A century-old Ottoman legacy in China

Today’s Zaman


An Austrian steamship which left İstanbul silently on April 28, 1901, stopping briefly in both İzmir and Alexandria, and then passed through the Red Sea and headed towards the Far East, wound up spurring all of the various Western agents and envoys in the region into action.

Before the steamship had even reached China, the Western envoys in Beijing were all sending encrypted messages back to their capitals: “The ‘tricky Sultan’ in İstanbul has started up new maneuvers to try and pull the Muslims in China onto his side. A nine-person delegation is arriving in China.”

When, after a long and difficult journey, the Ottoman delegation reached China, there were celebrations in the region. Crowds of Chinese Muslims rushed to the Shanghai port to see the steamship. And not only Western newspapers, but in fact the world press turned over generous amounts of space to the coverage of this event at the time. Though the Chinese leadership greeted the visiting Ottoman delegation warmly, the Western colonial powers present in China at the time were not as relaxed. There was great curiosity about what the real reason behind the visit to China by Enver Pasha — sent by Sultan Abdülhamid II himself — really was. This being the case, the pasha and his accompanying delegation (composed of his wife, two clerks, two scholars, two soldiers, and various manservants) spent the next four months of their visit basically surrounded by a circle of Western agents and envoys. In his fluent French, and through his influential style, Enver Pasha told both the Chinese Muslims and the various foreign envoys that he was in China to deliver messages of peace from Sultan Abdülhamid II. The Westerners, however, were not inclined to believe these assurances.

Actually, the outwardly apparent reason behind this visit was an attempt to calm the uprisings that were taking place at the time in China against the colonizing German and British presence. To wit, in the wake of the Boxer rebellion of 1901 in China — when the German ambassador to Peking was killed and then had his body dragged through the streets — the German emperor at the time, Kaiser Wilhelm II, had personally asked for assistance from Sultan Abdülhamid II. Kaiser Wilhelm asked the Turkish Sultan if he would send a delegation to China to help quell unrest among the protestors, among whom there were Muslims. At the same period of time, some Western countries, wishing to punish China, sent mixed units to China to put down the rebellions. As for the Ottoman Empire, it resisted sending any military units to China at the time, not wanting to draw negative reactions from the estimated 50-60 million Chinese Muslims present in the country. At the same time though, the Ottoman Empire (with its population of around 30 million or so) was extremely interested in maintaining the balance of its relations with the West, Germany in particular.

Known for his skills in diplomacy, Sultan Abdülhamid II found a formula that would both prevent damage to Ottoman-German relations, as well as incline Chinese Muslims to feel warm towards İstanbul. Obtaining the approval of Cemaleddin Efendi, the chief religious official of the time in the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan decided he would send a nine-person delegation — a “Nasihat” or “Counsel” delegation — to China. And to head up this critical mission, he chose one of the shining officers from the palace, Enver Pasha. In addition to Enver Pasha, another high-ranking military officer, Binbaşı Nâzım Bey, was also chosen to go. Also accompanying the group as a man of religion would be Mustafa Şükrü Efendi (the grandfather of former Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit).

Calculating that support from Islamic countries would be critical in keeping the Ottoman Empire strong in the face of colonizing Western nations, Sultan Abdülhamid II was fast to try and develop relations with Chinese Muslims.

Followed by Western agents

After a long and difficult month’s journey, the delegation from Istanbul arrived in Shanghai at the start of May 1901. Not only did the delegation meet up with Chinese Muslims in this large city, but it also set out to visit regions of China known to be heavily populated by Muslims. The delegation also used these regional meetings as opportunities to distribute a declaration written in the name of the “Caliphate of all Muslims,” Sultan Abdülhamid II. The declaration had been translated into Chinese. The delegation also participated in local Friday prayers, having “hutbes” or sermons read out in the name of the sultan. At the same time, Western envoys in China, noting that the mission of the Ottoman delegation was in fact not to “quell uprisings,” but instead to gather Chinese Muslims under the protection of the Caliphate of Abdülhamid, cut all ties with the delegation and with Enver Pasha himself. Even the German envoy in China, who had personally welcomed Enver Pasha on his arrival, did not visit the delegation again.

A message sent by the French ambassador to Peking to the French capital, Paris, on June 4, 1901 read: “My dear Minister, as an addition to my letter, you will also find some information regarding the Turkish delegation sent by the Ottoman Sultan specifically to set up closer relations with the Muslims in China… Under the current conditions here, I think it would be advantageous to learn just what it is İstanbul wishes to see happen on this topic. It is said that this visit was advised by the German government. Any pan-Islamic movement in Guangxi, Guangdong and especially the heavily Muslim area of Yunnan could be dangerous, and thus I will attempt to obtain from our envoy in İstanbul as much information as possible about the mission of this delegation under Enver Pasha. The fact that there are many Muslims in the colonized neighboring regions means that the very presence of this Ottoman delegation could in fact be a sign of pan-Islamic movements which we need to follow very closely. I will do what I can to uncover the true intentions of this delegation, which is staying in Shanghai…”

Over the course of their four-month stay in China, the Ottoman delegation headed by Enver Pasha ran into financial problems. Anti-Western Russians present in China at the time took advantage of this opportunity, and came to the assistance of the Ottoman delegation. The fact that Enver Pasha’s wife was Austrian turned out to be an advantage for the Ottoman delegation, as the Austrian diplomatic presence in China at the time came to the assistance of the visiting group. Just at the same time that Enver Pasha was preparing to make his return home, he received a telegraph from the Russian czar. The czar was inviting Enver Pasha to visit Russia. After receiving permission from İstanbul, Enver Pasha and his delegation thus left China for Russia.

Abdülhamid’s interest in China

Calculating that support from Islamic countries would be critical in keeping the Ottoman Empire strong in the face of colonizing Western nations, Sultan Abdülhamid II is fast to try and develop the relations with Chinese Muslims that Enver Pasha had been sent to investigate. Thus, in the wake of Enver Pasha’s visit to China, the Sultan then sent one of his favorite men, Muhammed Ali (who was, according to some sources, also the Sultan’s best “hafiye” or detective/sleuth) to China. Once in China, Muhammed Ali, dressed to give the impression that he was an “erudite tourist” in religious clothing, managed to make his way around the inner regions of China, forming some formidable ties with Muslims there. The fact that Ali knew both Arabic and English turned out to be a very important asset in his visit. He even convinced some of the Muslim families with whom he meets to send their children to İstanbul to be educated.

At the same time, Ali also distribute monetary help from İstanbul to Chinese Muslims, while sending frequent reports back to the sultan about the relationships he was developing in the region. These reports were then used by Sultan Abdülhamid II in the various strategies he was employing to tie the 50-70 million or so Muslims living in a nation of 500 million more closely to İstanbul. During his visit to China, Ali met Imam Wang Haoren, an important religious leader for Chinese Muslims, telling the imam of some of the projects that the Ottomans have in mind for the Islamic world.

Imam Haoren (1848-1919) was one of the most important Muslim scholars in China at the time, and a defender of the need to modernize the medreses, or theological schools. It was Imam Haoren who first pushed to have Chinese culture and language included in the lessons offered at the Muslim theological schools in China, which had previously only offered education in Arabic. He is remembered in Chinese history as being a “unifying bridge,” and an “activist.”

As it turned out, Wang was deeply influenced by the unofficial Ottoman envoy as well as by the efforts of Sultan Abdülhamid II, who was doing so much to propel modern education forward. After Imam Wang made his first hajj in 1906, accompanied by one of his students, Ma Debao, he went from Mecca to İstanbul. Here, he was warmly met by Sultan Abdülhamid II. While in İstanbul, Wang spent time investigating Ottoman educational methods as well as various points of sensitivity on the topic of Islam and education. He took notice of some of the differences he had seen, and on his return to China, Imam Wang mentioned in his conversations and religious sermons what he had seen of the Ottoman Empire, the sultan and Islam practiced by the Turks.

An idea forms: a university in Peking

Sultan Abdülhamid II did not send this important Chinese Muslim leader home empty handed. In fact, reasoning that there were not many Islamic masterpieces present in China at the time, the sultan sent Imam Wang back with more than 1,000 books, asking him to share these works with other Chinese scholars when he returned. Along these lines, too, the sultan told Imam Wang when he was visiting İstanbul of his desire of seeing an Ottoman university opened in Peking. Wang, himself a strong supporter of modern education, told the sultan he would do what he could to shore up support for this plan in China.

Only one year passed after Wang’s visit to İstanbul before two Ottoman teachers were sent to Peking on the orders of the sultan. The two teachers found Wang, and, on the orders of the sultan, asked him for support. Imam Wang then took “Muallim” (master or teacher) Ali Rıza Efendi and Muallim Bursalı Hafız Hasan Efendi with him to the Niujie Mosque. Here, he told people of the plans held by those Turkish teachers, who had come from 10,000 kilometers away to open a school in China. It should be noted that at that time the Niujie Mosque was an important meeting point for Muslims. The Chinese Muslims turned over the gardens of this mosque to the Turkish teachers. At the same location, an empty building underwent repairs, and two more lesson halls were also built.

After a year of work, Peking Hamidiye University finally opened, amidst tears and prayers, in 1908. The presence of this new university had an immediate and enlivening effect on Ottoman-Chinese relations. In a sense, it managed to bring these two societies closer together. Using the opportunities available to him, what Sultan Abdülhamid II had essentially achieved was to — despite the opposition of the West — bring Chinese Muslims closer to both İstanbul and the Caliphate.

As Yang HaiHaipeng, head of the Chinese Muslim History and Culture Department, sees it, the opening of Hamidiye University under the conditions in place at the time was a very important event.

Historian HaiHaipeng notes that it is due to the sensitivities of the Chinese Muslims that the school has been able to stay standing despite the passage of 101 years since its opening. He says: “When in 1907 the two Turkish teachers arrived from İstanbul and met with Imam Haoren, construction began on what was to be called the ‘Training Institute for Islamic Teachers.’ And today, this university, referred to in Turkish sources as Hamidiye University, still stands on a piece of land behind the Niujie Mosque in Beijing, with one main building and three lesson halls.”

When the Turkish teachers sent by the sultan left China at the end of 1908 — for reasons that are still unclear — the university was taken over by local Muslims. After awhile, due to a lack of professors, the university began to be used as a primary school. Then, after the Maoist revolution of 1949, Arabic and religious education were brought to an end at the school, and instead only Chinese was taught. Later, a lack of funds led to the complete closure of the school. In recent years, the mosque community decided to see one of the lesson halls of the former university used for religious lessons for the youth. Despite the passing of many years, the school still stands in good condition. Some of the Ottoman motifs have been erased, but the architecture is still clearly Islamic in style. One of the lesson halls has even been turned into a museum that shows the history of the Niujie Mosque.

The occasion of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 saw the restoration of the 1,000-year-old Niujie Mosque and the Hamidiye University buildings still standing in its gardens in the Xuanwu district of Beijing. There are an estimated 200,000 Muslims who live in Beijing.

On bayrams and Friday prayers, it is nearly impossible to find space amongst the crowds at the 6,000-square-meter Niujie Mosque. Those who want to pray but cannot find space in the mosque itself crowd into the empty lesson halls of the Hamidiye University buildings.

Though the name of Sultan Abdülhamid II is no longer read out loud at Friday sermons at the Niujie Mosque, those who know the real story behind the history of the Hamidiye University have a hard time holding back their tears. They see the Ottoman structure in the garden of the Niujie Mosque as a stamp from the Ottoman times.



This entry was posted in: History