Sheri Zhang’s Book Review on: The Prophet, the Part, and Law

Matthew S. Erie, author, China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law (Cambridge Studies in Law and Society). Cambridge University Press, 2016, 453p. $62.35 – $113.78 hardcover

Reviewed by Sheri Zhang
University of Ottawa
March 28, 2017


A Scholar and Lawyer’s Perspective: Emic and Etic views of Chinese and Muslim Law, Religion and Cultural Identity

     Matthew S. Erie’s work is the first ethnographic study to examine the interaction of politics, society, culture and law. His book entitled “China and Islam: The Prophet, the Party, and Law” will appeal to researchers, scholars, students and readers from the perspectives of social and political studies, law and society, education, sociocultural studies, Asian studies. comparative legal studies and Islamic studies.
The author employs an ethnographic research approach as he immersed himself in the local Hui Muslims’ daily life for purposes of conducting long-term research. As a lawyer and an anthropologist, the author provides both emic and etic views on northwestern China, presenting the characteristics of northwestern China as a unique place that integrates different ethnicities, religions, and sources of law. The definition of law in this book takes the Hui understanding of legal pluralism seriously; as such, it is “law plus ethics plus morals plus customs” (Erie, p.18, 2016). The thick description of the Hui Muslims’ beliefs and behaviors shed light on the perception of modern China.
Modern Chinese culture is not static but changes over time. Social and political development contributes to regional differences. In defining modern Chinese culture, regional culture must be considered and addressed (Harrison, 2001). Regional cultures in Modern Japan are vividly discussed by Sugimoto (2001). The northwestern part of China is a place where eastern and western civilizations integrated to form an extraordinarily unique culture that combines Buddhism and Islam, among other faith traditions.
The author traces the presence of Hui Islamic legal practices back to the Tang dynasty (618-907), when the Chinese rulers allowed other minority groups to exercise 2 their law in their community. Being integrated in the Hui Muslims’ daily activities to collect research data, the author is able to present the cultural characteristics of northwestern China that few outside China knows about. The Hui Muslims practise their religion and keep their identity. They differentiate themselves from the Han. The Hui Muslims, with a population over ten million, almost the same number as in Tunisia, have rarely experience Islamophobia, “[f]ew Muslim minorities anywhere in the world can say as much” (The Economist, 2016).
The book, in its historical chapter, shows the contrast between the status of Hui Muslims in contemporary China and their low social status during certain periods in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). There was a time when the Qing government discriminated against Hui Muslims and treated them as “second-class” citizens (Erie, p.11, 2016). The situation has changed. Ethnic minorities, including Muslims, in modern times are entitled to privileges to some degree, and the policy is equivalent to affirmative action in the U.S. For example, Chinese official policy is “in favour of minorities in the education system and birth control policies, [thus] there were considerable advantages to being registered as an ethnic minority” (Harrison, p. 259, 2001).
The law Hui Muslims practise is Sharia with Chinese characteristics. Chinese Hui Muslims did not have formal law but they follow the Muslim customary rules. Erie’s book shows the ways in which Hui Muslims solve their problems within their community through a recognized authority. One of the illustrative vignettes is about a Hui police officer and cleric (ahong) together dealing with the issue of compensation to family members of a victim of a traffic accident. Regarding retaliation, the cleric’s reasoning was “more moral than legal” (Erie, p. 18, 2016). The Hui way of dealing with problems largely overlaps with the Chinese and Japanese ways of thinking (Sugimoto, 2001). Notably, they avoid going to court, which is a place meant for criminal offenses, a place dominated by the jurisdiction of the state.
The author characterizes Hui practice of lslamic law as “minjian” (popular, unofficial) and compares the differences between the practice of “minjian” and the practice of formal law in the northwest. The informal “minjian” is flexible and works quickly with the purpose of damage control. The “minjian” law goes “beyond the four 3 corners of the legal document” (Erie, p.353, 2016), not limited to court transcript; while practice of formal law assumes a formal process, including court transcripts, written legal documents, bureaucratic procedures, and so on. By the time the case is heard, the damage has been done.
The author analysed his ethnographic data and produced interpretation in a vivid way that accurately explains the phenomenon. In one light, one concludes that wellestablished formal legal systems, with their rigid rules, would not be suitable in efficiently solving problems for Hui Muslims. The efficiency of “minjian” overpowers the formal practice of law in the northwest. The multiple dimensions of legal, political, social, and cultural aspects make this book valuable for enriching the research areas of language and culture, politics and society, ethics and law. Those interested in understanding how ethnic and religious policies actually operate on the ground will particularly appreciate the book’s rich ethnographic insights.
One of the most significant contributions of Erie’s research work on China concerns the belief systems shared by Hui Muslims and Han – trust, honesty and avoidance of confrontation as fundamental values for both cultural interaction and social integration. For Hui Muslims and Han, their shared concept and thoughts are that ethics preceding the law, or, more specifically that the legal is informed by the ethical. In other words, whereas the book is focused on the Hui experience, the author’s analysis also pertains to the non-Muslim Han majority. At the same time, the conclusions for minorities are particularly salient. While there may be insufficient state law to protect the rights of Hui Muslims, they rely on religious ethics and trust to negotiate outcomes and their interests with others. Matthew’s book is path-breaking in this regard and has opened up new horizons in various academic fields and interdisciplinary studies.


Harrison, H. (2001). Inventing the Nation China: “Ethnicity and race”. Oxford University Press.

Sugimoto, Y. (2010).The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture (Cambridge Companions to Culture). Cambridge University Press

The Economist, Oct 6th 2016. The Hui China’s other Muslims. 4


About the Reviewer:

Sheri Zhang is the founding professor and pedagogical adviser of the degree program of Asian Studies; she pioneered the work of establishing an Asian Studies Major in 2011 after being promoted to full professor. Sheri teaches graduate and undergraduate courses and supervises students. Being the candidate of China Chair at the University of Ottawa, Sheri accepted the task to work as one of the pillars in the development of the Department’s program of World Literatures and Cultures.
As the founding director of the uOttawa Chinese-Japanese Language & Culture Centre, she assisted the University of Ottawa in developing a successful long-term joint program with one of China’s renowned institutions, Tsinghua University, providing Canadian students with the valuable opportunity to study, teach and conduct research.
Zhang has a key role in assisting the University of Ottawa’s opening up to Asia, which she is implementing through her two-tier employment at the University of Ottawa: while as full professor, she also teaches Asian Studies courses listed in the part-time category.
From 2003 to 2005, she served as Associate Professor at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business in Japan. She was invited as a Canadian China scholar to meet with the Canadian Prime Minister’s team during their Tokyo visit, before they went to China for the second leg of their trip. Sheri Zhang became Associate Dean and full professor at Nanchang University in China in September 2005. Prior to her joining Team Canada trade missions to China and Asia, she had been a Lecturer at the Xi’an International Studies University from 1983 to 1986.

Sheri Zhang, Ph.D.
Asian studies
uOttawa Chinese Japanese Language & Culture Centre
Modern Languages and Literatures
Faculty of Arts
University of Ottawa
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