people from Yongjian were arrested every year for drug offenses in other parts of China; in Yongjian itself, 2,509 people were arrested for drug offenses between 1983 and 1999.

The photo above was taken in the courtyard of Donglianhua Mosque. The slogan on the board instructs worshipers to “Love [their Country and Obey the Law.” In the background are more slogans emphasizing the need to obey the law and unite harmoniously with China’s other peoples.

It took military force to deal with the Yongjian drug ring. In an episode that is well-known around here, army units took on well-armed locals sometime in 1999. It wasn’t a question I could really broach on a flying visit and it isn’t something that has been written about, so there’s not much more I can say at this point. The only statistics I’ve been able to find refer to the village of Mashuichang. Out of 21 households, 19 were said to have been involved with drugs in some capacity. Seventeen people were “dealt with”, whatever that means, six were killed in fighting and two were executed. In 2009 the village was said to be completely drug-free.