China: ‘Arabic-sounding’ river renamed to curb Islamic influence

River ‘Aiyi’ is now called ‘Diannong’, because the original name sounded like Aisha, the Prophet’s wife.

Muslims attend a prayer session near at a Mosque during Eid al-Fitr in Yinchuan, Ningxia province Muslims attend a prayer session near at a Mosque during Eid al-Fitr in Yinchuan
China is home to an estimated 23 million Muslims, about 1.7 percent of its total population [Jie Zhao/Corbis via Getty Images]

In yet another move aimed at reducing Islamic influence in China, authorities there have renamed a river because it had an “Arabic-sounding name”.

The name of the river “Aiyi” has been changed to “Diannong” by the autonomous government of Ningxia, home to the mainland’s largest number of Muslims, a report by the Global Times said.

“‘Aiyi’, the old Chinese name for the river … sounds to some people like the Arabic name ‘Aisha’,” Wang Genming, a researcher at the Ningxia University Institute of Hui Studies told the Chinese daily.

Aisha was one of the wives of the Prophet Mohammad.

“Diannong” derives from the old Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) name for Ningxia’s capital city, currently named Yinchuan, according to the Global Times.

“We received a request from the local water resources department based on a regulation on the names of public locations,” the government said in a statement. 

A regulation passed by the Ningxia government in 2013 banned local authorities from naming public locations after foreign figures or places.

“This conforms to China’s policy of Sinicising religions and adapting them to socialist society as well as fitting with local history and culture,” Xiong Kunxin, professor of ethnic studies at Beijing’s Minzu University of China, told the Global Times.

Shen Guiping, an expert on religions at the Central Institute of Socialism, told the Chinese daily that as the mother river of the region, “Diannong can better deliver the spirit of traditional Chinese culture”. 

The river spans 180km and six counties in northwestern China.

The Muslim question in China

About two million Hui Muslims live in Ningxia, constituting one-third of its population. 

Of China’s 23 million Muslims, at least 10 million are Hui, descendants of Arab and Central Asian Silk Road travellers.

Then, there are about 10 million Muslim Uighurs, whose persecution by the Chinese government has made global headlines for years.

Genming told Inkstone that the name change follows a series of efforts the regional government has made to demolish Islamic decor on buildings and remove Arabic signs.

“Even the local theatre and residential compounds are being renovated to remove ethnic features,” Wang says. 

“More than 860 books regarding Hui ethnicity have been taken off the shelves in the libraries,” he said.

In March, an avenue called “China-Arab Axis” in Yinchuan, Ningxia’s capital city, was renamed “Unity Road”.

The avenue leads to a square with Arab-style monuments and statues, built to commemorate Chinese-Arab friendship.

The city then began to change the avenue from its “original Arabic style landscape to one that reflects the style of Chinese cultural elements”, according to Xinhua news agency.

These efforts are part of a wider campaign by the government to “Sinicise religion”, a policy introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2015 to bring religions in line with the government’s definition of Chinese culture.

“Sinicizing religion is ‘de-extremifying’ religion. This name change shows the central government’s determination to correct a trend of Islamisation,” Xiong Kunxin, a professor at Minzu University of China in Beijing told Inkstone. 

But Genming was not convinced.

“Changing names shows the local government’s ignorance and stupidity,” he told Inkstone. “Aiyi is just a name reminiscent of a beautiful Hui lady.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies